Oil shortage
(Image: Unsplash/Zbynek Burival)

As curves start to flatten, and lockdowns slowly ease, Singapore shows why we must be careful. A new report highlights the impact of COVID-19 on casual workers in the higher education sector. And suppliers are now paying people to take their oil off them.

Lockdowns relaxed, but is it too soon?

As infection curves turn in the right direction, some countries are starting to slowly relax lockdowns and think about the road back to normalcy. New Zealand has moved from level four to level three restrictions — a situation closer to Australia’s, with schools and takeaway restaurants open.

In South Korea, which has had one of the most successful responses to the virus, relaxed guidelines have allowed church services and sporting fixtures to restart. India allowed some easing of its strict lockdown in agricultural and manufacturing sectors. European countries like Germany, Austria and Denmark are cautiously opening things up.

But politicians and health officials in many of these countries will be anxiously watching the situation in Singapore. For weeks, the city-state was the envy of the world, with an aggressive test and trace regime that appeared to have flattened the curve quicker and more efficiently than most. But over the last few days, its cases have doubled, and it now has the most in all south-east Asia.

The new outbreak has been driven by virus clusters among low-paid migrant workers living in crowded dormitories, who provide the blue-collar backbone to Singapore’s white-collar economy, highlighting again the way COVID-19 plays out over existing societal inequalities. 

The WHO under attack

The World Health Organisation has been increasingly cast in right-wing circles as the bumbling sidekick to China’s COVID-19 supervillain.

Last week US President Donald Trump announced the potentially disastrous decision to cut funding from the body, over allegations it had mishandled the pandemic (unlike Trump, who has of course done nothing of the sort) and been far too deferential to China.

While Australia isn’t going to pull funding, there’s still some evidence Canberra is dissatisfied with the WHO, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne yesterday said the government still had concerns about the organisation, and wanted a new independent body handling a probe into COVID-19.

For its part, the WHO has given us more cause for fear today, with director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying the worst of the pandemic is “yet ahead of us”. That’s likely because the virus, which has caused carnage in wealthy European countries, still hasn’t taken off in African countries with less developed health systems. Thanks WHO. 

Oil price goes negative?

Today’s unprecedented COVID-19 development (they’re becoming far less shocking now) is the news that US oil prices have dipped into negative for the first time on record, with the price of West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, hitting lows of US$40.32 a barrel.

To put it in crude terms, suppliers have too much oil, and with manufacturing, transport and other economic activity ground to a standstill worldwide, not enough people willing to buy it. Suppliers have now essentially run out of space to store their oil, and are literally paying buyers to take it off their hands.

Universities’ suffering revealed

The tertiary education sector in Australia was hit earlier and harder than the rest of the economy, by the pandemic in part due to its heavy reliance on international student fees.

A new report put together by the University of New South Wales’ casuals network shows how disastrous that has been already for many in the sector. According to the report, one in three casuals at the university had already lost work, amounting to $626 worth of income a week, while 42% said they were already working unpaid hours.

Notably, UNSW is a wealthy Group of Eight university — there are real fears over whether smaller, regional institutions can survive

The government recently announced a $18 billion rescue package for universities, which Labor’s education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek has called a “fraud” in light of projected “job losses of an industrial scale”. The National Tertiary Education Union recently told Crikey they’d seen a surge in interest over recent weeks, with membership now the highest it’s ever been.