After COVID-19: Creating the Best of Times from the Worst of Times (5 November 2020)

Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum


Forum Report

Prepared by Dr Susan Pond AM FRSN FTSE (Chair, Forum Program Committee)

Government House Forum participantsOnce again, the Royal Society of NSW joined forces with the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering to stage this Annual Forum.

We gathered as a depleted live audience of thirty people in Government House, Sydney, under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. A larger audience tuned in to the live-streamed video broadcast. The USA was dominating the news because the Presidential election results remained too close to call and its daily number of COVID-19 cases exceeded 100,000 for the first time.

When choosing the theme — “After COVID-19: Creating the Best of Times from the Worst of Times” — in early March, we did not have a clear line of sight to the scale of the pandemic and how and when it would end.

Australia at that time was still focussed on the massive bushfires which killed more than 30 people, more than one billion animals and forced thousands of people to flee for their lives. But we knew about the emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, its spread to nearly every country and the accelerating disruption of society by the rising number of patients manifesting the disease caused by this virus, COVID-19.

Charles Dicken’s opening sentence in the Tale of Two Cities “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” was germane to the Forum’s theme. Our goal was to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic could drive wide ranging reforms towards a more resilient, self-sufficient and prosperous Australia.

Hosted by the Society’s Vice Regal Patron, Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of NSW, in person guests represented the Royal Society of NSW, the four Learned Academies, the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, and the NSW Smart Sensing Network. We were joined by four undergraduate students from different faculties - science, business, health and humanities - in surrounding universities.

After giving the Acknowledgement of Country, Emeritus Professor Ian Sloan AO FAA FRSN, President of the Society, welcomed all speakers and guests and introduced the Governor. In her speech, Her Excellency reflected on how this period “offers us the chance to press the re-set button; to make this a time of re-calibration and reinvention; to think how we can ‘build back better… To do this, we will need to draw on the strength, the ingenuity and the creativity of each sector of our community.”

It was my role to introduce Professor Eric Knight FRSN, Executive Dean and Professor of Strategic Management at Macquarie University, who graciously accepted the challenge of being the Moderator and Rapporteur for the day.

As the Keynote Speaker, Dr Peter Hobbins cleverly used the word “immunity” in several senses as he reviewed the history of previous crises in the context of the 1800s and early 1900s in Sydney and NSW. Citing case studies of pandemics, snake bites and aircraft accidents, he asked what we learned that was useful, or did not learn but could have been useful, from our collective responses to crises in days when technology was crude compared to today.

In Session I, “Forging a Resilient Future for Australia’s Youth”, Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell AO FTSE  reflected on the key characteristics of this “COVID moment. She noted that Australian society remains unsettled since the November 2019 bushfires and that we are still in a liminal time, a time between times, during which everything is being changed, moved, and restructured. Our lives are destabilized but our responses, including our use of technologies, extraordinary. We should take advantage of the space that the pandemic has created to imagine and build a different and better future.

The second speaker in this Session, Dr Jordan Nguyen, an engineer, inventor, entrepreneur with a strong media presence, regaled us with stories about the magic being brought to us by new technologies, especially for the disabled through the use of robotics and bionic technologies. He pointed out that we do not program fear of failure into robots and challenged us with unorthodox ideas such as making digital copies of our loved ones so that we could speak to them after they die.

Session II on “Sweeping Changes to Australia’s Healthcare System” wrought by the pandemic brought Dr Teresa Anderson AM to the stage. Changes include the reduction of non-urgent services, rapid expansion of tele-health and online meetings, and workforce surge plans often involving staff from unconventional sources (e.g. Qantas). The specific responses necessary to manage the pandemic - screening, testing, tracing, special accommodation for quarantine and COVID-19 patients, and care for vulnerable communities - added to the complexity but spurred incredible innovation that Dr Anderson was able to portray based on her front-line experiences.

After reviewing the virology and epidemiology of SARS-Cov-2, Scientia Professor Gregory Dore drew out the major lessons learned from such times, noting that COVID-19 “holds a mirror” to public health systems and finds any weaknesses. Australia’s public health system has reflected its strengths in contrast to the failures so visible in many other countries. He warned that we should not depend on antiviral agents because the virus is only present in the blood stream for a few days, mostly before symptoms become evident. “Prevention is King and Queen of pandemic control”.

Session III focused on the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s Culture and Creative Industries but brought an inspiring message from each of the speakers. Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO FASSA reviewed the early and effective responses of Australia’s indigenous communities to the pandemic, and the headroom it created for their artists and communities to flourish. She is confident that the film industry in Australia is in a better position than in many other countries to start production again as the pandemic wanes.

Ms Bethwyn Serow reminded us that the performing arts are a core part of our humanity and that their value is immeasurable beyond the money they generate. It was the first sector to experience the full force of physical distancing measures and will be the last to recover. In hard numbers, cultural and creative activity in Australia accounts for at least 6% of gross domestic product and 200,000 jobs. The pandemic-related rapid and continuing loss of talent must be reversed.

Session IV on Reshaping Australia’s Institutions brought together three authoritative panelists, Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA, Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM FASSA and Professor Anne Tiernan in a conversation format. They systematically probed the findings of the “COVID-19 X-Ray” of how effectively Australia’s public sector institutions have served our citizens, the economy and society during the pandemic. Regarding the economy, they noted gaps in the fiscal stimulus policies that must close, gaps such as attitudes towards diversity and higher education and measures to ensure that stimulus investments yield productive activity in-country.

Our moderator and rapporteur, Professor Eric Knight FRSN, brought the forum to a close with an astute summation of the day’s sessions. He reflected on the question of how we can build back better by piecing together the building blocks of community, State and individual for both society and self.

This Forum begins the conversation about the challenges facing Australia at this critical juncture and the opportunities to re-think our future. The Royal Society of NSW looks forward to engaging with you well into the future on these and similar issues of importance to the Australian public.

Acknowledgements: The Royal Society of NSW and the Four Learned Academies acknowledge the generous support of Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales, the NSW Government Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer, and the New South Wales Smart Sensing Network.

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Forum Program

Opening: Welcome from the Royal Society of NSW and Four Learned Academies
Welcome and Acknowledgement of Country
President, Royal Society of NSW
  Official Opening
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC
Governor of New South Wales
  Introduction to the Moderator and Rapporteur
Chair, Forum Program Committee
  Moderator and Rapporteur
Eric Knight FRSN
Executive Dean, Macquarie Business School
Keynote Address
Immunity from history: what can we learn from collective responses to crises
Peter Hobbins
Principal Historian, Artefact Heritage Services
Session I: Forging a resilient future for Australia’s youth
The new normal? Living in the liminal and what comes next?
Genevieve Bell AO FTSE
Distinguished Professor and Director, 3A Institute, The Australian National University, and
Senior Fellow, Intel
Emerging generations and evolving intersections between technology and humanity
Jordan Nguyen
Founder & CEO, Psykinetic
Session I Q&A: Forging a resilient future for Australia's youth
Genevieve Bell and Jordan Nguyen with Moderator Eric Knight
Session II: Sweeping changes to Australia’s healthcare system
COVID-19: Transforming the way we provide health care
Teresa Anderson AM
Chief Executive, Sydney Local Health District, NSW Health
The Australian COVID-19 public health response: Lessons and future directions
Gregory Dore
Scientia Professor and Head, Viral Hepatitis Clinical Research Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney
Session II Q&A: Sweeping changes to Australia’s healthcare system
Teresa Anderson and Gregory Dore with Moderator Eric Knight
Session III: Australia’s culture and creative industries
The weaving power of Indigenous storytelling
Larissa Behrendt AO FASSA
Distinguished Professor, University of Technology Sydney
For what it’s worth: performing arts value lost and found during COVID-19
Bethwyn Serow
Arts and Policy Strategist
Session III Q&A: Australia’s culture and creative industries
Larissa Behrendt and Bethwyn Serow with Moderator Eric Knight
Session IV: Reshaping Australia’s Institutions
Is the COVID moment a time for reform?
Martin Parkinson AC PSM FASSA — Chancellor, Macquarie University and
Anne Tiernan — Dean (Engagement), Griffith Business School, Griffith University
in conversation with
Julianne Schultz AM FAHA — Professor, Media and Culture, Griffith University; Chair, The Conversation
Rapporteur Session
Eric Knight FRSN
Executive Dean, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University

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A gallery of images from the Forum, taken at Government House on 5 November 2020, is available for inspection and downloading from out SharePoint Gallery site.

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