In his almost daily televised updates, Scott Morrison’s successive rescue packages turn conservative orthodoxy on its head, and without resorting to Trumpian monologues. Yet his response to the international questions shows no new thinking.
My local MP, Dave Sharma, texts me to say, ‘Only follow official Coronavirus advice at Australia.gov.au’. The crisis is about health and the economy, says Morrison, his boss. But other questions persist, and the government websites don’t answer them. Many are political.
The current moral panic provides perfect cover for Australian government to do things surreptitiously, or not to do the things they should. It lets energy multinationals and investors influence their decisions about Australian coal mines, rivers, and land clearing without Parliamentary scrutiny. Initiatives that once were urgent, like pursuing big tax defaulters and securing data against cyber threats, may not be front of mind any more. Fiscal accountability goes out the window, together with campaigns against ‘debt and deficit’. Our politicians are scattered, and our unreliable shrinking media don’t demand responsibility from them. We could even get into a war in the Persian Gulf, with no explanation.
The crisis is political around the world too, but in a different way. In earlier epidemics and pandemics the science largely determined the responses of governments and international agencies, with collaboration and eventual success in most instances. The post-war disease outbreaks included Asian flu and Hong Kong flu in the 1950s and 60s, AIDS (from the 1980s: 32 million deaths), SARS (2002-4: 774 deaths), avian flu and swine flu (2008-9: together 284 000 deaths), Ebola (2004-16: 11 325 deaths), and MERS (from 2012: 858 deaths).
On COVID-19 (53,030 deaths so far), world leaders no longer agree about whether it should be contained, or let to run its course, or how it began. Each country is doing it differently: New Zealand shuts down totally and early, while Sweden opts for ‘herd immunity’. Britain dithers between the two. None of those is a federation, and states’ rights in Australia produce more confusing results. Japan and South Korea act soon and sensibly. The US President claims American is exceptional, until his public health experts and the Governor of New York force him to realise it is not.
The crisis lets world leaders off the climate change hook, and now no-one is talking about ice melting or species extinction. The Glasgow summit on global warming, like Wimbledon and the Olympic Games, won’t be held for a year. The UN’s sustainable development goals are all but forgotten. Instead, there’s a war of words over where COVID-19 originated, who caught it from whom, and who will come out on top. Coronavirus shapes the contest between the US and China for global leadership.
Protective equipment made in China is bought up and sent back to the motherland, and then re-exported to meet shortages elsewhere. No-one counts the CO2 emissions for that, but China is accused of deviously using its soft power. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Chinese Communist Party poses a ‘substantial threat to our health and way of life’. The US blocks consensus in the UN Security Council and at virtual meetings of the G7 and G20, demanding that the coronavirus be called ‘Wuhan flu’, in spite of the fact that the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases has been collaborating with the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory since the 1980s.
The US has a chemical and biological weapons facility too, at Fort Detrick in Maryland. It was closed in August 2019 following failures of safety protocols – which might mean something escaped. It was reopened in November under a new Commanding Officer. In October ‘Event 201’, supported by US foundations, studied the effects on New York of a simulated pandemic caused by coronavirus. The exercise coincided to the day with the opening of the World Military Games in Wuhan (https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/china-locked-in-hybrid-war-with-us/), in which 300 US service people took part. In December, 200 people from several countries, including two Australian academics, went to Washington State for ‘Exercise Pacific Eclipse’, supported by the US Indo-Pacific Command, whose purpose was similar (https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/has-australia-s-coronavirus-response-been-too-slow-off-the-mark-20200327-p54ejz.html). The timing coincided exactly with the outbreak in Wuhan. No details about these coincidences have been sought by the media, nor offered by the Australian government.
Instead, three weeks ago, Marise Payne reminded her counterpart Pompeo that the security of the Pacific had to remain a priority, and last week Morrison told the G20 leaders ‘our Pacific island family’ needed international support. The world has changed, and Australia’s domestic objectives have changed with it, yet our textbook reliance on allies against Asian threats remains as it has been for more than a century.
The times have now changed. We have an unprecedented opportunity to take our troops out of the Middle East, the Philippines, and the South China Sea, and to assert our independence, or armed neutrality. By simply scrapping the French submarine contract, we could offset the debt our children will now face for coronavirus. We could put the money to better use saving, not destroying lives. By offering help to Indonesia as we did during the 2004 tsunami, we could build up more goodwill than the submarines can guarantee.
Into the global standoff, the UN Secretary-General has injected a plea for sense to prevail. Calling on member countries to ‘end the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world’, Enrico Guterres urged them to ‘stop the fighting everywhere, now’. Pope Francis has joined him. For Australia, the proposal is well timed. Concern for our health and the economy need not prevent Australian politicians responding to it.
Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform.