CHARLES SAMPFORD. Investigate both the origins of, and ALL responses to, COVID-19

The Australian government has no business hitching its star to Donald Trump or to poke the Chinese bear by promoting a one-sided investigation. 

Trump blamed China and the WHO and said he would investigate the latter. Australia offered an ‘independent’ investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and China’s initial response. If we are going to ‘fight’ this ‘war’ we need to compare all national response and learn from successes and failures.

“We” are said to be at ‘war’. In wartime mistakes are made by all the combatants (indeed the winner is often seen as the one that makes the fewest big mistakes).

Some of those attacked will do better than others – especially those who are not first to bear the full brunt of the enemy assault (the Poles faced Blitzkrieg first, the French second and the Russians third). Some will have an early success and think the war is won, celebrating an early victory and letting their guard down. Some make huge mistakes from which they recover after immense sacrifices. Sometimes the politicians are clowns who are rescued by the expertise of the professionals. Sometimes the professionals tell the politicians what they want to hear and the front collapses. Sometimes they tell the politicians what they need to hear and are sacked. Sometimes politicians and professionals respect what each can do and forge strategies that the public understand and commit to.

Inaccurate statements are made, some deliberately to avoid panic, some to raise morale, some deliberately to deny mistakes, to hold on to office and to avoid justified criticisms for lack of preparedness and acting ‘too little too late’.

Some combatants do the right thing for the wrong reasons: some do the wrong thing for what appear to be right reasons (e.g. showing solidarity with COVID victims by shaking their hands provides a deadly example to the public). Some may be ideologically disposed to and against certain actions. For example, closing the borders was easy for those used to yelling stop the boats and build the wall. For Schengen countries, which are so committed to open borders, recreating them was very difficult.

After the war, there needs to be deeper fact finding and reflection, not least in how to prevent a similar war starting and expanding – though those who remain in power after the war want to skew the results and maintain cover ups.

During the war the issue is not why it started but how to win it. This should involve collaboration between allies, learning what works, what does not work and supporting each other. Some may be better at building tanks/ventilators and others might be better at ammunition/PPE – with a good deal of local reliance in case the convoy/plane does not get through. But allies do not always share knowledge and equipment and may squabble even when the enemy is at the gates.

This current ‘war’ is different because all the humans are on the same side – or at least should be. And there is no danger of the enemy changing its tactics because we make ours known – they just keep on coming, finding and exploiting our weak spots because doing so is part of their DNA.

All my statements about traditional wars could be applied to this one. I won’t belabour the analogies and metaphors save for one. We do need to look at the origins of and responses to, the Global Covid Crisis. This certainly applies to wet markets (especially in crowded cities) and any other credible explanations of the virus’ origins (if there be any). We need to analyse China’s initial and later responses. But to find out what works and does not work we need to analyse other responses as well. Indeed, we would expect those countries that are attacked later should make a better fist of it not least in learning from other’s mistakes and successes.

We will need a full and independent enquiry into the origins and ALL responses at a later stage with a full analysis of lessons learned (something that has been a notable feature of the UN since the 1990s). For the moment we need maximum sharing of information, skills, equipment and lessons learned so far to beat off the enemy with the smallest possible loss of life.

The current proposal for an investigation into China’s role in the origins and initial response was suggested by Australia just after Donald Trump suspended funding for WHO and announced that he was going to investigate WHO and China. At least nobody could accuse him of lacking transparency – it was clearly designed to deflect attention from the disaster unfolding under his watch in which more Americans have already died in two months than died in either the Vietnam or Korean wars. Indeed, the daily death rate is greater than that at Omaha Beach. This is one of the most transparent attempts to deflect attention from the American disaster. Australia’s reasons were lauded by Herve Lemahieu, Director of the power and diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute. He was reported as arguing that Australia needed to lead the push for an independent review to make sure the crisis was not exploited by China. (Galloway and Bagshaw SMH, April 20, 2020)

We don’t have to be undiplomatic with the US by spelling out what is hinted above. But that does not require us to be undiplomatic with China. This government has no business hitching its star to Donald Trump or to poke the Chinese bear by promoting a one-sided investigation. By all means press at a later stage for a full investigation into the origin and spread of this virus and the variety of national responses. It will be interesting to see if both one or both US or China refuses – and if both, which refuses first.

Professor Charles Sampford, DPhil Oxon, Barrister at Law is Foundation Dean of Law and Research Professor in Ethics, Griffith University and Director, IEGL, The Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. 

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Professor Charles Sampford is Director of the multi-university Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law headquartered at Griffith University. Charles topped politics, philosophy and law at Melbourne, combining them in his 1986 Oxford DPhil. In 1991, Griffith approached him to be their Foundation Dean of Law. He has led the only Australian Research (ARC) Centre and only ARC network in law or governance and has led governance projects on five continents. Visiting appointments have included a Senior Fellowship at St John’s College Oxford and Senior Fulbright Award to Harvard. In 2008, his work on ethics and integrity systems was recognised by the ARC as one of the 20 researchers across all disciplines who had had the greatest impact. He has completed 32 books and over 150 essays and articles. He is also a Barrister with various Board appointments.

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