EDITORIAL BOARD, ANU. Australia’s diplomatic COVID-19 self-isolation (EAF 11.5.20)

Australia’s domestic response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis has brought plaudits at home and from around the world, especially from commentators in the United States.

Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, 12 January 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Tracey Nearmy).

Key to Australian success in suppressing the spread of the virus at home was the rein given to top medical and epidemiological professionals soon after the threat became clear. Australia, by virtue of its motorised urban culture, its geography, the season and its medical research and clinical capacities, had some natural defences on call. There’s no doubt that high levels of interpersonal contact with China and the United States made it vulnerable to early spread of COVID-19. That was relatively quickly contained. Australian political leadership deferred to medical advice and, apart from a lapse in control around the Ruby Princess cruise ship affair, it’s the medical advice that has largely called the shots in containing the caseload — at least thus far.

The economic calamity wrought by health policy calls (blanket border closure and comprehensive shutdown restrictions) demanded a massive simultaneous economic and social policy response to alleviate the hardship that had been forced through economic shut down. But simultaneous it was not. The laying off of upwards of 15 per cent of the workforce overnight and the shockingly long queues of unemployed seeking inadequate social protection quickly focused the political mind. Again, despite initial reluctance, political leadership deferred to technocratic initiative in crafting a large-scale program of elevated unemployment relief and massive temporary income support. Although Australia’s large temporary migrant workforce fell through the cracks, as in health policy so too in economic policy, the experts were given significant freedom to call the shots and the political leadership wisely listened.

What comes next, as domestic restrictions are relaxed in the transition to opening up the economy internationally and when treatment or immunisation against second-wave outbreaks is still a ways down the track?

The technocrats may have shouldered the burden of dealing with the initial assault of the pandemic and the immediate impact of the health remedies on the economy with relative success. But the tasks of economic policy and international diplomacy that must have priority now are beyond the competence of the health and economic specialists. Political leaders now need to frame strategies to deal with the complex problems of recovery and reconstruction internationally, and forge the cooperation necessary to avoid prolonged stagnation and international disruption. That’s the next front in the battle with the COVID-19 crisis that all countries will confront, whether or not they’ve yet put their minds to it.

The global nature of this health and economic crisis calls for faster and better coordination among governments, rather than each going it alone, and underlines why multilateral cooperation is so important in coming through both quickly. Promoting international solidarity based on trust and sharing as a basis for collective action to deal with all dimensions of the crisis is central to success.

Australia’s diplomatic foray into COVID-19 geopolitics through its redundant proposal for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic does not bode well for aligning interests in policy cooperation that’s needed to speed recovery. There is in fact furious agreement from Beijing to Brussels on the need for review into the COVID-19 pandemic experience.

The question was never about the justifiable desire for greater knowledge about the pandemic so that we’d be better prepared for contingencies of this kind in future. The question has been about the nature and the timing of an inquiry, as well as the febrile international political context into which the Australian idea was lobbed. There was no developed Australian proposal. There was no consultation with regional neighbours or partners and they, not only China, were bemused at Australian guilelessness in spearheading a Washington-touted idea. Australia’s regional diplomatic ham-fistedness was earlier on display in its ‘condescending’ attitude towards Indonesia’s ability to navigate the health crisis. While ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3) were quick to call a leaders’ summit, declare support for the WHO, and establish solidarity in managing the health and economic aspects of the crisis together, Australia left itself dangling in the breeze.

Australia is in diplomatic self-isolation in the region in which the weight of its economic and diplomatic interests, essential to navigating vigorous and early recovery, is located. Australian diplomacy on COVID-19 appears an empty, echoing set. Later back-pedalling to distance Australia’s stumble-bum diplomacy on the crisis from the venal re-election politics of the Trump administration convinces no one but its proponents.

As David Fidler argues in this week’s lead essay, it is ‘political tensions [that] threaten to damage the global fight against the coronavirus’. The technical issues are more straightforward.

Many have made the point that Australia’s ‘captain’s call’ on an inquiry into COVID-19 independently of the WHO has put China on the defensive and will complicate the inquiry’s handling when it’s held. The WHO is not shy about the need for a review of its management of the crisis: that’s normal practice. As Fidler points out, after the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 ‘multiple reviews scrutinised the WHO’s mistakes and recommended reforms, such as strengthening the WHO’s preparedness and response capabilities. The WHO took these recommendations seriously. When the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered an Ebola outbreak in 2018, the WHO’s response was impressive. Similarly, the WHO has garnered praise for how it has deployed its scientific, medical and public health capabilities against COVID-19’. Fidler adds, ‘the US government’s demands for WHO reform, backed by the funding freeze, threaten the ability of the organisation to sustain its pandemic response … while [its] proposals are neither coherent nor credible’. As for ideas to empower the WHO over sovereign states, such as Australia’s proposal to give the WHO the right to enter countries to investigate an outbreak, they are simply ‘dead before arrival’, Fidler concludes.

On international cooperation to fight COVID-19, Belinda Townsend in another feature this week suggests that Australia could play a greater role in the region by voicing support for the voluntary pool proposed by Costa Rica ‘for sharing rights to technologies for the detection, prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19 at the upcoming World Health Assembly’, later this month.

Australia has much to do to make up lost diplomatic ground and get its priorities in international cooperation on COVID-19 back on track. A more strategic foreign policy, after early success in containing the virus at home, might be directed at working closely with its neighbours, some still desperately fighting the pandemic, to manage a speedy recovery from the crisis. China must naturally be a central part of the cooperation effort, given its experience, expertise and resources. National action to arrest the pandemic now needs to be combined with proactive regional and global coordination on public health, food security, fiscal, financial and trade policies if there is to be anything like the promise of a full V-shaped recovery from its effects.

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The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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