JACK WATERFORD. Shooting ourselves in the boot again

May 26, 2020

The announcement of the international inquiry to be conducted into international management of the Covid-19 pandemic did not achieve any of the particular purposes initially said to justify Australia’s putting its head above the parapets and attracting China’s ire for doing so.

That’s no matter how much domestic spin-doctors and a fairly tame media are dressing up the result as a diplomatic triumph showcasing Australian stateswomanship.

If one judges by the public statements of Foreign minister Marise Payne, and prime minister Scott Morrison, the inquiry should have been focused particularly on China’s scientific and political management of the coronavirus, once it discovered it in its midst. And such an independent inquiry should be outside the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is being criticised for being too much influenced by China, and whose own responses to the crisis have been criticised, not least by President Donald Trump, when he has not been otherwise blaming the pandemic on the Democrats, fake media or, perhaps Obama-gate.

The Australian idea, in short, was be that there would be a sharp spotlight put on China over what it did from the time, now apparently in November rather than early December as first suggested, when some of its respiratory surgeons came to suspect a new infectious agent of SARS was at large, particularly in the area around Wuhan.

The agenda — it has been regularly rehearsed, both here in Australia and in the US — is to suggest that the Chinese central Authorities initially dithered about what to do, but, in the meantime focused on secrecy, cover-up and intimidation of those in the know, losing precious time that might have led to a successful intervention and prevented the virus travelling abroad and killing hundreds of thousands of people.  Some have even suggested — or demanded that their intelligence agencies find evidence to support their suspicion — that the bug was created in a Chinese biological warfare laboratory, with the idea of weakening other countries, including the United States. There is no evidence for this. Hawks, in Australia as well as abroad, have seen in the Chinese response — as they see in every blooming flower there — proof of China’s sinister intentions towards the world.

The resolution which was ultimately adopted at the World Health Assembly was significantly different from that originally proposed by Australia. Some of the differences might be said to be mere genuflections to the achievement of consensus — indeed into a resolution that even China could sponsor. But, it soon became clear, the sudden amity did not show in any restoration of warmth for the Australian pigs in the minefield. [During WWII in Northern Africa, sheep or pigs were sent into heavily mined areas in the hope that their weight would detonate the mines. In politics, a pig in a minefield is the noble self-sacrificing effort of a person or a country  A pig in a minefield is to put an item on an agenda, thus drawing all of the rage upon itself. In Cold War matters, this is an Australian speciality.]

A fresh torrent of abuse of Australia’s diplomacy issued from Beijing and Chinese Embassies, and little, but meaningful tokens of sudden Chinese resistance to buying from Australia appeared. In the best of circumstances, it will take time for the bad temper to resolve itself — inconveniently just as Australia is looking for a resumption of trade and tourism to kickstart the post-Coronavirus economy.

But that could be the least of the resentments Australia brings upon itself. Chinese diplomacy did not quash the potential for criticism of what China did. The resolution will also permit a searching examination of what other nations did once they were aware of the virus and its potential. Australia may not anticipate much criticism of how the nation and its political and medical leaders faced the crisis. But there is an array of other nations — starting with the United States, but also including Britain, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Sweden — whose decisions and responses will now be under the microscope. One might say that the more democratic and open-minded of these nations will undoubtedly conduct such reviews themselves. But in their own time — separate from domestic political timetables, such as the US presidential election in November — and with their own tame team of “experts”. It is just possible that Donald Trump might not welcome a transparent and independent review, beyond his power to control, coming out at the worst possible moment. And that he might blame Australia for its bright idea, even if he and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had initially praised what had appeared to be an opportunity for a free kick of China.

Any criticism able to be made of China — of dithering, a tendency to deny rather than face up, the use of secrecy and threats to silence doctors, and of institutional inertia  — is likely to be able to be made of the US.  On the face of it, the US intelligence agencies and public health authorities, including its Centres for Disease Control — were aware of the nature of the virus, the suspicions about its epidemiology and aetiology, and its genetic structure from the first days of this year. They were aware of this directly from China, but also through the WHO, to whom China had publicly reported at the end of 2019. That was well before — three weeks before — China was confiding in its own population, and initiating its quarantine and social isolation measures, with a brutal efficiency that seems to have suffocated the spread.

The US — which has usually led the world in the study and understanding of epidemic disease — could have been expected to be exemplary in its own management and confinement of any local outbreak, and in supplying the rest of the world with knowledge and resources. It has done it before, both through the WHO and also in many bilateral aid programs.

This time about, however, a massive failure of political leadership at the top, as well as the consequences of running down resources and expertise left the US flatfooted, even now looking to be having the worst mortality from the disease. It had months to prepare, but the US Administration effectively did nothing, other than to issue false reassurances that it had matters under control. Even with social controls — of lockdown, shutdowns and social spacing, the US went late and in an uncoordinated manner. An estimate this week for example was that 30,000 of the US dead would still be alive had such controls been in place a week before they were imposed.

Countries have adopted their own strategies, with different senses of urgency and of grim purpose. In parts of the US, and in Sweden, there has been a good deal less lockdown. Italy and Spain, in particular, were early evidences of complacency, but, also probably places where incidence was higher because of a significantly older population. As in the United States, the death rate in Britain says much about the quality of government.

By contrast, the successes of counter measures in south east Asia, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, and Australia and New Zealand with their additional advantages of nautical boundaries, are a reproach to most of the rest of the world. It would be impossible to do a merely medical, or scientific study of the emergence, distribution and abundance of the virus without close examination of the political and economic measures taken by particular countries. And, down the track, such an examination would almost certainly also require a review of the success of various countries in picking the moment to slow and then reverse some of the social isolation measures and to get economies running again.

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