Assuming that the WHA will pass its “Covid Response A73/CONF./1” Resolution now that President Xi has declared his support in his surprise personal address, which will have influenced widespread endorsement from developing countries, Australia needs to take a very serious look at its own performance on this sensitive issue.
What have we actually achieved by our inept handling of the Morrison call for an “independent international review” of China and the WHO’s management of the origins of the virus ? Where do we go from here?
In summary, a forensic analysis of the issue which started as a thought bubble by a cornered Foreign Minister Payne on Insiders demonstrates how it morphed into a serious crisis with China. One which could end up very costly for the Australian barley and beef industries and our already damaged economy. A US hand was also apparent from the outset in the birth of the supposedly Australian initiative. Reportedly Prime Minister Morrison had been in telephone conversation with President Trump who had launched a virulent attack on China’s early handling of the virus outbreak. This was specifically aimed at diverting US domestic attention away from his own demonstrable mismanagement of the catastrophic Covid scene in the US and the destruction it was wreaking on the US economy. All of which in the cause of his re-election campaign!
As with much of the ensuing drama, the Australian media proved to be so dependent on feed from the Government and lazy about checking foreign sources.. First, the EU and UK leaders publicly showed little enthusiasm (even some disdain) for the Morrison initiative as it ran headlong into a much broader proposal which they had been working up. This surely would have been well known at least to officials in Canberra as were member of the WHO Council. The European leaders took issue with the Morrison proposal on the grounds that the timing was far too early, the scope too focussed on the origins and China and not on the performance of all others in the evolution of the pandemic. This went largely unreported in the Australian media.
Eventually the advice of officials (the much maligned “unelected bureaucrats” in Morrison parlance) seemed to come into play and Australia advised the WHO quietly that it accepted that the timing was not appropriate. Again missed by the Australian media, and Fake News started to kick in with informed comment from Canberra that the Chinese had “caved” in! By this time the war of words with China over barley and beef had risen in temperature. To which Morrison than stood his ground supported by boosters from Trump and Pompeo and the far right in the Coalition. Then a letter by US politicians to our Ambassador in Washington egged Australia on in its stance against China saying that the US “ had our backs”. Sadly even the Opposition seemed unaware of the games being played or were just plain wedged. The Government needed to display action and scurried around in a disingenuous effort to sow confusion about whether the Chinese actions had any connection to the tough Morrison Covid proposal or not. Morrison went to describing his proposal as “unremarkable”.
Meanwhile lots of discussions around the EU proposal continued in Geneva and elsewhere. The EU leaders of the resolution fended Australia off by some clever wordsmithing in their negotiations with China and others. Again Fake News in Canberra represented this as EU support for the Morrison proposal! The last published draft was a lengthy omnibus resolution covering a wide variety of key coronavirus issues for the WHO including calls for significant additional funding.
For the record the sections relevant to the Morrison proposal are :
Requesting the Director General of the WHO …inter alia
OP9.6 Continue to work closely with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and countries, as part of the One-Health Approach to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions, which will enable targeted interventions and a research agenda to reduce the risk of similar events as well as to provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-COV2 infection in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, as well as to reduce further risks of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases;
OP9.10 Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, 1 a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, 2 as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19, including (i) the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal; (ii) the functioning of the IHR and the status of implementation of the relevant recommendations of the previous IHR Review Committees; (iii) WHO’s contribution to United Nations-wide efforts; and (iv) the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and make recommendations to improve global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response capacity, including through strengthening, as appropriate, WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme;
While the final vote seems not to have been taken at the time of writing, China’s President Xi in his surprise personal presentation to the WHA appears to have confirmed acceptance of the Resolution when he said :
China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies. This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner.
The US position still seems in some doubt even though Trump has tweeted that he may reconsider reinstating funding for the WHO at 10% of the original figure or roughly equivalent to that of China. Will he be prepared to match the $2 billion Xi announced last night? He also tweeted last night support for the “Australian push for an independent coronavirus enquiry …we are right behind them’!
But where does that leave Australia? What did we get out of the whole exercise?
- Morrison’s original call for an “independent international review” of the origins of the crisis in China ( which the US wanted to start before the November elections) and the WHO response has been watered down to a WHO led “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation …… at the earliest appropriate moment”. There is no specific mention of China although the wording in OP9.6 calls for the WHO to continue its work with other international agencies “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts”. There can be little doubt where that is. And the “comprehensive” will be interpreted as covering the whole pandemic evolution including the performance of all countries.
- At the same time China has shown little sign of relaxing its trade warfare on Australia. Chinese spokespersons in recent days have stated emphatically that the barley and beef issues are quite separate to the Morrison Covid 19 initiative. While that is patently untrue, the Global Times has repeatedly singled out Australia as a lackey of Trump in their invective against Trump in the past few days. Of course, there is history on the barley issue going back 18 months and it was a low hanging fruit for the Chinese to choose to hit at Australia . And there are probably others lined up if China needs to use them. In all of this, Trump’s tweets about supporting Australia’s role in the WHA resolution will not help. The Chinese are clearly intent on dragging this issue out and the 80% tariff on barley will have disastrous implications for that industry.
- Above all, the issue has illustrated just how pathetically our communication channels with high level Chinese has fallen. It has been almost sad to see Trade Minister Birmingham repeat time and again that nobody in Beijing will return his calls. After all the years spent assiduously building connections with China it is lamentable that we are now in the position we are. No Australian Prime Minister or Minister visits to China since 2016! That must change but that will require a very long road of incremental steps in rebuilding mutual confidence – if not trust. There is little sign among the Government and the China hawks in Canberra that anyone is keen to engage in such a process and risk the sniping from the US and the far right in the Coalition. This has serious challenges for the Opposition too.