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Coronavirus pandemic


US break with WHO: Where does it leave the rest of the world?

World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, photographed on 29 May 2020 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, photographed on 29 May 2020 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 3 Jun 2020 09:00   0 Comments

International health law is closely associated with the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the treaties it oversees, of which the 2005 International Health Regulations are the most prominent. In recent months, the United States has been critical of the WHO and its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the manner in which WHO engaged with China when reports of the disease emerged. US President Donald Trump has increasingly advanced this critique since April, which reached its high point on 29 May, when he announced the US was “terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization” and stated:

The world needs answers from China on the virus. The death and destruction caused by this is incalculable. We must have answers not only for us but for the rest of the world.

This announcement is a culmination of growing US frustration with the WHO. On 14 April, a US decision was made to suspend financial contributions to the organisation pending a review. As of January 2020, the US was due to make a US$58 million payment to its WHO contributions for this year, with a further US$41 million in arrears. On 18 May, Trump had written to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus detailing the US concerns, including China’s notification to the WHO of the Covid-19 outbreak, the WHO response and the alleged delays in the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern and in the declaration of a pandemic. Trump ended the letter by stating:

It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly to the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.

Trump’s letter was delivered when the annual World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, was about to commence its 2020 meeting. A unanimous 19 May Assembly resolution co-sponsored by 137 members, including the European Union and Australia, called upon the WHO Director-General to:

Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19….

Particular aspects of this evaluation are to include the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal, the functioning of the International Health Regulations, and the actions of WHO and its timelines pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. This 2020 resolution gives the WHO Director-General a clear mandate for reviewing the WHO response to the pandemic and the functioning of the International Health Regulations.

The Regulations are a multilateral treaty with 196 states parties, including China and the US, which entered into force in 2007. They create a series of obligations for states parties, including surveillance (Article 5), notification (Article 6), information-sharing (Article 7) and consultation (Article 8) with respect to events that take place within their territory that may constitute an international health concern.

The US freezing its WHO funding while the agency is responding to Covid-19 will not assist global action on the pandemic, nor will it assist in the WHO conducting the evaluation that Australia promoted, nor will it get the answers the US is seeking.

In the case of Covid-19, the WHO China Country Office was informed of pneumonia with an unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China from 31 December 2019 – 3 January 2020. The WHO issued its first Covid-19 Situation Report on 21 January 2020, in which it outlined the sequence of events that eventually resulted in the first meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee on 22 January. A critical determination under the International Health Regulations is an assessment that a situation constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern”, the characteristics of which include that there is an extraordinary event which under the Regulations is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease, and potentially to require a coordinated international response (Article 1). The WHO Emergency Committee eventually made that determination on 30 January. The declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic was made on 12 March.

With respect to the extent of China’s obligations to notify WHO of a disease outbreak, the critical Article 6(1) notification obligation is that:

Each State Party shall notify WHO, by the most efficient means of communication available by way of the National IHR [International Health Regulations] Focal Point, and within 24 hours of assessment of public health information, of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory….

The US freezing its WHO funding while the agency is responding to Covid-19 will not assist global action on the pandemic, nor will it assist in the WHO conducting the evaluation that Australia promoted, nor will it get the answers the US is seeking. No timelines have been set for the evaluation. The World Health Assembly is scheduled to resume its deliberations later in 2020, where there will be an expectation that progress will have been made on the Covid-19 evaluation. A critical factor here will be the cooperation provided by China in facilitating the evaluation, especially whether WHO experts will be permitted to visit China and engage Chinese government officials to identify the origins of the disease.

Time will tell what the outcome of that process will be, and in particular whether there will be any meaningful reform of the WHO and the International Health Regulations. Amendments to the Regulations can only be made through the World Health Assembly. In the meantime, all of the  member states need to play as constructive a role in that process as possible, because WHO and the Regulations represent the only current viable global process to respond to a pandemic.

So far, the US has not offered any alternate.


Going local: Lessons from Covid response in Indonesia

Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Published 1 Jun 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Covid-19 and the significant changes it presents are forcing new ways of working, including for humanitarian responders. In Indonesia, the government response to the crisis has been criticised internally and internationally as slow and lacking transparency. Senior government figures downplayed the crisis in its early days, and agencies and the public struggled to get reliable information about the prevalence of the disease.

As the public has pushed for more action and information in order to better understand and respond to the unfolding emergency, civil society groups, particularly those well versed in disaster management and humanitarian response, have quickly taken action. The results have shown not only what is possible in the Indonesian context, but also pointed a way towards reform that the international humanitarian system has talked about for years but has never really seen materialise.

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the first of its kind, identified many of the major challenges to the humanitarian system and how the global professional community could address them. One example is a focus on strengthening and empowering local leadership, rather than reinforcing the dominance of international humanitarian actors, including in coordination mechanisms, as well as closing the gap between traditional long-term development actors, peacebuilders and humanitarian responders.

SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

Despite the best intentions of the reform agenda and a plethora of commitments, progress has been hampered by persistent bureaucratic barriers and a lack of evidence of change.

Recent research suggests that Indonesia is a prime candidate for testing an approach to country-led reform. Following the devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that struck Lombok and Central Sulawesi in 2018, the country took major steps to localise humanitarian response and to empower national actors to drive decision-making. This decision surprised many agencies, and forced adoption of the new ways of working promoted at the WHS in 2016.  

While the localisation agenda has gained widespread recognition, in some countries it has been largely rhetoric. Indonesia’s policy compelled the necessary shift in power dynamics and the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian actors. In the Sulawesi relief effort, national organisations took the place of big international agencies, and civil society groups and first responders were given priority. Indonesia has also made progress in optimising humanitarian coordination, inviting national networks to join the UN-led Humanitarian Country Team, the main forum for coordination and strategy. Further, the government has formally adopted the cluster approach, which aims at improving planning and efficiency within specific areas of need, such as health, food, logistics or sanitation.

As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded in Indonesia, the groundwork laid by those developments helped enable a locally driven response and coordination effort. The Pujiono Centre for Disaster and Climate Risk Reduction Studies provides a clear example of effective local action. The Centre acted quickly to pivot its emerging coordination platform into a Covid-19 response network. From simple beginnings in early March, the SEJAJAR network-of-networks has grown to include 25 national networks across sectors, and nearly to 600 sub-national level organisations across 34 provinces, including Nusa Tenggara Timur, Central Sulawesi and West Papua.

SEJAJAR, an acronym of Sekretariat Jaringan-antar-Jaringan (OMS-LSM in Bahasa Indonesia), means equal in English, with the aim to reflect the equality among members of the network working together at all levels to curb the outbreak.

SEJAJAR provides a vehicle for collective engagement with government, a periodic webinar series to discuss critical issues and regular training opportunities for members, on subjects such as NGO business continuity and coping with financial crises in the face of Covid-19. In recent weeks, it has secured participation in the government-led National and Provincial Task Forces. Civil society groups have also been able to engage policy debates with ministers and senior officials on Covid-19 issues. SEJAJAR provides support for other networks, both within ASEAN and across the Asia-Pacific region.  

Working in collaboration with OXFAM and the Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Centre, the initiative has from the outset intended to achieve a post-Covid Indonesia that has a strong civil society in equal partnership with government.

In a number of ways, the network provides a powerful example of progress in country-led reform:

  • Extending the nexus: bringing together representatives from development, peacebuilding and humanitarian bodies to discuss how to improve response in Indonesia;
  • Shifting the power: changing the dynamics between the traditionally dominant international responders and local actors. Local organisations can source, negotiate and acquire products and services from international actors in humanitarian clusters as suppliers
  • Area-based coordination: locally led coordination at the provincial level ensures that structures, responses and discussion reflect local priorities, are contextually appropriate and leverage the best-placed resources.

Although still in its infancy, SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

It also raises issues to explore further: How has the mechanism shifted power dynamics between stakeholders in Indonesia? What lessons can the provincial model be applied to global thinking around area-based coordination?

Understanding this initiative will equip stakeholders in Indonesia and elsewhere to improve a humanitarian system that is now, more than ever, in need of rapid and fundamental change.


Are African nations putting policing over public health?

A demonstrator is arrested by police at a protest for more government food distributions during the Covid-19 crisis, 18 May in Kampala, Uganda (Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty Images)
A demonstrator is arrested by police at a protest for more government food distributions during the Covid-19 crisis, 18 May in Kampala, Uganda (Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

In the health and epidemiological challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, countries have had little choice but to introduce strict measures to contain its spread, banning travel, imposing lockdowns, releasing prisoners en masse and bringing other actions unthinkable under ordinary circumstances.

In many respects, the response in most African nations has been no different. But as the pandemic threatens to devastate already weak health care systems on the continent, the urgent need to control the spread of Covid-19 is even more pronounced than elsewhere.

The shortage of medical expertise, equipment and facilities, however, stands in stark contrast to the powers of law enforcement and security that have been exercised under the pretext of combatting the pandemic. As the last couple of months have demonstrated, this has laid the groundwork for a rise in police brutality, overreach, harassment, intimidation, corruption and violence.

To give an idea of how under-resourced some countries are, the Central African Republic has only three ventilators in a country of just under 5 million people. Somalia has none. South Sudan has 24 ICU beds for a population of 12 million, while it is estimated that 95% of people in Lesotho do not have household access to soap and water.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them”.

So far, the number of cases has remained low. On 22 May, the World Health Organisation Regional Office in Africa said Covid-19 cases “have not grown at the same exponential rate as in other regions … Africa has not experienced the high mortality seen in some parts of the world”. Despite this relatively good news, global institutions and national governments have nevertheless cautioned against complacency.

But across Africa, measures adopted to combat the spread of the virus, principally lockdowns and curfews, have been accompanied by an expanded role for the police – and in some cases, security forces, leading to more deaths than the virus itself.  

In April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called up over 75,000 members of the National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist the police with enforcing lockdown measures. Ramaphosa’s declaration of a state of disaster increased the powers of law enforcement to question civilians, administer fines and arrest persons allegedly contravening lockdown measures.

Other countries, such as Ethiopia and Botswana, have invoked a state of emergency, giving them the constitutional authority to suspend political, civil, economic and social rights. 

Elsewhere, there have been myriad incidents reported of police and security forces using disproportionate – sometimes lethal – force against unarmed civilians. Victims across the continent have reported beatings, being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas, whippings, and rape. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted on 27 April that “violations have often been committed against people belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population … people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them”.

In March in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, a 13-year old boy was killed by a stray bullet while standing on his balcony during curfew. The nation’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority suggested the officer responsible should be charged with murder, and the Inspector General of Police, Hillary Mutyambai, vowed the police would investigate the circumstances of his death.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in an April address, “I want to apologise to all Kenyans for ... some excesses that were conducted.” It remains to be seen, however, whether victims of police brutality will receive justice.

Between 30 March and 13 April, the Nigerian police killed 18 civilians, which the Secretary of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission described as extrajudicial executions. The Nigerian police have responded combatively, rejecting allegations of misconduct.

On 29 March, in the South African township of Vosloorus, 40-year-old Sibusiso Amos was shot and killed on his veranda by a police officer and a private security guard. On 10 April, Collins Khosa was beaten to death by members of the SANDF, who entered his premises after discovering a cup of alcohol in his front yard. The sale of alcohol during the lockdown is prohibited by the country’s Disaster Management Regulations.

In these cases, the South African government responded swiftly, arresting or suspending those responsible and launching investigations. The High Court ruled that all persons are entitled to fundamental human rights in times of disaster and declared that government bodies such as the SANDF must ensure that law enforcement conducts its duties properly.

There is, obviously, no singular explanation or panacea for law enforcement abuses in Africa. It is a product of country-specific and continent-wide crises interlocking – and independent causes which conspire to create an inhospitable policing climate. There is the innate difficulty in enforcing lockdown measures in urban settings where people lack basic living necessities; the dearth of human rights training for police forces; the not-so-distant memory of the Ebola outbreak; the panic of mass infection; the breakdown of trust between authorities and citizens; and simmering potential for civil unrest. All of these factors contribute to an atmosphere of uncertainty.

As lockdown restrictions eventually ease, this might correspond to a decrease in police brutality and overreach. But it is safe to say that this issue will not vanish from the continent overnight.


COVIDcast: Dame Meg Taylor on keeping Pacific Islands safe

Published 29 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In the latest episode of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands Program, sat down with Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, to discuss how Covid-19 is affecting health, economics, local communities, climate change, regionalism and geopolitics in the Pacific region.

Dame Meg acknowledged the growing geopolitical tension in the Pacific region but said these dynamics are nothing new to a region that has been dealing with foreign influence for centuries. She made the point Pacific agency should not be underestimated.

 

The Secretary General praised the “tremendous” response by most Pacific governments to lock down quickly, which has left many Pacific countries Covid-19 free. But this response has come at a “devastating” cost to Pacific economies.

It’s not just the people (working in tourism), the hotels et cetera. It’s about any other business that has an influence to make sure that food is on the table. It’s agriculture, the taxi drivers, the retailers. All this is impacted.

She also discussed the role of traditional welfare systems in filing gaps in social welfare structures and underpinning Pacific resilience, and how these systems are reacting and being tested.

The discussion also covered the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.

Dame Meg endorsed the prospect of a “travel bubble” between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, while noting it would need to be carefully established to protect vulnerable Pacific communities from coronavirus, and that Pacific leaders should be included in discussions around its establishment. 

The discussion also covered the shortcomings of public health institutions, as well as the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.
 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


The middle power alignment in public attitudes about Covid-19

Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia, Canada and European countries have been cooperating together more in initiatives and groupings without the United States or China. Public opinion supports this uptick in middle power cooperation in the face of the aggressive Xi Jinping administration and Trump administration, and the more virulent US-China rivalry.

On 14 May, the Lowy Institute released a poll on Australian views of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic that makes bad reading in Beijing and worse reading in Washington. A poll on the same subject by Angus Reid in Canada released the day before offered similar results. Add to this a recent poll in Germany.

Deliveries of protective equipment and medical supplies this month from China to Montenegro (NATO/Flickr)

In the Lowy poll, 68% answered they had a less favourable view of the Chinese system of government due to its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Seven out of 10 agreed that China had not handled the outbreak well.

In the Canadian poll, only 14% expressed a favourable view of China, down from 29% in November 2019. There was very little faith that Chinese authorities have been open and transparent about the Covid-19 situation inside China.

Across the Atlantic in Germany, seven out of 10 agreed that “more transparency on the part of the Chinese government would have contributed towards mitigating or avoiding the current corona pandemic”. Only one out of four disagreed. More than a third of Germans polled reported having a worse view of China due to the pandemic compared with 25% whose views of China had improved.

Directing a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in New Jersey (New Jersey National Guard/Flickr)

The Lowy poll showed that, by a wide margin, Australians believe the US response has been less effective than that of China. Only 10% of Australians feel that American authorities have handled the coronavirus outbreak well, compared with 31% who believe that Chinese authorities have. Consistent with this judgement, 37% believe that China will be more powerful globally than before this pandemic, while only 6% think the US will be.

The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington.

In the German poll, 36% agreed that having close relations with China was important for Germany, up from 24% in 2019. China is now level-pegging in Germany with the US on this question after being far behind last year. For three out of four Germans, Covid-19 has hurt their view of the US, while only 1 out of 20 see it the other way.

In the Canadian poll, only 38% of Canadians expressed a favourable view of the US, down from 49% in 2019.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, global views of the Trump and Xi administrations were worsening. Recent polling suggests that the pandemic appears to be adding to this, in the Western world at least.

The strength of these views in Australia, Canada and Germany bolster their respective governments in responding to China or the US. The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington, such as the 23 May joint statement by the Australian, Canadian and British governments in support of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy.     


Designing a “built environment” for the pandemic age

Adapting to lockdown, a street library in Richmond, Virginia (Ronnie Pitman/Flickr)
Adapting to lockdown, a street library in Richmond, Virginia (Ronnie Pitman/Flickr)
Published 28 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

We don’t give much thought to a flushing toilet, until the damn thing is broken. The same goes for the footpath that runs out the front of the house. A ribbon of smooth concrete serves as an unconscious guide for our feet, unless it’s cracked and potholed, transforming what is intended as a community service into an obstacle to avoid.

But as the world experiments with lifting the Covid-19 lockdown, we’re being encouraged to think a lot more about the everyday background of constructed items that make up our homes and cities. Little changes in this “built environment” might just keep us healthy, while a major mindset shift could help even more. This isn’t just a challenge for wealthy countries that experienced the early wave after coronavirus spread from China, but for emergent nations, too, with less established infrastructure.

The issues are in rethinking design, operations, maintenance and behaviour, all to ensure that the modern workplace – and hence the broader economy – is not so susceptible to the disruption of disease.

After all, preventing the festering risk of disease was the initial goal of those easily forgotten yet vast and complex sewerage systems that connect the sprawling suburbs with far distant waste treatment plants. Footpaths came about to keep pedestrians safe from the increasing congestion and speed of road traffic. The list goes on. Street lighting, public parks, underground trains, regulations to ensure fire safety standards or stop the use of hazardous materials, and more examples besides, all developed with the ideal of improving safety and the quality of life.

“The history of the built environment is the history of public health,” says Elena Bondareva, a consultant who has worked across the world on projects as varied as office space design to discussions about building science. You could go as far back as the earliest days of human civilization, as Bondareva puts it: “Why do you think we slept in caves, then built up villages? Why were the oldest cities in the world surrounded by walls and watchtowers?”

Now, in this new age when terms such as “social distancing” and “moist breath zone” are part of the vernacular, Bondareva sees the challenge as one where the built environment is at the forefront of reinforcing public health, in a similar fashion to the way construction standards and other measures are recognised as important to mitigating climate change. Bondareva spoke to me from the US, where she works for building science consultants CETEC, after she passed along an article written during the first weeks of lockdown, urging those with expertise in the field to advance a view.

So much of what we don’t often notice in a city is designed to keep us safe (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

The issues raised have fascinating consequences. A front-page story last week, for example, warned of a $50 billion wipeout of the value of commercial office properties in Australia’s big cities, as companies assess whether to maintain big tower offices or persist with working-from-home measures. Consequent reduced pressure on transport networks – roads and rail alike – would be only one flow-on result. Another report this morning looked at the prospect of more people choosing to shift to regional towns away from Australia’s crowded cities that hug the coastline – and taking their jobs with them. 

Not that Bondareva is giving up on the office just yet.

“We’re social creatures. When interacting with others, we’ve evolved to consume some 90% of our information non-verbally – that’s very hard online.” While she is in no doubt there will be change, she doesn’t see a 2021 where people remain in solitary capsules connected by the internet. And besides, so many jobs simply don’t come with an online option.

But the issues are in rethinking design, operations, maintenance and behaviour, all to ensure that the modern workplace – and hence the broader economy – is not so susceptible to the disruption of disease. Shared “hot desks” suddenly seem far less desirable, while a building site might need to slow down to allow different trades the physical space required to safely get the job done.

“There is indisputable science that our spaces define our health,” Bondareva says. “Is there leadership and courage to make change based on these facts – the way we have done throughout history?” She cites past examples such as the introduction of mandatory seat belts as a measure where governments moved beyond voluntary options that private industry might recommend to tackle the road toll. Nor should this be limited to thinking only about coronavirus. Other diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and issues related to mental health, can all be exacerbated by the places where we live and work.

Will the commuter crowds be diminished? (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

There is a major international dimension to such debates, too. The post-Covid world could see the prospect of “leapfrogging” by emerging nations, in much the same manner as the expensive roll-out of copper networks for fixed telephone lines was bypassed by technological advances such as the mobile phone. Attracting labour to Covid-safe workplaces, for example. Regulations for new buildings could minimise the use of materials where coronavirus can linger and spread, for instance, as scientists learn more about what type of surfaces Covid-19 can survive on, and for how long. Or codes could be adopted to change the way air is circulated in a room – whether by the placement of windows, vents or coolers are placed – to limit the mechanics of airborne transmission.

“Frankly, this is where I challenge countries like Australia and the US to stay competitive because of the time lag,” says Bondareva. The adaption need for climate change again offers  a guide. “If we need at least a decade to get today’s petrol-powered vehicles off the road, the challenge is ever greater with existing buildings. This gives an immense advantage to regions developing more rapidly. If China was set to open 600 airports faster than an Australian city can get one brownfield district redeveloped, isn’t that an advantage once we put our finger on what precisely – materials, HVAC [Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning], occupancy profiles, building typology – halts infectious disease transmission?”

Keeping the taps running and the power on is no longer enough.


A cry for help as Covid‑19 sweeps Latin America and hunger bites

Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Published 27 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

It was a cry for help, the word “hambre” (hunger) projected against the Torre Telefónica building in downtown Santiago, Chile’s capital. It abruptly woke up a city that has been under total quarantine since mid-May. “We are locked up and we are starving,” said José Morales, a resident of El Bosque, an impoverished shanty town south of the Chilean capital.

The light projection against the 1990’s mobile phone shaped telecommunications building – an icon of the now crumbling Chilean neoliberal economic model – happened just a few hours after a violent clash on 18 May between the police and dozens of El Bosque residents. “Those who are not dying of the corona are dying of hunger,” Morales told me on the phone. “Yes sir, hunger is back in Chile.”

 

 

With almost 640,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths, Latin America has become the new focus of the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has landed in a region where 30% of its 629 million inhabitants can be classed as poor, and about 10% live in what can be regarded as misery. In its sprawling and impoverished slums – where around 117 million poor live – a new pandemic is breeding, hunger.

In Brazil, with the second-highest number of cases of coronavirus in the world, hunger is ferociously biting. It seems to be a long time since 2003–14, when the country under the Workers’ Party managed to pull 29 million out of poverty. That was a time when Brazil, the largest economy of Latin America, came off the UN map of hunger.

The Brazilian impoverished favelas, home to 13 million, are not only agonizing about the lack of food but also about the lack of clean water – so fundamental to fighting the virus. For Rodrigo Afonso, executive director of the NGO Ação da Cidadania (Citizen Action), “tens of millions of Brazilians are in a situation of food insecurity”.

According to the World Bank, this year Brazil’s economy will contract by 5%. This is bad news for a quarter of the Brazilian population – some 50 million – who live in poverty and under the shadow of hunger. “Where there is hunger there is no hope,” once said former Brazilian president Luiz “Lula” da Silva. In Brazil – led by health hazardous president, Jair Bolsonaro – hope is in short supply.

Waiting for food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)


Globally, due to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic crisis, the number of people suffering from acute hunger could double to 265 million this year, according to the UN World Food Program. In Latin America and the Caribbean hunger today affects 42.5 million people.

According to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, CEPAL, this year Latin American will experience its biggest economic contraction in history. During 2020 the CEPAL expects that poverty would increase by 4.4 percentage points from 30.3 to 34.7% – this means 29 new million poor. Between poverty and hunger there is a terrifying slippery slope.

All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise.

Argentina is the second largest economy in Latin America. According to the National Institute of Statistic and Census of Argentina (INDEC, in Spanish) 35.5% of its population of approximately 45 million live in poverty. The government has reported that 11 million are now relying on food assistance – this is a substantial increase from 8 million pre-pandemic. The one-off $10,000 Argentinean pesos – approximately US$ 163.42 – that the government distributed last April among the poorest families was not enough to guarantee food.

After Brazil and Mexico, Colombia, with approximately 48 million, is the third most populated Latin American country. In Colombia hunger has a colour – red. Since April when the quarantine started, red rags such as tea towels, t-shirts and even underwear have waved from impoverished Colombian homes signalling the lack of enough food as a call for help.

The red rag symbol has spread rapidly in several shanty towns of the country – where approximately 6.2 million live.

The first red rags began appearing in Soacha – a sprawling slum city in Bogota where one million people live or rather try to survive. Soacha is also one of the largest concentrations of people displaced from the five decades of civil war. Thousands of Venezuelans live there too – refugees from Venezuela’s atrocious economic crisis. “I am not as concerned with the coronavirus as I am with hunger in this city,” warned Soacha’s mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga in March. “If we do not turn on all the alarms and international cooperation, we will have more deaths from hunger than from coronaviruses.”

Drive-thru Covid-19 testing, Brasilia (Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado/Flickr)


Latin American food security has worsened in the last few years, according to a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. According to this organisation, a third of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean already live in a precarious state of “food insecurity.” And the coronavirus, the report said, will exacerbate the problem. “In Latin America, hunger is just around the corner,” Julio Berdegue, the Latin American representative of FAO told the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. “It is essential to keep the food system alive so that the health crisis does not turn into a food crisis,” he said.

Perhaps it is already too late – hunger is back, as the resident of Santiago’s El Bosque shanty town told me over the phone. All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise. And authorities are resorting to the usual measures, police and military repression, false fixes and shallow promises. In the era of the coronavirus, right now, Latin America is gliding into its darkest days yet.


Rohingya in Malaysia, doubly trapped

A group of Rohingya refugees wait to be screened for Covd-19 at a health clinic in Kuala Lumpur, 24 March (Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
A group of Rohingya refugees wait to be screened for Covd-19 at a health clinic in Kuala Lumpur, 24 March (Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

For some people living in the Ampang district in eastern Kuala Lumpur, self-isolation is nothing new. The area is known for its concentration of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, nestled in the grimy apartments and neighbourhoods of this former tin mining centre, and they haven't been going out for a while. The Rohingya are generally tolerated here, but here as elsewhere across the country, they are denied any real rights or protection from authorities, abuse, rape and kidnapping. 

Now, improbably, the need to stay home just got more urgent: the same “corona panic” that has gripped many countries around the world has taken root as well in Malaysia. 

Panics have a way of seeking out victims, and the Rohingya in Malaysia have been easy targets. In a now too-familiar fashion, social media has provided the means to misinform and inflame.

The thugs and gangs who regularly rumble Rohingya refugees in Malaysia need little prompting at the best of times. Now the trigger points are in abundance.

The latest episode seems to have been ignited by a video, released in mid-April and aired widely on Facebook, which apparently shows a Rohingya refugee man demanding citizenship and other rights for Rohingya in Malaysia. The video appears now to have been taken down. 

Those in the Rohingya community seem confused about the source of the alleged video. Some say it was planted by anyone from local thugs to “higher-ups”. Others believe it never existed in the first place. 

Either way, the video, real or not, has led anti-Rohingya elements to rachet up abuse online and ­– notwithstanding the anti-Covid isolation laws known as the Movement Control Order (MCO) – in public.

Part of the problem is that most Rohingya, struggling at the best of times as undocumented workers, have been unable to generate income under the MCO restrictions. Some, when they have ventured out to earn money, have been attacked for not following the protocols.

As in many countries, confusion and panic are rife. In the absence of clear messages and leadership, the Rohingya have become both the victims of the MCO restrictions and easy scapegoats.

US-based Rohingya activist Sharifah Shakirah says the normal pressures for Rohingya have become intensified by the lockdown situation.

“Now they are jobless, been arrested and put in detention camps. They are traumatised.”

But there are wider factors at play.

For one, the deadline for Myanmar to report to the International Court of Justice with evidence of progress, following the December 2019 hearing on claims of genocide against Rohingya against the state, was on 23 May.

The report was apparently handed in – with little fanfare and little detail on what it contains. But the tension may have prompted pro-Myanmar provocations in Malaysia, especially given national elections in Myanmar are set for later this year.

Another issue is Malyasia’s own political uncertainty. The collapse of the coalition government led by Mohamed Mahathir in February saw race and nationality issues in the week-long leadership turmoil in Kuala Lumpur, likened to Game of Thrones, as it has often been in Malaysian politics. The new government of Prime Minister Muhyaddin Yassin has looked anything but stable in the months since and the upshot of this political upheaval only serves an atmosphere of discomfort, at a highly fractious time in the country and around the world.

And amid this scenario, the refugee boats from Myanmar, full of hapless and desperate Rohingya, have started reappearing off the coast of Malaysia and other countries. From mid-April, likely prompted by a “leave no-one behind” Covid-19 statement from ASEAN on 14 April (Malaysia and Myanmar are both ASEAN members), the growing wave is once again throwing refugees onto Malay coastlines.

In some ways, it hardly matters whether the rumoured video apparently behind this latest outbreak exists. The thugs and gangs who regularly rumble Rohingya refugees in Malaysia need little prompting at the best of times. Now the trigger points are in abundance.

Traditionally, uncertainty in political leadership in the region translates to shifting pressures at street level. The weakest or most easily victimised in any society are generally marginalised and attacked as the population seeks to test its power and is perhaps stoked by politicians at home and abroad, looking for distractions or power plays.

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are, once again, seemingly trapped in a crushing vice that they are powerless to avoid, and from which they cannot escape. 


New Caledonia: coronavirus deepens the divide

Social distancing can have a poignant meaning when the term is introduced during a long-running independence debate (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Social distancing can have a poignant meaning when the term is introduced during a long-running independence debate (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 26 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Four months out from New Caledonia’s next scheduled vote on independence, a pro-independence leader has denounced France’s handling of the Covid pandemic in the territory as colonialist and partisan, and called for the expulsion of France’s senior political and military representatives. The independence coalition FLNKS (National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front) has sought a postponement of the 6 September vote to early November.

The September referendum is part of the final stages of the 1998 Noumea Accord. It follows a first vote on independence in November 2018 that delivered a 57–43% “no” vote. Under the terms of the accord, up to three votes can be held, if the answer remains “no” to independence.

France imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-March to combat coronavirus and legislated to relax isolation measures on 12 May. Unlike metropolitan France, with its high death toll of more than 28,000, New Caledonia has so far only experienced 18 cases, with no deaths. It applied stricter measures than in France for new arrivals, requiring 21 days of isolation.

On 18 May, the President of the pro-independence Union Calédonienne (UC) and FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa released an open letter to all New Caledonians claiming that France’s handling of the pandemic in New Caledonia was contrary to the Noumea Accord and designed to shore up pro-France loyalties in the lead-up to the September referendum.

Goa questioned France’s motivation presenting its financial support during the pandemic as that of a providential administration, when the funds would be repaid by New Caledonian taxpayers.

Specifically, Goa claimed that France’s applying nationwide policy to New Caledonia was inconsistent with the 1999 Organic Law implementing the Accord, giving New Caledonia responsibility for “social protection, public health and hygiene, sanitary control to its borders” (Item 4). He listed numerous, and emotive, recent historical examples of the French government reneging on promises to New Caledonians. Saying the simple application of French coronavirus management policy to New Caledonia was inappropriate, given the difference between relatively Covid-free New Caledonia and the rest of France, he criticised flights continuing to arrive from other parts of France, bringing in French nationals.

Goa accused French authorities of variable application of local isolation strategy to its senior officials. He listed cases of the High Commissioner Laurent Prévost himself, his Secretary-General and military personnel allegedly not conforming to locally determined isolation provisions. He said these policies endangered the lives of New Caledonians, noting 80% of Kanaks had been decimated by foreign diseases in past “quasi-genocide”. He said the policies undermined local economic strategies, including working with Covid-free regional island states to reopen tourism.

He accused France of collusion with loyalist parties, and of Prévost selectively including loyalists in his crisis teams, with a “subliminal” effect on New Caledonians in this pre-referendum period. Goa questioned France’s motivation presenting its financial support during the pandemic as that of a providential administration, when the funds would be repaid by New Caledonian taxpayers. He labelled the French government “our colonisers” who had unilaterally possessed New Caledonia in 1841 and 1853.

Finally Goa said his party would no longer participate in political dialogue with such a “partisan and disloyal” partner, and proposed a new strategy for the “colonised v. coloniser” relationship. He called for the departure of the High Commissioner and his team, and of the General of the French forces and his personnel; for the suspension of flights coming in from metropolitan France and its other territories; and the non-application of French coronavirus policies to New Caledonia. If changes were not made, the UC would call on the people to protect the population, and would take responsibility for protection measures.

In response, Prévost published a letter reaffirming the aim of French policy to protect all New Caledonians while respecting the Noumea Accord. He accused Goa of undermining the unity of New Caledonian society and institutions, which was fundamental to successful management of the crisis. He renewed a commitment to the local 21-day isolation measures and refuted accusations about himself, his Secretary-General and military personnel. He said he included all provincial presidents (independence and loyalist), the (Kanak) Customary Senate, and other local institutions in managing the crisis.

Loyalist leaders reacted strongly, labelling the pro-independence actions as outright politicisation of the coronavirus situation designed to sway France in their favour, and recommitting to their preferred September referendum date.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe took a moderating line. In France’s National Assembly on 19 May, answering a question from New Caledonian MPs, Philippe acknowledged that France’s 12 May legislation made the local 21-day isolation policy more difficult but not entirely impossible. He foreshadowed “evolution” of the legislation when it was considered by the Senate.

The party statements deepen divisions at a sensitive time in this critical final referendum process. The strong pro-independence signal of discontent, couched in emotional language from the pre–Noumea Accord past, hinting at non-participation in the process and invoking a regional perspective, reminds France of the challenges of impartiality as it organises a second independence vote.


​​​​​​​COVIDcast Episode 12: Pandemic, emerging markets, and US dollar

Published 22 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In Episode 12 of COVIDcast, Roland Rajah, Director of the International Economy Program, sat down with Brad Setser, Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss the upheaval brought about by the pandemic in emerging economies and what this has revealed about the importance of the US dollar in the functioning of the global economy.

Rajah and Setser began by discussing the dramatic outflow of capital from emerging markets between March and April. Setser described this as “the most rapid withdrawal of foreign financing that anyone had seen since the global financial crisis”. Although markets have since stabilised largely due to the intervention of the Federal Reserve (the Fed), a number of economies remain very fragile. As Setser put it:

“So long as oil prices remain low, or tourism remains shutdown, or if you needed foreign financing to roll over your debt, foreign financing remains scarce … Even though the most important shock and the peak of market stress is past, some countries are living off buffers and borrowed time.”

Setser also noted that while the Fed had reacted creatively and forcefully, the International Monetary Fund had been left on the sidelines and had yet to offer a crisis facility that is attractive to the big emerging markets.

 

On the role of the US dollar as global reserve currency, Rajah questioned the ability of emerging markets to wean themselves off dollar dependence. Setser argued the US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Despite China’s goal to establish the RMB as a global reserve, the crisis and the response of the Fed, including providing dollar swap lines, had reinforced the dominance of the US dollar.

The US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Given this dominance, Rajah asked why the United States did not actively take advantage of the dollar as a powerful tool of attraction in its competition for influence with China, and whether it had been too selective in the countries to which it offered swap lines. Setser said “the Fed’s mandate doesn’t include providing political swap lines to gain political influence” yet also that “the United States hasn’t made full use of its financial power”. America could try to compete with China to provide financing for infrastructure as well as financing in times of crisis through the Treasury’s balance sheet, he said.

Rajah concluded by asking what emerging economies could and should do to get through the current crisis. He noted everyone needs to run large fiscal deficits, but, in the absence of outside help, emerging economies are turning to their own central banks in unconventional ways reminiscent of quantitative easing in advanced economies. Setser argued it was a balance of risks versus benefits, and that each country has a choice to make, “between a weaker currency and easier access to central bank financing for fiscal deficits”.

 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.


The battle for a Covid vaccine risks losing the “war”

Samples to be tested for coronavirus at the “Fire Eye” laboratory in Wuhan, China, 6 February (AFP via Getty Images)
Samples to be tested for coronavirus at the “Fire Eye” laboratory in Wuhan, China, 6 February (AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Leaders of nations around the globe have resorted to the language of warfare to characterise their fight against Covid-19. From US President Donald Trump, who declared himself a “war president”, to China’s Xi Jinping committing to a “people’s war”, to Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoking the “bulldog spirit of the Blitz”, to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatening to introduce martial law to fight the virus, and to Australian ministers and officials talking of “winning the war” against the virus, the terminology of battle has been the lingua franca of the times.

A universal threat has evoked a universal language to rally the citizens of the world to the battle the novel coronavirus.Yet, in the face of this common enemy, the world is bitterly divided. There have been ugly fights over who gains access to the materials required to deal with the virus, underhanded tactics to divert desperately needed supplies of masks and protective equipment, borders have been slammed closed and, of course, there is an increasingly dangerous “blame game” over responsibility for the spread of the virus.

“Vaccine nationalism” is a serious threat to the chances of achieving an effective global process for producing and equitably distributing vaccines.

As governments and medical systems intensify efforts to find medicines to treat those infected and vaccines to immunise whole populations, this divisiveness could become even more intense and dangerous. Some have suggested what we have so far witnessed will come to be seen as a sideshow in the race to get preventatives and cures.

As scientists warn that the “war” will only be won by an effective vaccine against Covid-19, a vast international mobilisation of scientific research and testing is underway to find that vaccine. Well over 100 vaccine projects have joined the race to find the “magic bullet”.

But just as the initial unseemly international rush to gain an advantage in the provision of first line of defences against the virus has revealed a divided world without coordination or leadership, the same dynamics are emerging around the search for vaccines.

Most seriously, the quest to be the first to produce a vaccine has opened a new front in the evolving cold war between the United States and China. Both superpowers are pouring huge resources into vaccine research, in quest of being able to pronounce the first successful vaccine as a triumph for their political system. Already it is a dirty game.

Accusations of spying and cyber tricks are already flying.

US President Donald Trump speaking at a White House press briefing on Covid-19 vaccine development, Washington, 15 May (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

On 13 May, the FBI and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that it was investigating the “targeting and compromise” of US medical research groups by Chinese hackers.

“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing,” the agencies warned. They urged extreme vigilance by US pharmaceutical and research sectors. UK security agencies issued a similar warning.

Australia’s official security agencies are likewise understood to have seen evidence of significant state-linked cyber activity targeting research institutions and the agencies have stepped up efforts to protect Australian organisations.

Australian researchers at the University of Queensland, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the CSIRO are jointly involved in one of the leading vaccine prospects.

It is not just the superpowers that are involved in this cyber activity. Russia and Iran have been identified as sources of state-directed cyber snooping, as have a host of non-government players.

But it is the US-China rivalry and the risk that vaccines may become geopolitical weapons that most worries health professionals and policymakers in the rest of the world.

Researchers at Peking University’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics conduct tests on an anti-Covid-19 drug, 14 May (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

“Vaccine nationalism”, warns Jane Halton, the Australian chair of the major international body seeking to bring order to the global search to find vaccines, is a serious threat to the chances of achieving an effective global process for producing and equitably distributing vaccines.

Halton chairs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), a World Health Organisation (WHO) associated body charged with leading the search for and, ultimately, the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

"If we have vaccine nationalism and one country looks after itself first, and at the expense of the rest of the world, everyone is going to continue to suffer," Halton said this week in an address to the National Press Club.

While Halton did not name any countries, my own discussions with people involved in the quest for a multilateral approach to vaccination development have revealed their alarm over the risk that the US and China will disastrously politicise the process.

Trump’s Operation Warp Speed – his direction to US researchers to produce a vaccine by the end of the year – is being seen as a Covid-19 extension of his “America First” political agenda. There is an expectation in international organisations that Trump will want to vaccinate Americans first with an American vaccine, and that he desperately wants a vaccine before the US Presidential election which he could boast as a victory over China.

But if China “wins the race”, there is concern that it could use the offer of vaccines to desperate governments as an instrument for gaining wider global influence.

Those involved in trying to ensure that the first vaccines that emerge are treated as “global public good” products are concerned that the retreat from multilateralism that has occurred in recent years will be bad news for those in less wealthy countries without the possibility of developing their own vaccines.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus holds a video briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic, Geneva, 15 April (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

“It’s a very bad time for multilateralism to be under siege,” a former adviser to US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama told the Financial Times. “But it’s the most dramatic example of why multilateralism is absolutely essential. A global plan without some of the main powers is not a global plan.”

But few involved in the international diplomacy aimed at trying to encourage a multilateral vaccine response see much chance of it, especially with Trump freezing US funding to the WHO and now threatening to pull out of the organisation altogether.

In a sign of potential US intentions, US delegates to the WHO’s World Health Assembly in Geneva on 18 and 19 May refused to sign up to a proposed agreement by all countries to permit poorer countries to ignore patents to gain access to successful Covid-19 vaccines. The US argued that this would remove the financial incentives for corporations to make the risky and expensive investments required to produce vaccines.

Acting on Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” direction to US agencies and pharmaceutical corporations, the publicly funded US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has been negotiating with up to 14 US and foreign drug companies for agreements to supply vaccines to the US. One of those being funded by BARDA is French company Sanofi, whose CEO got into political trouble with the French government when he said the US would have the right to have priority for any vaccine Sanofi developed with US financial assistance.

Other countries, including the UK, have negotiated deals with drug companies to get priority access to their vaccines.

The European Union, which is leading efforts to ensure wide access to proven vaccines, trailed behind the US and China in providing funds for vaccine development. It has now launched what is called the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which is funded by the EU, individual governments and philanthropic groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through the ACT Accelerator, the Jane Halton–chaired CEPI is seeking agreements with potential vaccine providers on a “global public good” basis, with the goal of global vaccine provision. The highly prospective University of Queensland/CSIRO/Peter Doherty Institute “molecular clamp technology” vaccine project is one of these.

Officials involved in the effort to avoid a repeat of the experience of the development of swine flu (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, when wealthier countries – including Australia – monopolised the initial global vaccine supply, believe that the best chance of avoiding that happening with Covid-19 is uncertainty about the science for a vaccine. They say that it will be highly risky for the US and China to rush to try to be first and find that they don’t “win the race”. It would be more prudent for them to be part of wider efforts to develop a vaccine, something at least China pledged to do when it committed recently to provide $US2 billion to international counter-Covid projects.

A rapid emergency supplies program provides food for vulnerable households affected by Covid-19 in Manila, Philippines, 6 April (ADB/Flickr)

A measure of the willingness of the big powers to come together in the “war” against Covid-19 will come at the next G7 leaders’ summit, scheduled for 11 and 12 June, which is to be chaired by Trump and may involve leaders travelling to Washington instead of, as had been planned, being an online virtual meeting. A hook-up with other leaders in the G20 is also possible, which would see Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison participating.

Australia, which took a leading and controversial role in the mobilisation of support for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, has so far not played a role in efforts to ensure an equitable global distribution of any Covid-19 vaccine. This has invariably led some observers to wonder if Australia may choose to seek, through its alliance with the US, to ensure it gets priority access to a vaccine.

Ahead of the G7 summit, in an article published in Journal of the American Medical Association, leading US health and foreign policy experts laid down a challenge to world leaders:

If nations pursue a competitive race to develop effective vaccines and therapeutics, there will be only losers, no winners. The threat posed by the novel coronavirus knows no borders. Only a well-coordinated global plan that harnesses the best science and delivers it to everyone in need can effectively counteract the Covid-19 scourge and future pandemics.


Now is the right time to bring Fiji into trans-Pacific bubble talks

Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Published 21 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

It’s peak surf season in Fiji. Usually surfers would come from all over the world to surf the famous “Cloudbreak” and holiday resorts should be packed. But Rendezvous Surf Camp, the launch pad to some of Fiji’s best breaks, excepting four guests, is empty.

One night this week, sitting around drinking kava with the staff (with appropriate social distancing), they fondly recalled years gone by when famous surfers cracked beers at the now deserted bar.

Sun, sand, no tourists: an empty Fiji resort (Samantha Cook)

Some locals have taken a “sega na lega” (no worries) approach. With coronavirus restrictions somewhat relaxed and inter-island travel having resumed, many Fijians have taken the opportunity to relax or return to their villages and undertake subsistence farming.

But living off the land won’t pay the rent or meet credit repayments. There is a growing feeling of uncertainty permeating the tropical air. While the Fiji government has implemented measures to soften the blow of Covid-19, there will still be a strain.

I’m regularly asked by locals about when flights will resume with Australia, as though I have ScoMo on speed dial.

With so many Fijians dependent on the tourism industry, which makes up about 40% of Fiji’s GDP, locals are growing anxious. Already the pinch is being felt.

Australian, New Zealand and Fijian government representatives have met to discuss ways the countries can cooperate to jump-start Fiji’s economy. But pre-Covid these discussions had already started with talks of diversifying Fiji’s economy by strengthening incentives and market access in the agriculture and business outsourcing sectors. While coronavirus has been responsible for instigating technology transformation in businesses through forced working from home arrangements, I’m doubtful as to whether the experience of the virus can trigger economic diversification at the rate needed to reboot Fiji’s economy. 

In 2019 Fiji was ranked 102 out of 190 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. The country is also geographically remote and battles climate change-related challenges, which all present significant barriers to achieving rapid economic transformation.

There seems to be little option available but to restart Fiji’s tourism industry. One safe and measured way of doing that is through Fiji’s inclusion in the mooted trans-Pacific bubble.

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk.

Annually Fiji receives around half a million tourists from Australia and New Zealand who make up around 65% of total tourist numbers. So by reintroducing flights from Australia and New Zealand, undoubtedly the Fijian tourism industry would see an immediate uptick.

Fiji has been very diligent in its Covid-19 prevention efforts. With now only three active cases, the country may soon be coronavirus free, meaning the real risk is a second wave of infection brought from Australia or New Zealand.

Aside from public health concerns, there is of course a diplomatic and PR risk, as neither Australia nor New Zealand want to be responsible for reintroducing coronavirus to the islands.

Fiji has formally expressed its desire to be a part of the trans-Pacific bubble and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said inclusion of the Pacific Islands is “on the cards”. However, Ardern has stressed the importance for Australia and New Zealand to get their health response right first, and to have agreement and support of the Pacific.

But just how long must the Pacific wait? What tangible strategies can Australia and New Zealand feasibly think about now to start implementing for Fiji to be included?

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Further, the traffic needs to flow both ways. Given the importance of remittances, its vital for governments to consider how seasonal workers can return to Australia and New Zealand. Governments might also explore opportunities to increase the number of participants in Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme in areas, which could experience greater demand, for example healthcare, childcare as well as aged care.

As the Covid-19 crisis began in Wuhan late last year, much of the world sat back idly, feeling immune and labelling it a ‘China problem’. Fast forward to March this year and coronavirus quickly became a global problem, with governments calling home their citizens, including expats, many of whom had less than 48 hours to leave. The decisions felt very “reactive” to what are admittedly unprecedented events.

The one lesson already clear from the Covid-19 response is the importance of preparedness among friends. More intra-Pacific dialogue about Fiji’s inclusion in the bubble should occur now, rather than leaving the Pacific as an after-thought. As some of the biggest aid donors in the region, Australia and New Zealand cannot afford to be reactive in their efforts to assist Fiji and other countries in the Pacific on the road to economic recovery.


India’s Covid-19 tracing app: Power in the right hands?

India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 20 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Governments around the world are working hard to convince their populations to download the various Covid-19 infection tracing apps. As well as potentially helping to stymie the spread of the virus, the app download numbers serve another purpose: they could be read to indicate how much trust there is in government. With the apps containing potentially sensitive personal data about millions of people, it comes as little surprise that there is growing concern over privacy and how this data will be used, post-pandemic.

In Australia, the COVIDSafe app has been downloaded, according to the most recent figures, almost six million times. That number, while large, falls far short of the government’s desired 40% of the population. It’s an indication that, for all of the recent opinion polls showing high approval ratings for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, there still isn’t much public faith in the government to ring-fence the data.

Conversely, in India, the tracing app Aarogya Setu (“bridge to health”) has been downloaded more than 100 million times and was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (less than TikTok, but more than Netflix). Even in a country of 450 million smartphones, it is significant. Authorities are also releasing a version of the app that works on the next 100 million mobile phones that are internet-enabled. The figures underscore Modi’s ongoing popularity and the public trust in his governance.

 

 

Still, there has been significant disquiet over the app’s features, which critics say undermines Indians’ privacy. The great fear is that the Indian government is using the pandemic and the app as cover for scaling up its moves towards becoming a surveillance state. The government announced it was mandatory for all state employees to download it. It has been made compulsory in a number of other settings, including throughout Noida, a satellite city to New Delhi, and for rural migrant workers travelling by train. No other democracy has made it mandatory for citizens to download the app.

Aarogya Setu, like most contact tracing apps, relies on Bluetooth. But it also uses GPS tracking, meaning that that each user’s location is tracked multiple times each day. Critics say this is unnecessary and excessive, and they fear that the app could be used to create permanent government databases with sensitive personal information about Indian citizens.

One of the voices is French ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, going by the moniker Elliott Alderson, who points out that the internal database is easily accessible, meaning anyone can see who is sick anywhere in India. He has called on the government to make the source code public, so independent researchers can fully understand the technology. 

Separately, an analysis of the app conducted by French cybersecurity consultancy Defensive Lab Agency found that it has the probable capacity to access other features on the smartphone on which it is installed, such as the microphone, contacts and system settings.

And a comparative review published by MIT Technology Review gave the app two out of five stars, losing points for lacking transparency and not being voluntary. (COVIDSafe rated four out of five stars, with concerns around its lack of transparency.)

Staying connected during a time of isolation (Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images) 


To its credit, the Indian government appears to be listening, issuing a rare Twitter rebuttal of Alderson’s claims, yet on Sunday backtracking on the mandatory download conditions, instead strongly urging employees and employers to take it up. While its moves towards a surveillance state have been well-documented, it appears the government has realised that now is perhaps not the best moment to try to exploit the public mood, even though fearful populations are generally happy to cede ground on privacy and liberty in favour of safety.

There is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

While another chief complaint, that of India’s lack of data privacy legislation is also being addressed with a bill awaiting approval in parliament, there is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

Five years ago, the Aadhar number was introduced, a program which gave each citizen a unique 12-digit number that the government said would streamline bureaucracy and ultimately help poor people access welfare. But the Supreme Court in 2018 placed strict limits on the use of the program, in response to growing public concerns over privacy and whether the data was being used correctly. 

More recently, the Modi government has been finalising a database tracking “every aspect of the lives of each of India’s 1.2 billion residents”. According to a report in Huffington Post India in March, the so-called National Social Registry would track every time someone moved cities, changed jobs, bought property or even lost a family member. While authorities have claimed that the NSR would “ensure greater administrative convenience by converging resources and efforts”, deep concerns about privacy abound. Opponents say the data collated could be used to target specific communities, and even individuals. And yes, the database (or integrated set of databases) would be based on the Aadhar number, drawing a line between the two.

With this in mind, now is a good time for Indians to remain vigilant: after all, India’s legacy of using emergencies to invoke special powers does have a dark past.


Covid-19: The need to aid Asia to open up

Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 20 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Two things about the public health and economic impacts of Covid-19 are now clear.

First, with just a few exceptions, most affected countries have suffered egregiously, and in many cases unnecessarily. This is a tragic situation.

Second, the response has been mainly left to the national governments and citizens of individual countries.

Sadly, at the international level, the response has been weak – much weaker than what is required. The urgent need now is for multilateral organisations and wealthy nations to respond with coordinated aid programs. The aid should go towards improving both public health and economic conditions in the affected countries. This applies to Asia in particular.

One example from Asia will suffice for now.

Bangladesh has had a good development record over a few decades. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has compared the socio-economic development of Bangladesh favourably with other South Asian countries, including India. Yet the international aid package for Bangladesh to fight the current crisis has been small and has moved slowly.

Bangladesh is severely resource constrained and can only afford to spend US$12 per capita for health. Only $4 per capita can go towards public health programs. Rapid mobilisation of international aid is now vital.

Sadarghat terminal in Dhaka (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The country has a national emergency response plan, but mobilising resources for the plan and proper targeting will require both bilateral and multilateral assistance to reach the government and non-governmental organisations quickly. One of us has calculated – using the best available data – that a further package of at least $4 billion will be needed in order to stem the downward slide and restore a reasonable rate of economic growth.

The example of Bangladesh shows that large economic responses are needed from the international community. Urgent funding for humanitarian priorities is required as well. The detection, over the past few days, of Covid-19 in the huge Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar is an alarming development. The likelihood that the virus will now quickly spread poses grave risks both for the one million Rohingya refugees in the camp as well as for the wider Bangladesh community nearby. Developing countries in Asia are struggling to cope with widespread impacts of the crisis such as this as well as instability across international financial markets.

Networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world.

Strikingly, almost no Western donor country has shown interest in providing significant support to developing countries in Asia. Rich countries are unleashing staggering levels of resources to deal with problems inside their borders while most developing countries are hopelessly ill-equipped to cope.

For Western donor countries, this is not their finest hour. This collective response of Western nations sends a powerful message to developing countries ­– this time, you are on your own. The corollary is that Asian countries should look to expand their own forms of regional cooperation.

We can see from the rapid transmission of the virus across international borders that numerous key linkages now exist across the world. For example, trade and transportation networks, financial networks, and other networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world. We can pull up the drawbridges for a time but at some stage we will need to start lowering them again. It will be hard to know when to start doing this and which drawbridges to lower first.

Nevertheless, it is urgent to reopen economies as soon as possible. One of the most important global lessons of post-Second World War economic history is that openness is a key factor spurring growth.

In 2008, in a major report on international economic issues, the World Bank’s Commission on Growth and Development pointed to the importance of openness. Surveying the experiences of 13 high-growth economies since 1950, the Commission concluded that the essential shared characteristic and “the central lesson of this report” was that “during their periods of fast growth, these 13 economies all made the most of the global economy”.

Sustained growth, the Commission said:

was not possible before 1950. It became feasible only because the world economy became more open and more tightly integrated.

The past two months has seen an unprecedented array of barriers erected across the world, especially in wealthy countries. It is to be expected, of course, that governments will move to protect their citizens – but it is inevitable that much of the protection is also highly protectionist.

The danger now is that wealthy countries will become inward-looking. Countries such as Bangladesh will find that vital opportunities to grow their way out of the Covid-19 crisis are denied to them. Yet they will need continued access to international markets to pursue the export-oriented growth strategies that have been so successful in the past.

Thinking optimistically, we can hope that when the worst of the current crisis has passed, there will be much needed discussion about reforms needed in global and regional relationships.

But the global and regional international organisations and wealthy countries have a largely unmet responsibility to act quickly. They must move now so that channels of cooperation can be preserved even in the face of crisis today.


Covid-19 chaos creates fertile ground for cyberattacks

A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Published 19 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Coronavirus-related cyberattacks have proliferated since the first Covid-19 cases emerged in Wuhan, China. According to a recent Microsoft analysis, every country in the world has now experienced at least one such cyberattack, with the number of successful intrusions increasing daily. In a heightened state of confusion and stress, security gaps stemming from human vulnerabilities, such as email scams and unmonitored malware intrusions, have inevitably escalated.

A variety of tactics and techniques have been observed. Attacks have ranged from unsolicited bulk spam emails aiming to spread disinformation or instigate scams, malicious domain names resembling legitimate sources, mobile apps that can be used for eavesdropping, or phishing attempts to steal private information. Sometimes, these techniques are used in conjunction with malware embedded within interactive Covid-19 maps, or ransomware that encrypts and prevents the use of a system until a payment is received.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences.

Such cyberattacks are not unique to this pandemic ­– capitalising on human vulnerabilities, particularly during major events, is a fundamental aspect of cyber threats. Malicious actors commonly use social engineering techniques to manipulate individuals to do something against their best interests. For example, phishing attacks have sought to take advantage of job duties (“Please read attached COVID-19 guidelines”), or even financial needs (“Click this link to view our FREE financial support guide”). Such vulnerabilities can also be exacerbated by a lack of adequate guidance from employers, especially at a time when oversight may be reduced due to staff and operational reductions, or during a rapid transition to remote working.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences. Essential services, including the healthcare sector, have become prime targets. The Brno University Hospital, a Covid-19 testing laboratory in the Czech Republic, was a victim of ransomware cyberattacks. In the US, multiple cyberattacks on pharmaceutical and medical research organisations compromised corporate networks through their supply chains.

Hackers have also quickly followed the shift towards remote technology, with multiple security flaws being exploited within remote-work application Zoom, creating surveillance and data privacy concerns. Amid the growing economic fallout from coronavirus, social security services have also been successfully hacked, such as those in Italy, illustrating the ability of malicous actors to rapidly adapt to the changing landscape.

 

While the motiviation is often criminal, sometimes, it can reflect geopolitical intent. Various state-sponsored “Advanced Persistent Threat” (APT) groups have been observed in attempts to exploit the pandemic to disrupt operations, steal intellectual property, and gather intelligence. Multiple phishing and spam cyberattacks against organisations in Ukraine, South Korea, and Vietnam were shown to have traces of state-sponsored APT groups from Russia, North Korea, and China respectively. Some APT groups have also sought to specifically target government services. For example, Vicious Panda, an allegedly Chinese-affiliated cyberespionage campaign by the Calypso Group, sent documents containing the RoyalRoad malware to individuals in the Mongolian public sector, masquarading as the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs disseminating information about Covid-19. Such malware would have allowed them to take screen shots, execute new processes, and collect system information as part of a suspected broader intelligence operation against a variety of other governments and organisations.

Several implications can be drawn from patterns in such cyberattacks. State-sponsored APT groups have predominantly focused on targeting organisations and governments in their regional spheres of influence, despite some having an international portfolio of operations. Essential services should expect to continue to be a target of coronavirus-related cyberattacks. Along with the healthcare scctor, financial services and industries that provide manufacturing, logistics, and cloud integration platforms could face an intensification of attacks on related supply chains as they become increasingly vital in a pandemic environment. This is especially worrisome considering cyberthreat reports before the pandemic had already pointed to the likely escalation of cyberattacks on similar sectors.

Furthermore, irrespective of any ethical boundaries which might be expected during a pandemic, hackers have had no compunction in flouting international cyber regulations, subsequently overwhelming enforcement capabilities. This amounts to a further warning with elections forthcoming in the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere of the lengths to which state-sponsored APT groups might use cyberattacks during major political events to influence and/or infiltrate foreign societies and governments.

It can also be expected that disinformation campaigns will intensify amid the current coronavirus-related “infodemic”. A recent Fireeye report found that many Covid-19–related themes aimed at Russian or Ukrainian audiences were in fact part of “Sekondary Infection,” a Russia-based disinformation operation. In some cases, efforts in manipulating social narratives are supported by cyberattacks, to reinforce political positions domestically and abroad – while others could also simply result from questionable decision-making, elevating unconfirmed rumours and circulating inaccurate information. Concurrently, by fostering chaos in social discourse, malicious actors capitalise on the environment of confusion, indirectly enhancing the effectiveness of cyberattacks while damaging mitigation efforts.

Effectively countering cyberattacks that leverage off similar major events requires preparedness and adaptability from the targeted organisation. It is crucial to understand that the primary vulnerability is people themselves, as gatekeepers to the security of any systems. The imperative for key decision makers is therefore to integrate the human aspect of cybersecurity into risk management frameworks, for the time of Covid-19, and beyond.


PNG and Covid-19: The costs of economic stress

Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Published 19 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea has grappled with economic instability for years, exacerbated by generally declining global commodity prices, increasing national debt and allegations of fiscal mismanagement. None of this is helped by high rates of population growth and unemployment. Now the coronavirus pandemic will deliver a further blow to the nation’s extractive economy as the world enters a recession and demand for resources drops.

Health-wise, the Pacific Island state is one of the more fortunate countries, so far, with only a handful of confirmed Covid-19 cases and no fatalities.

But the resource dependence which PNG has promoted since independence won’t be a strength. The returns of the sector, already associated with poor job creation and failure to drive inclusive development, will further diminish. Before the virus outbreak, resources contributed 29% to the country’s GDP, and more than and 10% of government revenues. But in recent years volatile world markets and too much spending in advance of revenue delivery, leading to mounting debt, have significantly wiped out the anticipated benefits for development. A sovereign wealth fund intended to secure long-term revenue savings is not yet operational.

The government was planning record expenditure this year. Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has now left a glaring 2 billion kina (A$890 million) budget shortfall and national debt could surpass 40% of GDP by the end of the year. Meanwhile the country’s growth is forecast to decline to -0.2% this year.

This, as well as the state of emergency provisions, will affect the nation’s 8.6 million people, of whom about 40% already live below the poverty line.

Port Moresby, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)

Local PNG economist, Busa Jeremiah Wenogo, has long advocated the development of small and medium enterprises and the informal economy in PNG to boost sustainable livelihoods. But he has warned that social distancing and banning of gatherings places “almost 80 percent of our nation’s workforce in the informal economy in a dire situation”.

Likewise, in a recent interview Paul Barker from PNG’s Institute of National Affairs identified the vulnerability of those with greater dependence upon cash crops for their livelihoods. “[People] living in areas of higher population density, including on oil palm settlement schemes [have] little, if any, land set aside for food production,” Barker told me.

In rural communities, where more than 80% of people reside, subsistence agriculture on customary-owned land remains the bedrock of household self-sufficiency and this will go a long way to maintaining rural food security. The country’s customary or traditional governance also plays an important role in local-level resilience. In times of great need, many families and communities instinctively turn to their head of clan or village chief for direction and support, rather than politicians. It’s likely such coping strategies will come to the fore during the weeks and months ahead.

However, in more crowded urban centres, where people don’t have the same access to land or social support structures, loss of incomes and poor food security could lead to a rise in crime.

Nothing incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption.

Large-scale violence or conflict is a different scenario. In PNG’s post-Independence history, apart from tribal warfare, this has been mostly connected with local grievances about the nature of foreign involvement in the economy. The most obvious and deadly example was the Bougainville civil war (1989-1998), triggered by anger over environmental damage and inequity associated with the then foreign-owned Panguna copper mine. More recently, landowner grievances about the Exxon Mobil co-venture, PNG LNG, and the Barrick Gold majority-owned Porgera gold mine in the highlands have resulted in violent skirmishes.

Having witnessed decades of under-development alongside massive resource projects, there is nothing that incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption. A special grevience is the idea of foreign companies taking the land’s wealth and at the same time leaving them poorer. For most citizens, there is a difference between suffering and hardship which has a comprehensible cause and that which is the result of social injustice.

Despite Covid-19 placing an enormous strain on our Pacific neighbour, Barker’s assessment appears sound, that “there should be no reason for chaos or PNG turning into a failed state, although many of its institutions can long be deemed as failing, or severely deficient.”

And though it is too early to judge, further political strength may come from Prime Minister James Marape, who came to power last year. Maraphe has adopted a more assertive stance with foreign investors in resource projects, claiming to better represent his nation’s interests. The emergence of Covid-19 coincided with Marape’s attempt to end Barrick Gold’s involvement in the Porgera mine and amend the terms of the proposed P’nyang gas extension project agreement with Exxon Mobil. Despite the courts ordering the government back to negotiations with Barrick Gold, Marape’s approach is what locals have demanded for a long time. The security and “trust” environment for foreign investors won’t improve unless Papua New Guineans see better returns.

PNG is still ranked a nation of “low human development”: life expectancy is 64 years, barely a quarter of the population have access to reliably mains electricity, and just over half of people in urban areas have improved sanitation (in rural areas, this the rate is less than 15%).

So the pandemic, if anything, highlights the urgency of maintaining a focus on diversifying the nation’s economy to better ride global events and uncertain world markets. Diversification became a core part of the government’s budget policy two years ago. Before the coronavirus outbreak, public expenditure was tuned to stimulating agriculture and the private sector, alongside investment in infrastructure and services, such as roads, power, and digital connectivity.

The government is making cautious moves to lift some of the internal lockdown restrictions. This will lead to improved conditions for the local economy. But it will be important, in carrying the country through this crisis and preserving stability, to not lose sight at the national level of the long-term needs, such as rigorous fiscal management, and more diversified and resilient employment for millions of Papua New Guineans.


Covid-19 is not the biggest threat to UN peacekeeping

UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
Published 18 May 2020 17:00   0 Comments

Last year, the UN estimated that 168 million people depended on humanitarian relief as a result of conflict, violence, and disasters, and peacekeepers were deployed to 13 countries to help conflict-affected societies navigate the often-bumpy road from violence towards peace. Covid-19 has already exacerbated global humanitarian needs, and will have particularly dire consequences in displaced populations and refugee camps, and in conflict and post-conflict zones, where health systems and essential services are weak, if they exist at all.

Moreover, the pandemic may lead to the escalation of violent conflict: although Covid-19 has pushed some armed groups towards ceasefires, in other places violence has intensified, or threatens to, as the pandemic draws the world’s attention. This trend is likely to continue as countries turn inward to deal with the virus’ effects on their own populations and economies. Thus, at a time when there may be fewer resources for peacekeeping, it may be in greatest demand.

However, while Covid-19 will amplify existing challenges to peacekeeping effectiveness and global perceptions of legitimacy, it is not the biggest threat to the future of peacekeeping. At the heart of these challenges lies the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers.

That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

This year, data released by the UN showed that allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in 2019 were 43% higher than in 2018. This is not particularly surprising: every year or so, allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers ricochet around global media, shocking international audiences and leading to heartfelt statements about how such abuses will not be tolerated.

And yet, the abuses continue.

Why? At the core of the answer is the fact that the effects of sexual exploitation and abuse on peacekeeping outcomes are poorly understood and highly underestimated, as my recent book illustrated, drawing on interviews with diplomats, policymakers, peacekeepers, and others associated with peace operations. This has meant that many officials and personnel treat such misconduct as a relatively minor code of conduct issue, rather than one that strikes at the heart of peacekeeping effectiveness. Policy responses have been hamstrung and under-resourced as a result.

Research has shown how sexual exploitation affects the perceived impartiality of peace operations and contributes to the long-term entrenchment of transactional sex economies. My research, based on extensive fieldwork in Bosnia and Timor-Leste, has further documented how sexual misconduct by international interveners undermines the outcomes of individual peace operations on multiple levels.

The central goals of UN peacekeeping are five-fold: to protect civilians from armed conflict; to prevent conflicts in order to reduce human suffering and build stable and prosperous societies; to strengthen rule of law and security institutions; to protect and promote human rights; and to empower women to participate in peace processes. Sexual exploitation and abuse critically undermines each of these goals.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the Security Council on Women and peace and security, 29 October 2019 (Ryan Brown/UN Women/Flickr)

On the individual and community level, it compounds human rights abuses and poverty experienced by already vulnerable communities, sometimes resulting in victims (and children born of abuse) being thrown out of families and communities as a result of the stigma associated with sexual violence or exploitation. It contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections, puts women and children involved at risk of further abuses by police if they report their experiences, and often traps victims in cycles of abuse. It also leads to communities being less willing to “allow” women to work with international organisations and missions, for fear that they will be exploited in exchange for their jobs.

On the structural level, sexual misconduct by peacekeepers normalises sexually exploitative and abusive behaviours in post-conflict societies and institutionalises impunity for such behaviours in host-state security sectors, which peacekeepers train and mentor. It also does so among peacekeepers themselves, who export these behaviours (and impunity for them) into subsequent deployments. And it creates economies of sexual exploitation that long outlast the presence of peacekeepers, as business models adapt towards, for instance, sex trafficking and sex tourism, after peacekeepers leave.

And on the operational level, it undermines peacekeeping outcomes by diverting resources available for vital human rights and gender work towards sexual exploitation and abuse responses, seeding mistrust of interveners amongst local communities (the trust of local communities is a critical factor in peacekeeping effectiveness), and diminishing the confidence interveners themselves have in their organisation and in the international peacekeeping project. People I interviewed also recounted stories of how sexual exploitation and abuse by particular contingents within a peace operation made peacekeepers the targets of violence by local actors, and led to outright conflict with other contingents, as was the case when Australian and Jordanian peacekeepers came to blows in Timor-Leste.

These outcomes clearly undermine UN mandates around human rights, rule of law, and civilian protection, which peacekeeping doctrine holds as foundational to the establishment of lasting peace.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (left) at a rehabilitation centre for victims of sexual violence and torture in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo, 24 January 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)

Perhaps most critically, when peacekeepers perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, they contribute to a deepening of the legitimacy crisis currently facing UN peacekeeping, and the UN more broadly. The UN relies on the commitment of its staff, member states, and the general public internationally to continue its work, and yet unchecked patterns of sexual misconduct lead to staff attrition, decreased funding, mistrust between member states, and they bolster those who seek to limit their country’s participation in peacekeeping.

A great challenge facing the UN in this regard is its structure: while the Secretariat has devoted significant resources to strengthening policy and accountability mechanisms, the actual responsibility for investigating and punishing misconduct by uniformed personnel falls to member states, some of whom are less willing or able to do so than others. Moreover, with ever-increasing pressure on the UN peacekeeping budget, mission leadership is forced to make difficult choices about how to distribute resources between what are considered “core security functions” and work that address issues of gender and sexual exploitation and abuse. That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

At a time when the UN’s work is more vital than ever, and when resourcing that work will likely be harder than ever, it is critical that threats its capacity and credibility are addressed. This means taking sexual exploitation and abuse seriously as an issue that strikes at the heart of the UN’s effectiveness in peacekeeping, and leveraging political will and resources to prevent misconduct more effectively and hold perpetrators accountable.


The false dichotomy at the heart of Australia’s China debate

Reception celebrating Australia-China ties at the Australian Ambassador’s residence, Beijing, 1 August 2019 (DFAT/Flickr)
Reception celebrating Australia-China ties at the Australian Ambassador’s residence, Beijing, 1 August 2019 (DFAT/Flickr)
Published 18 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

A new narrative, advanced by the “wolverines” and like-minded commentators, is emerging and solidifying within Australia’s China “debate”. This narrative casts disliked Chinese policies as attacks on Australian sovereignty, and thus any problem in the bilateral relationship is instantly elevated in significance. If making concessions compromises Australian sovereignty, then only one policy – standing firm – is ever viable. Some argue that the only way to preserve Australian sovereignty in the longer term is to reduce trade dependence on China: maintain sovereignty and anger China, or take their money and “surrender”.

The primary problem with this narrative is its misconception of sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a nation-state to govern itself and control the use of force within its borders. There is no doubt China attempts influence operations within Australia which, if successful, would undermine Australian sovereignty. Australia has – rightfully – responded forcefully to these efforts, though legislation targeting foreign interference, and Canberra should maintain these efforts in a low-key but dogged manner.

But it would be a grave mistake to regard every Chinese action which displeases Canberra – such as the current trade dispute – as an attack on Australian sovereignty. China has the ability to impose significant economic costs on Australia and will likely do so in response to Canberra’s decision to be the first state to call for an international inquiry into Covid-19. This is economic coercion, but it is not an attack on sovereignty. Australia still retains full agency in this matter: it could choose to double down on its advocacy, to hold the course, or to back down. Canberra can analyse each option and make its own decision. Any resulting unpleasant consequences are part of the rough-and-tumble of power politics on the global stage – not an attack on sovereignty.

If the wolverine narrative is embraced wholesale, then Australia will assess every Chinese action as an attack on sovereignty. It will discount or swiftly reject alternate explanations for Chinese behaviour.

This point is important, because narratives have immense power to influence decisions in ways that are often obvious only in retrospect. The “domino theory” made it difficult for US presidents to exercise restraint in Southeast Asia, because even small crises were thought to risk the fate of the entire region. The Vietnam War, and the immense human misery associated with it, was one result of this narrative. After 9/11, President Bush was convinced that the US was attacked because of its values rather than because of its policies in the Middle East.  When asked if Osama bin Laden had political goals, Bush replied that bin Laden “has got evil goals”. This “terror narrative” made subsequent mistakes, such as the 2003 Iraq War, more likely. Uncritical acceptance of flawed narratives can lead to foreign policy disasters.

If the wolverine narrative is embraced wholesale, then Australia will assess every Chinese action as an attack on sovereignty. It will discount or swiftly reject alternate explanations for Chinese behaviour. It will downplay, or refuse to accept, the prospect that Chinese decisions may be responses to its own actions, or those of its allies. (One Australian commentator recently observed that “China’s inflexible position is that all problems in the bilateral relationship are Australia’s fault” – although Australia tends to maintain the exact obverse position).

Any Australian challenging this narrative, or with business ties to China, will have their patriotism questioned and their honour impugned. In the end, Australia will come to regard China’s annoyance as smoking-gun proof that Australian policies are values-driven and thus do not require adjustment. This is a prescription for ever-deepening confrontation with Beijing, all while the leaders of Australia’s main ally lurch from one conspiracy theory to the next.

Worryingly, there are hints that Australia is starting to adopt the wolverine narrative. Prime Minister Morrison has asserted , “We are standing our ground on our values … And these are not things to be traded”. Such phrases suggest there are only two options: either (a) a truly Australian policy, to be the international community’s “first-mover” on a Covid-19 inquiry, or (b) an “un-Australian” policy of doing nothing. This is a false dilemma: a better policy would have been (c) to encourage Europe to take the lead, with Australia offering them support, rather than the other way around. This would likely have resulted in the same outcome, but without the same opportunity for self-congratulations, celebrating the defeat of China’s effort to “bully Australia into submission”.

Accordingly, it seems that Australia’s policy was motivated primarily by a desire to reassure decision-makers about Australia’s national character, rather than to secure an international inquiry while also protecting other interests. If the EU were likely to secure an inquiry even without Australia’s first-mover policy, then what has Australia actually achieved, other than risking economic pain? Every job lost and family hardship endured because of any subsequent economic coercion was entirely foreseeable and probably avoidable.

Whoever devised Australia’s first-mover policy is unknown, as are what deliberations occurred before the policy was announced. But it was an obviously foolish decision and an unforced error, resulting in unnecessary risk to Australia’s economic interests. It would be immature to celebrate it as a success simply because it angered Beijing. Australia needs to decide how many such “victories” it can afford, and whether the “wolverine” narrative is a force for wisdom or folly. 


Constitutional questions over Solomon Islands’ coronavirus crackdown

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 18 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

On 25 March, following a government decision, the Solomon Islands Governor General Sir David Vunagi, declared a state of public emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Solomon Islands remains one of a few countries worldwide that is still without a reported case of the novel coronavirus. The Emergency Powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 authorised Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare to make orders to protect the country from the pandemic and to prevent the spread of virus if there were cases. A travel ban was imposed, stopping international flights (except cargo flights), and schools closed. The maritime border with Papua New Guinea between Shortland and Bougainville was also shutdown.

The government’s decision to invoke a state of emergency was widely accepted as necessary in order to protect the country from Covid-19. On the face of it, the decision was also in line with the constitution.

But there is now an urgent need to examine whether the government has politicised the state of emergency, and whether its behaviour really is constitutional after all.

The regulations give the PM the power to make orders to restrict the movement of people, vessels and aircrafts, restrict assembly, suspend the media and declare a public place as emergency zone. These restrictions could infringe people’s fundamental rights, such as the right to movement, free association and freedom of expression as provided for by the constitution.

The current government’s position is that the Covid-19 Regulations restrict the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, such restriction is not absolute. As stated under section 16(7) of the constitution:

Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of the [fundamental rights provisions under the constitution] to the extent that the law in question makes in relation to any period of public emergency provision, or authorises the doing during any such period of any thing, that is reasonably justifiable in circumstances of any situation arising or existing during the period for the purpose of dealing with that situation.

The High Court of Solomon Islands in Douglas v Attorney General [1999] SBHC 147 explained section 16(7) as follows: “If anything contained in or done under the authority of any law, enacted pursuant to the state of public emergency, is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in the circumstances etc., it may be deemed unconstitutional and invalid.”

The key point is the idea that restrictions on fundamental rights must be “reasonably justifiable … for the purpose of dealing with that situation”.

Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

The question therefore must be “what is reasonably justifiable” for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – which is the situation for which the state of public emergency was invoked. Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

An example is questions about logging production around the country and phosphate mining in Rennell, which has continued, including with overseas shipments, despite the declaration to keep borders closed. The Bulk Carrier Vessel MV Worship Light was cleared by customs to offload cargo near Honiara despite earlier allegedly violating “international and domestic maritime regulations”. The Western Province Premier, David Lani Gina also questioned why another container ship was allowed to dock at Noro without undergoing a 14-day quarantine as required by the Covid-19 regulations. These are instances of not applying the regulations with potential to undermine the purpose of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Other cases have also raised questions about what could be “reasonably justified” as related to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Claude Posala, a senior medical officer who was outspoken on health issues, lost his job on 6 April for having allegedly breached regulation 26 because his social media posts were purportedly “inflammatory against the government”.

More recently, the national government threatened to suspend the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) because the province’s Premier, Daniel Suidani was allegedly making statements against the government’s efforts to fight against Covid-19. This included cautioning the government about obtaining Covid-19 equipment from China. Suidani had earlier drawn the ire of the national government for opposing the diplomatic switch to China last year, yet he has described the latest threats as unsubstantiated and based on misinterpretations of the law.

After the opposition leader Matthew Wale cautioned the government not to suspend the MPG “at a time when unity is needed”, the government responded claiming that Wale’s statement was intended to “create disharmony” and “provoke animosity against the government during [the] state of emergency period.” The government said Wale “would be referred to the police for breaching Covid-19 emergency measures”.

Such instances suggest the government has politicised the state of emergency, using the powers to marginalise anyone questioning its decisions, while also being selective in its application and enforcement of the regulations. The Covid-19 regulations, on their face, are constitutionally sound, and may allow for orders that may restrict fundamental rights. Yet the application and enforcement still has to be constitutional, which in this case means applying the law in a manner reasonably justifiable for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.


Covid-19 exposes the need for a European constitution

European Parliament in Brussels (Getty Images)
European Parliament in Brussels (Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As Europe begins to emerge from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis seems to be looming.

The German Constitutional Court last week threatened to block the Bundesbank from taking part in the EU stimulus program to save the Euro, in a challenge to European unity.

The reaction echoes the latest clash among EU leaders over how to rescue their countries from the economic fallout of the pandemic. After the Virtual Summit, French President Macron admitted that “Europe has no future if we cannot find a response to this exceptional shock”. 

Similarly, in the latest episode of the Lowy Institute’s podcast The Director's Chair, when asked about the consequences of Covid-19 on the European project, former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said:

If we don’t have a European comprehensive response, if we leave only to the countries to respond, the divide will be larger, and Euroscepticism and the mutual lack of trust among countries will rise, and that is bad news for the future of the European Union.

The coronavirus crisis indeed calls into question the very essence of the EU, bringing to light its dysfunctions and fragility. But the situation also offers Brussels an opportunity to reshape its administration, which is often viewed as weak, slow, and outdated. The EU has a chance to emerge from the crisis stronger than before – unless Covid-19 succeeds in dismantling it once and for all.

This is not the first crisis the Union has faced. Today’s EU is marked by the obstacles and failings of its past ­– the Iraq War in 2003, negative French and Dutch referendums in 2005 on the adoption of an EU constitution, the sovereign debt crisis in 2009, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the 2015 migration crisis.

Each of those developments exposed new differences and fractures between member states.

The current distribution of powers within the EU doesn’t work and widens the gap between the basic political objectives of the Union and its capacity and willingness to act.

To survive, the Union had to make concessions on the European project. Some countries contribute less to the European budgetary effort, while others have decided to carve out a “tailor-made” Europe, without a defence policy, the Euro, or the Schengen area.

This is how, over the years, the EU has gradually given up its spirit of “wanting to live together”.

This time around, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the European house is on the verge of collapse.

The initial attempts of member states and European authorities to handle Covid-19 did not excel. Quite the opposite. All reacted late, in disorderly fashion.

The height of  the dysfunction was reached when Germany and France both limited the export of essential medical products to Italy, considered at the time the epicentre of the pandemic.

Since then, the situation has improved, but not markedly. The European Central Bank launched its program to buy national public and private debt up to €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion), and has highlighted its willingness to do more to avoid a possible financial fragmentation in the eurozone. On the plus side, the European Commission has suspended the application of budgetary rules, set up a medical stockpile, taken measures to aid medical research, and authorised states to help their businesses.

Unfortunately, all came a little too late. It is not those measures that will remain in the collective memory of Italians, but rather the images of planes landing from China, Cuba, and Russia, carrying masks, ventilators, and doctors.

Solidarity is the heart of the European project. It’s the glue that holds European nations together. Whether it is economic, legal, or military, this solidarity offers Europeans the ability to be part of a larger whole, which has enabled the European market to grow and prosper.

Shipment of 10 million protective face masks from China arrives at Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany, 27 April (NATO/Flickr)

Today, European solidarity is being eroded by its members’ domestic interests, while national leaders blame European authorities for their lack of response and effectiveness.

The problem is structural. The current distribution of powers within the EU doesn’t work and widens the gap between the basic political objectives of the Union and its capacity and willingness to act.

It is time to rethink Europe’s institutional anatomy and establish a real constitution.

The mandates of European institutions need to be broadened and strengthened. The Commission must transform into a type of European government, and parliament should assume full legislative and budgetary power.

Similarly, the Union must exercise what can only be done by a few: defence, security, currency, and crisis management – and leave to member states what they can do on their own.

In a sense, the new constitution would transform the European Union into a federation.

Instruments of direct democracy and popular initiatives must also be encouraged to provide for a direct link of legitimacy between citizens and their elected representatives. By doing so, national governments and political elites would no longer hold on to their gatekeeper role. 

Not all European nations will adhere to it, but the project must be proposed to the European people on the basis of strengthening democracy.

If such a body had existed already, it would have been able to distribute stocks of masks, tests, and doctors where and when they were most needed. And it would have been European flags flying on the tarmac at Fiumicino airport in Rome, not Chinese ones.

The immediate consequences of holding a constitutional debate should not be a cause for anxiety. There will certainly be disagreements and deep divisions between member states. These are hardly new, and the process would only make them clearer to all, which is a good start.


In an Olympic-sized challenge, Japan’s golden chance could go begging

A games, without crowds? (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
A games, without crowds? (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 11:30   0 Comments

There have been plenty of Japanese officials weighing in on Tokyo’s Olympic rescheduling plans over the last few months. At times, it’s been hard to know who to focus on, especially when trying to follow the whole affair from Australia.

From the ageing Tokyo 2020 President Mori Yoshiro to former athlete turned Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto Haguida Koichi (the current Minister for Education, Culture and Sport) to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo himself – Japan’s hungry news media has understandably been asking anyone and everyone for comment.

While the Olympics press conferences in this most ordered of Asian nations were uncharacteristically haphazard at the start of this planned Olympic year, things have now slowly settled into a rhythm. It seems those responsible have also agreed on a party line too: if the Olympics can’t be done properly next year, they should be cancelled altogether.

Imagine a 2021 event where some of the competing nations were still in lockdown, while others were basically back to normal. The already uneven playing field of world sport would be even bumpier.

The cancellation position has firmed up in Japanese officialdom. First off the blocks was Tokyo 2020 President Mori, a former prime minister himself, saying that a postponement of the Games into 2022 would be impossible. If a further delay was required for public health reasons the Olympics would just be scrapped, he said.

Taking up the baton, Abe reiterated in parliament that the Games had to be held in a “complete form” for both athletes and spectators. He added that the coronavirus pandemic needed to be “contained” before that would be possible. Hashimoto, a former speed skater and track cyclist, ran the anchor leg, saying the Games’ viability did not depend on whether a Covid-19 vaccine was found in time.

Abe’s all or nothing approach makes sense if you look at it from a sporting perspective. Imagine a 2021 event where some of the competing nations were still in lockdown, while others were basically back to normal. The already uneven playing field of world sport would be even bumpier. At random times during the lead up, some athletes would be unable to prepare properly for events where tiny performance advantages can be the difference between winning gold or missing the final.

And what would it mean for the Olympic spectacle if fans were not allowed into the events, for health reasons? Try to imagine Brazil’s dramatic home win on penalties in the Rio 2016 men’s football final without a crowd. Would Neymar have sunk to the ground in tears in front of no-one? In fact, trying to picture any Olympic final without a crowd is just bizarre. All that passion released when an athlete trains for years and years and then succeeds, just screamed out to empty seats.

A full cancellation of the Games would be a gutsy decision though. Only three times have the Summer Olympics been called off completely, and on each occasion it was due to a World War. It would be sad for local supporters and for the athletes themselves, but most importantly perhaps, it would be a shame for Japan.

Before social distancing: the 2016 men’s football final, Rio 2016 (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Quite aside from the huge expense that Japan has incurred so far, the event has incredible potential for the country to rebuild a few damaged relationships across the region. Japan has had recent trade disagreements with South Korea and the two countries have reportedly not bothered to talk on coronavirus measures. North Korea, meanwhile, remains a disliked neighbour after firing missiles into Japanese fishing areas. The country's relationship with China has been strained for years. Due to the coronavirus China’s President Xi Jinping had to cancel an overdue trip to Japan in April, but he could foreseeably reschedule that to coincide with an Olympics next year.

Those that dismiss sport as a blunt diplomatic tool should think back to the Winter Olympics in 2018, where South and North Korea showed rare glimpses of camaraderie. During the Games Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Just months later Moon and Kim shook hands at the DMZ in an historic meeting. While relations between the two sides have definitely cooled since, the heady unity of the PyeongChang Games at least created the right conditions for talks to start.

It’s amazing what sort of opportunities, both political and sporting, an Olympics can toss up. All of these would be missed if the Olympics were scrapped completely next year. That’s why it’s so regrettable that a cancellation is being mooted at the moment by Japan’s top Olympic officials ­– even if some scientists are already saying it would be the right move.


COVIDcast Episode 11: Dave Sharma MP on COVID-19 and Pacific relations

Published 15 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In Episode 11 of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program, sat down with Dave Sharma, Liberal member for the federal seat of Wentworth, to discuss strengthening ties between Australia and the Pacific, and a potential Australia‒Pacific travel “bubble”. Sharma has a particular interest in the Pacific region, having served as a diplomat in Papua New Guinea, and is co-convener of the recently formed Parliamentary Friends of the Pacific.

Sharma began by outlining his proposal that the “trans-Tasman bubble” – opening trade, commerce and tourism links between Australia and New Zealand – be extended to Pacific nations. Sharma said Covid-19 had been well controlled in the region with a low number of cases, and he focused on the fact that tourism and trade with Australia and New Zealand was an “economic lifeline” for Pacific neighbours. He noted the heavy toll the virus had taken on the economies of the region, citing Fiji as an example:

About 40% of its GDP comes from tourism and that’s basically gone to zero through this crisis. In Australia we’re looking at an economic contraction of somewhere in the high single figures, but Fiji is looking at the 20‒30% range.

On the question of the global impact of the virus, Sharma said, “It’s much more feasible to see these sorts of normal commerce, trade and tourism links re-establishing themselves between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific than it is with other parts of the world”, although he cautioned that a Pacific travel bubble would not be in place before the end of 2020. He also noted that relaxing travel restrictions would happen sequentially: “Domestic travel first, Australia and New Zealand travel next, and then more broadly into the Pacific.”

Pryke raised debate about Australia’s migration program and how proposed changes might affect Pacific nations. Sharma highlighted the importance of the Pacific Labour Mobility Schemes, describing it as a “win‒win” for the countries involved, in sharing skills, facilitating remittances, and addressing a shortage of workers in certain sectors.

Pryke and Sharma also discussed what might be next for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, what else Australia is and should be doing to respond to Covid-19 in the Pacific, and how Australia’s ties with the region can be further strengthened.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Covid contest in Indian Ocean region: India, China jostle for top spot

Nathu La border crossing between India and China (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)
Nathu La border crossing between India and China (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

In recent times, Australia has been searching for ways to support its Pacific “family” through the Covid-19 crisis with an eye on China’s moves. India has also been trying to help countries in the Indian Ocean region amid China’s growing influence. Responses to the corona crisis have so far largely focused medical aid. But it will soon shift to financial assistance, where India will be at a big disadvantage to Beijing.

Initial responses to Covid-19 in the Indian Ocean region by China and India have been largely symbolic. As in other parts of the world, through much of April, China focused on so-called “face-mask” diplomacy to bolster its image. China donated relatively small amounts of testing kits and protective clothing to several countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives. China also made commercial sales of much larger quantities of supplies, some of which were of questionable quality.

India has responded in its own way, keen to position itself as the “net security provider” in a regional crisis. India sent supplies of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) tablets to South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan and island states such as Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles. This week, an Indian naval ship departed for Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros, carrying medical teams and supplies of HCQ tablets and Ayurvedic medicines – both touted by Indian authorities as remedies for Covid-19.

India’s efforts have sometimes rubbed against regional sensitivities. Reports that Indian Army medical teams were being readied for deployment to other countries in South Asia provoked sharp responses from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan to the effect that Indian troops were not required.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a video conference of SAARC leaders on combating Covid-19 in March (MEAphotogallery/Flickr)

These early soft power moves by Beijing and Delhi may have been appreciated in some cases and not in others, but their effect was probably also fairly transitory. But the important story is how China and India address the impact of coronavirus on the region in coming months and years, and how each builds a narrative.

The Indian Ocean region has been a major focus of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the fallout from Covid-19 has the potential to severely damage it, or at least considerably alter it. A major economic downturn, including a downturn in global trade, will likely significantly reduce the need for new infrastructure as well as the feasibility of recently-built infrastructure. Many planned projects will likely be put in the deep freeze and in some cases, regional states may find it increasingly difficult to service debt loads on existing BRI projects.

Almost inevitably this will put a dent in China’s BRI, even assuming that it is willing to continue with the level of funding that it made available in pre-Covid days. In many cases, Beijing will need to decide whether to provide new loans, reschedule existing loans or foreclose on debts (which could controversially include taking control of infrastructure).

China has already “indicated some willingness” in principle to provide debt relief to low income countries, but it remains to be seen how much relief it would be willing to give – and whether it would seek strategic quid pro quos from borrowers. Widespread debt relief would also likely reduce the willingness and ability of Chinese lenders to back further ventures.

Relief supplies have been the focus of China’s so-called “face-mask” diplomacy in a bid to bolster its image (US Air Force)

Despite significant disruptions to many projects, Pakistan, China’s principal strategic partner in the region, is pressing ahead with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). If anything, Pakistan is likely to double down on CPEC, reflecting how much successive governments have staked on it as the country’s saviour. At the same time, Pakistan has already asked China for debt rescheduling on US$30 billion in projects, which it is likely to obtain given the political importance of CPEC to Beijing.

Elsewhere in South Asia, China has made a $500 million loan on concessional terms to Sri Lanka, another regional partner. According to some reports, China has offered similar loans to Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. Bangladesh has also requested debt rescheduling or interest rate cuts on loans on several BRI projects.

India may have an ever greater imperative than China to fashion a strategy of regional financial assistance in response to the crisis.

Mishandling necessary debt re-negotiations could further dent China’s soft power in the region. But deft diplomacy – and a willingness to write off large amounts of money – could reinforce a positive image for Beijing. Indeed, stringent economic circumstances in future could improve the BRI by forcing lenders and borrowers to give greater focus to economic sustainability and value of new projects.

India may have an ever greater imperative than China to fashion a strategy of regional financial assistance in response to the crisis. India has reportedly offered a US$400 million currency swap to Sri Lanka to help liquidity and has released (a previously agreed) $150 million in currency swaps to Maldives. But its lack of economic resources means that it will find it hard to compete with China across the broader region.

As has been the case before, New Delhi may instead be forced to rely on Japan as a source of funds to balance China’s influence in the region. This may include bilateral loans such as a US$1 billion loan from Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to Bangladesh or financing through the Japan-led multilateral lender, Asian Development Bank, which has tripled its Covid-19 facility to US$20 billion.

The corona crisis in the Indian Ocean region will probably soon move beyond masks and remedies to money. India may find that claiming the mantle of net security provider to the region can be an expensive business.


To act, or not? Al-Shabaab’s response to a Covid-19 crisis in Somalia

A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, regional security agencies have flagged the potential for a new wave of violent extremism to emerge within Somalia. World Health Organisation figures show that Somalia has had more than 1200 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 50 deaths. However, the actual number of cases is likely far higher due to limited testing capacity and lack of skilled health workers.

The pandemic has presented the opportunity for groups to ramp up both rhetorical and physical attacks while governments are feeling particularly weak and distracted by the virus, with the dual objectives of furthering their own respective ambitions and expanding their support base. How, and with what effect, al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most well-known violent extremist group, will operate under these new conditions is yet to be fully realised. However, there are a number of potential trajectories that may emerge.

Exploiting conditions and strengthening networks

Within Somalia itself, the current conditions would be easy for insurgent groups to exploit. Tensions have been running high in the capital after the recent police killings of two citizens while enforcing Covid-19 restrictions on 24 April, culminated in widespread protests over the apparent impunity of the government security forces. And the timing could not be worse, as the frustration over price hikes in food prices in the lead up to Ramadan fans civil unrest. While escalating food costs around the Holy month of Ramadan is not unique, the pressures of the Covid-19 lockdowns mean that the price spikes are higher at a time when the income for many is drastically reduced.

What benefit does this civic unrest have for al-Shabaab? The political turmoil could be harnessed to radicalise and recruit new members, to promote a view that the government of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has mishandled the Covid-19 crisis, and to present themselves as an alternative.

The Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for al-Shabaab to tighten it grip and expand its control over regions.

So far, the group appears to have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to escalate operations, with a number of attacks reported throughout the month of April. They likely will also capitalise upon existing resentment toward the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The continuing lockdown and price escalations coupled with the reduced earning capacity may push more people to turn to informal networks. In times of crisis, research has indicated that networks have proven invaluable lifelines for everything from ensuring survival, and a means of income to a sense of normalcy. Covid-19 could also see al-Shabaab grow its support network through the provision of much needed services. Extensive informal networks already exist within Somalia, and the prolonged lockdown risk growing these networks further. These networks operate without state regulation or state control and could be readily exploited by al-Shabaab. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for the group to tighten its grip and expand its control over regions.

Aid work is continuing in Somalia to assist in tacking Covid-19 (Trócaire/Flickr)

Targeted messaging

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a “global ceasefire” as the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic. While this has seen some modest success (for example, the Saudi coalition’s unilateral ceasefire in Yemen), it seems unlikely this will resonate with non-state jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab. The Islamic State has already encouraged its supporters to attack Western targets while they are weakened and distracted by the pandemic.

Al-Shabaab has also taken the opportunity to bring Covid-19 into their broader anti-Western narrative, blaming the spread of the virus on “the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”. As the pandemic continues, it is yet to be seen whether al-Shabaab will follow the example set by al-Qaeda, with whom they have been affiliated since 2009, which has focused on providing health guidance and condemning the immorality they argue caused the pandemic, rather than actually encouraging violence as Islamic State has done.

The cost of doing nothing?

However, there may be other reasons for al-Shabaab to remain away from the spotlight during the crisis. Violent overtures during this time might be poorly received, and rather than encouraging recruitment, may in fact result alienate the public. Indeed, this very scenario occurred in previous crises in the Horn of Africa. The group has previously caused more harm than good to its reputation during crises, such as during the 2011 famine when it denied there was a famine and banned aid workers from entering Shabaab-controlled territory, turning many of their former supporters against them, and it is yet to be seen if the group has learned from past mistakes.

Alternatively, the group might not have the resources to continue a widespread campaign in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The group’s extensive networks of taxation – a network that allegedly extends into the diaspora ­– may be feeling the pinch under market contractions both within Somalia and abroad. This may lead the group to press pause on their campaign of terror for the foreseeable future.

Al-Shabaab has a number strategic choices that could all likely serve the group well, be it using the pandemic to reiterate the failings of the current government, or extend and strengthen existing informal networks, or promote their messaging. Even if the group choose not to act, there is still the possibility of benefit. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab have proven themselves past masters of exploiting political turmoil, and the current crisis provides the group with another opportunity.


Muddled messages as Britain seeks to stay alert

The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage (Number 10/Flickr)
The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage (Number 10/Flickr)
Published 14 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

After the seven weeks of lockdown, which had managed to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the British people on the evening of Sunday 10 May to explain the next steps. Restrictions were to be eased, but moves would be tentative and contingent, checking for new outbreaks at each stage, with a possible return to more stringent measures if the virus took advantage of the relaxed rules.

The three biggest constraints resulting from the lockdown were to be eased: the limits on outdoor pursuits including regular exercise; not being able to get to work if you were unable to do your job from home; and school closures preventing parents leaving for work even if they wanted to. Thus “Stay at Home”, the previous headline advice, was qualified. The new slogan was “Stay Alert”, a very different sort of instruction.

This was not the first time the government was accused of poor communications during the crisis.

As an exercise in communication this was not a great success. A lengthy document to help explain the new guidance and provide the scientific background was not published until the next afternoon. It was only then followed by a parliamentary session and a press conference when many of the issues raised could be explored. By this time confusion reigned and the government was accused of “muddled messages” that could be dangerous in their consequences.

The largest issue was whether this was simply too early for any easing. Covid-19 was well down but certainly not out. But the source of the confusion was guidance for different sets of circumstances that kept on throwing up anomalies. Employers had to ensure social distancing at work but what was an individual desperate for the money to do if they had failed to do so? If they could not cycle or walk to work dare they use public transport? You could meet up with one person you knew outside your household in a local park, but what would happen if you came across two members of your family by chance? If no visitors were allowed, including grandchildren, why could you bring in a cleaner?

Boris Johnson was hardly a unifying figure after years of political polarisation and arguments about Brexit (Number 10/Flickr)

This was not the first time the government was accused of poor communications during the crisis. The weeks leading up to lockdown were notable for inconsistencies and sudden changes of gear, as it dawned on the government that they risked failing to grip the situation. There was talk of “herd immunity”, an important topic but not helpful as an apparent rationalisation for doing very little. The lockdown came as a result of a combination of new epidemiological advice that highlighted the virus’ speed of advance and public anxiety that while other countries moved to shut schools and ban large events the government was dithering.

Johnson was reluctant to shutdown society and the economy. His strengths as a communicator lie in his optimistic outlook and not as a purveyor of sombre news. As his government advised not shaking hands he admitted he had just done just that when visiting a hospital. He was hardly a unifying figure after years of political polarisation and arguments about Brexit. Yet once the uncertainty was over, the seriousness of the situation acknowledged, with few dissenters, and new measures were in place, the government found itself backed and trusted. The level of compliance with the lockdown measures was extremely high. In that respect the messaging worked well. For some weeks, Johnson, for a while with the Health Secretary, was hors de combat with Covid-19. The moment when he was rushed into intensive care was alarming. His personal appreciation of the support he’d been given in hospital, gained sympathy and also encouraged a more emollient and consensual tone.

The support continued despite a growing awareness that the UK was having one of the worst experiences in Europe, certainly when measured by deaths. There were a number of reasons for this. London as a global hub and the largest city in Europe was one factor. Delay in introducing stringent measures was another. There were problems, not unique to the UK, in getting adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff.

Yet something else was going on which was only belatedly appreciated. Having watched what had happened in Italy the government’s top priority was to ensure that the National Health Service was not overwhelmed by desperate patients needing intensive care. The special place the NHS occupies in British life made this a popular choice. Every Thursday at 8pm people went out on to the streets to clap for health workers. Extraordinary efforts were made to prepare for incoming cases, even building new hospitals within days.

But this sharp focus had costs. People ill for other reasons failed to seek the support they needed. Most seriously the burden was shifted onto the social care system (sometimes literally as elderly people, possibly still infectious, were moved out of hospital into care homes). Long underfunded, fragmented, and with carers moving within homes and around the wider community, the system struggled to cope. Most European countries had similar problems. Nonetheless the spread of the disease in care homes took a terrible toll of the most vulnerable group.

The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage. With the economy crashing and debt accumulating the UK government is caught (again not uniquely) between a desire to get people back to work and the fear of a second peak. This tension has been reflected in the messaging to the public about next steps. It was possible to go into the lockdown with clarity but it is only possible to get out with uncertainty.


Covid-19 and the acceleration of state surveillance

Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 14 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

If the 15th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today, he would surely have recognised the power of surveillance technologies that states such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and others have adopted in the fight against Covid-19. Patrol robots and drones, CCTV cameras and smartphone applications, all supporting facial recognition, location tracking, and big-data analytics for contact tracing and social control (including law enforcement). These things may be tools for protection, but they are also instruments of fear.

In the effort to persuade people to comply with counter-pandemic measures, fear of state punishment has perhaps played a greater role than fear of the loss of privacy and civil liberties. But people are also fearful of sacrificing privacy and civil liberties as a result of tech-enabled mass surveillance expanding state power.

Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.

The threat of inadequate data protection adds to these fears, even if experts claim that rapid implementation of these technologies is necessary against the smart virus that is the cause of Covid-19. In Australia and Singapore, for example, commentators have suggested that downloading national contact-tracing applications Covidsafe and TraceTogether should be made mandatory.

Civil-rights advocates contend that the use of surveillance technologies should be time-limited and cease when the pandemic is brought under control. There are also concerns that the use of surveillance technologies to fight Covid-19 resembles China’s authoritarianism and thus implicitly enhances its soft power.

Given, however, that these technologies are so new, and the virus and its socioeconomic impact are evolving and expected to linger for years, states have an opportunity to assess how to use these surveillance tools. Here are four strategic considerations:

  • Surveillance technologies are not a silver bullet. They can supplement manual contact tracing. These technologies are effective because manual contact tracing cannot keep up with how quickly the virus spreads through densely populated cities. Like many tools, these technologies are neutral. They can be used responsibly (i.e., for enhanced security) or they can be misused (for monitoring, repression, and control). Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.
  • Nothing is risk-free. Everything is about risk management. Beneath the fear of loss of privacy and civil liberties is a global decline of trust in state institutions and elites. The potential for the state to exploit its power for parochial political gains instead of protecting citizens’ interests looms in the minds of many. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated that people cannot trust the private sector to protect their data from manipulation. There is a need to rethink the notions of trust and risk, instead of perceiving them in binary, zero-sum terms.
  • Increased use of surveillance technologies might make states less democratic and more tolerant of China’s authoritarianism. This concern is more of a geopolitical construct. An overemphasis of the dangers of China's authoritarianism can overlook how other powerful states have disregarded human rights in the use of technology. Ultimately, the decision to adopt new surveillance technologies needs to a strike a difficult balance between legitimate privacy concerns and guarding public health and the economy.
  • Covid-19 highlights challenges that will likely render multilateralism less effective in addressing global crises. Even in the face of common threats to humanity, states are more inclined to put self-interest before the collective good. The war of words between China and the US over the virus’s origins fuels geopolitical distrust and uncertainty, impairing international cooperation and global leadership. More states will be poised to pursue self-reliance to avoid being caught flat-footed in the future.

Such considerations point to a future where tech-enabled state surveillance becomes an unstoppable global trend. Covid-19 may be a turning point that causes states to make tougher choices to better prepare for both man-made and biological threats. Public health unpreparedness has already resulted in severe harm to national interests. Keeping people safe and economies functioning is fundamental for a state’s political legitimacy.

Nonetheless, states must acknowledge that concerns over privacy and civil liberties will continue to characterise the post-pandemic zeitgeist. They therefore need to demonstrate how surveillance protects citizens, not only institutions and elites. They will also have to address the socioeconomic inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.

There will always be those who question official motives. For this, our time-travelling Machiavelli also had some advice: It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both.


Australians doubt either US or China will emerge stronger after Covid

What Australians think about the power of the US and China matters in the region (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
What Australians think about the power of the US and China matters in the region (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
Published 14 May 2020 05:00   0 Comments

While much has been written about Covid-19’s lasting effects on the world order, one aspect is becoming more evident: the world after the pandemic may not look so different to the one before it. As prominent US commentator Richard Haass writes, “Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it”.

There is no clearer test case for the trajectory of power in the Asia-Pacific than the attitude of Australians.

For Australia, this looks both likely and worrying. A new Lowy Institute COVIDpoll released today of public attitudes towards the coronavirus response shows Australians continue to watch the United States’ decline with concern and sadness. Australians are also increasingly wary of China, and anxious about economic entanglement, and the experience of recent days will only elevate this concern. As events unfold, the trade-offs will be sharper, the geopolitics harder to navigate.

It matters what Australians think. Australia is not necessarily a bellwether for US allies in the region. But Australia is the United States’ most dependable ally: it went to Vietnam when the United Kingdom wouldn’t. Australia invaded Iraq and Afghanistan when many NATO allies refused. Australia has also led on questions of Chinese Communist Party interference and Huawei’s participation in 5G networks. And China is Australia’s largest trading partner. There is no clearer test case for the trajectory of power in the Asia-Pacific than the attitude of Australians.

Looking at Chinese state media headlines from 2009, compared to 2020, you might think the world has barely changed over the past decade. The People’s Daily then shouted “US blame game cannot change facts”, “World places great hope on China”, “World economy faces deep recession”. Only in 2009, during the global financial crisis, the source of the recession that crippled the world’s economies was the United States. At the same time, China lauded its own triumph – only seven years after its accession to the World Trade Organisation, many in China were convinced it had learned all it needed to from the West.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the world is again plunged into recession. The United States and China are again engaged in a war of words. This time, the crisis started in China, but it is the United States buckling under its weight. The tragic loss of life in the United States is comparable to a wartime footing: already more American lives have been lost than in the Vietnam or Korean War, and the devastating milestone of the 116,000 fatalities in the First World War looms close.

By contrast, China’s infection rate has flatlined. Australia has too. Two of the countries that survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed (Australia was the only major developed economy to not fall into recession in that period) have made it this far through the Covid-19 pandemic, wounded, but still standing. But in reputational terms, both China and the United States have suffered a serious blow.

In Australia, past Lowy polls have shown only 32 percent trust China to “act responsibly in the world.” But fewer Australians have confidence in Trump than in Xi Jinping. When publics today think of which leaders have failed to contain the spread of COVID-19, does Trump or Xi come to mind? The Lowy COVIDpoll today shows that Australians are disappointed with the responses of both.

Only one in three Australians say that China has handled Covid-19 well. Whether or not China’s official figures are to be believed, there is little chance that the country would have reopened and returned to work if it had not largely contained the virus. So while China has attempted to direct attention to its successes in virus management, and its so-called “face mask diplomacy”, it would appear Australians are unconvinced, and focused on the early mismanagement and cover-up of the crisis.

As much as Australians have soured on China in recent years, the Lowy COVIDpoll shows their greatest condemnation is for the United States. Only 10% of Australians say the United States has handled Covid-19 well so far. By contrast 92% of Australians say their own country has handled Covid-19 well. The reliability of Australia’s ally, the United States, is growing as a question in the minds of many Australians.

Australian views of power in the world have also shifted since 2009. Three-quarters of Australians said in 2009 that China would be more powerful after the global financial crisis. New Lowy Institute polling shows that in 2020, only a third of Australians say China will be more powerful after the Covid-19 pandemic. And more than half the country say the United States will be less powerful than it was before the crisis, a 20-point jump from the global financial crisis. This aligns with public opinion in recent years: Australians have little expectation that President Donald Trump would do the right thing in world affairs, and two thirds say Australia’s alliance with the United States has weakened under Trump’s administration.

The world has changed in many ways since 2009, but Covid-19 is not a turning point. As Australians’ outlook on the world reveals, the challenge of navigating relations with the world’s two superpowers is only sharpening.


Covid-19 and foreign policy: What’s changed, what hasn’t

Published 13 May 2020 14:30   0 Comments

A lot of ink is flowing about the “new normal” that will prevail post-crisis. A brief look at four different international issues offers a glimpse of what this “new normal” in international cooperation might be.

The first concerns global health. Leaving aside for the moment the call by countries such as Australia to clarify where, how, and why Covid-19 started, everyone must wish for a series of actions that lead globally to control of the virus, and establishing an effective vaccine. The indications are that scientists and health professionals across the globe are prepared to collaborate on this. It’s not clear cut, but it tends to the positive.

The second issue is climate change. This long-term problem has so far received at best intermittent international cooperation, while at worst its importance has been dismissed. Now, because of the lockdowns imposed around the world (about 3 billion people affected), New Delhi has clear skies, China’s pollution indexes have dropped, and there are dolphins back in the lagoons of Venice. One would think that this might give some impetus to greater work on controlling human destruction of the climate. But the climate talks known as the COP26 conference set for Glasgow later this year will not take place (and, ironically, the conference centre itself has been converted into a temporary Covid-19 hospital).

Economic priorities, including investment in large scale infrastructure to provide jobs, will have to be balanced against environmental policies set in balmier days. The world oil price has collapsed, putting pressure on energy policies. Public transport systems have to deal with the risks of handling large numbers of passengers in confined spaces, and the skies are empty of aircraft causing economic havoc. National reactions will differ on how to respond and international consensus much harder to obtain.

Vancouver International Airport (GoToVan/Flickr)

The third area is migration. One of the most important components of globalisation has been the movement of people, particularly in the labour market. Look at the examples, including South Asian workers in the Middle East, highly skilled from all over the world heading to the US and Western Europe, Pacific Islanders coming to Australia and New Zealand, or students to Western Europe, the US, Canada, and Australasia. Right now, that model has collapsed.

With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery.

Is it going to get back up again? Certainly not in the next year or two, or longer. The implications for the developing world are staggering because of the importance of remittances to their economies. Remittances to Tonga, for instance, comprise 37% of total GDP. Policy decisions in the migration field will be made again largely at a national level, against a framework of need for labour versus severe domestic unemployment. Not to mention the backlash against foreigners which seems likely.

The fourth area is foreign investment. Again, a key to globalisation and a key to economic growth that has supported economies around the globe. With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery. Already we are seeing that a first reaction is to control inbound foreign investment more tightly. The European Union, the US, Japan, and Australia, among other governments, have already tightened their regimes. Part of this is a reaction to China. Part of it is because the Covid-19 crisis has led governments to believe that they have to have national controls of certain industries.

Most of current regional trade agreements have an investment component allowing foreign investment to flow more easily. Will they change? Will governments want to renounce some of their obligations to their trading partners? Not encouraging so far, and more will certainly come.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The announcement that certain World Trade Organisation members, including the EU and China, but not the US and Japan, have agreed to establish an interim arbitration arrangement is good news.

And to put some life into tourism, the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand have endorsed the concept of allowing travel between the two countries when both can be sure of mastering the health issues involved. It is desperately sought after by the industries on both sides of the Tasman. But it is not for tomorrow, encouraging as the idea is. It may eventually provide some economic stimulus also to the South Pacific, if the bubble is extended to include them.


America’s rudderless Covid response

US President Donald Trump walks out of a news conference on Covid-19 held in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, 11 May (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump walks out of a news conference on Covid-19 held in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, 11 May (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Projecting optimism about US recovery from the coronavirus pandemic requires one to take the long view.

America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, relative to the rest of the world, has been abysmal. The US has more than 30% of all cases, despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population. Upwards of 83,000 Americans have died over the past four months, a death rate six times higher than the global average.

The federal government was slow to act and then unwilling to shoulder significant responsibility. This dynamic, coupled with America’s long-time underinvestment in public health, raises serious questions about America’s capacity to contain the virus.

The “curve” in the US has – at least temporarily – flattened, but it has stabilised at an unacceptable rate, with 2000 Americans dying per day, week after week. In New York City, the epicentre of the epidemic, cases have recently begun to decline, but infections are on the rise throughout the rest of the country.

Anything is possible in the coming months, but it’s hard to see how Trump wins re-election if conditions do not improve in terms of containing the virus. And it’s hard to see a way for containment efforts to meaningfully improve in that time.

The US has not developed a national strategy for testing and tracing, a key component in the success of other nations’ containment of the virus. The federal government has refused to coordinate the production and distribution of critical supplies. And in the context of a global pandemic, the US president has taken steps to isolate the US from multilateral efforts to manage the pandemic, which could threaten Americans’ access to therapies and an eventual vaccine.

Within a domestic context, there are some areas in which government has been working effectively and delivering benefits to people. Many state governors have responded to the crisis with decisive action and built public trust through consistent communication. The high level of competence at the state and local levels is not new or surprising, but it has been out of focus in recent years.

The US Federal Reserve was well-prepared for the current crisis, given the number of mechanisms set up during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that could be pulled off the shelf. The Fed moved quickly and is using all of its tools at scale.

The US Congress also moved quickly and as of late April had allocated $2.8 trillion in emergency funding to address the health and economic crises. Four separate legislative packages (COVID 1-4) passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation was imperfect and will require significant oversight, but there was a concerted effort to prioritise relief to small businesses and workers over banks and corporations.

The assistance is badly needed. In April, more than 20 million people applied for unemployment benefits, contributing to 14.7% unemployment – a rate of rate not seen since the Great Depression. Economists and officials within the Trump Administration have indicated it may go as high as 25%.

A fifth legislative package is expected in the near future to support state and local governments facing massive budget shortfalls due to the costs of fighting the public health crisis and the loss of retail-based tax revenue. But this brief period of bipartisan goodwill in the US Congress may be over. The Democratic House recently requested $1 trillion to support states and municipalities, a figure that was immediately rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a bailout for Democratic state governments that mishandled their finances.

Further, while the Democratic House continues to work from home, Leader McConnell brought the Senate back into session in the US Capitol on 5 May. McConnell explained that given the pressure essential workers across the country are under to show up for work, it made sense for the Senate to show up. But the decision also suggests McConnell believed he needed to take action in the midst of this crisis to protect the Republican majority in the Senate and President Trump’s re-election prospects.

A shuttered business in Claremont, California. (Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

Public polls and Trump’s own internal polls show him trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden both nationally and in swing states. Bringing Senators back to Washington provides McConnell with the opportunity confirm judicial nominees and fast-track presidential appointees. Perhaps more importantly, McConnell’s decision aligns symbolically with Trump’s insistence that the virus has been vanquished, things are on the up and up, and the economy will be back better than ever.

Americans do not appear to be on the same page as the president. They have been broadly supportive of stay-at-home orders, and a sizeable majority have expressed concerns that the economy will be opened too soon. The protesters in the Michigan State Capitol standing too close together brandishing rifles were frightening, but not at all representative of the bigger picture.

Anything is possible in the coming months, but it’s hard to see how Trump wins re-election if conditions do not improve in terms of containing the virus. And it’s hard to see a way for containment efforts to meaningfully improve in that time, given that the states have been left on their own to struggle through the crisis. Localised efforts will work eventually, but progress is likely to be slow and uneven.

The political analyst Ian Bremmer highlighted in a recent column that the US occupies a privileged place in the world economy and will carry many advantages into the post-Covid future. All true – but just how America gets from here to there remains unclear.


The health challenge in PNG is far greater than Covid-19 alone

A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth.

Many women and girls walk kilometres for days when heavily pregnant in order to access health facilities. Just ten years ago, women and girls in rural districts would only visit a clinic as a place “to go die”, not to deliver a baby. Stigma and poor health literacy added to the fear – with the country still the hotspot for the world’s most drug-resistant tuberculosis, alarming malaria rates, and recent polio outbreaks. Even today, for every 100,000 live births in the country, 215 women die in complications resulting from labour.

Now add to this the danger of Covid-19.

The PNG health system should fear a larger indirect death toll than from the coronavirus pandemic itself. The myths and misinformation associated with Covid-19 are only going to add to the barriers of receiving a supervised and safe birth. PNG has a population of more than 8 million, with health challenges unfortunately as diverse as its 800 different languages. Vaccination rates are poor, and with people fearful of Covid-19, women and girls will deliver babies in the bush, often alone.

The challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services.

Studies of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone revealed a 34% increase in maternal mortality rates in health clinics alone during the outbreak. This followed stress on the medical supply chain and transport of drugs and equipment within the country. PNG faces the same risks should Covid-19 overburden the health system. Relatively simple treatments such a medications, gauze, or IV drips can stop a mother from bleeding to death, but it all depends on these potentially life-saving materials being available in rural health clinics.

In pre-Covid times, tuberculosis had been feared as the world’s biggest killer disease, claiming more than 4000 lives a day globally. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we must not forget that tuberculosis remains the biggest killer, and the most drug-resistant strain, XDR-TB, is silently spreading in PNG. Millions of dollars and years of research have been dedicated towards tuberculosis programs in PNG, and this cannot go to waste as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Strict tuberculosis treatment regimes are still required, with complete patient compliance. Otherwise, tuberculosis prevalence will spike, and with it worsening drug resistance and ultimately more deaths.

A classroom in Kimbe, West Britain, PNG (ADB/Flickr)

Chronic disease is a major challenge across the Pacific. Malaria is a constant threat, especially in PNG and Solomon Islands, which accounts for more than 90% of cases in the Western Pacific Region, according to the World Health Organisation. That figure could climb if Covid-19 disrupts mitigation efforts, such as the spraying of insecticides, use of treated nets, or access to malaria testing.

Immunisation rates also remain stubbornly low. Headline outbreaks demonstrate the dangers, such as in 2018 in PNG with polio – a disease once thought all but eradicated – or in Samoa with a devastating measles episode. Covid-19 has the potential to severely disrupt what should be routine immunisation programs by gobbling up resources and putting a stop to vaccination patrols due to travel restrictions. The damage from this disruption may not become evident for five or more years.

So for PNG, even as the government seeks to contain the spread of coronavirus, now is the time to emphasize that immunizations are an essential health service. This effort will ultimately reduce the burden on the PNG health system.

All this illustrates that the challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services. The virus not only attacks people, but the systems people have built in an effort to support the most vulnerable. The burden on an already weak health system will be immense and long-lasting.

PNG is unlikely to reach the Sustainable Development Goals target of reducing maternal mortality rates by 2030, along with the lowering the cost of other major diseases. If any good is to come from the Covid-19 pandemic, hopefully it will be the chance for PNG to reassess the deep-seated problems in its health system and governance – and work towards improving healthcare access for all.


In beef over barley, Chinese economic coercion cuts against the grain

Where’s the beef? (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Where’s the beef? (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Last weekend news broke that the Chinese government was considering imposing large tariffs on Australian barley exports. Now, China-bound exports from four Australian meat processors have been suspended.

Following Australian calls for an independent inquiry into the early handling of Covid-19, China’s Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye warned that Chinese consumers might respond by boycotting Australian exports, mentioning tourism, education, wine and beef. The government pushed back, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne cautioning China against responding with “economic coercion”.

These latest moves, which have nothing to do with the choices of Chinese consumers, suggest that that caution has been ignored. Rather, the moves follow a familiar playbook, in which the Chinese government relies on technical regulatory measures to restrict exports, while denying any retaliation is taking place.

The technical story behind barley and beef

The prospect of barley tariffs is neither sudden nor unexpected, but the culmination of an 18-month investigation into allegations that Australia violated World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules by providing subsidies to exporters, assisting them to sell (“dump”) large volumes of barley at low prices in China.

The deadline for concluding the investigation is 19 May. If Beijing believes Australia has broken the rules and wants to respond with anti-dumping tariffs, it must do so this month.

These technical justifications are strikingly similar to past cases of economic sanctions by the Chinese government.

Industry bodies and the Australian government strenuously deny any violation of WTO rules. When the investigation was first announced, some analysts wondered whether it was retaliation for earlier anti-dumping actions taken by Canberra against Beijing. This possibility was again raised this week, including by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Morrison said he expects China to keep politics out of its final decision, while China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson described a “normal trade remedy and investigation”.

Labelling and health certificate requirements are apparently the issue with beef. Similarly, there is precedent for Australian meat producers falling foul of Chinese labelling rules, with six meatworks banned for three months in 2017. As with barley, the Australian government has so far downplayed the idea that the current suspensions are retaliatory, with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham saying he sees “no relationship” with the Covid-19 inquiry.

The political story: Covid-19 and economic coercion

These technical justifications are strikingly similar to past cases of economic sanctions by the Chinese government.

The defining feature of China’s unilateral economic sanctions is their informality. Rather than publicly announcing formal legal sanctions and linking them to a foreign policy dispute, Beijing typically denies that it is imposing economic punishments while explaining disruption to trade by reference to other plausible justifications.

Consider two examples. After the Philippine navy confronted Chinese fishing boats near a disputed area of the South China Sea in 2012, Filipino bananas rotted in Chinese ports after customs officials declared the fruit did not meet Chinese health standards. When Seoul installed a missile defence system over Beijing’s objections in 2016, South Korean conglomerate Lotte saw 74 of its 112 supermarkets inside China closed for alleged fire safety violations.

Informal retaliation provides “plausible deniability” against any charge of violating international trade rules, or accusations of explicit economic bullying. It also allows greater flexibility to deescalate retaliatory measures without appearing to be backing down from a dispute.

Wheat fields, South Australia (Wheat initiative/Flickr)

Like labelling rules or domestic health and safety regulations, WTO laws also provide avenues for plausibly deniable economic coercion.

While the proposed barley tariffs might appear to be remedies for Australia’s alleged violation of WTO rules, they may instead be legally “dressed up” informal economic sanctions.

As China has become increasingly adept at utilising WTO law, it has used trade rules for many legitimate purposes but also to retaliate against investigations and counter-measures introduced by other actors. Such retaliatory use of WTO law, particularly against the United States and European Union, has been extensively documented.

WTO rules also appear to have been leveraged by China as an additional means of imposing economic punishments during political disputes. The complexity and often highly contestable nature of anti-dumping investigations make them particularly conducive to maintaining plausible deniability.

Why target barley and beef?

If politics is a factor, part of the reason will likely be timing, because the imminent conclusion of China’s barley investigation provides the perfect legal mechanism to use as cover. In this telling, but for Australia’s call for a Covid-19 inquiry, Beijing would not be considering tariffs ­– an outcome some seemed cautiously optimistic about last year.

For beef, the logic would be the precedent of earlier labelling issues. Regardless of the merits of these concerns, the continuation of an existing issue provides a response to accusations of economic coercion.

The existence of plausible deniability means that the case that Beijing is leveraging barley and beef to make a political point is circumstantial.

Regardless, this episode illustrates the consequences of mixing politics and economics in international diplomacy. The spectre of Australian exporters losing two major export markets comes just weeks after China’s ambassador explicitly linked an ongoing political dispute to economic repercussions.

That linkage has now undermined the credibility of Beijing’s assertion that barley is just a “normal” investigation, or that labelling is the major concern with Australian beef exports.

Even if tariffs are not imposed and the beef issue is quickly resolved, the perception of China as an economic bully could well persist in the minds of some Australians. If it wanted to, Beijing could do much more to allay these fears.


For Australia, a testing friendship

Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2020 16:30   0 Comments

It’s got nothing to do with Covid-19, but a fascinating short passage in Malcolm Turnbull’s new memoir is illustrative of the challenges Scott Morrison faces in dealing with US President Donald Trump, and how much Australia can rely on the US as it squares off in an increasingly sharp rhetorical fight with China over coronavirus.

Turnbull reflects on calls made while he was prime minister to dispatch Australian warships to probe inside the 12 nautical mile zone around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, as the US Navy had done. But Turnbull resisted, concerned Beijing could escalate by ramming and disabling an Australian ship. He writes:

If the Americans backed us in, then the Chinese would back off. But if Washington hesitated or, for whatever reasons, decided not to or was unable immediately to intervene, then China would have achieved an enormous propaganda win, exposing the USA as a paper tiger not to be relied on by its allies.

I’ve written an article for the Council of Foreign Relations that explores this question about how much Australia can rely on the US in the context of Covid-19. It’s the type of question that tends to get subsumed in the political realm by all the talk of “mateship” and alliance with a capital A, yet Turnbull’s logic makes clear that every prime minister must ask it. I’ve deliberately begun my piece from the premise that managing relations with the US is the most testing issue in Australia’s foreign policy ­­­­– a characterisation I suspect is most usually applied these days to relations with China. But it is important to recognise that for all the tetchiness of dealing with Beijing, the demands and opportunities drawn from Washington of years in war and peace are greater. Sometimes friends can be hard work.

Speaking of, Morrison made clear when Turnbull was promoting his book that he wasn’t eager for advice from the man he had unseated in an intra-party challenge less than two years before. There is no doubt that Turnbull branding Trump a “bully” alongside China was a complication Morrison didn’t really need, particularly given the coincidence that the PM happened to speak to Trump by telephone on the day Turnbull’s book as formally launched ­– and we know what a penchant the President has for books that involve him, and his at-times demanding phone manner, which Turnbull and Morrison have both experienced.

Then–Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, 2 June 2017 (Dominique Pineiro/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr)

Yet political autobiographies are too often discounted as an exercise in score-settling and self-justification, or are read only for gossipy detail. Turnbull’s reflections are worth close examination as a guide to understanding the challenges that Australia’s leadership confronts in dealing with major powers, particularly the United States. As much as any autobiography will paint its principal subject in the kindest light, contemporaneous accounts of this type are instructive about the key debates and various sources of official advice on the big issues – themes that last well beyond the time in office of any one leader.

Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

Turnbull reveals that Canberra had commissioned official psychological analysis of Trump, as every foreign capital would have, which recommended flattery to appeal to the narcissist. Australia’s diplomats also proposed concessions in a tax treaty in a bid to smooth over tensions, an idea Turnbull rejected. Having watched at close quarters Trump push around Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

But it was the same principle he adopted with China. “I knew, from years of experience of dealing with bullies, that if you take a strong position on something and then back down under pressure, you’ll be mightily diminished,” Turnbull writes.

“We also knew, from first-hand experience,” he noted elsewhere, “that China’s policy towards other countries was thoroughly integrated. If a foreign nation disappointed China – for instance by criticising its conduct in some manner ­– then it could expect both criticism and economic consequences. Ministerial visits would be stopped … Chinese tourism would drop off, foreign business in China would be boycotted.”

And Morrison faces that very challenge, with recent threats of a consumer backlash followed by news today Beijing has slapped a ban on meat imports from four Australian abattoirs. It will invariabily been seen as retaliation, though Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has cautioned “we certainly don’t see any relationship and we would expect that no other counterpart country should see a relationship between those factors”.

“Sometimes”, Turnbull writes, “when a Chinese Customs official says an Australian exporter’s papers ‘are not in order’, they are, in fact, not in order”. Other times, he notes, this can very much be a political decision.

Either way, Morrison will be weighing just how much he can rely on friends.


Vietnam defies the odds on Covid-19

A woman carries flowers at the Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, 11 May (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman carries flowers at the Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, 11 May (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2020 06:00   1 Comments

If you want to see real Olympic-level panic-buying, head to a Vietnamese supermarket a week before Tet, or Lunar New Year.  

Yet when the coronavirus broke out in China, Vietnam, with which it shares a border, there was only an hour or two of panic-buying before things settled down to normal.

Vietnam has come out of Covid-19 lockdown, and schools have restarted after being closed all year. The economy is restarting, and there’s hope the country could escape the worst economic ravages, or even benefit from plans to diversify manufacturing away from China. 

This is a nation that took three goes just to institute a motorbike helmet law people would actually pay attention to.

There are fewer than 300 reported Covid-19 cases, and no reported deaths. International press coverage of Vietnam's efforts has been broad and generally effusive – not something the regime has seen much of for some years, after cycles of corruption scandals and crackdowns. 

This is a nation that took three goes just to institute a motorbike helmet law people would actually pay attention to. After two failed attempts, the leadership got serious in 2007, although even then citizens were more interested in appearing to follow the law, and the cheaper plastic domes on sale for 50,000VND (US$2.50) would save riders from a fine but not an injury.

This time, people have listened and are pulling together, wishing to do the right thing rather than simply appearing to do the right thing, which is where the smart money’s been for years. 

It’s often easy to suggest in Vietnam that numbers are incomplete or made up, given it is a one-party state with no real free media and prison times for those who post incendiary things online or protest in the streets. However, the usual rumour mill is largely quiet. 

Reuters recently published a lengthy piece detailing Vietnam’s efforts, from early border and school closures to sustained contact tracing. The reporters called a dozen funeral homes to check if business is booming. It isn’t. As with elsewhere, numbers have dropped as lockdowns have meant fewer traffic accidents. 

It also noted:

These public health experts say Vietnam was successful because it made early, decisive moves to restrict travel into the country, put tens of thousands of people into quarantine and quickly scaled up the use of tests and a system to track down people who might have been exposed to the virus.

On the other hand, the story illustrated a frustrating opacity, with no health officials available for interview. 

According to one foreigner who’s been in Hanoi since the mid-2000s, “everyone seems in awe of the government”. Indeed, the often-cynical expats are now praising the nation’s efforts, grateful they live in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and not back home, even if they still complain people are putting masks but not helmets on their small children riding pillion. 

Vietnam’s multilingual contact-tracing program lists all the places each diagnosed patient has been since contracting the virus – down to the addresses, for example, of street-side barbecued eel and noodle joints, after one particular eel-loving patient had picked it up at a St Patrick’s Day party in Saigon, one of the later virus clusters.

A sign in Hanoi’s Tay Ho district lays out the rules of Covid-19 prevention in Vitenamese and English (Bret Mason)

The fear in Vietnam in the years since the doi moi economic reforms took hold has been that the nation was losing its character, becoming too money-hungry while losing the sense of community and patriotism that enabled the North’s mid-century victories against the French, Americans, and Chinese (although it’s important to note that the country, which just saw the 45-year anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and end of the war, doesn’t call the last run-in a “war”). 

That fear is not a new feeling.

Author Ho Anh Thai, a former diplomat and author, wrote about the nostalgia for a more idealistic time in his 1991 novella Behind the Red Mist, via 17-year-old Tan, who is somehow transported back to the war years, meeting his then-young parents for the first time. Tan, growing up in peacetime, feels strangely dislocated but finds a sense of purpose in Hanoi’s early war years.

That nostalgia was resurgent three years later, during the lengthy mourning and funeral for General Võ Nguyên Giáp, architect of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when young people raised on not much more than facts and figures about the war thronged the streets in quiet lines to pay their respects to a hero whose power within the Party waned decades before they were born. 

In 2016, I wrote about Vietnam’s fish kill saga for The Interpreter after a toxic spill from a Taiwanese steel mill poisoned waters, put fishermen out of work, and left 100 tons of dead fish lining the beaches across four northern provinces:

Almost every worry in modern-day Vietnam is represented in the fish kill saga... Many of the bigger issues that worry the populace, and the government, are present in this round of protests. For the people, these include the management of foreign investment, environmental protection and food safety. The government's major concern is staying a few steps ahead of a growing civil society that is organising online.

After a Formosa company executive told a local newspaper that people would have to choose between modern industry or fish, Vietnamese used Facebook to “choose fish” in a watershed moment of mass protest. 

“The government's reluctance to blame Formosa has irritated people deeply. This government sells itself on its ability to manage problems clearly and smoothly; in this case that has not happened,” I wrote just under four years ago

Things have changed. Today, the government’s ability to manage problems clearly and smoothly doesn’t need much more selling.


Denials, delays, and conspiracy theories: Iran’s Covid mismanagement

Volunteers carry the body of a Covid-19 victim for burial in Qaem Shahr, Iran, 10 April (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
Volunteers carry the body of a Covid-19 victim for burial in Qaem Shahr, Iran, 10 April (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
Published 11 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Iran’s initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic was sluggish, and its fight with the outbreak has been chaotic and inefficient. US sanctions undeniably played a role in cutting off Iran’s access to medical equipment and expertise, medicine, and tests, but the crisis has also displayed the plagues of Iran’s healthcare system beyond sanctions. From the outset, the authorities underestimated the challenge of the virus and then attributed it to malicious foreign conspiracies. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said, for example, the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means”.

When, after weeks of official denials, patients with respiratory symptoms overwhelmed the country’s hospitals, the government admitted the existence of a few Covid-19 fatalities on 19 February. Facing mounting pressure from the public to act effectively and swiftly, the government implemented restrictive measures – closing schools and universities, preventing people from inter-city movements, and implementing social-distancing rules.

Yet from the outset political concerns rather than scientific advice from health experts guided decision-making. One of the first examples was the government’s refusal to quarantine Qom – the holy city of Iran and the first epicentre of the outbreak – mostly for political and religious reasons. In another instance, Health Ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour cast doubt on data from China which led other countries to view this illness like a typical flu. His comments provoked a reaction on Twitter from Chang Hua, China’s ambassador to Tehran, asking Jahanpour to “respect the truths and attempts of Great Chinese People”. Sobhe-Sadeq, a weekly organ of Revolutionary Guards’ political bureau criticised Jahanpour’s tweets, calling them “irresponsible remarks and against national interests which have been frequently repeated by Western and American media in the past”. It asked the government to investigate the intention behind these remarks.  

The government’s unwillingness to vigorously implement lockdown measures was in part a recognition that people were already under heavy economic pressure, and being too strict on lockdowns could result in violent riots.

The coronavirus pandemic also exposed another important deficiency in the country’s political structure: the lack of central command. Although at the beginning of the outbreak the government established a taskforce presided over by the minister of health, many departments and organisations launched their own independent, parallel responses. One group, for example, unauthorised by health officials, sprayed sanitisers on bank ATMs damaging 150 machines. In an even more ludicrous show, the Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Guards launched a coronavirus detector which could allegedly “discover any coronavirus within 100-meter radius of the device in less than five seconds”. As expected, it was a hoax, and Ministry of Health issued a statement that Iran’s Food and Drug Administration has not licensed any such device.

This absence of a clear chain of command resurfaced in Iran’s official caseload and death figures, as well. Various authorities often announced or suggested more dire tolls than the national figures. A member of parliament from Qom declared the number of dead at 50 in Qom alone, on a day when the official figure for the whole country stood at 12.

Public mistrust of the government made the outbreak far more deadly. As the government put laws in place to restrict the spread of infection, people were often reluctant to follow them. When inter-province travel was banned at the start of the outbreak, people simply ignored the order and travelled widely to smaller towns. In some areas, people attacked police officers who were enforcing lockdown rules. In others, local people took it upon themselves to block roads with construction debris and to harass travellers.

The government’s unwillingness to vigorously implement lockdown measures was in part a recognition that people were already under heavy economic pressure, and being too strict on lockdowns could result in violent riots. Indeed, this lenience in implementing civil codes can be seen as the government’s bribe to compensate people – for freedoms it has deprived them of in other areas, not least politics; for the dire economic situation created by its longstanding international posturing against the US; and for the systematic corruption and discriminatory policies it has adopted.

Although Covid-19 cases and deaths have been in daily decline since early April, Iran is still under the shadow of the outbreak, with many businesses still closed and jobs lost. Incompetent management of the crisis points to deep cracks in the political structure: the politicising of civil government bodies, lack of centralised command centres for crisis management, and flimsy law enforcement. Like the coronavirus itself, these things will not go away on their own.


Can Covid-19 response be a model for climate action?

An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
An empty street in San Francisco, 25 April (Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images)
Published 11 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In 2020, the world will see the largest annual drop in carbon dioxide emissions in history. The havoc wreaked by the coronavirus and its accompanying lockdowns has seen fleets of planes grounded and factories shudder to a halt. Levels of mobility in the world’s largest cities have fallen below 10% of usual traffic. The International Energy Agency predicts that Covid-19 could wipe out international demand for coal, oil, and gas, with only renewable energy showing resilience.

The preliminary data from some of the world’s biggest economies shows that global emissions are in for a sharp, if temporary, decline. Early numbers from Europe suggest that the continent could see a 24% drop in EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) emissions for the whole year. Global emissions will likely only fall by 5% – a reminder that most of the world’s emissions do not come from transportation.

But economies around the world are lifting their lockdowns. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, saw a 25% decrease in emissions over its four-week lockdown. Factories in China are back online, and as in previous economic disruptions, stimulus packages and increased targets could outweigh the short-term impacts on energy and emissions.

With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long.

Publics recognise the challenge ahead. In China, 87% say that climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 in the long term. While the number in Australia is much lower, the majority – 59% – agree. Given the significant personal and economic sacrifices many publics have made to combat Covid-19, will these concerns finally translate into real progress in addressing climate change, once the current crisis has subsided?

The prospects look good. Covid-19 has put science front and centre. With a few notable exceptions, most politicians and leaders are engaging in informed, rigorous discourse based on scientific advice – whether about sending children to school or the need for onerous social-distancing guidelines. This is precisely the kind of discourse the climate crisis has lacked for so long – an ability to make effective socioeconomic policy arguments on the basis of sound scientific modeling.

And COVID-19 has been met with a resurgence in bipartisanship and political function in many parts of the world, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. There are conservative governments instituting utilitarian, Keynesian economic measures that social democrats like Bernie Sanders are praising. Spending bills of historic proportions are passing through legislatures as if they were uncontentious, everyday appropriation bills.

Finally, this pandemic has energised society into acting with consideration for greater public good. Despite the tragic but relatively low numbers of infections and deaths in Australia, the public has galvanised to comply with otherwise illiberal stay-at-home orders, out of recognition for public good.

Science, bipartisanship, and public will: we’re going to need all three to crest the climate crisis. It will need deep, complex engagement with genuinely difficult policy decisions based off rigorous scientific advice, paired with commitments from all political camps to rise above meaningless “gotcha” point-scoring, and acceptance from all members of society to incur relatively small costs today to avoid far greater ones tomorrow.

However, as has been the case in the past few years, this may be too much to ask in a post-coronavirus world. The 1918 flu pandemic has undoubtedly been the most frequently used historical analogy this year. However, it did not receive this much attention in its immediate aftermath. Gina Kolata, in Flu, writes, “… the flu was expunged from newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and society’s collective memory. … the epidemic simply was so dreadful and so rolled up in people’s minds with the horrors of the war that most people did not want to think about it or write about it once the terrible year of 1918 was over.”

It is entirely possible that after the present pandemic is over, society will want to forget about it as quickly as possible. It is a perfectly understandable reaction. Already, a healthy appetite for escapism exists to distract us from the banality of every day.

So we may forget the overriding public good that we are all so diligently considering in our day-to-day behaviours. There may be antipathy towards wide-scale social mobilisation or aversion to governments calling upon society to incur even more costs for greater public good.

Furthermore, the low price of fossil fuels may see countries revert to less sustainable methods of energy generation to jump-start their economies, relegating the climate crisis to the bench in the name of economic restoration.

Nonetheless, Covid-19 will likely lead to permanent changes, whether in tax policy, the arts industry or the nature of work. Will the post-Covid world see our rekindled respect for scientific fact, bipartisanship, and a more robust social contract help us confront climate change? Or will crippling economic burdens and hard borders see more isolationism and environmental destruction for short-term economic benefit?

Some governments are already flagging the need to alter environmental standards to boost economic activity. But business groups are suggesting that the rebuilding of virus-rattled economies can be done hand-in-hand with the transition to net-zero emissions. Perhaps climate policy – historically relegated to the “too-hard” basket – stands a chance in the new world.


COVIDcast Episode 10: Australia’s role in shaping a post-corona world

Published 8 May 2020 12:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Hervé Lemahieu, Director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Program, sits down with Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, to discuss Australia’s role in shaping the post Covid-19 world.

The discussion began by noting Australia’s effective handling of the crisis, Wong commenting, “One of the hallmarks of the success of Australia’s response to Covid-19 has been bipartisan consensus predicated on expert advice”. In stark contrast, global cooperation in the management of the pandemic has been sadly lacking, Wong observing, “It is to the detriment of humanity that the pandemic, instead of enlivening co-operation, has hardened competition”.

Lemahieu asked the Senator how Australia should navigate a shrill Sino-American blame game and whether Canberra should do more to differentiate the objectives of its diplomatic efforts for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic from President Donald Trump’s disengagement and perceived scapegoating of the World Health Organisation. Wong said Australia requires:

an effective system of international co-operation. We have been and should continue to be strong multilateralists. In this our views differ… from those [of] … the current US administration.

Speculating on the lessons for Australia in the wake of this crisis, Lemahieu asked about the tensions inherent in doubling down on the primacy of the nation state – and the need to achieve greater self-reliance – as against the need to enhance multilateralism and the efficacy of global institutions. Wong responded that this wasn’t a simple binary:

We need not descend into isolationism, protectionism or even autarchy. We need to recognise that there is a lot of good that has been generated … by stronger global integration. But we also need to recognise in the face of this external shock, this pandemic, national resilience matters. We need to work out where on the continuum between openness and being closed do we want to our economy to be, and which are the strategic sectors where we need to prioritise resilience over efficiency.

While Australia stands a good chance of insulating itself from the worst effects of the health pandemic, it must still contend with the economic consequences of the global crisis. In particular, Lemahieu noted that migrant numbers to Australia are expected to fall dramatically as a result of the coronavirus. He asked the Senator whether there wasn’t a real risk that a drop in the migrant intake could undermine Australia’s relative strengths as a young and growing nation.

Wong noted the enormous contribution that migration had made to Australia but commented, ”there will be a national discussion about the composition and shape of the migration program … in a period where we would anticipate Australia’s international borders will be closed for some time.”
 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Indonesia’s democracy is flawed, but do enough people care?

Social media is a popular platform for people to express their discontent about the government handling of the crisis (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP via Getty Images)
Social media is a popular platform for people to express their discontent about the government handling of the crisis (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 8 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 outbreak has once again exposed Indonesia’s lack of preparedness to handle disasters and emergencies. After weeks of denying the severity of the pandemic, the Indonesian government’s response to the climbing numbers of confirmed cases has been confusing. A lack of coordination between the central and local administrations left the public with mixed signals about the scale of the problem. While some local authorities, such as in Jakarta, Tegal, and Papua, rushed to impose strict limits on the movement of people, the central government issued a warning to local administrations to remind them of the central government’s authority to impose such measures.

It was only at the end of March, four weeks after the country’s first two confirmed coronavirus cases, that the central government issued a legal framework for “large-scale social restrictions” – which still required the regions to obtain approval from the central government to implement.

This confusion has only compounded another struggle for Indonesia as the crisis unfolds: how, in a democracy, to ensure respect for the freedom of speech.

Angry at the government’s unsatisfactory response to the outbreak, people have taken to social media – particularly Twitter, the platform still hugely popular in Indonesia – to express their discontent. There has been misinformation, a problem not helped by a lack of transparency and clear guidelines from the government at the outset. Yet the official response towards criticism has been overly sensitive.

Mass demonstrations have been powerful political tools in Indonesia to draw attention to government failings or about controversial policies. Such action is much more difficult during lockdown.

Presidential spokesperson Fadjroel Rachman discouraged the public from criticising the government about its handling of Covid-19. In early April, a police telegram was reported to contain instructions to monitor opinions on the internet for defamation against the president and government institutions, with reference to Article 207 of the Penal Code. The police were also on alert for hoaxes and online shopping scams related to health and hygiene supplies.

As of last month, the police have handled 97 cases concerning misinformation and disinformation. Some charges related to efforts to contain the incitement of xenophobia and racism. Most of the people detained have been subsequently released.

The detention of Ravio Patra, a researcher and vocal government critic, was a high-profile case in recent weeks. Ravio was detained after his WhatsApp account was hacked and used to broadcast messages calling for the looting of shops. He was released after 33 hours of detention.  

While the police insist they have no intention to intimidate or silence criticism, the government does not have a good track record with transparency. President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) sought to justify his earlier decision to conceal information about the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Indonesia as an effort to prevent public panic.

Although concerns about free speech have been raised by several rights organisations – such as KontraS, SAFEnet, Amnesty International Indonesia, ICW, and ICJR – the issues around democracy are yet to galvinise the public. Most concern has been about access to economic relief – or lack thereof – with an estimated 5.2 million workers at risk of losing their income. The parlous state of health resources is another key concern.

Protests and mass demonstrations have been powerful political tools in Indonesia to draw attention to government failings or about controversial policies. Such action is much more difficult during lockdown.

Interestingly, however, the pandemic has pushed people to resort to online platforms to protest. In April, members of the legislature were bombarded with more than 10,000 online messages protesting the omnibus bill for job creation, criticising provisions deemed to be in favour of investors at the expense of workers. On 24 April, it was announced that the legislature would postpone deliberations on labour issues in the bill.

Despite this positive sign, it is too early to claim that the similar outcome can be expected for the issues around restrictions on freedom of expression, at least in the upcoming months. With public attention mainly focused on the economy and the future of the outbreak, it is likely that Indonesia’s democratic stagnation, if not regression, is here to stay.


Under cover of Covid-19, conflict in Myanmar goes unchecked

A volunteer spreads lime on a road as a preventive measure against Covid-19, Yangon, 22 April (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty)
A volunteer spreads lime on a road as a preventive measure against Covid-19, Yangon, 22 April (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty)
Published 8 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

For Myanmar, the onset of Covid-19 has sparked a renewed crackdown in Rakhine and Chin states. These developments may not capture widespread attention – particularly as relations with China become increasingly fraught – yet they cannot be ignored, and must be recognised as a serious threat to regional security by Australia and others. If anything, the Rohingya refugee crisis of recent years should be a reminder of the enormous potential for regional consequences of such conflicts.

Conflict escalated in January 2019, when the Arakan Army (AA) – an armed group seeking an independent Rakhine state – attacked four police posts, killing 13 officers. In the months that followed, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, sought to crush the separatist group with its “Four Cuts” strategy—targeting food, funds, intelligence, and recruiting with a military campaign totalling 15,000–25,000 troops, coordinated air strikes, and the largest ever active-duty deployment of the Myanmar Navy.

As recently as February this year, the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre, under chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, has sought a bilateral ceasefire agreement. Yet as travel restrictions postponed peace talks, violence in Rakhine state intensified, and on 23 March – the day of Myanmar’s first recorded case of Covid-19 – AA was declared a terrorist group.

What has followed is the displacement of over 157,000 people and hundreds of civilian deaths, in a military advance that UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee decried as “systematically violating the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law”. Lee leaves her role at the end of a six-year post dominated by anti-Rohingya violence, with an open investigation into Tatmadaw crimes at the International Criminal Court and protective measures ordered by the International Court of Justice. Yet as a new crisis takes centre stage in northern Rakhine, the tragic irony of her departure is that the international community’s commitment to accountability appears to be waning.

Ongoing Tatmadaw operations risk a self-fulfulling cycle of disenfranchisement, one where elections are postponed to prevent violence that is, in part, a by-product of electoral disaffection.

With free movement suspended, other liberties are at risk. In a blow to press freedom, Voice of Myanmar’s editor-in-chief was jailed after publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson, and other journalists remain in hiding, threatened under Myanmar’s counter-terrorism laws. Simultaneously, an internet blackout first imposed on Rakhine state in June 2019 has been extended, with telecom providers compelled to block 221 websites – including multiple Rakhine-based news agencies – in a move Myanmar’s Digital Rights Forum alleges is a deliberate subversion of powers invoked to suppress Covid-19 misinformation. A concession by the President’s Office on 3 May  suggests mobile restrictions could be eased, but even under this reversal, mobile users in the majority of townships would be limited to public health updates via SMS.

These are the actions of a government acting with impunity, and although Australia’s diplomatic resources have been stretched by a historically unprecedented repatriation campaign, security interests demand greater action.

As a starting point, Australia should take steps to strengthen international oversight and place increased political pressure on leaders in Nay Pyi Taw. Quickly re-establishing a full diplomatic presence in Yangon should be supported by an active campaign to pressure the Tatmadaw into adopting a previously-rejected ceasefire, better securing humanitarian workers and Covid-19 responders.

A second step would be to coordinate renewed international commitments to deterrence. As lapsed state contributions trigger a “liquidity crisis” in the UN’s core agencies, Australia should use the final months of its term on the Human Rights Council to buttress the OHCHR’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Although constrained by the pandemic and the Council’s distant seat in Geneva, its evidence-gathering function is a key link to pursuing individual criminal responsibility. Its broad mandate – to gather evidence of all serious international crimes in Myanmar since 2011 – encourages restraint generally, not only against the Rohingya, for which it was initially formed.

Pursuing transparency and accountability through international institutions will be equally important for November’s general elections, the first since Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s historic victory in 2016. Then, the NLD’s decision to nominate its candidate as Chief Minister for Rakhine overrode a majority result in favour of the Arakan National Party and inflamed separatist anger. Now, in a process already fraught with complex conflict dynamics, ongoing Tatmadaw operations risk a self-fulfulling cycle of disenfranchisement, one where elections are postponed to prevent violence that is, in part, a by-product of electoral disaffection. DFAT’s Australia Assists program, with its focus on the Rohingya crisis and its operational expertise in humanitarian coordination and electoral integrity, would be a model intermediary. 

For Australian interests, it is not the fact of violence that is most concerning, nor the effect of displacement on regional stability. More than this, it is in the normalisation of hostility against dissenting ethnic voices and the threat posed by a military unchecked by international sanction.

Placating the interests of armed separatists is an outcome Australia should avoid. Yet in a region where the dominant power continues to flout international norms and pursue the aims of an ethnically dominant party state, curbing the rise of authoritarianism is a strategic priority. Even with the distractions of Chinese obstruction and a global pandemic, Myanmar and the violence in Rakhine state is a crisis Australia cannot afford to ignore.


Wuhan lab claims: Is Australia questioning China? Or the US? Both?

Australia’s recent call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus provoked a rebuke from Beijing (Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)
Australia’s recent call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus provoked a rebuke from Beijing (Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 7 May 2020 16:30   0 Comments

A calculated leak?  – Ben Scott

Local newspapers have published remarkable claims detailing Australia’s reported concern about suggestions coming out of Washington that the outbreak of Covid-19 may have been the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan rather than coming from an infected animal at a wet market.

Last week the Daily Telegraph in Sydney published an article, which it said was based on a five-eyes intelligence report, giving weight to the laboratory accident theory. Today, the Sydney Morning Herald reports claims this purported intelligence dossier was leaked to the Telegraph by the US Embassy in Canberra, and that the Australian government has deep concerns about the propagation of this minority view.

But while the guessing game of who leaked what – or not – will continue, there is another indirect message.

Australia’s recent call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus provoked a rebuke from Beijing, and some Australian commentators have assumed that Canberra’s call was part of the US effort to push the laboratory accident theory. But it now appears possible that Canberra’s goal may also have been to minimise the impact of these questionable US claims and offer up a mechanism for reducing great-power tension.

If that’s true, then Beijing’s diplomats missed an opportunity. China would have been smarter to respond to Canberra’s call by claiming the moral high ground and welcoming all forms of international cooperation. It would then have been easier for Beijing to mute the calls for accountability and use procedural mechanisms to delay and limit the inquiry.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there is “enormous evidence” linking the Wuhan lab to the virus (State Department/Flickr)

Do China’s diplomats have a tin-ear? – Sam Roggeveen

Instead, China deployed its now infamous “wolf warrior” diplomacy to rebuke Canberra and implicitly threaten trade sanctions. This is consistent with China’s recent international muscle-flexing, which has had decidedly mixed returns for Beijing. Indeed, the reputational damage from Beijing’s diplomatic heavy-handedness has been so clear that it raises the question of “why”? Are China’s diplomats uniquely tin-eared? Or have they learned that such behaviour works and doesn’t come at much of a cost?

In a sense, this is a small-scale version of the larger question over China’s recent international behaviour. Why has it chosen this moment to break away from its previous “bide our time” strategy to assert itself on the world stage? Lowy’s Richard McGregor offered a perspective on Twitter: “bide your time” was only ever a tactical device, and it made sense while China was weaker. But no nation of China’s size can really remain anonymous and inoffensive on the world stage.

A second part of the answer, suggests McGregor, is that the primary audience for Chinese diplomacy is back in Beijing. China’s diplomats have a boss to please, and the boss wants China to throw its weight around. Many cadres will have noticed that some of the loudest voices on Twitter of late have been rewarded with promotions, such as the now infamous Zhao Lijian and former Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, rewarded for his “wolf diplomacy” (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty)

Or is doubt the point? – Natasha Kassam

Throwing its weight around in this style is a clear departure from past behaviour of China’s officials. The confrontational posture on Covid-19 represents the public relations apparatus of the People’s Republic of China in damage control, and is much closer to Russian information warfare tactics.

Efforts to amplify conspiracy theories, sow doubt and distort the conversation, rather than change people’s minds, are straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook.

Traditionally Chinese officials have not had this kind of flexibility: in the past there was significant pressure to conform to a narrative promoted from the centre, and political risk associated with straying. Russian disinformation, on the other hand, was allowed to experiment – trolls could literally throw mud at the wall to see what stuck.

For the more risk-averse Chinese officials, these efforts to amplify conspiracy theories, sow doubt and distort the conversation, rather than change people’s minds, are straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook. China has dabbled in this kind of warfare in the past in Taiwan.

The wolf warriors may have an audience of one, but these conspiracy theories have broader reach. The now-infamous and obviously untrue theory that Covid-19 was brought to Wuhan by the US military gained traction in China surprisingly quickly. And any attempt to highlight the incompetence of the United States, and create at best, ambivalence about China’s role in Covid-19, is a relative win for the Party-state.


Creating a Pacific bubble

An Australian funded Covid-19 support package arrives in Solomon Islands last month (DFAT/Flickr)
An Australian funded Covid-19 support package arrives in Solomon Islands last month (DFAT/Flickr)
Published 7 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

The success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic in both Australia and New Zealand has led to a novel idea – the opening up of trans-Tasman travel as long as each country is able to keep infections under control. It would be a ray of hope and normalcy, and an economic plus for both parties. While so far no Pacific countries are included in the “bubble”, Minister for International Development Alex Hawke has indicated they could well be next – provided they continue to successfully manage the pandemic.

Early signs are positive. Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have had no infections at all, while Fiji had just 18 cases, with no new infections in the last two weeks. New Caledonia has not had a new case in several weeks. Tonga has had no cases, is even looking at re-opening night clubs.

The benefits of a regional bubble extending to the Pacific go beyond increasing the number of sunny holiday spots available to Australian tourists. A relaxation on travel restrictions would have an enormous impact on the lives of children in the region. Australia considers the Pacific “our family” – and its Pacific Step-up strategy has largely been about entering a new chapter in the relationship with these neighbours. Here is an opportunity to do just that.

Countries in the Pacific are seizing this moment to increase regional cooperation. The Pacific Islands Forum, of which Australia is a member, has invoked the Biketawa Declaration to respond to the crisis, the same collective response instrument that was used when Australian and New Zealand peacekeepers were deployed to Solomon Islands. The Forum has compared the response to Covid-19 to the Tuvaluan concept of “te fale-pili” – meaning houses which are close to one another have a moral responsibility to protect each other in times of hardship. The region is ready to step up, and is asking Australia and New Zealand to join them in doing so.

Suva, when the cruise ships had come to town (ILO Asia-Pacific/Flickr)

Fiji has one of the lowest rates of extreme poverty in the Pacific yet its prosperity is built almost entirely on tourism – 10% of households have at least one person working in the tourism industry. According to the ANZ bank, Fiji may lose nearly 602,000 visitors by air this year, a 67% drop translating into a GDP contraction of around 12%, putting about 75,000 jobs at risk. Vanuatu, too, is expected to experience a contraction in GDP, in part due to a loss of up to 21,000 tourism jobs, and will likely experience a major recession, compounding the impact of Tropical Cyclone Harold.

The fall-out of this drop in visitor numbers will be experienced by the most vulnerable: children in poor households whose families have the least savings. Or in the case of Vanuatu, families already reeling from the impact of Cyclone Harold. At a time of belt-tightening across the Australian government, allowing tourism to continue to Pacific neighbours is one way of ensuring they do not fall into a poverty and debt trap.

The sunburnt English backpacker is unlikely to return to regional Australia anytime soon. By scaling up regional worker programs, Australia can ensure enough labour in key industries, while giving hard-working Pacific Islanders a chance to send money back to their families.

Another major income source for families in the Pacific is remittances; they are a greater share of Pacific economies than aid, and represent between 5­–40% of the GDP of Pacific countries. The World Bank estimates that due to Covid-19, global remittances are projected to decline by approximately 20%, making this economic shock the largest decline in remittances in recorded history.

Australia is the source of 26% of remittances to the Pacific, with Pacific seasonal workers sending home approximately $2,200 over a six-month period in Australia, and bringing an average of $6,650 in savings back at the end of their work. The Australian government has allowed Pacific Islanders on labour mobility schemes to stay in Australia during the pandemic and to keep working, allowing this lifeline to continue.

The creation of a regional bubble which includes the Pacific would allow these programs to continue and even to expand, as agricultural and seasonal labour from other countries dries up – the sunburnt English backpacker is unlikely to return to regional Australia anytime soon. By scaling up these programs, Australia can ensure enough labour in key industries, while giving hard-working Pacific Islanders a chance to send money back to their families.

This pandemic is a cataclysmic upending of business as usual for international tourism and migration. And yet Australia is incredibly fortunate to find itself in a neighbourhood where Covid-19 is being taken seriously, and has so far been contained in several countries. The Pacific Step-up is about Australia forging genuine partnerships with neighbours. That means relationships which are reciprocal and made between equals, which makes them enduring in a way that donor-recipient bonds are not.

Australia and New Zealand have been invited into the Pacific family – with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails. There are almost 1 million children in the Pacific whose livelihoods hang in the balance – their ability to continue their schooling or obtain the healthcare they need is dependent on a functioning local economy. Including the Pacific in the bubble should be Australia’s declaration of faith in the Pacific family and show a commitment to the future of the children who live there.


Beyond Covid, might China overreach?

The trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage will outlast the virus (Mark Ralston via Getty Images)
The trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage will outlast the virus (Mark Ralston via Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 15:00   0 Comments

A major disruption and the emergence of a global threat in the shape of a pandemic may have been expected to foster closer global cooperation. While this may momentarily be true, as countries cooperate to strengthen their healthcare infrastructure and in seeking effective cures and vaccines, there is also the parallel discourse of mutual acrimony and blame between the US and China.

It has not helped that China has conducted itself in a less than transparent manner, and as the source of the second major pandemic in recent years, somewhat tarnished the reputation of its healthcare system. The growing mistrust and disapproval of China’s global Covid-19 response will impact negatively on its efforts to enhance its soft power as it projects itself as a major actor on the global stage.

In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, exploiting the United States’ preoccupation with its economy at home and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China took advantage of the “period of strategic opportunity” through its territorial assertions and its Belt and Road Initiative megaproject in order to expand its influence along its periphery. The world witnessed China flexing its economic and military muscle seeking to establish itself as the Asian hegemon and to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia.

Might China perceive the United States to be weaker than it really is and accelerate its push for global dominance, thereby increasing the risk of miscalculation?

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis China must likely see the confusion and inadequacy of the US response in contrast to its own resolute and drastic measures that were successful in bringing the outbreak under control. The question that comes to mind is, might China perceive the United States to be weaker than it really is and accelerate its push for global dominance, thereby increasing the risk of miscalculation?

China’s assertiveness since the GFC was followed by the pushback from the US. In the political and security sphere this manifested itself in the strengthening of US alliances and partnerships and in the economic sphere, in what has been described as the US-China “trade war”. The growing mistrust between the United States and China will likely lead to an accelerated pushback that may reinforce the trend towards the “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies. There are other compelling reasons why this likely. The rise in wages in China and US tariffs were already contributing to this trend. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the dangers of economic over dependence upon one country – China, and will reinforce the trend towards diversifying the location of production chains.

In 2011 China became the world’s second largest economy. In 2013 Xi Jinping replaced the “Century of Humiliation” narrative of China’s exploitation by imperial powers with his vision of the “China Dream”. Perhaps, the central leadership under Xi Jinping felt that the country needed a foreign policy approach commensurate with its enhanced economic status. The “China Dream” narrative stemmed out of this realisation that China was a great power and needed to display the attitude of a great power.

China perceived an inward looking and externally preoccupied United States as a declining power at its weakest moment, and sought to pursue an assertive policy of expansion. The world was indeed witnessing the emergence of a bipolar system. This may disappoint those wedded to a multipolar vision of the world, but we can take solace from the fact that historically, multipolar systems have been notoriously unstable, while bipolar systems have been relatively stable. While Covid-19 has bled China and the United States, it has left no country unscathed. It is therefore unlikely to disrupt the trend toward towards bipolarity on the global stage.

The United States has often criticised multilateral institutions and the United Nations, and on occasion undermined them. The World Health Organisation has been the latest victim of US ire. The US has accused it of bias towards China and failing in the proper execution of its mandate. However, when it comes to supporting the multilateral order, China’s record is equally dismal. The image this conjures up in one’s mind is of China and the United States tearing up different ends of the multilateral rules-based order – with the United States undermining the WHO and the World Trade Organisation before it, and China degrading the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and pushing for a new Sino-centric Asia.

Covid-19 has posed a common threat to humanity. It should contribute to habits of cooperation on a global scale. As people encroach upon forests and animal habitats the emergence of such disease threats in the future is a distinct possibility. As we search for vaccines and cures we should encourage collaboration across borders.

What is a more likely scenario, however, is that while Covid-19 has disrupted the global economy, once the epidemic is effectively managed, and no longer poses a global threat, old habits of competition and conflict will survive.


Thailand: Killings of insurgents ends southern separatist ceasefire

Narathiwat, southern Thailand, during the Covid-19 lockdown, 1 May (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Narathiwat, southern Thailand, during the Covid-19 lockdown, 1 May (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Insurgents have resumed attacks in Thailand’s south after Thai security forces killed three rebels during a ceasefire declared unilaterally by the main separatist group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The raid bodes ill for a quick political solution. But insurgents will stay focussed on hurting security forces and, less frequently, Thai economic targets: foreigners and foreign interests almost certainly won’t be in their sights.

As noted previously, BRN announced on 3 April that it was suspending hostilities against the Thai state so that the people in the ethnic-Malay dominated southern border region could better deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. It made clear the halt in violence depended on Thai security forces not attacking BRN operatives. In response, the military said it would continue to “enforce laws on those who perpetrate against both officials and innocents”, not ruling out anti-rebel operations.

Although BRN cited humanitarian grounds for its ceasefire, practical considerations may also have played a part. It has been harder for its operatives to move freely, as the government restricts internal travel and clamps down on cross-border movement with Malaysia in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. And any bombings targeting officials that inadvertently hit health workers would have been a public relations disaster for the group, particularly during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which this year runs from 24 April – 22 May.

While BRN leaders are signalling that they want to leave open a path for peace with the Thai state, the fighters in the field appear to view the struggle more viscerally, and tend to meet like with like.

The BRN ceasefire held until 30 April, when security forces killed three BRN members in a house raid. The military’s initial assertion that the three were planning an attack during Ramadan seems implausible, given the BRN ceasefire and given the army later walked back its claim, saying merely the three had warrants out for previous attacks. The timing of the security forces’ swoop, coinciding with the Muslim evening fast-breaking, may have made sense tactically. But it will probably alienate further those who believe that Thai officials look down on the region’s Malays, whose culture, language and religion marks them apart from other Thai citizens.

The BRN’s Central Secretariat was swift to condemn the raid on its fighters, though it publicly renewed its call for security forces to join its unilateral ceasefire. But some insurgents on the ground were less forgiving: two paramilitary soldiers were shot three days later, the latest victims in a conflict that has lasted 16 years and claimed more than 7,000 lives. And therein lies the rub. While BRN leaders are signalling that they want to leave open a path for peace with the Thai state, the fighters in the field appear to view the struggle more viscerally, and tend to meet like with like. Nevertheless, it is possible the shootings were a tit-for-tat response to the insurgent killings, and do not herald the start of a renewed campaign.

The resumption of violence does not pose a direct threat to foreigners in Thailand. The insurgents are not attracted to international jihad: the Thai state is their enemy. But, infrequently, insurgents do conduct bombings outside their southern border province theatre of operations (see list below).

So far, the perpetrators appear to have tried to minimise casualties, particularly foreigners, through their targeting and devices used. However, further out-of-area bombings seem inevitable and, with it, the risk of unintended foreign casualties.
 

Recent attacks outside the southern border provinces

  • May 2007: six coordinated bomb attacks in the southern city of Had Yai injured nine
  • October 2007: police found five inert small bombs outside a Had Yai university
  • August 2008: two bombs exploded in Had Yai
  • December 2013: an apparently inert car bomb found outside a Phuket police station
  • May 2014: two bombs in Had Yai wounded ten
  • April 2015: a car bomb in an underground shopping centre car park on the tourist resort island of Samui, injured seven, including an Italian national
  • August 2016: a series of 13 bomb and four arson attacks across seven southern provinces killed four and injured 35
  • March 2019: ten pipe bombs in the southern provinces of Satun and Phatthalung
  • August 2019: six small bombs and six incendiary devices go off in Bangkok, coinciding with an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ summit with foreign counterparts

Coronavirus: The end of sexist economics?

A nurse takes swabs at a mobile testing site for Covid-19, Melbourne, 30 April (Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty)
A nurse takes swabs at a mobile testing site for Covid-19, Melbourne, 30 April (Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty)
Published 6 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

As coronavirus spreads, government spending, and lots of it, has been the order of the day. Most of the analysis has focused on the economic impact of these responses, with scant attention paid to the impact on gender. Yet the pandemic has exposed the gendered fault lines of the economy, revealing structural inequalities between the sexes. As the debt-GDP ratio grows and fiscal pressure intensifies, has the gendered burden of the economic response been overlooked?

Lavish government spending is typically followed by either “austerity” measures, extensions to debt maturity, or debt default. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has hinted it will be the second. Even so, political pressure to cut spending in the future will be considerable. Thus, it’s worth considering the impact of this on the more vulnerable members of society.

In this new reality of enforced “home-working”, women face a triple burden: paid work, unpaid care work, and meeting their children’s educational needs.

Although women make a tremendous contribution to the economy, they frequently accumulate lower economic returns than men. This means when gaps in safety nets widen or disappear altogether, women are among the first to fall through, because what can be termed “hyper-Keynesian” economics exacerbates the already constrained fiscal positions of governments. Coronavirus, therefore, is not “gender-neutral”. To ensure that progress on gender equality is not undermined, responses should pay careful attention to this tendency.

This means:

Focusing on the vulnerability of women

Women occupy a disproportionate share of the labour market in sectors vulnerable to this crisis (administration, tourism, or social and community services), and they are more likely to be made redundant under labour market contractions. They comprise one of the lowest paid groups of workers and carry a higher burden of unpaid care work than men. In Australia, they are more likely to occupy low-paid, temporary jobs, making them ineligible for the government’s Job Keeper payment – all factors which render them vulnerable under “austerity”. Women comprise more of the caring profession than men: in Hubei Province, the epicentre of the Chinese outbreak, 90% of nurses dispatched to support the health intervention were women, while globally, women represent 70% of the health and social sectors. Unfortunately, the average gender pay gap is 28% in this sector.

To ensure the full cost of Coronavirus is accounted for, stimulus packages should include social protection measures that seek to retain women’s productive participation in the labour force – for example, with compensatory payments for workers in temporary employment. This would address existing gender inequities in the labour market  and reflect an understanding of the obstacles women encounter in the workplace. Such measures are particularly important in the aforementioned “feminised” sectors.  

Focusing on the long-term impact of gendered labour division

The impact of coronavirus on labour-market dynamics will have greater consequences for women than men. Faced with unprecedented levels of unemployment, many pre-retirement workers will need to prematurely access retirement savings. At retirement, the superannuation balances of women are 30–40% lower than those of men, suggesting rates of poverty and homelessness are likely to be higher among this group. Gender-responsive social security measures, such as maintaining superannuation payments during maternity leave regardless of employer contributions and reducing fees for those with low balances, should be enacted. This would broaden access to superannuation, making it accessible for disadvantaged women. Without such efforts, social protection measures risk propagating gender inequities introduced in the labour market.

Focusing on the economic impact of the care burden.

Crises aggravate existing gender inequalities because they enact an uneven financial and psychological toll, and because socio-cultural stereotypes mean women are still typically regarded as the primary caregivers in the home, as research from previous epidemics shows. Indeed, women will carry a heavier economic burden over the coming months because, as this commentary argues, “it’s not just about social norms of women performing care roles; it’s also about practicalities (…) Who is paid less? Who has the flexibility [to reduce their hours]?” Other sources support this: in Australia, 64% of the female working week is spent on unpaid care, compared to 36% for men, while globally, women perform ten times the unpaid care work men do.

In this new reality of enforced “home-working”, women face a triple burden: paid work, unpaid care work, and meeting their children’s educational needs, as this spoof of the infamous BBC interviewer interrupted by his children illustrates. To avoid worsening these inequities, governments can support policies that protect women, while employers can “undo” unhelpful gender norms: the flexible work arrangements occurring worldwide should become the “new normal”. This would support family-friendly workplaces on a permanent basis, not just in an emergency.

Addressing the problem

It is essential that gender is prioritised in the response to Covid-19. Progressive fiscal reforms that address existing inequalities and treat the sexes as economic equals are vital, as are policies which recognise and reward the valuable but often non-monetary contributions of women. Gender-responsive coronavirus policies are not only smart economics, but provide opportunities to do the right thing – because how economies emerge from this crisis will be dependent on how inclusive their policy responses are.


Philippines: Bangsamoro, between conflict and Covid-19

Residents wait to vote on an autonomy referendum, 6 February 2019, Salvador, Lanao del Norte, southern Philippines (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Residents wait to vote on an autonomy referendum, 6 February 2019, Salvador, Lanao del Norte, southern Philippines (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In the midst of a delicate war-to-peace transition, still punctuated by military operations, attacks from militant groups and vendettas between feuding clans, the newly created autonomous region of Bangsamoro, in the southern Philippines, is now living in fear of Covid-19. While the extent of the pandemic remains unclear due to lack of testing, the virus presents an additional challenge the 13-month-old interim government led by the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could have well done without. They might, however, find a silver lining among the pandemic’s dark clouds.

One year after its creation, the MILF-dominated Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) still needs to prove itself. Most of the established ministries are operating, one third of the MILF’s combatants have been decommissioned and the much-awaited block grant mechanism – which provides the region with some financial autonomy – is on track. But internal divisions within the Bangsamoro parliament, adjustment to the realities of governance, and administrative hiccups have also led to skepticism on the ex-rebels’ ability to govern efficiently. They also face a dilemma in their relations with the region’s most powerful families. Bangsamoro’s tradition of dynastic leadership means the former rebels need to accommodate clans that remain the backbone of the Bangsamoro political culture. Yet building a strong and inclusive institution inevitably implies challenging these families’ influence.  

Persistent violence is an additional burden to communities plagued by uncertainty and economic hardship. It might further threaten humanitarian operations. It could also jeopardise peace in the long run.

In this context, the Covid-19 crisis is becoming a crucial test. The region’s weak health infrastructure is clearly not prepared for the impact of a wide-reaching pandemic. But, if managed well, the crisis could prove to be an opportunity for the regional authority to assert itself as a capable institution in the eyes of both the region’s clans and the general population.

In the battle against the virus, the BTA needs to work in close collaboration with the five provincial authorities and numerous municipalities across the region, which are all in the hands of various clans. In the early stages of the pandemic, it drafted a contingency plan, set up a regional Covid-19 taskforce and demonstrated leadership in keeping the public informed on developments. Meanwhile, the provinces and municipalities led by local powerbrokers constituted the first line of response, channeling food assistance to communities that have been under various lockdowns since March. In some cases, BTA ministries reached out with direct aid as well, working with local authorities. While the response was not always systematic or well-coordinated, it achieved a degree of complementarity and seems to have avoided the worst – at least for now.

At times, political discord hampered the response, notably in Cotabato City, the seat of the BTA. Cotabato’s outspoken mayor has never hidden her scepticism of the former rebels’ capacity to govern, opposing the formal turnover of the city to the Bangsamoro more than one year after its residents voted, along with other Bangsamoro inhabitants, to join the new autonomous region. Since the outbreak, she openly argued with BTA officials about protocols for the distribution of relief. While this pandemic-related dispute has waned for now, the clash of interests between a strong-minded local leader and the new Bangsamoro administration is likely to resurface.

Sheikh Kalifa Usman Nando (left), Wali (ceremonial head) of the Bangsamoro Government, and Interim Chief Minister Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim at the first session of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, 29 March 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not Covid-19 alone that threatens Bangsamoro’s mostly rural areas. The lockdown’s impact on an already dire economic situation threatens long-term consequences. Following President Duterte’s announcement to lift the lockdown over some parts of the Philippines, the BTA needs to plan ahead. Testing for the virus in the Bangsamoro is not yet possible, and medical equipment is sorely lacking.  While the BTA is setting up an isolation center in Cotabato to care for potential patients and plans to increase local testing capacity, it should also improve contact tracing and implement  social-distancing measures in the post-quarantine stage, in coordination with local authorities.

Given the track record of past regional governments, even if relief operations continue after the lockdown, communities will likely worry about uneven distribution and be suspicious of any potential misuse of funds. The BTA needs to ensure maximum transparency in the distribution of aid and avoid favouritism. It would also likely gain goodwill by preparing early to help the socio-economic recovery of the most vulnerable areas that were affected by the lockdown. It should not, in particular, ignore the remote and often neglected islands of the Sulu Archipelago.

Covid-19 and its impact should also not eclipse a longer-lasting challenge in the Bangsamoro: communal violence between clans, known as “rido”. Since the outbreak, these feuds have killed at least three people and displaced several hundred. Persistent violence is an additional burden to communities plagued by uncertainty and economic hardship. It might further threaten humanitarian operations. It could also jeopardise peace in the long run. Even in this time of pandemic, the BTA should boost reconciliation efforts to pacify such vendettas.  

A holistic response to the pandemic would show the BTA’s constituents it has the commitment and ability to deliver essential services at an unprecedented time of crisis. The interim government needs to work closely with provincial leaders, building trust, maintaining peace, and ensuring transparent management of the pandemic. Covid-19 provides an unexpected opportunity for cooperation, not just in tackling the pandemic but in fostering a peaceful future in the Bangsamoro.


The prospects for China’s post–Covid-19 economy

Pingtan cross-strait expressway/railway bridge under construction, Fujian province, China, 29 April (Wang Dongming/China News Service via Getty)
Pingtan cross-strait expressway/railway bridge under construction, Fujian province, China, 29 April (Wang Dongming/China News Service via Getty)
Published 5 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

While the Canberra political establishment has been sparring with China’s Foreign Ministry – and with Australian billionaires – much of the corporate elite has begun puzzling how to slipstream China’s post–Covid-19 economic recovery.

Optimists hope that Beijing will summon a massive infrastructure stimulus, triggering a commodity boom, as happened after the global financial crisis in 2009.

China’s emergence from the pandemic has been slower than expected, with some public health controls becoming institutionalised, and with second-order economic effects being felt via lost export orders and jobs. Life is returning to normal in most provinces, but strict neighbourhood-level monitoring, testing, and social distancing remain in place. China – as Australia – can’t relax fully while the virus is still spreading internationally.

While infrastructure stimulus remains China’s first line of response to economic emergencies, the government insists that this time the new public works will be different.

New locally transmitted cases are still being reported, so school openings have been postponed, and cinemas closed again after briefly reopening.

China business analysts Gavekal Dragonomics say that two thirds of people are back in workplaces, but most still can’t obtain door-to-door deliveries, only half have visited a shopping mall this month, and all must still quarantine if travelling beyond their city of residence, and again on return.

Gross Domestic Product fell 6.8% in the first quarter. The IMF is forecasting a recovery only to 1.2% growth for all 2020. Exports – which comprise about 18% of GDP – are expected to fall by up to half in the first quarter, and industrial profits by 25% in the first half.

Last year, government debt grew faster than in a decade, since the post-GFC stimulus kicked in. At the start of 2019, total Chinese debt was about $US40 trillion – 304% of GDP and 15% of total global debt. The PRC had started a deleveraging campaign, but the US trade war halted it. Thus, credit limits had been eased again, and local governments were allowed to issue special-purpose bonds – chiefly for infrastructure. But such stimulus programs have achieved ever-diminishing productivity gains, and the misallocated investment has become vast – a quarter of urban apartments now stand empty.

And Chinese financial institutions, led by China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank, have provided massive capital for Belt and Road Initiative projects, funded almost entirely by loans. The capacity to repay – certainly, within the schedule agreed – must now surely come under question, thereby limiting such institutions’ future stimulus roles.

So where will Beijing turn to restore growth? Some clarity should come at the postponed National People’s Congress, opening on 22 May, where Premier Li Keqiang will deliver the government’s “work report”, and then more when the 14th Five-Year Plan is launched early next year. While infrastructure stimulus remains China’s first line of response to economic emergencies, the government insists that this time the new public works will be different.

Dan Wang of Gavekal says Beijing is promising a boost in “new infrastructure” – including artificial intelligence and big data, but with the 5G mobile network the main priority.

“All that’s missing,” says Wang, “are good reasons for consumers to actually use 5G. For now, it remains a solution looking for a problem: it boasts faster speeds, higher data flow and more device connections, but current 4G speeds are enough to satisfy consumer needs.” This 5G push is therefore likely to disappoint as a near-term stimulus policy, he says.

China is almost certainly oversupplied with old-school infrastructure like power stations and railroads, but it hasn’t yet found new technologies that can absorb similar amounts of stimulus money.

The China-US trade war may also reignite. A clause allows for fresh negotiations “in the event of a natural disaster or other unforeseen event” – which China could invoke as it is required to buy $US200 billion of new US energy and agricultural products, a great challenge in this collapsed economic climate. Otherwise, trends already underway before the pandemic may resume, some more intensely.

Premier Li Keqiang (centre), pictured here in 2019, will deliver the government’s “work report” at the National People’s Congress in May (Palácio do Planalto/Flickr)

Accelerated by the trade war, companies from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had already begun to restructure the great Asian value chains, investing more both at home and in third countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, to lessen risks associated with overdependence on China, including Beijing’s propensity to prioritise politics over economics.

The withdrawal of the massive South Korean chaebol Lotte from China, where it had invested $A10 billion, in the face of Chinese sanctions over new Korean missile defence, provided a stark example.

Robotification is another trend likely to accelerate post-pandemic. And market analysts China Skinny say that China’s online and offline retail is becoming dominated by a handful of large tech companies.

China’s middle class is likely to resume, whatever Beijing thinks, its search for overseas havens, via property purchase, business development, and/or student education.

Australia invests little directly in China – its $13.5 billion is a billion less than it has invested in Papua New Guinea. But a quarter of imports come from China, and a third of exports go there – three quarters comprising just four commodities: iron ore, gas, coal, and gold. Quantities are holding steady. Income from Chinese students in the last financial year was $12b billion, and from Chinese tourists $4 billion. Obviously, these revenues will fall.

Business commentator Alan Kohler wrote recently in The Australian that “for Australian businesses that have China as their plan A, they should start thinking about plan B.”

A degree of international decoupling is indeed inevitable in the wake of the virus, when China’s economic growth will continue to slow. Firms that have focused their international planning chiefly on a country’s – especially China’s – GDP growth may need to think again.

But that doesn’t mean junking plan A. The Chinese market will remain massive and will continue to reward those who can build and keep good relationships, and who pay close attention to its constant changes, especially to its multilayered politics.


Covid-19 and development banks in Asia

Dhaka, Bangladesh (Asian Development Bank)
Dhaka, Bangladesh (Asian Development Bank)
Published 4 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic means that more low- and middle-income economies are more reliant on multilateral development banks. Despite the media focus on “mask diplomacy” (or the lack of it) from individual countries, most notably China, development bank lending has been the largest external source of rapid response concessional loans and grants to address the effects of the pandemic. This will likely remain the most important external source of concessional funds for these countries to address Covid-19’s aftermath as well.

Fortunately, poorer states in Asia can access funding from the US-led World Bank, the Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), with two caveats. The ADB’s definition of Asia excludes the Middle East, while no state with diplomatic relations with Taiwan has been granted AIIB membership. The ADB recently tripled its Covid-19 facility to $20 billion and the AIIB doubled its to $10 billion. The World Bank quickly established a $14 billion program at the beginning of the pandemic and has committed up to $160 billion to help countries address the costs over the next 15 months.  

The World Bank and ADB entered this pandemic period with some undoubted advantages over the AIIB.

By the end of April, the AIIB had agreed to one Covid-19-related loan, a $355 million one to China.

In comparison, the ADB has agreed to loans and grants worth $4.7 billion for Covid-19 response efforts (13 times more than the AIIB) across 11 regional member states, including $150 million for two projects in China. India, Indonesia and the Philippines each have secured $1.5 billion in ADB loans in this time of great and urgent need.

The World Bank has agreed to loans of $4.4 billion (12.5 times more than the AIIB) across 27 states in Asia. India alone has secured $2 billion in Covid-19 project support from the World Bank. For Middle Eastern and Central Asian states, the World Bank has been the only among this trio to disburse Covid-19 assistance. (The table below provides more detail.)

Food to support the most vulnerable households in the Philippines for up to 8 weeks (ADB/Flickr)

The World Bank and ADB entered this pandemic period with some undoubted advantages over the AIIB. The World Bank and ADB are larger and much more established development banks with experience in responding to health pandemics. The AIIB still was finding its feet and learning from the World Bank and ADB when this virus hit China then spread to the rest of Asia.

The World Bank and ADB are more diversified development banks with a focus on policy-based financing that is particularly important currently. The AIIB, as indicated by its name, has concentrated mostly on project-based lending. Reflecting these differences in experience and expertise, under the AIIB’s Covid-19 Crisis Recovery Facility, it will “provide policy-based finance only in the form of cofinancing with the WB (and ADB)”.

For those that feared or hoped that the AIIB would supplant the World Bank and ADB to become the leading development bank in Asia, this pandemic is a useful corrective. China may be getting more media coverage for its unilateral Covid-19 assistance in Asia than the US or Japan. When it comes to the development banks each power leads, the story is much different.

Covid-19 Lending and Grants to Asia, $M (end-April 2020)

Country

World Bank

ADB

AIIB

Afghanistan

100

 

 

Bangladesh

100

 

 

Bhutan

5

 

 

Cambodia

50

 

 

China

 

150

355

Georgia

80

 

 

India

2000

1500

 

Indonesia

250

1503

 

Iraq

350

 

 

Jordan

161

 

 

Kyrgyzstan

12

 

 

Laos

18

 

 

Lebanon

96

 

 

Maldives

7

0.5 (grant)

 

Marshall Islands

3

0.37 (grant)

 

Mongolia

27

1 (grant)

 

Myanmar

50

 

 

Nauru

 

0.32 (grant)

 

Nepal

29

 

 

Pakistan

250

2 (grant)

 

Papua New Guinea

20

 

 

Philippines

600

1503

 

Samoa

3

 

 

Solomon Islands

5

 

 

Sri Lanka

129

 

 

Tajikistan

11

 

 

Tonga

 

0.47 (grant)

 

Tuvalu

 

0.37 (grant)

 

Vanuatu

50

 

 

West Bank

5

 

 

Yemen

27

 

 

Total

4438

4661

355

 

 


COVIDcast Episode 9: Covid‑19 and the oil price collapse

Published 1 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Roland Rajah, the Lowy Institute’s Director of the International Economy Program, sat down with Rachel Ziemba, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and Rodger Shanahan, Research Fellow, West Asia Program, to discuss the economic and geopolitical implications of the recent oil price collapse.

Due to the combined effects of a collapse in demand, a glut in supply, and lack of producer co-ordination, last week the price of oil briefly turned negative. Rajah and Ziemba discussed the global economic impacts, with Ziemba arguing that deflation was now a major risk: “Looking particularly at the US economy, we have almost 30 million unemployed and the number is rising. I don’t think labour is going to have wage-setting powers, and retailers and wholesalers are having trouble passing on higher costs to the end user.”

The effects across a range of oil-producing countries were also considered, with Ziemba noting, “Even some of the richer countries are likely to invest less money via their sovereign funds in the region, but also as they face unemployment there will be less remittances set. That’s going to affect countries like Egypt, countries in South Asia and will generally be a hit to consumption across the world.”

The geopolitical aspects of the price collapse in the Middle East were outlined by Shanahan, who commented on the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s role in initiating an oil price war in early March, and the “additional reputational damage for Mohammad Bin Salman because of his poor decision-making”. He also discussed the particular vulnerability of Iraq among Middle Eastern states, noting that it relies on oil revenue for two-thirds of its GDP and that there is a serious risk of further political instability in that country as oil revenue also fuels public-sector wages.

Finally the panel discussed the role of China. Ziemba commented:

We’ve seen Chinese policy response across the board as being more muted and modest than in past crises ... I don’t see China riding to the rescue, neither do I see countries like India playing that role.

She noted the further economic challenges ahead as “distressed assets com[e] through the pipeline”.

 

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 


Japan: Cracks in Abe’s government amid the Covid-19 crisis

Japan's Prime Minister Abe Shinzo during a budget committee meeting at the lower house of parliament on 28 April (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
Japan's Prime Minister Abe Shinzo during a budget committee meeting at the lower house of parliament on 28 April (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
Published 1 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is facing tough political challenges while dealing with Covid-19, which he has called “the biggest crisis” since the Second World War. The Abe government’s response to the crisis has been slow and dissatisfying to many Japanese voters, leading to a decline in Abe’s popularity and the emergence of cracks within the ruling coalition. Though weakened, Abe looks secure in his position for now, thanks to a divided and weak opposition, and the lack of a serious contender within his Liberal Democratic Party to challenge him as he struggles to arrest rising cases of coronavirus in Japan.

Japan faced the crisis first in February when the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama port. Coronavirus infections on board resulted in a dozen deaths. The government did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the virus. Instead of a political response based on medical advice, it was left to the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Health to handle what became a stand-off over the sick passengers on the cruise ship.

While the cruise ship crisis was unfolding, Abe paid little attention to its deadly consequences, perhaps over-confident that disease would not spread in Japan. A panel of experts was not established until before mid-February. Abe preferred to make announcements based on his own political judgement. His abrupt announcement to close all schools for several weeks despite the expert view that such a move had little value was one such example.

Covid-19 has once again shown a lack of strong leadership in Japan in crisis management, as was the case with the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 triple disaster.

At that stage, Abe was focused on preparing for the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in April to showcase his diplomatic acumen in improving Japan’s troubled relations with China. This made Abe hesitant to impose international travel restrictions, especially to and from China, where the virus had originated. It was not until Xi’s trip was postponed that Japan imposed travel restrictions on international arrivals, including from those of China.

Abe’s hesitation to impose strict restrictions, not only on international travel but also for social distancing, particularly for commuting in packed local trains, arose from his conviction that the Olympics would go ahead as scheduled. Only after some key countries including Australia said they would not send teams was Abe forced to announce that the Olympics would be postponed until July 2021.

Reluctantly Abe declared a state of emergency in early April covering only seven of 47 prefectures. But as virus cases continued to be reported across Japan, he extended it nationwide in mid-April which many Japanese felt came too late. The state of emergency does not give Abe the power to impose national lockdowns, ban gatherings, or close night clubs, but only allows him to issue guidelines for people to voluntarily follow to limit social contact and work from home where possible.

Usually packed trains run empty (Hideya HAMANO/Flickr)

As of this week, Japan has reported 14000 cases of Covid-19, with 400 deaths and about 3000 recovered. Although these figures compare favourably with many countries in Europe, as well as the US, quicker, decisive action and more stringent rules based on advice from medical experts could have seen much lower numbers in Japan.

Covid-19 has once again shown a lack of strong leadership in Japan in crisis management, as was the case with the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2011 triple disaster of tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown. This means Japan’s domestic politics has also become challenging.

Under the Abe administration decision-making has been centralised in the Prime Minister Office, or the Kantei, with some key advisors and party officials such as chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga calling the shots. This style might have worked effectively in foreign policy and to some extent in economic revitalization, yet it seems to be largely ineffective in the current public health crisis. People are privately suggesting that even Suga, long considered possible prime ministerial material, has lost his shine in this crisis.

Furthermore, it seems political decisions are not made in consultation with the junior partner in the ruling coalition. Komeito’s chief Natsuo Yamaguchi was not happy with Abe’s stimulus package of almost US$1 trillion, especially the provision to handout 300,000 yen (A$4030) to families in economic distress. He insisted that each individual be paid 100,000 yen. Abe had little choice but to accept the Komeito proposal in order to maintain his coalition government.

Although Japan operates under a unitary system, local leaders in the past have demonstrated leadership by introducing innovative policies ahead of the national government. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, too, some local leaders have acted fast with effective policy response. Tokyo’s Governor Koike Yuriko, for example, has introduced stringent policies with good care arrangements for the infected ahead of the national government. She has also communicated more clearly and firmly with Tokyo residents on the need for social distancing and for businesses to close than has the Abe government. Abe announced the nationwide emergency only after the insistence of many prefectural governors.

Abe’s political capital seems to be depleting fast and most of his dream projects –constitutional revision, settling territorial disputes with Russia, and hosting the 2020 Olympics ­– remain unrealised. Even his renowned “Abenomics” program designed to stimulate Japan’s sagging economy is now under stress. Abe’s current and extended third consecutive term runs out in September 2021 and it remains unclear what will be his legacy as the longest serving prime minister of Japan.


Governments, not pandemics, stop access to reproductive health

Demonstrators in Poland protest further curbs on reproductive rights amid coronavirus lockdown (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Poland protest further curbs on reproductive rights amid coronavirus lockdown (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 1 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Prescription limits on contraceptives, closures of specialist sexual and reproductive health clinics, halts on comprehensive sexual education, and tightened access to safe abortion. Each of these phenomena occurs in times of health crises and states of emergency, and each is happening in the world right now in response to Covid-19. What is not widely known, however, is that each is also driven by political choices made by governments.

In response to the current pandemic, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recommended that states adopt three strategic priorities: provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to sexual and reproductive health care workers so clinics can remain open; continuation of services for gender-based violence as a first response health measure (to supply morning-after pills and treatment of STDs); and prioritising of contraceptive and reproductive health supplies. In short, the UNFPA is asking states to help sexual and reproductive clinics remain open and ensure that they are safe, legal spaces for women to access.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has conducted a survey with its national members on the impact of Covid-19. Their findings show that states are already failing to meet the UNFPA priorities. Across 64 countries, thousands of static and mobile clinics and community-based care outlets have already closed as a result of the pandemic. Shortages of contraceptive supplies, scaled-down prioritisation of HIV testing, reduced access to abortion care, and lockdown restrictions have all had a collective effect.

Governments who understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health see it more as an issue to be manipulated than an enabler of women to lead healthy lives.

Limits on sexual and reproductive healthcare during such states of emergency are often explained away as secondary concerns, non-essential and therefore easy to side-line, while health workers, resources, supply chains, and pharmacists are left to focus on the fallout. At policy level, this suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of sex and reproduction in people’s everyday lives, and even less awareness of how this can change during pandemic responses.

This appears to be the case at present in the Netherlands where a single mother, who was unable to leave her house due to a Covid-19 infected child, was denied access to urgent medical abortion treatment by mail, the court ruling that she must visit a clinic. Such incidents highlight the knowledge gap between provision of services during a health emergency and their importance, value, and necessity in everyday life.

The other possible explanation for such a disconnection between policy and practice is that governments who understand the importance of sexual and reproductive health see it more as an issue to be manipulated than an enabler of women to lead healthy lives. This no-man’s land emerges when states vacillate over whether to relax access to safe abortion during health emergencies or not. In the United Kingdom, the government has recently made a number of reversals on a public health decision that eventually permitted women access to at-home medical abortion. The concern was that emergency measures would become a Trojan horse for the relaxation of wider laws once the pandemic ends.

Indeed, evidence from previous health emergencies, and early indications from the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, suggests that states are more likely to restrict rather than relax regulations around sexual and reproductive health during times of crisis. This, in turn, becomes the norm post-emergency. This is certainly the case in Poland, where the government is proposing a “Stop Abortion” law in the midst of the current state of emergency. The move has significant implications for the wellbeing of women during the pandemic, including immediate issues of unwanted pregnancy and longer term implications regarding the reversal of previous advancements made on access to sexual and reproductive health.

These examples are a potent reminder that pandemics do not pose a threat to sexual and reproductive health, rather the danger comes from governments who make decisions during these crises. As we’ve argued in a recent article in International Studies Quarterly, “as long as state monopoly over reproductive security remains unchallenged, the state continues to determine when women’s lives can and should be secured from preventable death and injury”. We need a new understanding of reproductive health that shifts the balance, which positions the issue as a security threat when access is denied, defunded and rescinded.

Pandemics have the power to undermine and invalidate advancements in access to sexual and reproductive health. States have the tools to stop it.


Winds of change: Rethinking disaster relief after Cyclone Harold

Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Damaged buildings near Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila on 7 April (Philippe Carillo/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 30 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Wind speeds over 215 kilometres per hour, more than 180,000 people affected, communities and their infrastructure hit hard, and countries in lockdown – Cyclone Harold is the most recent climate-fuelled calamity to wreak havoc in the Pacific islands. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, this recovery will be one of the most challenging for the region.

It is not the first, nor will it be the last, of these devastating Category 5 cyclones. The difference this time is that external humanitarian “saviours” will be scarce on the ground, but perhaps the current situation will create a space for more locally driven and flexible responses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050.

The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, acknowledged the devastation, but also the possibilities to reshape disaster relief operations, stating that “the pandemic offers an opportunity to consider climate-smart response and recovery measures”. Following every major environmental disaster, performance assessments have highlighted the need for better coordination, stronger local engagement, and “building back better”. Now is a good time to deliver on those ambitions and elevate the role and recognition of local systems.

In the 2019 IPCC Report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that once-in-a-century hazards may become annual events by 2050. The human, economic, and social costs of future events will be high and pressure on community responses elevated. It has been estimated, for example, that the impact of Fiji’s 2015 Tropical Cyclone Winston will be felt until 2025, with a substantial hit to its economy – one fifth of its 2014 GDP.

The risk to communities will be even greater following Cyclone Harold if local networks and assets are not better leveraged. Post-disaster assessments have highlighted that after immediate humanitarian needs are addressed, efforts must be geared first toward vulnerable people, then focus on shelter, livelihoods, and infrastructure. Priorities are place-dependent – but if no one asks local people, no one knows.

Unfortunately, these questions are not always posed. Humanitarian assistance often ends up being supply-driven rather than demand-driven. During Cyclones Winston and Pam, a notable proportion of aid went to waste because it did not meet local needs and, more concerning, overwhelmed supply chains and deliveries of needed goods. Basic aid did not reach several communities simply because lack of visibility or legal recognition existed in the formal system. Consequently, densely populated peri-urban settlements suffered.

Most Pacific island countries now take a sector-based approach to disaster response, which in many cases leads to siloed interventions. Those in charge of shelter delivery do not always speak productively to those providing water, health care, or protection services. As the UN gender adviser Aleta Miller noted following Cyclone Winston, “a lack of coordination between the wide range of actors involved in responses can cause even more harm … if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. 

In response, area-based approaches (ABAs) have been developed and widely adopted by the humanitarian aid community for more effective post-disaster recovery. As the name suggests, the idea is to focus on specific locations, and within them provide coordinated, cross-sectoral responses, such as linking water aid with shelter and food production aid.

Satellite images of tropical Cyclone Harold near Vanuatu (NASA/Artyom Tadzhibaev via Flickr)

Following Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, a summary of lessons learned highlighted the need to ensure connectivity between national and community responses. Of note was the need for key information to be delivered via trusted communication channels, such as radio stations, churches and traditional leaders. In addition, the report called for a tighter fit between National Disaster Management Offices (NDMOs) and local emergency operation centres, along with more thorough consultations with vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Recently, the Pacific Islands Forum announced their commitment to a Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19. Details are scant, but presumably such a pathway will be collaborative and inclusive. Working from the top down in the Pacific is difficult given the limited reach of many national and regional agencies. The ABAs, championed in other parts of the world as effective for their post-disaster recovery, might be just what is required with their ground up approach to engage communities and local leadership. Robert Dodds, Pacific Regional Shelter Manager at International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) explains, “we need to engage with local communities and local government first and foremost. It’s about them being in the driving seat”.

ABAs have strong appeal in the Pacific islands and are becoming the preferred approach for leading actors, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Global Shelter Cluster (GSC). However, they will only work if implementing organisations take the time to forge local partnerships and prioritise genuine needs.

From the field, we know that ABAs are difficult to enact, slow to deliver, and involve rounds of negotiations between invested parties. They do not fit the project management tools and modes of operation most often used by aid organisations, and they need adaptive delivery approaches that do not always suit agencies’ short timeframes. Yet, when done well, they respond to pressing needs and enable those on the ground to lead, which is vital to sustainable outcomes, especially in these unprecedented times that risk becoming “the new normal”.


Foresight and pragmatism missing in Australia’s relations with China

(Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 30 Apr 2020 05:00   0 Comments

There are many reasons the world needs an independent inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus. After all, the pandemic has infected nearly three million people and taken around 200,000 lives worldwide, at latest count. And the world should push for one at the appropriate time. Properly and transparently conducted, an independent and objective inquiry should lead to answers that would mitigate the risks of future pandemics, and potentially to better governance in China.

The need for an independent inquiry notwithstanding, Australians need to ask whether our political leaders should be the standard bearers for one. After all, we are far from being the worst affected country in terms of infections and deaths. And given our economy’s heavy reliance on China – our largest export market, and our largest source of foreign students and tourists – shouldn’t we have left such calls to more powerful countries, especially those that are worse affected by the pandemic? Interestingly, a number of those countries have given the suggestion a lukewarm reception, saying now was not the time for an investigation. Presumably, they saw little upside for themselves in angering Beijing as they continue to fight the coronavirus and look to rebuilding their own economies knowing good relations with China may prove pivotal on both fronts.

Australian foreign policy should be as pragmatic.

Our politicians, including ministers, have decided to do away with the diplomatic pleasantries when it comes to our biggest trading partner without so much as a pebble in our arsenal.

It would appear the Australian government failed to foresee what Beijing’s reaction might be. Or perhaps we did foresee it, but decided it was worth risking our economic wellbeing for such an altruistic cause in the interests of the world community. Never let it be said the Australian government is not prepared to put our money where its mouth is.

The early 20th century American actor Will Rogers once said “diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock”. But our politicians, including ministers, have decided to do away with the diplomatic pleasantries when it comes to our biggest trading partner without so much as a pebble in our arsenal.

Beijing’s response was predictable – China’s ambassador to Canberra, Cheng Jingye, has criticised Australia for “pandering” to Washington and warned that if Australia continues to make such calls Chinese consumers might turn away from Australian products, which would impact our beef, wine, tourism and education sectors.

His threat did not even have the cover of a diplomatic veil. Those who know China know that its consumers are highly responsive to directives issued by Beijing. In the past, Beijing has effectively issued travel warnings against Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and the US. And authorities have delayed or halted imports from target countries to display its displeasure. Even Australian products have been delayed at China’s ports in the past when we have raised Beijing’s ire, such as over the manner in which we introduced our Foreign Interference and Foreign Influence laws or banned Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from participation in development of our 5G network.

Ships unloading at Taicang port where iron ore is imported from Australia (Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Make no mistake, Xi Jinping’s China is a bully that has taken its lessons in diplomacy from textbooks written by Europe’s past colonial powers.

Of course, Cheng’s comments to the Australian media were ill-advised, to put it mildly. They demonstrate that China’s chief representative to Australia does not understand Australian culture and our dislike for bullies. And his divulging the details of a private conversation he had with the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will further diminish China in the eyes of Australians, including many among the business community who desperately want to see an improvement in relations with China.

Both nations have now climbed onto a ledge. The Australian government cannot backdown because of the risks of an electoral backlash. Indeed, even the opposition has given support to the government’s calls for an independent inquiry instead of questioning the wisdom of Australia leading the charge, realising there is broad public support for it. The Australian government will likely double down on calls for an independent inquiry, with strong media and public support.

For its part, China will fear losing face both domestically and internationally if it backs down. Beijing will likely continue to buy our iron ore and coal out of commercial pragmatism, but it could well issue “travel advisories” to the PRC’s consumers against tourism and study in Australia – there are plenty of other markets they can direct them to. And China’s consumers could easily shun Australian beef, wine and other products, or customs authorities could just delay or reject them when products arrive at the country’s ports. Such actions would do immense and widespread damage to the Australian economy.

To think, all this was avoidable. Logic should have dictated against angering our biggest trading partner when we most need its support to rebuild our economy as we emerge from the coronavirus.

If Beijing previously had Australian relations on ice, expect it to now move us into the diplomatic freezer, at least for a time.

Hopefully, the world will thank us for our sacrifice.


Information warfare in the theatre of Covid-19

Graffiti in Birmingham, England, 31 March (Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty)
Graffiti in Birmingham, England, 31 March (Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty)
Published 29 Apr 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Chaos is a ladder, said Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. Crisis is an opportunity, Sun Tzu didn’t say in The Art of War. Either way, in the United States, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and “infodemic”, political chaos is a clear and present danger, and an opportunity, in the covert and overt information wars between America and China.

Media reports citing US intelligence sources and think tanks suggest that China has identified the schisms in American politics as openings they can and should exploit. Disinformation campaigns involving Chinese operatives amplified phony news stories, such as an apparently imminent threat that the US government was sending troops onto the streets to support a national shutdown.

The how and why of this is important: they offer lessons in the vulnerabilities of any society to these sorts of online disinformation campaigns, as well as revealing the motivations of who might be running them.

For Australia, the grim lesson is that the online communications environment shares many of same characteristics that make the US vulnerable. There is little prospect of that changing.

Awaiting further proof, it is important to consider these campaigns may be state-directed, or could be the products of a more loosely coordinated network of Chinese online actors, such as identified by ASPI’s Cyber Policy Centre, or something else. But enough is known about the nature of these campaigns to characterise how they work and why they are attempted.

Motivations first. Why might China engage in these types of information wars? For one, it fits with the model of the “three warfares”, which includes public opinion alongside legal and psychological warfare. Information wars were not invented recently, but China has learned the lesson from Russia’s efforts in 2016 in the US and elsewhere and seen how they work.

Information wars serve two purposes for the Chinese military, who, we must remember, firstly serve the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the Chinese nation.

The first purpose is to buttress the CCP from internal pressure. There are significant and legitimate questions being asked about the response of Chinese authorities to the coronavirus outbreak, hence the need to turn up the volume on the standard narratives that both undermine Western (specifically American) systems of politics and present the outside world as antagonistic to China’s rise, sometimes referred to as Chinese “negative soft power”. This is not new.

The second purpose is to support efforts to diminish US influence internationally and thereby reduce American capacity to curtail China’s activities on the global stage. This is accompanied by a more confrontational approach by Chinese diplomats on social media and signals a greater confidence in its position and, perhaps, its national brand.

That is the why. What about the how? Fortunately for disinformation warriors, much of the hard work has been done for them.

Disinformation campaigns work best where several criteria are met.

The first is a large, connected online community of interest, which provides a network effect, spreading disinformation far and fast. As in epidemics, so in viral media. Super spreaders can greatly enhance the virality of a message, so those with significant influence (through network position or cultural and political importance) can exacerbate matters.

The second is a population sufficiently distrustful of authority, especially politicians and mainstream media. American political discourse meets both criteria easily: President Trump and his cheerleaders act as super spreaders and promote distrust in political and media elites (while being elites themselves).

A protest at the governor’s residence in St Paul, Minnesota, in the US, calling for an end to lockdown restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, 17 April (Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

The third relates to what is known as “crisis infomatics”: situations of high anxiety and low certainty which are conducive to the spread of both disinformation (deliberative, by malicious actors) and misinformation (uncoordinated, by well-meaning actors unwittingly spreading false hope). The Covid-19 pandemic is distinct in that uncertainty has been high for much longer than typical of other emergencies, such as a terrorist attack, mass shooting, or large-scale disaster.

Lastly, disinformation content is more spreadable if it is more emotive. Righteous anger is effective. It also helps if it has some level of homespun “truthiness”, as opposed to institutional authority. American nativist populism feeds on anger and rates folksy axioms over science. Such circumstances lead to soaring reproductive rates for viral conspiracy theories.

These factors are well known and have been exploited by foreign actors seeking to disrupt American politics and society since at least 2016. All combined, they demonstrate that the online media environment in the US is ripe for disinformation campaigns and is a product of local conditions, not a creation of foreign actors.

Worse, the limited efforts by tech giants against coordinated inauthentic campaigns are increasingly ineffective, as malicious actors can either amplify community-based campaigns on social media, or they can use encrypted messaging and SMS services. Neither of these are easily tracked.

All this remains the case despite the recent efforts to limit the spread of misleading Covid-19 information. The tech giants remain deeply opposed to similar checks on online political falsehoods.

For Australia, the grim lesson is that the online communications environment shares many of same characteristics that make the US vulnerable. There is little prospect of that changing.

But a happier conclusion arises out of the relatively sensible and sober discussions that have so far characterised Australia’s response to Covid-19. By quarantining misleading rumours to the outer fringes of political discourse, and presenting policy led by medical and scientific expertise, there is less occasion for malicious actors to turn chaos into opportunity.

This hard lesson should be remembered and applied beyond the times of Covid-19.


Back to the future: Keeping Australian air lines of communication open

Departing Melbourne (Philip Mallis/Flickr)
Departing Melbourne (Philip Mallis/Flickr)
Published 29 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

One of the (many) astounding things that have come out of the Covid-19 crisis is just how fragile are Australia’s connections with the outside world. The government’s role in guaranteeing Australia’s communications, whether digitally or by sea or air, is one of the things that we will need to re-think once this crisis is over.

For almost a month much of Australia’s air links with the outside world have been largely cut off as airlines have halted flights for commercial reasons. The Australian government has had to work hard to keep air links open. Over the past few weeks, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has helped to arrange special charter flights to rescue thousands of stranded Australians from Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, South Africa, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, just to name a few countries. The government has also had to provide financial guarantees to Qantas and Virgin to maintain regular scheduled flights to selected international hubs in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London and Auckland. This is not just about repatriating stranded citizens, but also about keeping minimum air links open for essential travel and cargo transport. 

All this has been a good reminder that for all our reassuring talk in the good times of “market forces”, the government is the ultimate guarantor and, potentially, even provider, of our vital communications links.

The last time Australia’s air lines of communication to the outside world were so effectively cut was in February 1942 when the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces cut Australia’s only significant commercial air route to the outside world – the Empire Air Route from Sydney to London.

Promoting long haul, via a De Havilland 86 Express, circa 1930s (State Library of Queensland)

This effectively closed all of Australia’s air transport links with the world. Australia then operated no other air links across the Indian or Pacific Oceans – apart only from a tenuous link with our New Zealand friends across the Tasman Sea.

To be fair, in 1942 the government had long been aware of the fragility of Australia’s air links with the outside world. For several years before the war, Australia had been in difficult discussions with Washington and London over the establishment of a trans-Pacific air route to North America. The Americans wanted an effective monopoly for Pan American Airways while Australia also wanted the option of a British run service across the Pacific. The significance of these communications links for Australia became stronger as the war progressed. Negotiations over landing rights lasted until late 1941 when it was all too late.

The shock of this crisis should make us have a hard look at how fragile our links with the outside world can be and whether we can always rely on private companies, many of them foreign owned, to always deliver essential services.

So it was that when Singapore fell in February 1942, almost the only way out of Australia by air was by thumbing a lift on US army aircraft that flew irregularly out of Townsville or Sydney as part of a tenuous island-hopping link to Hawaii, skirting around Japanese-controlled islands in the mid Pacific. Even high-level Australian officials had great difficulty in gaining any places – it would be a bit too much to call them seats – on US military flights in either direction.

Even for the 1940s, the complete isolation of the Australian continent from air connections with the rest of the world was an extraordinary demonstration of Australia’s geographic isolation.

It was not until June 1943 – some 16 months after the fall of Singapore – that Australia was able to commence its own regular air service between Perth and what was then Ceylon. These used US-supplied Catalina flying boats, operated by Qantas, which would link with British-operated flights to London via Central Africa.

These flights of up to 33 hours at a stretch were extraordinary for their time, involving a single hop from Perth to Ceylon of some 4,800km. They became known as the “Double Sunrise” flights because they were timed to fly through Japanese-controlled airspace in darkness, meaning that they would see two sunrises during their journey.

A Qantas Catalina, 1949 (State Library of Queensland)

In order to make this extraordinary journey, the Catalinas were stripped of many of their fittings and fitted with large additional fuel tanks, still leaving them some 2.7 tonnes above normal take-off weight. A special take-off procedure had to be developed to get the Catalinas into the air.

Even when they managed to get airborne, the planes were so overloaded that they would crash into the sea if they lost power in any of their engines during the first 10 hours of the flight. Each flight could carry no more than three VIP passengers, some official dispatches and mail (in the form of microfilm, not paper).

The weekly non-stop flights between Perth and Ceylon were then the longest regularly scheduled flights in the world by distance and even today remain the longest ever regular commercial flights by duration. Between June 1942 and July 1945, some 271 of what was known as the “Double Sunrise” flights were made, without any losses.

The security of Australia’s air lines of communication across the Pacific and Indian Oceans became a significant feature in Australian strategic thinking about the region in later decades. The value of islands for staging of aircraft was, for example, a key reason why we took over island territories in the Indian Ocean in the 1950s.

Of course, the threat to Australia’s air lines of communication caused by Covid-19 crisis is very different from those wartime threats that isolated Australia. But threats can come in many different forms. The shock of this crisis should make us have a hard look at how fragile our links with the outside world can be and whether we can always rely on private companies, many of them foreign owned, to always deliver essential services.
 

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.


A mining boom to a dining boom and more economic consequences of Covid

Published 28 Apr 2020 11:30   0 Comments

While we were once mesmerised by how goods and services could fly around the global economy at the blink of an eye, we have now seen the downside of globalisation, where a virus emanating from a wild animal market in Wuhan an industrial city in the middle of China could spread in a matter of weeks to Northern Italy, Iran, South Korea, and now to the rest of the world.

Unlike other viruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was mainly confined to China and Southeast Asia, Ebola to some African nations, and Zika to South America, coronavirus or Covid-19 has hit all of the major economies of the world at once. And not just a few industries have been affected. Covid-19 has not only smashed anything that involves mass movement of people such as transport and tourism, but it has disrupted global supply chains and of course put great pressure on medical facilities and personnel. It’s even hit fun in sport and recreation (and religion too which can sometimes be fun) as the fear of contagion affects anything involving crowds of people.

So how will coronavirus impact globalisation? I can think of eight ways, just for starters.

First, there’s the immediate impact on world trade. The last “Great World Trade Collapse” was during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008–09, and before that during The Great Depression which kept trade subdued up to further disruption in the Second World War. In the case of the coronavirus six of the nation first hit – China, South Korea, Italy, Japan, the US and Germany – account for 55% of world GDP, 60% of global manufacturing, and 50% of global manufacturing exports. That’s a huge hit on both demand and supply with the knock-on effects of social distancing particularly on services exports. It is very unusual for an external shock to hit so many major economies at once.

Second, there will be a realignment of alliances to reduce the heavy dependence on China. China has aimed to be a significant trading partner with all major nations to be able to have bilateral overshadow multilateral or regional partnerships. This is part of the “Belt and Road” strategy, but the pandemic exposes the world’s reliance on Chinese global supply chains. The slow response of China to the virus in Wuhan, allowing it to go global (and also stockpiling medical supplies and even retrieving stock from international markets back to China) has not helped matters.

Third, there will be a halt to what famous international trade economist Richard Baldwin called “the great convergence”. At least a delay and maybe even a reset. As Western world of “the North” grew rich after colonisation of “the South” causing “the great divergence”, Baldwin believes the multinational companies will allow poorer countries to take up more rich country jobs through the export of know-how and falling communication costs. So, outsourcing or offshoring could apply to professional and highly skilled jobs just as it did to call centres and manufacturing in the past. The appetite for this movement may lessen as nations respond to coronavirus and the need to keep jobs at home, even though the diffusion technology may accelerate.

Even at the height of the crisis, steel production (and demand for Australian iron ore continued) and demand for Australian agriculture will increase as overseas supply is affected by coronavirus.

Fourth, technology in some kinds of jobs in service delivery will be fast tracked. Telecommuting has been accelerated and companies such as Optus (itself a telecommunications firm) has decided employees can work from home on a permanent basis post-corona.

Fifth, what has become the “Tyranny of Social Distance” will heavily impact on trade in services. Call centres are affected (reducing possibility of outsourcing to countries such as India and the Philippines from Australia) and people-orientated businesses from the professions to hospitality, as we have already seen in aviation and tourism. While the measures are temporary, some consumers may change their preferences based on their lockdown experience.

Sixth, trends already on the way in manufacturing before the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate. And self-reliance will make a comeback for strategic reasons. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have already been changing the nature of work in manufacturing, and social distancing may make robotics more attractive. Also, the flexibility of Australian manufacturing (Detmold, Gekko Systems, for example) in the crisis has shown the potential for more domestic manufacturing particularly in medical equipment and technology.

Seventh, rocks and crops will remain steady, from the mining boom to the dining boom. Even at the height of the crisis, steel production (and demand for Australian iron ore continued) and demand for Australian agriculture will increase as overseas supply is affected by coronavirus.

Eight, foreign investment will be more carefully scrutinised. Australia has relied on foreign investment since convict days and will continue to welcome it. But there will be more of a geo-political lens applied when looking at investments, where state owned enterprises are involved.

So, will coronavirus stop globalisation dead in its tracks? In the short term, it already has. But in the long term it will mean a reset not an outright rejection of globalisation especially for a trading nation like Australia.

And as citizens have turned to the national state to deal with the crisis, rather than the United Nations the European Union or (for reasons now obvious due to their conduct in the crisis) the World Heath Organisation, we will see more national building rhetoric and more policy proposals about Australian jobs and growth rather than abstract talk about international “competitiveness”, as though globalisation is a zero-sum game not a mechanism to improve the wealth of all nations together. And this is not such a bad thing. After all, as Baldwin points out, competitiveness policy is just growth policy with sexy underwear, and the national priority should be a restoration of growth and high employment levels to improve living standards in the post-corona recovery phase.


A Covid-19 wake-up call to reshape Timor-Leste’s economy

A woman selling vegetables at a market in Dili, 16 April (Valentino Dariell de Sousa/AFP via Getty)
A woman selling vegetables at a market in Dili, 16 April (Valentino Dariell de Sousa/AFP via Getty)
Published 28 Apr 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The economic impact of coronavirus has been made even more severe in oil-producing countries due to the consequences of Covid-19 itself and a collapse in oil prices. Crude has fallen below US$20 per barrel as demand for oil has plummeted. This dual shock has made it harder for oil producing countries to fight the virus.

Timor-Leste, with its oil-based economy, is no exception. To date, the Ministry of Health has confirmed 24 positive cases of Covid-19. At the same time, Timor-Leste lost about $1.8 billion in revenues from the Petroleum Fund (PF) due to the falling US stock market, where a large share of its investments are made. To prevent the virus spreading, the government instigated a State of Emergency on 28 March, putting the county under lockdown. Meanwhile, a Covid-19 Fund has been created to finance expenditure related to prevention and treatment.

Covid-19 forces us to witness what happens when a country with weak health and education systems, as well as underdeveloped agriculture and water sectors, confronts a major crisis.

As economic activity has declined as a result of the lockdown, affecting people’s livelihoods, the government has approved a socio-economic plan in a bid to provide assistance. Concrete measures include the transfer of $15 credits of electricity bills per electric meter and monetary support worth $100 per month to each household in which none of its members earns regular monthly remuneration more than $500. These are short-term interventions intended to alleviate the detrimental impacts of combating Covid-19, particularly for low-income families.

The crisis exposes the vulnerability of Timor-Leste’s economy in several ways:

  1. If the loss of revenues from the PF continues over a longer period, any withdrawal from the fund will consist of a larger proportion of the principal than the “business as usual” case, which will further reduce the revenues generated by the fund and shorten its lifespan. This highlights two problems: a) Timor-Leste has no control over its own economy because it has no influence over global markets, and b) Timor-Leste’s ability to strengthen its economy will be weakened and the time window to diversify its economy will be much shorter if the fund decreases significantly;
  2. The government faces a dilemma of addressing the risk of the virus spreading and trying to prevent low-income and vulnerable households from having no food to sustain themselves. This highlights the country’s widespread financial insecurity, in which the local economy cannot withstand this kind of shock when economic activities, driven mostly by the government expenditure, stop. The government therefore has to provide monetary subsidies to help those in need and to stimulate the economy; and
  3. The country does not produce sufficient food staples, especially rice, and consequently it relies on imports. This scenario eliminates employment opportunities in the agriculture sector, particularly for people in rural areas, who otherwise could have endured this kind of crisis. Furthermore, the reliance on imported food may make monetary subsidies ineffective, especially when exporting countries have to cut food exports to provide for their own people. Thus, cash handouts should be supplemented with food and other basic needs for families to anticipate insufficient food stocks in the market.

Covid-19 has provided Timor-Leste with a stark reminder that dependence on oil revenue is economically precarious. The government has taken reasonable measures to respond to the severity of the shock by providing cash subsidies as a safety net and amplifying spending on health to mobilise health workers, as well purchasing test kits and other medical equipment. The government should see these short-term measures as an initial step towards developing investment strategies of long-term value in the social sectors. For example, the government could make health infrastructure an investment priority, such as by building first-class hospitals, to accommodate health equipment purchased during the crisis and to make the country better prepared to face a similar crisis in the future. Boosting the health sector would contribute to a stronger economy and improve the well-being of the population.

Besides the health sector, the government must also improve the productive sectors, especially agriculture and tourism, as they are pivotal to diversifying the economy and making the it less susceptible to shock. Most important of all, the government must increase investment in the education sector, which is key in every aspect of development. An educated and skilled population can open the doors to economic development through innovation and job creation.

Diversifying the economy, investing in productive sectors, and reducing dependency on oil resources are not new themes. They have been advocated by civil society organizations, development partners, academia, and even the government itself over the last two decades. However, Covid-19 forces us to witness what happens when a country with weak health and education systems, as well as underdeveloped agriculture and water sectors, confronts a major crisis.

There is no magic formula or shortcut. Support and cooperation from other countries, such as recently pledged by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, are invaluable in helping to address the immediate crisis. But in the long term, it is essential to invest in these key sectors, because they are the foundation for a thriving economy. In Timor-Leste’s history, many times, it has taken a crisis to make necessary changes. Today, Covid-19 might be the crisis that can force us to change our approach to development and begin to focus on an economy driven from within, before our scarce oil money meets its end.


Is this the Kindleberger moment?

Social distancing, South Africa (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)
Social distancing, South Africa (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 28 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In 1973 Charles Kindleberger wrote his now acclaimed book on the Great Depression. He argued that it was “great” because the global economic system had lost its hegemon – in less exotic terms, its system manager. In the interwar period, the UK was the system manager, but given the grievous financial damage inflicted by the First World War, it could not fully play the role. The US became the new pretender, yet domestic politics meant it would not step up and take control. The upshot was that there was no one running the system, no banker of last resort to provide liquidity at the moment the world needed it most. The depression became “Great”. Chaos ruled.

For want of a better term, this could be where we are now, at the Kindleberger moment. Charles Krauthammer at the end of the Cold War famously wrote of the unipolar moment, when America stood like a colossus on the world stage. Today’s Kindleberger moment may be when America forfeits that role and becomes a lesser state, observing the world around it, rather than leading it.

Domestically, the Trump administration appears to have handled the Covid-19 pandemic poorly. In an environment of limitless confusion, the president seems to have ceded control, allowing the 50 states to take the lead individually amid a national emergency that has claimed 50,000 American lives in less than six weeks. Reflecting this leadership withdrawal, two new regional governance blocs have emerged: the West Coast Pact comprising California, Oregon and Washington State, and the Multi-State Council comprising Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island. The Trump administration’s dismantling of the “deep state” appears to have been successful. Turns out, it was more shallow and fragile than expected. The federal government is now fading from view.

For middle powers and smaller states the fragmentation of the international system means we should all now plan on being “home alone”.

This decline is nowhere more evident than internationally. In previous global emergencies – financial or medical – the US has taken charge and successfully led global efforts. With the “deep state” dead, and an inward focused presidency, the US has now lost that capacity. As a counterargument, some will say the US military remains world-leading. In technical terms, that may be so, but militaries are extensions of government, not the government. With federal administrations collapsing, America’s national armed forces become less important, even if each state’s National Guard becomes more so. This disintegration was underscored in the truly extraordinary dismissal of the captain of USS Theodore Roosevelt, who on 30 March raised concerns about Covid-19 infections on his aircraft carrier. Three days later, he was fired by the acting secretary of the navy, Thomas Modly, a political appointee of President Donald Trump. Modly subsequently resigned after sustained pressure from Democratic lawmakers.

For a Kindleberger moment to occur, though, it is not just about the old system manager leaving the stage, it is also about the pretender not materialising when summoned. If the Trump administration has flaws, so too has Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. Of course, authoritarian regimes lack moral foundations, and that is to be expected. However, China’s deliberate concealment of early Covid-19 infection rates is remarkable. Moreover, in continuing to actively spread Russian-led conspiracy theories, and in refusing to accept some level of responsibility for Covid-19 deaths and worldwide disruption, China’s global standing is in freefall. With astounding chutzpah, the Party is now sending aid and selling medical equipment to the very nations its inaction has sickened, all the while vociferously claiming credit for being a good citizen of the world. Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party does not have the credentials to be the new system manager.

With both superpowers withdrawing by default, the international system is now captain-less. Some may say this is a good thing, but the pandemic highlights the dangers. There is now no one to stave off a repeat, and financial crashes reappear with some regularity in the contemporary capitalist system. In the absence of a competent and widely accepted system manager it is chaos, not stability, which acts as proxy.

For middle powers and smaller states, the fragmentation of the international system means we should all now plan on being “home alone” and anticipate that problems requiring global solutions will go unaddressed. The big one already inbound is not the next pandemic or economic collapse, but global warming. The world is at +1C and heading to +3C by 2070. If China and the US have left the stage, then middle powers and smaller states are in serious long-term trouble.

All that sounds gloomy – and it is – but the Kindleberger moment is a choice. It is not pre-ordained. Joe Biden might win the presidency in November. However, with US politicians using social fragmentation to win office, far-right media exploiting such fragmentation for commercial gain, and Russia abetting both, the odds are at best mixed. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party may reform itself, ditch its new leader, and return to its liberalising (but not liberal) manifestation of 2000–2010. Sadly, that scenario seems improbable. 

This could indeed be the Kindleberger moment.

A soup kitchen during the Great Depression (Wikimedia Commons)

The Taliban makes the most of Covid-19 crisis in Afghanistan

Kabul on lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, 12 April (Abdul Hamid Nasimi/UNAMA/Flickr)
Kabul on lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, 12 April (Abdul Hamid Nasimi/UNAMA/Flickr)
Published 27 Apr 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Across the world, non-state entities from terrorist groups to drug cartels are taking steps to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been no exception to the trend. The insurgent group has launched a public-health awareness campaign that both the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and the US State Department have publicly appreciated and welcomed. The Taliban’s response to Covid-19 has been a stark contrast from other terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, who have called Covid-19 a “divine retribution” and have used the opportunity to mount attacks and recruit new followers.

The Taliban has made moves to assist both domestic and international efforts to limit the spread of the virus in areas under its control. First, it declared a ceasefire in its controlled areas if they have been hit the virus outbreak. Second, it is conducting awareness workshops to educate people on how to use gloves and masks, wash hands with soap, and practice social distancing. Third, it has distributed medical equipment, including surgical masks and protective gloves, and also brochures listing health precautions. Fourth, it has set up quarantine centres to isolate those suspected of carrying the virus and testing residents coming from other provinces. Fifth, it has cancelled public events and instructed people to pray at home instead of visiting mosques. Sixth, the Taliban has tapped into technology by sharing images on WhatsApp groups of government health officials in white gowns and masks distributing soap and surgical masks to local residents. Seventh, it has also lifted a ban on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Red Cross from operating in its territories and guaranteed the security of aid and health workers providing assistance in areas under their control.

With international legitimacy seemingly within the group’s reach, the pandemic could be the moment, bizarrely, where the Taliban transforms itself into a credible political force.

“The Islamic Emirate via its Health Commission assures all international health organizations and WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating the coronavirus,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. The insurgent group has historically targeted healthcare workers, claiming they are agents of the West, so the decision to cooperate with them is a major departure.

Despite the political squabble between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims to be president of Afghanistan after a disputed election process, the Ghani-led government has implemented some measures, including a lockdown imposed in Kabul and other main cities. It is also building a 100-bed hospital in Herat, along with a few new clinics at district and provincial levels. The administration is running its own awareness campaigns, but there is an insufficient supply of ventilators and protective gear across the country, and on top of that, not all Afghans are able to practice social distancing or work from home, especially daily wage earners.

Remarkably, the pandemic may end up giving the Taliban a moment of glory, both within Afghanistan and internationally. The group has been running a shadow government, parallel to the existing constitutional apparatuses, for almost two decades since its 2001 ouster by the US-led coalition following the 9/11 terror attacks. This “parallel underworld” of public-health policy and strategic messaging – complete with institutional paraphernalia such the General Commission for Public Health responsible for handling Covid-19–related awareness campaigns – is, for the first time, being used in conjunction with national and international efforts. Although the service they offer is pretty basic, and in some cases may amount to nothing more than a few spoken words, it feeds into a patchwork of medical institutions scattered across the country. It also has a propaganda element which, on the one hand, is being used to put down the Kabul government, and, on the other, is reinforcing Taliban control in the 75 districts where it is already in charge.

At its peak, coronavirus may kill 110,000 Afghans, which is more than the number of civilian deaths the 19-year-long conflict has caused. There are concerns about infection among returning Afghans crossing over into the country, as voluntary repatriates and otherwise, through the porous border with Iran, one of the worst-affected countries in the crisis. Covid-19 could easily overwhelm Afghanistan’s fragile healthcare system. Aware of this vulnerability, the Taliban has conveyed its intention to declare a ceasefire in districts under its control where the pandemic hits. The jihad, however, continues in the form of attacks against Afghan forces, with the Taliban spokesperson even suggesting the group is being “compelled” to continue the fight. Such double-dealing is nothing new – if anything, it proves that cooperation with the Afghan government and the international agencies is parenthetical and temporary, and it may make no difference to the intra-Afghan dialogue, which is floundering on the other side of this pandemic.

Nevertheless, the scale of the crisis and the singular attention it is receiving across the world have given the Taliban an opportunity to project itself as a responsible and credible actor. With international legitimacy seemingly within the group’s reach, the pandemic could be the moment, bizarrely, where the Taliban transforms itself into a credible political force. To do that, however, it must go the extra mile and declare a comprehensive ceasefire, as urged by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he called for for an immediate international ceasefire in war-ravaged countries to help civilians receive life-saving aid. Such a move might cause the hardliners and foot-soldiers to defect to the Islamic State-Khorasan, which continues to attack civilians in Afghanistan. But for the Taliban to reverse its political fortunes, and with few compromises to be made in return, this may be the right time to take that first step. That the Taliban has not yet announced its yearly spring offensive might offer some hope. But then again, decisions are undone quickly in Afghanistan.


Troubled waters: China’s sovereign ambition in the shadows of Covid-19

Protesters burn a mock Chinese flag with a map of the South China sea outside the Chinese consulate in Manila last year (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters burn a mock Chinese flag with a map of the South China sea outside the Chinese consulate in Manila last year (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 27 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

Around midnight on 2 April, a Vietnamese fishing vessel sank in the disputed waters in the South China Sea after allegedly being rammed by the Chinese coastguard. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded swiftly, stating that the act had violated its country’s sovereignty. A similar incident had occurred in March 2019 near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands. In the most recent case, Beijing rejected the allegation, claiming that it was the wooden fishing vessel that had rammed the steel-hulled ship, thereby sinking itself.

Beijing’s claim inevitably drew criticism. The US condemned the incident, calling it “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea”. Among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines was the first to support Vietnam, calling China’s historical claims over the nine-dash line in the South China Sea “fictional”. It cited another incident in June 2019 when 22 Filipino fishermen had to be rescued after a Chinese vessel sank their boat at Reed Bank. This rare flash of solidarity between Vietnam and the Philippines illustrates just how seriously these provocations are being taken by Beijing’s friends in the region.

Some experts suspect that the recent sinking was in retaliation for the note verbale sent last month by Vietnam to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which referenced a 2016 decision by a UN arbitration tribunal to invalidate the legal basis of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese experts worry that this move is a pretext for more aggressive action, including the possibility of military intervention.

On 18 April, Beijing caused further animosity in the region by announcing the establishment of two new administrative districts that take in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The new Xisha and Nansha districts fall under the control of Sansha City, which administers islands and reefs currently occupied by Vietnamese citizens and military. China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs released “official” names and coordinates for 80 of the islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, many of which lie underwater at high tide. The last time China issued such a list was in 1983 when it named 287 geographical features across the disputed waters. With China again using its domestic institutions and legal frameworks to pursue its claims in the South China Sea, some Vietnamese experts worry that this move is a pretext for more aggressive action, including the possibility of military intervention.

Vietnam is not the only target of China’s recent offensive. On 16 April, Beijing sent the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 to waters within Malaysia’s economic exclusion zone. The same vessel infamously engaged in a month-long standoff in Vietnamese waters in July 2019. This time, the boat was reportedly tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company, Petronas. However, evidence suggests that the Chinese ship may have itself been exploring for oil. This month, the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta joined three US warships in the area to carry out joint exercises, the manoeuvres coinciding with US calls for China to stop its “bullying behaviour” in the South China Sea.

The Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate HMAS Parramatta, left, on 18 April during exercises with the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS America, guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, and guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (US Indo-Pacific Command/Flickr)

The Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece of Beijing, had two weeks earlier claimed that Covid-19 had “significantly lowered the US Navy’s warship deployment capability in the Asia-Pacific region”. This sentiment reflects a common perception that the current pandemic is allowing Beijing the rare opportunity to flex its muscle, particularly while other major powers are busy at home. It is also no coincidence that along with renewed aggression in the South China Sea, Beijing is stirring the water in the Taiwan Strait, and intensifying its crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

These recent moves are in line with Beijing’s policy of exploiting opportunities to advance its interests, perhaps including a post-pandemic expansionary strategy. However, the US is unlikely to allow any revision of the status quo, even while it is dealing with the worst of the Covid-19 fallout. In a response to recent developments in the South China Sea, the US State Department warned Beijing to “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims”.

Arguably, the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat earlier this month may well prove to be counterproductive at a time when China wants to accelerate the establishment of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Indeed, the Philippines stated the need for such incidents to be avoided and that differences should “be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust”. Current events will only hamper efforts that Beijing has made in recent years regarding COC discussions.

Ultimately, China’s opportunism may serve to further isolate itself in the region. It may be that ASEAN countries, along with South Korea and Japan, come together and act collectively to prevent future threats from Beijing in the contested waters of the South China Sea.


ISIS looks to prosper in a world distracted by the virus

Closed shops in the Shorja market in central Baghdad earlier this month (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Closed shops in the Shorja market in central Baghdad earlier this month (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 24 Apr 2020 13:00   0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the heart of Europe. The severity of the virus has forced policymakers to shift their priorities almost exclusively to the home front. As a result, international security concerns, particularly the fight against the remnants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which had until recently been at the core of European security policy, has receded into the background.

The terrorist group has also been swift to issue early instructions to its cadres to internalise good hygiene habits – washing hands and covering up coughs and sneezes.

Several European countries have withdrawn their troops from Iraq with coalition and NATO training missions suspended to prevent the spread of Covid-19. France’s Emmanuel Macron has redeployed 200 French troops from Operation Chammal, as the French support in the fight against ISIS is known, back to mainland France assist public services. Spain has also withdrawn between 150–200 soldiers, while Germany and the Netherlands have also withdrawn their training forces from Iraq.

The United States has also last month withdrawn from frontline operating bases at Mosul, Al-Qaim, Qayyarah, Kirkuk, and Taqaddum. Some of the relocation is to US bases with newly installed US missile defence systems following the Soleimani assassination and subsequent Iranian rocket attack in January. Yet with Donald Trump running for re-election in November, it is likely he will continue to push for the withdrawal of US troops, especially if the virus spreads in the vicinity of their military bases.

France suspended the activities of soldiers from Operation Chammal stationed in Baghdad and repatriated personnel (Ministère de la Défense)

ISIS is seeking to profit from the pandemic, which is expected to overwhelm Iraq’s national healthcare system. The concern for policymakers will be that the pandemic provides the terrorist organisation renewed hope and the opportunity to reconstitute. After its military defeat, ISIS has had to adapt, operating in remote and isolated locations – a tactic that might in the current context have the unintended benefit of social distancing. Indeed, the leadership has also been swift to issue early instructions to its cadres to internalise good hygiene habits – washing hands and covering up coughs and sneezes.

For authorities in Bagdad and Erbil, ISIS sleeper cells, especially in the Garmiyan, Diyala, Salahuddin, and Nineveh provinces are of major concern. The departure of coalition forces has left an intelligence and coordination void. It appears the terrorist organisation can boast anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 fighters in these provinces. 

Numerous clashes have taken place, notably on 7 April 7, in which ISIS snipers killed two peshmerga fighers in Kolajo, Garmiyan province. Several attacks against police and the Iraqi army have also been conducted. 

If left unchecked, successful insurgent operations will enhance the terrorist group’s tactical potency and ability to coordinate. This can in turn help foster a sense of psychological dominance, encouraging ISIS to pursue more widespread operations across Iraq.

All this should concern Western policymakers.

French figher jets as part of Operation Barkhane (Ministère de la Défense)

The International Crisis Group has shown ISIS still wants it followers to pursue attacks in Western democracies. Amid the ongoing health crisis in Europe, it is important that Europe be on high alert for the added danger of ISIS-inspired threats. Already this month a man was stabbed in the commune of Romans-sur-Isère , with French counterterrorism prosecutors launching an investigation into the attack. 

European capitals cannot afford to see an incremental increase in ISIS attacks at the continent’s doors. It was only a few years ago that savage rampages in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in 2016 highlighted ability of the terrorist organisation to coordinate attacks from the Middle East through its Emni unit.

Aggressive surveillance combined with counterterror raids are essential to limiting a terrorist resurgence. The French Air Force (L’Armée de l’Air) has a military base at Al-Dharfa in the United Arab Emirates, where French Rafale fighter jets are stationed and can be used to carry out air aids in Iraq. These fighter jets, under “Operation Barkhane” have already played a key role in efforts to destroy terrorist infrastructure in Africa’s Sahel.

Considering that 1000 French sailors have been recently infected by Covid-19 on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, it would be understandable if French policymakers, or policymakers anywhere for that matter, became consumed by the demands of tackling the virus. Yet it is of paramount importance that countries are not at the same time distracted from the continuing threat of ISIS.


COVIDcast Episode 8: Covid-19 and the World Health Organisation

Published 24 Apr 2020 11:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Natasha Kassam, Lowy Institute Research Fellow, sat down with Joel Negin to discuss the current controversy surrounding the World Health Organization and its handling of the pandemic. Negin is Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

“We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.”

In the light of the decision by President Donald Trump to freeze funding of the WHO, and calls from some Australian politicians for a review into the organisation, Natasha and Joel discussed the fundamental purpose of the WHO.

Negin noted the WHO’s main role was to help low and middle-income countries to manage a range of health issues. He said that in the context of Covid-19, freezing funding would mean, “the WHO will be less able to ensure testing, to support governments with their own isolation and quarantining, to support health workers in low and middle-income countries in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. And he commented, “if the countries in our region have strong health systems, and are able to respond to this outbreak, that will benefit Australia”.

Kassam noted the politicised nature of the organisation and questioned whether China held undue influence. Negin said, “We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.” He observed that the United States and Australia have steadily reduced funding of, and engagement with, the organisation over the past decade and that China has filled a power vacuum. He also argued that the WHO had avoided criticising China in the hope of ensuring the country co-operated fully in reporting the outbreak, but this had placed the organisation in an impossible position. Poor decisions such as the exclusion of Taiwan as an observer from the WHO reveal the geopolitical struggles taking place within the body’s membership.

Negin concluded by noting, “every country in the world, every entity in the world, every jurisdiction … has to be involved in the World Health Assembly, in the WHO” and that despite its imperfections, “if we did abolish the WHO we’d need to recreate something that looked remarkably similar”.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Strength in numbers: The benefit from global efforts to halt the virus

Manual extraction of the coronavirus at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories (Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Manual extraction of the coronavirus at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories (Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Published 24 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

It is likely that the isolationist trend in global politics will be strengthened after Covid-19. For many policymakers – and a large section of global public opinion – the vulnerability of international supply lines for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals seemingly points to only one inevitable conclusion: the need for countries to enhance their self-sufficiency.

Yet it is important that in the post-Covid-19 world we remember where globalisation succeeded as well as where it failed. The science behind the pandemic response suggests this crisis will be solved by strength in numbers, not countries going it alone.

Far away from the contested high politics of the World Health Organization (WHO) there exists a beehive of global technical activity. Specialists are networking with their counterparts across the world in a race against time.

On 31 December, a case of pneumonia with an unknown cause was reported to the WHO office in China. Ten days later the genetic sequence for the “2019 novel coronavirus” was deposited on GenBank, a publicly accessible genetic sequence database by a team of researchers from China and Australia. This novel coronavirus would later become known as Covid-19. Only two weeks after its sequence was made public, a lab in Berlin published details of a test and workflow so scientists could begin detecting the virus in patients.

The solution to the virus when it comes in the form of a breakthrough vaccine will be an astonishing feat of hard-headed, no-nonsense cross-border cooperation.

This is markedly different from past experience. For instance, it took almost six months to identify the virus responsible for the 2002­–2003 SARS outbreak.

Such breakthroughs in technical collaboration by government agencies, research institutes and scientists operating in different jurisdictions highlight the strengths of an interconnected world and defies the anti-globalist narrative.

Formal and informal research links will be critical to bringing the pandemic to an end. And none more so than in what should become an increasingly familiar field, that of bioinformatics, which has been at the core of the scientific community’s Covid-19 response.

Bioinformatics is the science of managing and analysing biological information stored in digital databases. It is one of the fastest growing fields in biology, with the adoption of automated laboratory equipment and digital analysis tools becoming more frequent since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.

Briefings on efforts to contain Covid-19 in provinces of Brazil (Government of the State of Rio Grande do Sul/Flickr)

Bioinformatics is what allows labs to simultaneously collaborate on Covid-19 research no matter where they are located. In response to the virus, many bioinformatics institutes and companies have implemented dedicated platforms for Covid-19 information exchange. Crucially, the WHO has instituted a data sharing protocol through its online bulletin, which ensures that all research manuscripts relevant to the pandemic will be freely available.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory has also created a Covid-19 portal that collates reference data and specialist datasets from biological institutes across Europe on one public platform.

Even the private sector has gotten in on the act. Benchling, an American company that provides digital lab tools such as sequence and workflow design tools, is providing all its Covid-19 resources for free. This includes experimental protocols for the detection of the virus as published by the University of California, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mammoth Biosciences.

There are also grassroots initiatives within the scientific community, such as “Crowdfight COVID-19”, a platform that links volunteer scientists to tasks requested by Covid-19 researchers. Such tasks include requests for data input, data analysis or the procurement of specialised reagents for use in chemical analysis. Some 40,000 volunteers have signed up to the service since its inception in early March.

The same strength in numbers approach to scientific collaboration is being used elsewhere to secure the supply of life-saving ventilators and other medical equipment to treat coronavirus.

Despite the European Union’s initial and much publicised failings to recognise the scale of the Covid-19 threat and act jointly to mitigate it, the European Commission is now showing how collective action can help resource governments through the health crisis. The Commission has created a “Joint European Procurement Initiative”, which has been able to secure the supply of critical medical supplies for its 27 member states. The initiative was able procure equipment within two weeks of its creation despite a global shortage. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which was invited to join but declined to participate in the initiative, is facing critical delays in the supply of medical gear for front-line health workers.

The rapid progress to date of the scientific community and the initiatives taken in Europe showcase that this global health crisis has not reduced international solidarity to empty political rhetoric. To the contrary, the solution to the virus when it comes in the form of a breakthrough vaccine will be an astonishing feat of hard-headed, no-nonsense cross-border cooperation.


105 years on, a digital commemoration marks a very different Anzac Day

A poppy grows next to the British and Allied memorial at Cape Helles, Gallipoli (Defence Department)
A poppy grows next to the British and Allied memorial at Cape Helles, Gallipoli (Defence Department)
Published 24 Apr 2020 09:00   0 Comments

This year, Anzac Day is different. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the enforcement of measures to keep people physically apart and the cancelling of public gatherings and events, including Anzac Day services and marches. This leaves Australians and residents who had planned to attend Anzac Day events at loss.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) has been resolute in its commitment to ensure that people can experience Anzac Day. AWM director Matt Anderson declared that the pandemic makes commemorations the more important because at the heart sits an acknowledgement of the resilience and fortitude demonstrated by the Anzacs.

People will have to craft their own personal Anzac experience, which will be a test to the continued relevance and importance of Anzac Day in contemporary Australian society.

A nationally broadcast commemorative service will take place at the AWM in Canberra on 25 April. The service will not be open to the public and will include only a limited number of guests who will adhere to safety measures of physical distance.

The AWM has also launched an engagement campaign called Anzac Day 2020, At Home, We Remember. This offers a series of digital activities and websites that people can engage with for Anzac Day, including placing a virtual poppy (the red flower that has become a symbol of remembrance), uploading a short video reciting The Ode to social media with the hashtag #ForTheFallen, or posting online a photo wearing a uniform and medals with the hashtag #ShowYourMedals. Other activities include Anzac-themed cooking and online resources for sports fans, history aficionados, and children.

All this means that, in 2020, Anzac Day will be commemorated digitally. Digital commemoration encompasses all those rituals that bring people together online and help them grieve and remember collective traumas. It has been gaining traction in recent years facilitated by the development of social media platforms, hashtag communication, and an increasingly busy and atomised lifestyle. In the past decade, we have witnessed the proliferation of online rituals of commemoration, especially revolving around terrorist attacks. As sociologist Natalie Pitimson explains, digital commemoration provides quick and temporally confined ways to express grief.

As part of Anzac Day commemorations, an Australian Army slouch hat sits in front of a light armoured vehicle at RAAF Base Edinburgh (Defence Department)

Researchers have also pointed to the innovative and creative potentials of digital commemoration, suggesting that it inevitably affects how people experience and connect with history. Breaking away from heavily structured rituals, digital commemoration allows for a personalised experience whereby individuals can express themselves and connect with what matters to them.

Digital commemoration in Australia is not unprecedented. Online activities and commemorative participation have been fostered for years. Digital technology and archives have been used to reanimate the past with vivid colours, interactivity, and immediate emotional connection. A striking example of this is the project AnzacLive which used social media platforms to post diary entries from real historical figures with whom users could have a one-on-one conversation.

Until this year, digital commemoration complemented and integrated offline activities and rituals. However, with current circumstances making traditional celebrations impossible, Australians and residents are left to their own devices. While the AWM provides guidance, ultimately people will have to craft their own personal Anzac experience, which will be a test to the continued relevance and importance of Anzac Day in contemporary Australian society.

Anzac Day has historically been an important instrument of nation-building. It originated in the First World War from the private need to commemorate family members who did not return. It was a requiem in the hands of private citizens and churches that bonded people together in their suffering and need to grieve. Since the 1990s, politicians have become more involved, invested in funding Anzac Day and popularising the Anzac legend as a means to promote civic values and national unity. Anzac Day is a primary carrier of national values and is invoked to provide civic guidance. For example, inclusion of women, indigenous Australians, and migrant community members in Anzac Day services has been flagged to promote gender equality, reconciliation, and multiculturalism. References to the Anzacs have been used to justify the involvement of Australia in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to prise those who sacrifice themselves for the country including firefighters, police officers, and civil defence forces.

Anzac Day digital commemoration allows people to remain connected with the tradition and its civic bonding functions. For example, the social media posts that are currently available reflect social diversity as a way of emphasising inclusion and multiculturalism. These posts are mainly from official institutions, such as the AWM and Department of Veteran Affairs.

However, as posts from individual private citizens and residents start to populate the hashtags created, we will have a better sense of who feels represented and included in rituals of war commemoration, and ultimately in the nation.

Digital commemoration removes two crucial aspects that have made rituals of war commemoration pillars of nation-building: the experience of physical proximity between people who otherwise would unlikely come together, and a structured ritual that people can follow to reproduce the nation. Ultimately, digital commemoration is an individualised experience that can poorly substitute for the atmosphere of national unity intended by war commemoration.


The danger of disease in the world’s largest refugee camp​​​​​​​

Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women)
Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women)
Published 24 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The Bangladesh government made the decision earlier this month to place the southern district of Cox’s Bazar in lockdown as Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh increased. Cox’s Bazar hosts the world’s largest refugee camp, housing almost a million Rohingya since late 2017 when around 700,000 fled violence in Myanmar, joining those previously displaced by fighting.

While there is yet to be a positive case of coronavirus identified in the refugee camps, the first case was recorded in the city of Cox’s Bazar on 24 March. Entry and exit from the area – other than emergency food supplies and medical support – has been prohibited in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. 

A recent report for the Centre for Humanitarian Health at John Hopkins University has nonetheless suggested that a large-scale outbreak of Covid-19 in the camps is very likely and would lead to thousands of deaths.

Communities displaced by conflict are uniquely vulnerable to pandemics. In fact, displaced populations are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, and are more likely to die from infectious diseases than anything else. This is because their immune systems are often depleted, often having had limited access to food, potable water, and healthcare, and living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

Health infrastructure already overstretched and under-resourced, and health services don’t enjoying the full confidence and trust of the Rohingya residents.

Almost immediately after the influx of Rohingya refugees into Cox’s Bazar in late 2017, the World Health Organization detected a rapid and ongoing spread of diphtheria in the camps. Diphtheria, like Covid-19, is transmitted through respiratory droplets, and spreads quickly in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with compromised immune systems.

In 2018, the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) further warned that the presence of cholera and acute watery diarrhea in Bangladesh, combined with overcrowding, lack of access to safe water and high rates of malnutrition in the camps, could result in an outbreak having “the potential to kill thousands”. The pre-existing prevalence of acute respiratory infection, with around 175,000 cases since start of 2020, is a strong indicator that Covid-19 would spread easily in the camps.

While diphtheria has a vaccine, and cholera a treatment plan, Cocid-19 so far has neither. In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment, social distancing, self-isolation, and good hygiene practices have proven to be the most effective ways of staying safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. This fact has exposed socio-economic inequalities between those who are capable of these strategies, and those who are not.

Medical aid seen in the camps in July last year. Entry and exit from the area has now been prohibited (MedGlobal Org/Flickr)

For communities that are displaced by conflict, social distancing, self-isolation and access to soap and water are immediate challenges. For many of these people, the ability to isolate themselves from others is, as described by Médecins Sans Frontières, “a luxury”.

For the Rohingya who live in the 34 makeshift refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, social distancing is not possible. Most live in cramped shelters covered with tarpaulin, and access to food and potable water is limited; it generally requires daily walks and waiting in queues. People also need to walk to and queue for overburdened and overcrowded hygiene facilities, including toilets – and they have limited access to soap.

The camps themselves are severely overcrowded. In a single square kilometre, 40,000 Rohingya reside. Overcrowding makes basic services hard to provide, and the rush to provide water facilities and latrines, after the influx of more refugees in 2017, increased the risk of water contamination.

Rohingya in these camps also have somewhat limited access to health care information and services, with health infrastructure already overstretched and under-resourced, and health services not enjoying the full confidence and trust of the Rohingya residents. This undermines their ability to protect themselves and compromises any effort to identify, monitor and contain outbreaks of contagious diseases.

Limited access to healthcare information was compounded recently by the government ban on mobile-phone and internet usage (Rohingya in the camps are not able to legally purchase SIM cards and internet coverage in the camps has been restricted since September 2019). This has generated misinformation and ignorance about Covid-19 and led to 26 international humanitarian agencies calling on both the Bangladesh and Myanmar Governments on 16 April to restore telecommunications in order to support “humanitarian efforts to save lives”. This ban has also separated Rohingya from support networks in Myanmar and elsewhere, so important at this time.

Misinformation is further resulting in people who feel unwell not disclosing this information because of frightening rumours about what authorities do to people showing symptoms of Covid-19. In addition to the impact this might have upon the spread of the disease, it further increases fear, insecurity, and stress among the Rohingya.

Telecommunications is also essential to carry out humanitarian work, particularly now as international actors work remotely (to avoid bringing the virus into the camps) and rely on people in situ. While some international organisations have continued and expanded their activities in the camps to best prepare for an outbreak of Covid-19, all relief work other than essential activities was halted in late March.

Protection services have drawn down, including child protection and psychosocial support, leading to likely increases in insecurity and violence, especially as stress and anxiety increase in the camps. Child-friendly spaces have been closed and a long-awaited education program put on hold. Children, and particularly girls who are often confined to their shelters, are thus unable to access what may be their only safe spaces and support mechanisms at a time when they are most needed – compromising their current and future well-being.

So far, experience has shown that responding to the coronavirus pandemic requires early action, well-resourced and organised health care, socially disciplined and well-informed populations with the capacity and resilience to respond, and space and time. These were already in short supply in refugee communities. As Bangladesh enters its monsoon season in coming months, major challenges are ahead.


Negative oil prices: Why Asian nations may struggle to take advantage

Global demand for oil is falling, storage capacity is filling up (Johannes Ko/Flickr)
Global demand for oil is falling, storage capacity is filling up (Johannes Ko/Flickr)
Published 23 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

On 20 April 20, US oil futures closed in negative territory for the first time, implying that no one was willing to take physical delivery of some barrels of oil. While the unprecedented price moves were exacerbated by technical market operations, including an excessively large exchange traded fund (ETF) and already clogged pipelines in the United States, the real driver is lack of demand due to Covid-19 quarantines and uncertainty about how these trends will change. Longer dated futures still price in a recovery in oil prices later in the year (though less optimistically than global equity markets), but it could be a very painful adjustment to get there.

In a regional context, this raises important questions about how Asian countries might respond to and be affected by this painful adjustment – and why they may be waiting for any major energy investments.

More ships are serving as storage (budak/Flickr) 

The obvious manifestation of falling global demand is that storage capacity is filling up. Spare capacity in Cushing Oklahoma, where investors take delivery of barrels, has fallen to less than 20 million barrels according to Kpler estimates, while total capacity including the US strategic petroleum reserve is closer to 200 million barrels, levels that could be filled up in weeks. Available global storage is more ample, but it too is filling up, with at least one in ten tankers serving as a floating warehouse.

Energy market fundamentals are much worse than previous downturns, such as in 1997, when the economic shock was regional, or 2008, when financially-driven demand met constrained supply, or 2014 when US shale and relaxation of Iranian sanctions brought oversupply. Today we face what in energy markets is known as “demand destruction” of up to 30 million barrels a day less compared to April last year. This is due to twin challenges ­– the Covid-19 quarantines as well as the aftermath of a production spree in which neither Russia, Saudi Arabia nor the US blinked.

While a recent OPEC++ deal aims to alleviate (slowly) this oversupply, the amount of oil available will significantly outstrip demand for several quarters even as some countries begin to loosen their lockdowns. Lagging tourism, job losses, and consumer travel suggest this recovery will be slow.

And then will follow the opposite problem. Low oil prices will cause “supply destruction”, some in an uncoordinated manner, which may leave the investment and supply outlook more uncertain in the next decade.

Roads without cars during lockdown, UK (Alex Liivet/Flickr)

Meanwhile, the balance sheets of oil producing nations are also much weaker. Buffers supported past stimulus measures and those countries with major foreign exchange reserves and stabilisation funds will put them to work on these very rainy days. Oil prices at or below $20/barrel (or even $40/barrel) are incredibly painful for producers, whether they be sovereigns, international oil producers, or national oil companies – or the financial investors such as private equity firms that have overinvested in the US shale patch.

With economies on life support or slowly reviving, consumption may take time to pick up and local refineries may be reluctant to increase capacity.

The upshot? This shock will reinforce existing vulnerabilities and divergencies between oil producing nations. More indebted countries will struggle to pay their bills and may need to bear the political cost of spending cuts.

The list of who is vulnerable is telling. On the corporate side, producers with higher cost resources, such as Canada and some US shale, or off-shore (Brazil), Arctic (US and Russia) are particularly exposed, but so too are countries that are over-reliant on oil and gas revenues, lack savings, or entered this crisis with pre-existing large debt and deficit positions.

Oil producers face the choice of cutting spending (which hits local stability and crimps local demand by cutting wages, and restricting government support of wages), selling assets (perhaps at a loss), or issuing debt. The shock is likely to reinforce inequality within and between producing countries. Richer, less populous jurisdictions such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi are more able to tap credit markets at affordable rates – as they have done this month. These countries, as well as Russia, have higher levels of government savings, lower fiscal deficits, and thus more leeway to adjust.

Yet countries with low oil production costs such as Saudi Arabia have high government spending bills and will likely run a deficit of $150 billion this year, drawing heavily from sovereign savings. Iraq, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, as well as sanctioned Iran and Venezuela lack such savings and struggled to pay their bills when oil was $70. Even richer nations such as Oman and Bahrain are likely to need a debt workout, either regionally or from private creditors, which may force foreign and domestic policy realignments. For now, the crisis is likely to increase the dominance of governments in local economies and markets.

Corpus Christi, Texas, US (laura0509/Flickr)

The fascinating question in this turbulent moment is can Asian buyers come to the rescue?

As a region of mostly oil importers, Asian countries have often taken the opportunity of crisis to renegotiate contracts, fill strategic reserves, and in China’s case invest heavily in indebted countries to ensure supply. In return they provided an increasing share of oil country’s consumer and capital imports – the domestic demand destruction among oil producers will put additional pressure on goods and construction service exports.

In a time of low prices it is rational to fill first and report later as it avoids driving up the price, however there are few signs of such buying.

China provided a financial lifeline to Venezuela and Iran, for the better part of a decade, along with major investments in Russia, Ecuador, Iraq, Sudan and Kazakhstan, although these deals may not have brought the financial returns or coercive benefits that they hoped. In 2020, we have yet to see major bulk buying or investments.

Typically, low oil prices are good for major importing nations such as China, South Korea, Japan, India, Turkey and South Africa, reducing the import bills or adding fiscal breathing space. However, with economies on life support or slowly reviving, consumption may take time to pick up and local refineries may be reluctant to increase capacity.

Indeed, efforts to boost local production may actually prompt Chinese officials to double down on electric vehicles, which would temper the increase in demand for diesel and gasoline. India, which has been a major source of new demand growth, deferred some of its  oil and gas cargos due to refinery backlogs. Going forward the government may focus its scarce fiscal and credit resources on local financial lifelines and food supply. However, these countries ought to take the opportunity for some realistic new long-term contracts especially for natural gas.

Energy transition poses an additional risk in assessing long-term financial returns (Marco Verch/Flickr)

Announcements about filling strategic petroleum reserves, which could help stabilise markets, are in abeyance. In a time of low prices it is rational to fill first and report later as it avoids driving up the price (as Chinese officials learned in the 2000s), however there are few signs of such buying. Countries such India would need to allocate financing for such purchases.

So watch for any investments in floating storage or partnering with oil suppliers to increase available future supplies. Building up strategic reserves could help add future resilience in this region of importers. Such arrangements with Saudi Aramco and other suppliers alleviated concerns about supply disruptions following the terrorist attack last year on Abiqaiq.

The energy transition and decarbonisation poses an additional risk in assessing the long-term financial returns of the energy sector. Decarbonisation is still in early days– major Asian utilities continue to be major investors in coal plants, but Asia’s sovereign funds may well weigh these issues when considering co-investment with energy rich countries.

Credit and operational risks may temper investments. Asian investments in sanctioned Iran have faced significant losses and operational challenges, including constraining other foreign policy objectives. While few countries share those particular challenges, a wave of debt distress and debt service relief calls may discourage new capital.  China is one of the largest providers of finance to energy and commodity rich countries, via government-linked institutions such the China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank and state banks. Will they be willing to double down, especially as outward investments to Belt and Road Initiative projects had already slowed, in part due to concerns about financial exposures and foreign exchange liquidity concerns?

Meanwhile, while Federal Reserve liquidity measures have been reinstated and extended to some emerging economies, no new swap lines (RMB or otherwise) have been introduced outward from Asia. With many Asian companies seeking USD liquidity to meet repayment needs, state entities may be more choosy. Add to this a series of economic shocks that make it impossible to calculate what would be a sustainable debt burden.

There will no doubt be opportunities, especially via new partnerships, but shifting supply chains, debt distress and demand uncertainty will persist.


Europe hasn’t fallen for China – if anything, it’s the opposite

The embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Berlin (bilderkombinat berlin/Flickr)
The embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Berlin (bilderkombinat berlin/Flickr)
Published 23 Apr 2020 07:00   1 Comments

Gains for China’s reputation in Europe from Beijing’s spectacular PR-actions in the fight against the coronavirus will be short-lived. Covid-19 has not shifted the geopolitical landscape between the old European and the new Chinese world.

Serbia’s President Vucic kowtow to Xi Jinping, hailing him as his “brother” afar a shipment of medical goods from China arrived in Belgrade, was rightly dismissed as a bizarre footnote by an European outsider grasping for any lever to force Brussels to deal with him in his quest for European Union membership.

But what about a Chinese plane landing in Rome with much needed help at the height of the medical emergency, at a time many Italians thought “Europe” was abandoning one of EU’s founding members? Or not to be outdone by his autocratic partner and strategic rival in Beijing, the decision by Vladimir Putin to also send Russian military personnel to Italy at about the same time, to help in the decontamination of hospitals in the worst affected province of Lombardy. The intended message? China and Russia helped, but not the EU. No wonder some pointed to alarming decrease in “Europaness” within the Italian population.

But this was no more than a blip, and the perception was wrong. Germany and France together donated, as opposed to sold, more medical equipment to Italy than China. If anybody will, Europe will save Italy medically, let alone economically.  

In the real world, the EU had sent medical support to help the Chinese government in the containment of the virus, when in February Beijing finally owned up to the seriousness of the crisis and its international consequences. And without making a geopolitical spectacle out of it. This was contrary to the Chinese attempt to depict Beijing as benevolent donor, disbursing assistance anywhere in the world, and, of course, especially in the proud European nation from where Marco Polo once started Western interest and following subjugation of China.

Over the top Chinese playacting as global leader in pandemic times, disbursing local advice and highlighting the failure of others, has backfired elsewhere in Europe, too. An example was an alarmist Twitter message by the Chinese Embassy in Paris claiming abandonment of the elderly in French old age homes.

Officials from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control with Italian counterparts in February (European Union/Flickr)

One line of assessment from the crisis claims the outbreak has shown the weakness of decentralised structures in China and thus cemented the authority of Xi’s role as the embodiment of a strong party. European countries, by and large, are decentralised. Italy is no exception. But the lessons of the crisis, with regard to China and Europe, are read differently in Europe.

From a European vantage point, China’s decentralisation is regarded as insincere, insofar as locals are mere underlings with no sense of civic responsibility other than reverence to the centre. The opposite is the case in decentralised Western democracies. Local structures in Europe, for example, respond quicker and better to local demands than the national centre. They are also supposed to feed local needs and evaluations to the central government so the latter can shape its national policy accordingly. The strikingly different performance of the two neighbouring Italian provinces of Lombardy – Europe’s initial Covid-19 disaster zone – and Veneto – which had an early and successful fight against the virus – was caused by erroneous initial decisions from the provincial government in Milan, led by the far-right party Lega. The Italian justice system has already been activated to determine whether such decisions should be subject to prosecution.

The real test globally will be who does what to fight off the global economic recession caused by the virus.

The cause of real concern in Europe, however, is the prospect of takeover of companies weakened by the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19. Internally, companies given equity injections by EU member states will not be able to buy up others while repaying the state. But the real worry is foreign, especially Chinese takeover of financially embattled companies in Europe. Of the 27 EU members, 14 already FDI screening mechanism in place, and all members have received guidelines from Brussels to step up controls of FDI and large portfolio investments.

But of course, the real test globally will be who does what to fight off the global economic recession caused by the virus. Countries and continents will be the judged by the effect of respective financial and fiscal measures for producers and consumers alike.

China, who has provided a gigantic stimulus to keep the global economy humming after the 2008 financial crisis, will not be able to repeat the same performance, so says the unanimous opinion of experts. Beijing has therefore bet on early resumption of its enormous producing capacities.

The EU institutions and the European states on their side have thrown overboard all their previous rules of fiscal prudence in a concentrated effort to prop up demand and supply. The aim is to cement the place of the European internal market as one of the three largest economies of the world.

Such efforts will be decided by size and effect. But it’s nothing so simple as to declare the geopolitical landscape has shifted in favour of China by the pandemic, however spectacular its PR antics.


Missing in action: The G20 in the Covid crisis

The G20 virtual summit, 26 March (UN Food and Agriculture Organization/Flickr)
The G20 virtual summit, 26 March (UN Food and Agriculture Organization/Flickr)
Published 22 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens, the need for international cooperation to deal with the twin health and economic crises has been highlighted. While much is made of the failings of the World Health Organization, other international bodies have fared no better. In particular, the G20 – which styles itself as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation” – has been largely missing in action. Comprising the world’s 20 largest economies, the G20 should be the natural forum to devise and steer the global response to the twin crises.

This is especially so given its success in responding to the previous global crisis: the 2008–09 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Back then, the G20 was transformed from an obscure gathering of finance ministers into the main forum for crisis management, which devised a timely and effective policy response to the crisis. Its particular strength was its informal nature, which enabled networks of technocrats, officials and bureaucrats to bypass gridlocked international organisations to avert a global depression. Since then, the G20 has evolved from a crisis committee to steering committee, facilitating international cooperation on a broad array of issues, from health to development to women’s economic participation. Accordingly, the current crisis has led to widespread calls for the G20 to step up once again.

When they finally convened on 26 March, the G20 leaders promised to do “whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”, but their communique lacked concrete commitments.

And yet, its response to date has been limited and tepid. It was largely on the sidelines early in the year, with a 7 March meeting of its Health Working Group concluding with a one-page statement with no concrete commitments or plans for action. It took calls by former leaders such as Kevin Rudd for the G20 to even acknowledge the need for a formal leaders’ summit.

When they finally convened on 26 March, the G20 leaders promised to do “whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”, but their communique lacked concrete commitments, and their promise to inject $5 trillion into the global economy consisted of already-announced domestic measures. Moreover, there was no mention of reversing export bans of medical equipment, funding a vaccine, or addressing the economic crisis brewing in the developing world.

While the recent meeting of G20 finance ministers produced more concrete outcomes – namely a suspension of bilateral debt repayments for low-income countries – there was no new actions on health crisis, and no response to International Monetary Fund pleas to bolster its resources. As former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers put it afterwards: “I had modest expectations, which were significantly disappointed.”

The roots of this failure to rise to the challenge of Covid-19 stem from both the nature of the G20 itself, and the broader international context in which it operates.

Firstly, despite its broader focus, the G20 remains at its core an institution concerned with finance. True decision-making power lies in its “Finance Track” – which brings together finance ministers, central bank governors and officials – rather than the “Sherpa Track” where all other issues are discussed. This was key to its successful response to the GFC, and also explains why its most concrete actions in the current crisis – such as the debt suspension – have been in finance, as technocrats respond to threats to financial stability. A financial focus, however, means neglect of issues such as health, which are seen as outside the purview of financial policymakers. The expansion of the G20’s remit always sat uncomfortably with the continuing centrality of the Finance Track, and has been highlighted by the current crisis.

This does not mean that the G20 lacks participation from a broader array of stakeholders. Indeed, the past decade has seen the institutionalisation of “engagement groups”, integrating civil society actors into the G20 – including NGOs, unions, women’s groups, academics and business associations – in the hope they will bring a more diverse perspectives to its agenda.

These groups have lobbied the G20 to take a holistic view of the crisis, including seriously addressing its health dimensions and going further on issues such as debt. And yet, their calls have largely fallen on deaf ears. Whilst the engagement process facilitates the participation of civil society in the G20, its terms are set by G20 officials, who often treat it as an opportunity to solicit “buy in” to their policy priorities, rather than meaningful deliberation. In this context, civil society resorts to issuing statements from the sidelines, with little effect.

Diplomacy, before Covid-19, at the 2019 G20 Summit in Japan (Ichiro Mae/UN Photo)

The third reason for the G20’s failure stems – paradoxically – from its networked nature. Much has been made of the effectiveness of the informal institutions of the G20, in particular its ‘troika’ presidency, which brings together officials from the previous, current and future leadership countries, negating the need for a formal bureaucracy and secretariat.

As commentators have pointed out, this year’s troika was not well positioned for action, consisting of Japan, which was focused on preserving showpiece events such as Olympics, Saudi Arabia, not known for its diplomatic activism, and Italy, the European country most ravaged by the crisis. Yet the broader point is that crisis situations require action and initiative, which can only come from leaders.

This is not to suggest that their mere presence is sufficient. Indeed, the current context is characterised by populist leaders rejecting the very need for global governance and international cooperation. This populist backlash stems from the secular stagnation of the global economy since the GFC, as the underlying causes that led to the crisis – inequality, stagnating wages and social mobility and growing precarity – remain unaddressed. The G20 is not free from responsibility for this, struggling since 2010 to devise meaningful solutions. As a result, confidence in the efficacy of international cooperation has declined further, with the G20 largely gridlocked along North-South lines. In this context, it’s not surprising that the response from G20 leaders has been to further pull up the drawbridges and engage in beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

In short, the G20’s failure “to demonstrate the power of global cooperation” stems both from its own nature and the broader international context. There seems little hope for a sudden change of course, either for an effective response to the health crisis or a bold new agenda to address the economic crisis, even before the “Great Lockdown”.


The case for the World Health Organisation

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, holds a virtual briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic in Geneva (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, holds a virtual briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic in Geneva (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)
Published 22 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

International organisations often bear the brunt of the blame when global progress is stalled ­– whether criticised for sapping the sovereignty of states in the name of common interests, or falling short of their stated goals and agenda. It’s a familiar story, and not entirely incorrect, when assessing relations between international organisations and member states. But it’s not the whole story.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has called for an independent global review of the World Health Organisation in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, criticising the transparency of Chinese reporting. Payne has been careful – more so than US President Donald Trump, who has directed the US funding of the WHO be withdrawn ­– and previously said Australia’s “concerns about WHO’s management in Geneva should not detract from this important and life-saving work”. But nonetheless, a political climate already distrustful of China, and multilateralism more generally, Payne’s comments appears in contrast with those of Labor’s Penny Wong, that “Australia cannot afford to turn its back on global bodies.”

It is not the first time the WHO has come under scrutiny. Critics saw fault in its response to the 2014 West African Ebola virus epidemic. Yet the containment of infectious disease outbreaks wouldn’t be possible without the type of cooperative mechanisms built into the WHO. And in health security, the WHO’s operations are only enabled by the action by governments, which remain at the centre, not the periphery, of any response.

Diverting blame and attacking the merits of global governance is a common Trump tactic – even if particularly ruthless when applied in the midst of a pandemic.

This operational structure is made possible by the 194 members, and under the WHO constitution, the World Health Assembly, comprised of these member states, has the power of determining policies, finalizing budgets, and reviewing the activities of the Executive Board and the Secretariat. So the perception being fostered of an organisation gone rogue is hardly accurate.

The member states perform a crucial role in the functioning of the organisation. This doesn’t mean the WHO bureaucracy operates in a flawless fashion. But nor is the organisation completely removed from domestic political demands of its member states, which often reflect their own national priorities in the agenda-setting process. Trump’s evident hostility towards the organisation appears a case in point.

Diverting blame and attacking the merits of global governance is a common Trump tactic – even if particularly ruthless when applied in the midst of a pandemic. Trump’s policy change came just days after the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations announced that it would conduct an independent investigation into WHO’s handling of Covid-19. Trump has criticized WHO for praising China’s role in the pandemic response and “severely mismanaging” the crisis.

However, such criticism ignores the delicate diplomacy undertaken by WHO in managing China’s response to the outbreak and how the domestic failures of the fractured US healthcare system have compounded the devastation of the virus. Whether it is the US, or Australia for that matter, politicizing the international public health crisis won’t help. Even if allowing that China concealed the spread of infections and deaths, halting funding is not a solution in reforming the operations of WHO. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has announced his regret in learning of the US decision. The bigger danger is whether other member states with also withhold funding, which would be harmful to the containment of Covid-19, particularly as it spread into developing nations with poorly resourced healthcare systems, and also set back action for the multitude of other health concerns the organisation seeks to tackle. 

Forging better standards of cooperation is more important, particularly while the emergency is unfolding. The WHO is not without faults, but it’s crucial to remember that the collective power of member states ­– including the very governments now its loudest critics ­– to determine the organisation’s operations and where its budget is spent. Criticise WHO for mismanagement, but not without member states examining their own actions and role in the unfolding pandemic.


Hit hard, could Covid lead Europe to rethink economic policy?

Atocha Station in Madrid last week as some Covid-related restrictions are eased (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)
Atocha Station in Madrid last week as some Covid-related restrictions are eased (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 21 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

“This is a moment of reconstruction – we need to reinvent ourselves, myself included,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron in a televised address last week, during which he extended the country’s partial lockdown until 11 May.

Macron spoke of the need to reach strategic autonomy in the sectors of agriculture, health care, industry and technology – but stopped short of detailing such a new strategy.

Close observers and analysts are still grappling with the changes. The views of various experts are instructive about the range of possibilities.

France and other European countries have been spending billions of euros in subsidies and government loans to get their companies and workers through what is shaping as the biggest economic crisis at least since the Second World War. Private airlines in Germany, France, and Italy could be partly nationalised. Spain is considering introducing an unconditional basic income.

For now, only short-term fixes have been implemented. But could this crisis lead to a more profound economic rethink, away from the current market-orientated dogma, such as hinted at in Macron’s speech? Or could it be even more?

French President Emmanuel Macron (ILO/Flickr)

Close observers and analysts are still grappling with the changes. The views of various experts are instructive about the range of possibilities.

Philippe Marlière, a Professor for French and European Politics at University College London, doubts a shift in market policy:

European leaders will of course invest more in certain sectors – our health care services, renowned to be the best in the world, failed in so many ways as they were lacking capacity and protective gear.

Indeed, several countries will from now on produce their own face masks and respirators. “But that won’t call into question the underlying economic strategy,” Marlière claimed.

It will be selective interventionism and like after the global economic crisis in 2008: governments won’t make structural changes – instead, workers will have to foot the bill, for example through longer working hours.

Bruno Cautrès from the Paris-based Centre for Political Research CEVIPOF shares Marlière’s scepticism. “Macron has been defending his market-orientated reforms and globalisation for three years – how could he possibly now maintain the contrary?” Cautrès said that Macron’s announcements had so far been very vague, and doubts other EU governments would perform policy U-turns. “Otherwise, they would lose all their political capital,” he said.

But Rémy Oudghiri, sociologist and head of Paris-based consultancy Sociovision, thinks the pressure on Macron is mounting. “This crisis has shown that our open, market-orientated economy is very fragile,” Oudghiri said. If adding, the Covid-19 crisis had further fuelled growing resentment against Macron’s austerity politics. As Oudghiri put it:

The French are attached to their public services and a strong state. They don’t adhere to globalisation in its current form and want to return to a form of economic sovereignty.

Some economic historians would agree with Oudghiri – and it’s not only France. Historians compare the Covid-19 crisis to the wartime effects, with the economy collapsing and unemployment skyrocketing.

Dominique Barjot, Professor of Economic History at Paris Sorbonne University, says that such economic shocks trigger a so-called ratchet effect. “Once you put in place certain policies, you can only partly take them back,” he said.

Barjot predicts the return of France’s “Etat Providence”, the strong welfare state with a strategic economic role that developed after 1945.

We have realised that we need to take control again of crucial sectors such as health care, energy, transport and even the textile industry – we can’t keep on depending on other countries for everything.

He also thinks that the state will also play a bigger role in other countries, albeit to a lesser extent.

Albert Ritschl, Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics, adds that the ratchet effect will equally have implications in other areas.

Opposition forces and unions will gain in power, as they need to be brought in to get through the crisis … All this means the balance of power will shift away from the market towards the state – even though the basic rules of our market economies haven’t changed.

Niclas Frederic Poitiers, trade economist and research fellow at Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel, is wary that such a stronger state will further undermine free trade.

“The crisis will give momentum to protectionism, which is already on the rise, especially since US President Donald Trump was elected,” Poitiers said. “But this will come at a price for the consumer – producing more at home instead of in countries where production is cheaper means prices will go up.”

And the corona shock could also hit economic thinking on a company level.

“The crisis has made companies realise to what extent their global supply chains are fragile,” according to Andreas Wieland, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Risk Management at Denmark’s Copenhagen Business School.

Businesses will now diversify their ways of supply and source certain pieces at least in several Asian countries and not just in China … Some might even create redundant supply chains at home to be fired up in times of crises.

But Wieland doubts the crisis will mean the end for global supply chains.

Companies won’t suddenly switch to circular supply chains as it would be too much of a radical change – although this would end their dependency on raw materials from abroad as the latter would no longer be wasted.

To what extent the Covid-19 crisis will change the rules of the game won’t be clear before at least several months. Macron, meanwhile, has said in recent days that despite the first instinct of nations to look after themselves, “I believe it is a chance for multilateralism”. He has promised to give more details on his economic reinvention in weeks ahead.


The complex consequences of a plunging oil price

Sven Hoppe via Getty Images
Sven Hoppe via Getty Images
Published 21 Apr 2020 12:30   0 Comments

Oil made headlines around the world again today, with US oil prices falling below zero for the first time. So what does it mean?

Three perspectives can help to make sense of the headlines.

First, from an economic perspective it’s quite simple – the supply of oil has outstripped demand and prices have fallen accordingly. As Covid-19 has brought the global economy to a standstill, with planes sitting on runways and cars idle in the garage, demand for oil has plunged.

But it is not easy for oil producers to turn off the tap, so they need somewhere to store it until they can find a buyer. The problem is there is very little storage left so producers are literally paying buyers to take it off their hands, hence the negative prices we witnessed today in the US. But don’t expect to be paid instead the next time you fill up your car at the petrol station – as explained here.

Sustained low oil prices threatens to send some US shale producers to the wall, which could hamper the US oil sector and limit the geopolitical leverage of the United States.

However, if we view oil from a security lens, the picture looks quite different. For many nations energy security has been defined in terms of access to reliable and affordable oil and gas. So low prices are generally good for big consumers, such as China, and bad for big producers such as Saudi Arabia, or more lately the United States.

Security scholars have argued that the US shale revolution – the technology breakthroughs that have allowed producers to access the vast onshore oil and gas reserves and turn the US into the largest producer in the world – will boost American power and transform energy politics in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to America’s advantage.

However, sustained low oil prices threatens to send some US shale producers to the wall, which could hamper the US oil sector and limit the geopolitical leverage of the US in these regions – although Donald Trump is doing a pretty good job of that himself.

 

Finally, rather than focussing on markets as economists do, or energy security as security scholars do, we can also ask an entirely different question: who is governing global oil markets? This is an important one because it draws our attention to the various international organisations and multinational oil companies that also govern oil at the global level.

For example,  two weeks ago we saw the G20 – the informal forum of world leaders of which Australia is a member, and which coincidentally is hosted by Saudi Arabia this year – establish a short-term “Focus Group” on the issue, calling upon international energy organisations, such as the International Energy Agency, to help stabilise global oil markets.

Which organisations dominate this process, and how effective they prove to be, for example, in brokering agreements between producers and consumers could play a big role in determining the oil outlook over the coming months.

Predicting future oil prices is a mug’s game but one thing is for sure – the consequences of what is taking place are never as simple as one perspective would have you believe.


If this is war, that Zoom call is part of the battle

The military planners verdict? “Supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well” (Defence Department)
The military planners verdict? “Supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well” (Defence Department)
Published 21 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

In recent weeks, several world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have invoked combat-related terms to summarise efforts to contain and contest the novel coronavirus and its effects. As each day we track the progress of casualties, emergency actions, and strained supply lines, this analogy seems increasingly apt.

But what does a declaration of “war” on Covid-19 mean for our collective response and responsibilities as nations and citizens?

Continue the combat analogy – let’s define the mission we need to execute in order to win.

To answer this question, let’s consult the formal planning processes developed by allies such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Typically employed by generals and admirals confronting a traditional security threat, these doctrines (which are unclassified and readily accessible online) are hundreds of pages long and laden with military jargon. But perhaps even an abridged version could help us continue the combat analogy and define the mission we need to execute in order to win.

In the initial stages, planners formulate a Desired End State, which is what it will look like if we’ve successfully achieved our objectives. A few hours at the white board may result in something like, “The novel coronavirus and its effects are neutralised with minimal loss of life, health, and prosperity.” Purposely broad, the Desired End State is a north star meant to guide us through the rest of the process.

Next comes Mission Analysis, where we study the enemy’s capabilities and vulnerabilities, our own (“friendly”) capabilities and vulnerabilities, and then define the primary source of power for each side, called their Centres of Gravity. A team of military planners, armed with maps and intelligence reports, deliberates for days over the fundamental questions, “What gives them the strength to win?” and “What gives us the ability to counter them?”

Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash

We assume in our scenario that the novel coronavirus, as our enemy, is intent to inflict maximum harm against us, so let’s break down three Threat Vectors that it uses to do so. First, it transmits through a particular biological mechanism to inflict physical harm. Second, it damages our economy by reducing prosperity and increasing inequality. And third, it broadens its destructive reach by inflicting mental anguish through uncertainty, isolation, and fear.

We could, therefore, describe the Enemy Centre of Gravity (ECOG) as the ability to cause physical, economic, and mental damage. And our Friendly Centre of Gravity (FCOG) the ability to contain and combat those harms.

With our ECOG and FCOG now defined, we look ahead to assess the Decisive Point – the moment or condition that we envision can mark the turning point in which we gain the advantage over the enemy. Perhaps something like:

During the moment of peak infection, we will have sufficient resources to contain and combat the novel coronavirus itself and begin a return to normal levels of physical, mental, and economic stability.

Our intelligence officer is now briefing us that this Decisive Point is approaching. How prepared are we, and what can we do to reduce our exposure to each of the enemy’s threats?

First, physical harm, already the subject of our daily briefings in the press and online that tell us to restrict movement, practice hygiene, and fortify health care infrastructure. Check.

Second, economic damage has been the other core focus as governments and businesses around the world deploy their artillery of stimulus and other responsive policies. Check.

But, what about the enemy’s third vector of destruction: mental anguish? Although not altogether ignored, this may be where a lack of centralised defense leaves us most exposed.

Put in a call. Use your “weapons” (Wyoming National Guard/Flickr)

As military planners, we recognise the many grave threats to our nation and its citizens driven by even the spectre of this pandemic: loneliness from isolation, exacerbated anxiety, psychological effects of un- or underemployment, concern for loved ones, strain on relationships, general feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the adversary, to name only a few. And anytime these factors cause anyone to harm themselves or others, the devastation from the virus has expanded further.

So, along with continuing to toughen our fight against the enemy’s physical harm and economic damage, here’s our mission: do whatever we can with our available resources (time, mental energy, empathy) and “weapons” (text, phone, video chat, email) to check in with others. Be it to actively listen, or schedule another Zoom happy hour. Perhaps read to a child on Caribu, or research best practices disseminated by organisations such as Lifeline. Put in a call to a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while, or even just offer a smile, greeting, or wave to someone across the street.

We have been regularly informed that our actions can prevent the spread of Covid-19’s physical harm such that even preventing one or two physical interactions could significantly disrupt the enemy’s advance. Now our military planning tells us that even one or two socially (distanced, of course) supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well. Putting our jargon to work: Since the ECOG will strengthen as we move closer to the Decisive Point – we must congruently bolster our FCOG by increasing the frequency and effectiveness of our support for one another’s mental welfare, as we work toward our Desired Endstate.

So if we’re indeed at “war”, put on your battledress, think about how you can help yourself and others to resist (all of) the ways the “enemy” is advancing, and let’s move out.

 

 

Gear up (Defence Department)

The phony war ends: PNG’s coronavirus challenge takes shape

A lack of reliable electricity is one of the many challenges in PNG compounded by a pandemic (ADB/Flickr)
A lack of reliable electricity is one of the many challenges in PNG compounded by a pandemic (ADB/Flickr)
Published 21 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

For a few weeks it has seemed like PNG might have been engaged in a “phony war” against coronavirus.

Only two cases had been confirmed across the nation of around nine million people. One was a foreign mine worker who was quickly sent out of the country once his positive test was confirmed. The second was a health worker in East New Britain province where the source of the infection wasn’t entirely clear.

The government’s response to the positive cases was swift and harsh: a state of emergency, non-essential business lockdowns, bans on domestic air and road travel, and restrictions on markets and roadside selling. Parliament met and extended the declaration earlier this month.

And in the absence of any flare-up, those tough measures appeared to be working – although they were starting to chafe.

Prominent politicians such as the East Sepik Governor Allan Bird – who had advocated a hard-line shoot-to-kill order on illegal border crossers to stop the spread of the virus ­– had started to question the need for the harsh lockdowns, highlighting the economic impact.

But the past few days have started to reveal how pandemic has been silently spreading throughout the country. PNG’s phony war appears to be at an end.

Last week, five new cases were confirmed. Concerningly, three of those were in the Western Province, which borders both Indonesia and Australia’s Torres Strait. Another case was confirmed in East New Britain and alarmingly, the first case in Port Moresby: a quarantine official who had been working in the country’s Covid-19 national operations centre.

That takes the case load to seven. By international standards, those numbers are still small. But they also are a measure of the limited amount of testing that had been done – around 350 tests until this week.

PNG’s health system will struggle. Prime Minister James Marape has admitted as much – saying that the government hasn’t invested in health care as it should.

One provincial health worker has told me that they have been concerned about potential coronavirus cases in their area for weeks, but the restrictions on the national testing regime meant they weren’t able to have tests done to confirm their suspicions. Another official close to the national pandemic response believes the virus may be much more prevalent in the country than the tests so far have confirmed.

The country’s Institute of Medical Research in Goroka had been the centre of testing until a second laboratory in Port Moresby was established recently. But limits on the availability of testing agents means that the government has had to start sending samples to Australia.

PNG isn’t alone as a developing country with limited capacity to deal with this virus. There is the real prospect that Covid-19 will spread, largely unchecked, throughout the country for many months to come. Its land border with Indonesia means that whatever efforts it makes are always tied to the success its larger neighbour has in dealing with the pandemic.

And PNG’s health system will struggle. Prime Minister James Marape has admitted as much – saying that the government hasn’t invested in health care as it should. It already deals with a multitude of daily challenges including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. And beyond under-funding, corruption has hollowed out its capacity to respond.

Accommodating the PNG testing load in Brisbane is a major boost to the country’s surveillance capacity. It’s good to see Australia stepping up to help its nearest neighbour.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison must be commended for making sure that world leaders don’t forget the Pacific even as he and his government deal with the massive challenges at home.

Having raised the issue of supporting developing nations during their coronavirus response, on Thursday Morrison announced that PNG wouldn’t have to make any payments on a US$300 million loan negotiated as part of last year’s budget until the end of the year. It’s the start of what will should be an important and ongoing role Australia can play in helping PNG to deal with the virus and its impact.

It’s also one less thing that the country will have to worry about as it deals with what will be a massive challenge in the days ahead.


The facts about global trade in face masks, ventilators and test kits

At the high point, China was using an estimated 240 million masks a day (Yu Haiyang/China News Service via Getty Images)
At the high point, China was using an estimated 240 million masks a day (Yu Haiyang/China News Service via Getty Images)
Published 21 Apr 2020 09:00   0 Comments

What impact will coronavirus have on economic globalisation, the force that has so momentously changed our world over the last half century?

An early example is the global trade in medicines and medical products, especially those essential to fighting coronavirus such as face masks, ventilators and test kits. As the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) observed in an 6 April note, Covid-19 “is drawing attention to the ways in which the US economy depends on manufacturing and supply chains based in China”. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said last month he is preparing an executive order to help relocate medical supply chains from overseas to the United States. Japan has already announced such a plan. Australian Industry Minister Karen Andrews has also joined in, foreshadowing a review of Australia’s reliance on imports of medical products.

Although this is shaping up as an interesting debate, facts may intrude.

One fact is that the global trade in medical products is mostly an advanced economy business. The US itself is a very big exporter of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. On US Bureau of the Census numbers exports in these two categories last year totalled nearly $100 billion, putting the US just behind Germany as the second biggest global exporter of medical products.

On recent World Trade Organisation numbers, the top six exporters of medical products are Germany, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland.

Germany and the US are not only the top exporters but also the biggest importers – and in each case their top suppliers are other Western democracies.

Using those same WTO numbers, all of China’s exports of medical products last year totalled just one 20th of world medical exports, way behind Germany with one seventh, or the US with one eighth.

Policies that injure global trade in medical products would hurt the US and its Western democratic allies more than most, and in a sector well suited to their strengths in technology and intellectual property.

A lesson of the pandemic is certainly that no nation can rely on imports to meet its needs when every nation on earth suddenly wants the same products.

The US Bureau of the Census numbers for trade in pharmaceuticals and medical equipment show the US sells more to China than China to the US. Using a wider category the WTO shows a “medical products” bilateral imbalance in China favour but also shows that while the US accounts for nearly a fifth of China’s imports of medical products, China accounts for less than a 10th of US imports of medical products.

US medical products imports from Ireland, Switzerland and Germany are worth nearly five times US medical products imports from China.

Another intrusive fact is that China is only an important supplier of medicines and medical equipment to the US and the rest of the world in a couple of areas.

Coronavirus testing kits were in short supply in the US (and elsewhere). But China had not been an important exporter of these kits and on the CRS numbers accounted last year for only a tiny share of US imports.

Respirators are another essential piece of coronavirus treatment equipment, but China is not a big exporter to the US. According to the CRS, China accounted for 17% of US imports of respirators, much less than Singapore.

China produces some important active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) used by US drug makers, but its most important medical export to the US is face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). On CRS numbers China accounts for 72% of US imports of textile face masks, 77% of imports of plastic gloves, and half of imports of protective garments.

Though China restricted exports of face masks in early January, when China’s own requirements were huge, it resumed exports in February. Since 1 March, according to China’s customs service, it has exported 26.7 million N-95/KN-95 masks, 504.8 million surgical masks, 195.9 million gloves, 17.3 million surgical gowns, 873,000 goggles, 3,253 non-invasive ventilators and 112 invasive ventilators.

Air regulator tests during the production of medical ventilators in Spain (Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)

In the categories where it accounts for significant shares of US medical imports, China does not appear to be responsible for shortages. In a 27 February press release addressing issues in medical supplies US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn told the media that no US firms importing drugs or active drug ingredients from China reported shortages, and the drugs in question were anyway regarded as “non-critical” for coronavirus treatment. The FDA had contacted US manufacturers producing “essential” medical devices in China. Hahn told the media ‘there are currently no reported shortages’ for these medical devices. In respect of masks, gowns, gloves or other PPE, Hahn told reporters the FDA “is currently not aware of specific widespread shortages”.

So what lessons on globalisation and medical products can we draw from the pandemic?

One is that normal production of medical products will never be enough to meet the extraordinary demands of a pandemic, whether the production is at home or abroad.

Surgical face mask production is a good case in point. Despite China producing half the world’s face masks last year, its output proved nowhere near enough for a population the size of China’s during an virulent epidemic. At the high point, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, China was using 240 million masks a day – more than ten times its manufacturing capacity. It cut off exports, imported masks, and increased domestic production from 20 million masks a day before the crisis to 116 million a day at the end of February. Taiwan, South Korea and India also restricted mask exports (including to China), for much the same reasons.

A lesson of the pandemic is certainly that no nation can rely on imports to meet its needs when every nation on earth suddenly wants the same products, and in vast quantities. At various times and to varying degrees, 60 nations restricted exports of medical products during the pandemic.

But another lesson is that nations cannot routinely produce within their borders the volume of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals needed for a pandemic. It is not a practical possibility for any nation or the entire global economy to produce every year the volume of output that might be needed one year in 20. Instead, the lesson is that every nation needs to stockpile enough essential supplies to get it through to the point where imports in sufficient quantity and emergency domestic production are available.

In the US and elsewhere the level of stockpiling was insufficient. The US Health and Human Services reported earlier this year that the US stockpile of face masks was less than 1% of what would be needed for a year-long epidemic. The face masks stockpile in China was clearly insufficient.

Even so, shortages of medical products do not account for the severity of the epidemic in Lombardy or New York. More testing and therefore more testing kits would have helped, but the great difference could have been made by earlier action to reduce infections, including lockdowns, social distancing, and travel bans.


Safety of life at sea: Covid‑19 and naval operations

T flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while at port in Guam as crew are treated for Covid-19 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
T flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while at port in Guam as crew are treated for Covid-19 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 20 Apr 2020 17:00   0 Comments

The potential impact of Covid-19 on naval operations has been highlighted by reports that over half of the 2,000-plus sailors aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle have tested positive for COVID-19. The ship left a NATO exercise ten days early and returned to port in Toulon to allow disembarkation of sick crew members and sanitising. 

The US Navy has experienced similar challenges with outbreaks of varying size on four carriers – the USS Ronald Reagan (at Yokosuka), USS Nimitz (at Bremerton), USS Carl Vinson (at Bremerton), and USS Theodore Roosevelt in port at Guam. The outbreak of Covid-19 onboard the Theodore Roosevelt with more than 600 confirmed cases and one sailor dying had major repercussions throughout the upper echelons of the US Navy. The ships’ captain was sacked by the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, after he had written an open letter querying the Navy’s handling of the situation onboard his ship. This was despite the Chief of Naval Operations arguing against the captain’s sacking.

Subsequently Modly resigned himself after a recording of his clumsy and tactless speech to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt was made public. In another instance of his lack of credibility within the US Navy, senior naval officials also reversed other decisions made by him before his resignation. All this deepened upheaval in leadership of the US Navy – Modly’s predecessor had been fired over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct after the SEAL had been supported by President Donald Trump.

USS Theodore Roosevelt at anchor in Guam as crew recover from Covid-19 and the ship is disinfected (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

While the US Navy has denied that Covid-19 is having any major impact on its ability to conduct operations, this ability is coming at the expense of limitations on crew liberty and associated morale problems. It has taken the extraordinary step of keeping the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group at sea in the Atlantic rather than making a planned return to base in Newport in a move to keep the crews of the carrier, its escorts and air wing healthy and ready for any surge in the need for military operations. The last liberty for these crews was in Oman in late February. Meanwhile in the Pacific, the crews of carrier USS Nimitz, its escorts and air wing are nearing the end of a 14-day isolation period before heading to sea for pre-deployment training. In order to control the spread of the virus, the ships may not subsequently come back into port before leaving for their planned deployment.

Cruise liners have attracted most attention recently with their propensity for disease to spread rapidly onboard. However, the crews of warships are even more vulnerable than people on a cruise liner. They mostly live in cramped mess decks and work closely together in operations rooms, bridges, and the other confined spaces of a warship. Submarines are particularly vulnerable. A Dutch navy submarine recently broke off a mission in the North Sea and returned to base after several members of its crew were diagnosed with coronavirus.

The crews of warships are even more vulnerable than people on a cruise liner. They mostly live in cramped mess decks and work closely together in operations rooms, bridges, and the other confined spaces.

Naval exercises are being heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indian military is postponing all joint exercises it was scheduled to hold with foreign militaries this year because of the crisis. The Indian Navy had previously cancelled this year’s Exercise MILAN, which had been scheduled for late March and would have brought together ships and representatives from most regional navies with the notable exceptions of its potential adversaries, China, and Pakistan.

Similarly, Australia has cancelled its biggest Army exercise for the year, the biennial Exercise Hamel, and will not send troops to this year’s US Indo Pacific Command’s flagship biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. In any case it’s increasingly likely that this large exercise, which was scheduled to bring together 25 regional nations and 25,000 personnel in July, will not proceed.

Naval exercises are an integral part of any navy’s annual program but the benefits are easily overstated, particularly in the case of large scale international exercises such as MILAN and RIMPAC. These exercises are also non-essential in the sense that any diplomatic fall-out as a result of their cancellation is unlikely – all potential participants have a common interest in their cancellation.

The main benefits of exercises, such as MILAN and RIMPAC, are largely rhetorical, lying in their contribution to maritime confidence-building and cooperation in basic naval activities, such as underway replenishment, other fundamental seamanship exercises, and officer-of-the watch manoeuvres, rather than in any purposeful advanced tactical operations. Security restrictions prevent these operations being carried out in exercises other than those between closely allied navies, such as the Royal Australian Navy and US Navy.

Arguably there are only a limited number of essential naval operations that should now proceed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. These might include operational requirements, such as support for border protection or those currently underway in the Middle East, and vital exercises, mainly at a national level, to maintain operational readiness. But ultimately there must be trade-offs between operational readiness and the risks of sickness and death among ships’ crews, and between essential and non-essential activities. As the sacked Captain of the Theodore Roosevelt observed, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”


Australia needs a comprehensive plan for Covid-19 in the Pacific

Australian relief supplies delivered to Fiji at the weekend amid the Covid-19 outbreak and following Cyclone Harold (Defence Department)
Australian relief supplies delivered to Fiji at the weekend amid the Covid-19 outbreak and following Cyclone Harold (Defence Department)
Published 20 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Of all the regions in the world, the twin health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have the potential to hit the Pacific the hardest.

Pacific Island nations supported Australia during our bushfire crisis, sending members of their defence forces and making donations to communities in a much wealthier nation. This region is perhaps the most critical to Australia’s physical security – and a region which must be supported through the pandemic by a comprehensive Australian plan.

At latest count there are 266 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pacific island countries and seven deaths from the disease. The governments of at least 10 Pacific island countries have imposed states of emergency. Health workers with only a handful of ventilators at their disposal are bracing against more severe outbreaks. Travel throughout this vast and geographically dispersed region has been all but shut down, and populations already struggling with poverty are facing a grim economic outlook.

Perceptions in Pacific countries that Australia has let the region down at this time of need or is not listening to its Pacific partners could fundamentally compromise the Step Up.

The crisis will continue to unfold for some time yet out and will cast a long shadow over the countries of the Pacific.

There will be humanitarian, economic, social and political impacts – not only for the region itself, but also for Australia, which faces national security and geopolitical risks from an inadequate response to Covid-19 in the Pacific.

The coronavirus crisis has the potential to overburden weak local health systems. Healthcare systems in most Pacific countries suffer from a lack of resources, health professionals, basic equipment and infrastructure. In many countries, poor logistics, transport infrastructure and geographical isolation add to the challenges in providing health services in remote regions. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, and limited fresh water supplies in remote communities may also reduce the effectiveness of basic containment measures.

A caregiver for the elderly in Nuku’alofa Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

Some Pacific island nations’ economies face virtual collapse because of the pandemic.

Several nations are highly dependent on tourism, which has been shut down by travel restrictions. The most tourism-dependent economies are Fiji (where tourism comprises 17% of GDP), Samoa (23%), Vanuatu (40%), the Cook Islands (73%) and Tonga (10%), according to ANZ research and official figures.

Economic impacts are likely to go beyond tourism. The World Bank has identified the following additional economic risks for Pacific nations:

  • Commercial fishing may be reduced due to travel restrictions;
  • Fish exports may be affected by a global economic slowdown;
  • Construction and infrastructure projects may be affected by availability of labour and materials;
  • Remittances from Pacific nationals working abroad may slump;
  • Slower global growth may impact commodity prices and resources exports;
  • Global equity market declines may hit investment earnings of sovereign wealth funds which comprise significant sources of government revenue in Kiribati and Timor-Leste.

Covid-19 in the Pacific also presents risks for Australia’s national security and foreign policy interests. The Australian government’s participation in discussions by the Pacific Islands Forum on establishing a “Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19” is to be welcomed.

However, the need for humanitarian assistance comes as Australia already faces pressure from the domestic impacts of the virus, which will rightly always be the first priority for Australian governments. Economic contractions in Pacific nations will pose risks for Australian interests, including:

  • Direct impacts on Australian tourism businesses engaged with Pacific tourism;
  • Pressures from Pacific partners to boost development assistance;
  • Economic downturns may exacerbate the Pacific’s development challenges and increase state fragility;
  • Loss of income, which could create social tensions with risks of instability and conflicts in Pacific countries;
  • An impact on government budgets, which may increase the attractiveness of financial partnerships with China.

Papua New Guinea must be regarded as particularly vulnerable to the pandemic given the size of its population, its proximity to countries which have substantial outbreaks, and the lack of resources in its health system.

A priority for the Australian government in responding to the pandemic in the Pacific should be ensuring PNG receives urgent assistance to slow the spread of Covid-19. This assistance should be targeted at boosting the country’s healthcare resources and ability to test, contain, and treat the virus. Australia should provide direct support for such measures through its bilateral development assistance program. It should also urge speedy action by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on PNG’s current requests for funding for its Covid-19 response.

Buvussi Health Centre, PNG (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

Strong performance by Australia in assisting Pacific countries with Covid-19 would support the Morrison Government’s Pacific Step Up and its foreign policy objectives.

By the same token, perceptions in Pacific countries that Australia has let the region down at this time of need or is not listening to its Pacific partners could fundamentally compromise the Step Up.

This matters because COVID-19 also has implications for great power competition in the Pacific. There are already competing narratives about the roles of China and the US in responding to the pandemic.

On the one hand, the role of China’s government in initially covering up the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan may cause some Pacific countries to question the Chinese authoritarian model and to be wary of further engagement and exposure to China, including debt exposure. On the other hand, Beijing is seeking to use the apparent containment of the outbreak in China to articulate a narrative about the effectiveness of its model of governance and to establish itself as the world’s “counter-Covid leader in word and deed.”

China is seeking to boost its soft power through providing material aid to countries affected by the pandemic, including in the Pacific. It has convened a video conference for more than 100 Pacific government Ministers and officials with senior foreign affairs and health officials in Beijing. Its ambassadors in Pacific countries have been staging photo opportunities as they hand over cheques to local officials from Beijing’s US$1.9 million China-Pacific Island Countries Anti-Covid-19 Cooperation Fund.

Given the humanitarian, economic, foreign policy and geostrategic interests at stake, Australia needs a comprehensive strategy for working with Pacific partners on Covid-19. While the Australian Government has taken a number of ad hoc steps to assist the Pacific, the Foreign Minister and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific have had little to say about the issues facing the Pacific, let alone articulating any coherent plan for assisting the region and advancing Australia’s interests.

There needs to be a comprehensive and coordinated Australian strategy. This should comprise three phases: immediate humanitarian assistance; medium term economic recovery; and longer-term investment in resilience.

The strategy should be developed and implemented in close partnership with Pacific countries and organisations. Ultimately, we must listen to the needs and priorities of our Pacific neighbours.

It requires senior Australian leadership from the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and senior officials from Australia’s health, economic, foreign policy and defence agencies.

Phase one: immediate humanitarian assistance

The first phase would focus on containing the spread of the virus and responding to health and humanitarian needs, including economic needs such as the supply of essential goods including foodstuffs and fuel. Healthcare assistance would be a strong component of this phase.

Australia would provide funding, technical assistance, medical equipment, training, testing and personal protective equipment to hospitals and healthcare facilities in the Pacific. It would assist Pacific governments in providing advice and information to their communities on prevention strategies such as hygiene and social distancing.

Australia should also consider short term economic assistance, funded from the Australian Official Development Assistance (ODA) budgets and leveraging funding from multilateral development institutions.

Covid-19 has highlighted the problem of a lack of access to water and sanitation infrastructure in many Pacific communities.

Short term economic assistance should also be targeted at Pacific tourism businesses which have called for measures such as freezing debt repayment obligations to banks.

Australia’s corporate sector is leading by example here – ANZ Pacific has offered to defer repayments for home, business and personal loans for up to six months for customers affected by Covid-19 in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and Kiribati.

Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority should provide support to Pacific regulators to facilitate such measures by local financial institutions.

Australia may also need to assist in providing a wider range of goods and equipment in short supply due to the impacts of the pandemic on travel, transport and global supply chains, given that many Pacific nations rely on imports for fuel and other essential commodities.

This phase would include Australia working with Pacific governments to ensure they gain access to the financial assistance being made available to developing countries by multilateral institutions and development banks.

Phase two: economic recovery

Australia should work on a Pacific economic recovery and rebuilding strategy with Pacific governments, the Pacific Islands Forum, other regional governments and groupings such as the G20, and the multilateral financial and development institutions.

Australian bilateral assistance will be able to support specific measures in consultation with Pacific countries. Australia can also provide technical assistance with the design of fiscal and monetary policy measures.

International support has contributed to a wastewater treatment facilty in Suva, Fiji (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

However, the scale of the economic fallout will require very substantial support from multilateral institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and ADB. Australia should play a leading role in advocating for the multilateral institutions to deliver economic and financial support for Pacific countries.

The recovery strategy should be multifaceted and could include:

  • Fiscal measures to support Pacific citizens, including measures which are effective in assisting people who work in the informal sector and may not be reached by existing social support programs;
  • A tourism recovery effort including marketing to traditional and new customer bases and temporary easing of government taxes such as airport taxes and passenger entry or exit charges to make the pricing of tourism products more attractive;
  • Liquidity support for small and medium sized businesses;
  • Bringing forward funds for infrastructure investments;
  • Assisting governments to finance domestic economic and fiscal policy measures;
  • Boosting Pacific labour mobility and migration opportunities to provide Pacific countries with enhanced flows of remittances.

The economic recovery strategy needs to reflect the specific circumstances of Pacific nations including their small population bases, lack of economic diversification, geographic isolation, remoteness from international markets and limited revenue bases and fiscal capacity of governments.

It also needs to reflect social needs including gender issues and the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, children and people in remote communities.

Phase three: building resilience

Over the next two to three years, Australia should consider the longer term implications of the pandemic for the Pacific.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the vulnerabilities of our Pacific partners’ healthcare systems. This comes after several years in which the Coalition government’s ODA cuts have fallen more heavily on healthcare than on aid programs in physical infrastructure, trade facilitation and international competitiveness.

While the Coalition has increased Australia’s overall development assistance for the Pacific (by cutting aid significantly for East Asia and South Asia), it has also reoriented Pacific assistance to “hard” physical infrastructure at the expense of “soft” human infrastructure including health.

The Australian government needs to pause its review of its international development policy and reassess in the light of the pandemic’s lessons.

Soldiers from PNG with Australian officials following the summer bushfires in Australia (Defence Department)

Development assistance needs build greater capacity in healthcare and to support economic and social resilience. In health there is a need to improve resources, skills and capabilities both in responding to public health emergencies and also to tackle the region’s ongoing challenges in non-communicable diseases and preventative health interventions.

Covid-19 has highlighted the problem of a lack of access to water and sanitation infrastructure in many Pacific communities. Climate change will put additional pressures on water and sanitation infrastructure as rising sea levels, storm surges, and high tides introduce saltwater into freshwater resources in low-lying Pacific atolls.

Infrastructure investments should include social infrastructure in areas such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) that are less commercially attractive for private sector investors. Consideration should be given to earmarking a share of the $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Finance Facility for the Pacific for investments in health and WASH infrastructure.

If Australia genuinely wants to be the partner of choice for Pacific island nations – with all the benefits that will bring for our national interest – then how we contribute to their Covid-19 challenge in coming months will shape our future in this important region.

This is a test that the region desperately needs Australia to pass.


The vanishing hegemon

The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 20 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Has the corona crisis already changed the world? Many people certainly seem to think so. From doomsday prognoses of a collapse into a bio-authoritarian dystopia to cheerful visions of a rejuvenated benevolent state, commentators the world over have already identified 2020 as the date on which a new world was born.

Needless to say, the midst of a crisis is hardly the optimal vantage point from which to enjoy a synoptic historical view over the events that rage outside. Even as restrictions are being cautiously loosened, we seem to stand only at the end of the beginning of this story. Coronavirus has already left mountains of economic wreckage in its wake, even while vast swathes of the globe still await the full force of the virus’ first wave.

What is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit.

But the verdicts are already being written. In recent weeks, Western critics have penned multiple obituaries for the world we have known since 1945. Globalisation, some have argued, has passed its tipping point. Liberalism is a spent force, democracy all the more so. The sheer impotence of international institutions has been exposed. China has fully arrived. And the United States – now the epicentre of virus outbreaks – has proved itself unwilling and incapable of coordinating any kind of global response: a confirmation of its deteriorating capacities both at home and abroad. The corona crisis, so runs this view, has accelerated the advent of a world that is at once terrifyingly novel and uncannily familiar: novel because it is multipolar and uncertain, but familiar because it seems to play on old motifs of nations, big states, borders, self-sufficiency and paranoia about outsiders.

And nothing demonstrates this state of affairs more forcefully than Washington’s response. One does not have to search far in this crisis to find pronouncements of a “post-American world”. Few, I suspect, would dispute that the pandemic has – whether to a greater or lesser extent – exposed the diminishing global influence of the United States.

Donald Trump’s proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only” (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

 

To be sure, this is evidently not a concern for Donald Trump himself, whose proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only”. But it does reveal the weakening grip that Trump’s America holds on the global imagination. After all, what is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit. In this respect, at least, the crisis has not changed the world: it has simply revealed some sobering truths.

Not all have been so hasty to write off the United States. For all of Trump’s apparent indifference to his country’s global image, the United States retains unparalleled reserves of global power. The numbers alone tell a remarkable story: American unemployment figures are rivalled in their unfathomable vastness by the sums of the government’s relief package and the Federal Reserve’s “booster shot” loan guarantee program. As Adam Tooze recently put it in the London Review of Books:

What we are witnessing in the American response to the crisis … is the gulf between the competence of the American government machine in managing global finance and the Punch and Judy show of its politics.

Be that as it may, this gulf between politics and power is nevertheless of vital importance to how the world will look in the coming years. America’s pretence (if not the reality) of moral leadership was always vital to its hegemonic position in the old world order. But, with Trump, the age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past, and it is exceptionally difficult to see how it might ever be reconstituted.

This shift did not begin with Trump, but he is every bit its embodiment. One’s mind is drawn back to a particular moment during the 2016 US presidential election, when Trump, questioned about his apparent ambivalence to the “killer”, Vladimir Putin, shot back with a case of whataboutery unprecedented for an American political leader: “There are a lot of killers”, Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?” In two sentences, Trump unapologetically renounced that uniquely American sense of moral purpose in the world that had defined the rhetoric of every president since the Second World War. Four years on, the United States might still be the world’s dominant power – but it has become increasingly evident that this is altogether different from being its “leader”.

Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

Shifts that have been taking place for some years are being exposed and accelerated as the pandemic spreads. For now, at least, the corona crisis is a public health crisis combined with an economic one and bound to generate transformative consequences in the political sphere as well. But it is not simply an event or an emergency. It is an unfolding process that is exposing in ever-starker ways the deep stress fractures in our global systems. It has told us much more about the recent past than it has about the future.

The reason for this is that the pandemic has not offered us a single narrative to tell. One can perhaps best visualise this global moment as the intersecting point between two temporal arcs: one showing the recursive, even cyclical time of politics, defined by the triumphant resurgence of nations and borders, the resuscitation of the muscular state, and the flexing of old-fashioned geopolitical rivalries; the other marked by the radical acceleration of global connectivity in science, in digital and surveillance technologies and – not least – in disease transmission itself. Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

A pandemic was always a likely trigger for a “crisis of globalisation”. But is this really what we are witnessing? “Globalisation” was always a difficult – if not impossible – idea to pin down. It has been rethought and reconceptualised many times over. We would be making a fundamental error to assume that a hyper-connected world must necessarily be an American one. When we emerge from this phase in however many months’ time, the world we enter will be no less global and no less connected: but it may well be less American.


Flattening the economy costs lives, livelihoods and freedoms, too

The deserted Granville Island public market, Vancouver (GoToVan/Flickr)
The deserted Granville Island public market, Vancouver (GoToVan/Flickr)
Published 17 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Confronted by the coronavirus pandemic as a “black swan” event, most countries have chosen the hard suppression strategy with variably stringent lockdown measures. This is based on modelling that shows a dramatic shortage of intensive care beds and ventilators and other crucial medical equipment to treat the numbers afflicted under worst-case scenarios. Panicked by the prospect of health systems being overwhelmed and millions dropping like flies as in the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, they have shuttered entire economies and populations.

While this is understandable in conditions of extreme uncertainty with a novel virus, there should have been more caution because of a history of failed catastrophist warnings, the massive economic costs which also have deadly impacts, the draconian infringement on individual freedoms, and the availability of other strategies rather than the mythical “do nothing” alternative.

Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic, and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.

Lockdowns slow the peaking and help to ensure an even distribution of cases, but may not reduce the final numbers significantly.

First, there are many “known unknowns” about the coronavirus: the true infection- and case-fatality rates; the variable reliability of statistics from different countries that are not always measuring the same things with a standardised methodology; the risks of (re)infection rates as social-distancing restrictions are lifted, and more.

In a series of articles in The Spectator, John Lee, a recently-retired Professor of Pathology and consultant to Britain’s National Health Service, discusses the non-comparable ways in which coronavirus infections and deaths are recorded in different countries, and the relative mortality rates of flu and coronavirus. He is highly critical of the modelling to date used as the basis of current UK policy. Teams from Oxford and Stanford mapped a range of different outcomes using different assumptions.

Because of the acceleration with which the initial surge in infections comes, governments have been worried that without control measures, they will not have time to react and hence have implemented preventive lockdowns. Better safe than sorry is a good prudential policy. Yet we also lack reliable data about the retransmission rate. High levels of testing means more policy options for social mobility and economic reopening. If the average number of new cases generated by a single infected individual is above one, an outbreak spreads, but contracts below one. The challenge becomes to keep the combined new infections and retransmission rates constant or falling, rather than exponential and explosive. By mid-April Asian countries were fearing a second wave of infections and on Thursday Japan declared a nationwide state of emergency to suppress the virus. A gentle exit strategy will be accompanied by an intensive “test, trace and isolate” regime to detect and kill new outbreaks.

New York subway (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

Second, catastrophism on previous epidemics proved false. In 1999, European Union scientists suggested up to 500,000 people could die from the UK mad cow disease. By October 2013, 177 deaths were recorded from the disease. In 2005, the UN’s coordinator David Nabarro warned between 5 to 150 million people could die from avian flu. The World Health Organization’s official estimates were 2–7.4 million. Only 455 people died of bird flu from 2003–2019.

With the 2009 swine flu, instead of the feared 1.3% fatality rate, the actual rate was 0.02%, comparable to the US 2007–09 seasonal flus. In the UK, against the “reasonable worst-case scenario” of 65,000 deaths, there were only 457. And the government spent £1.2bn on flu remedies that were not needed. The WHO came under severe criticism for having served the interests of “Big Pharma” in selling unnecessary vaccines.

UK fatality estimates for Covid-19 were scaled down dramatically by Imperial College London within two weeks, from 510,000 to 20,000 and then 5,700, of whom up to two-thirds would have died from comorbidities within one year anyway. On 12 April the UK was reported as having crossed the 10,000 mark in numbers killed. But this is misleading for, like Italy, the UK records someone dying with virus as dying of it: patients who “had tested positive for Covid-19 at time of death.” By contrast, Germany attributes the deaths to the comorbidity. In Italy, one study estimates that only 12% of attributed deaths are in fact caused by Covid-19. The Financial Times helpfully explores this issue in an article “The mystery of the true coronavirus death rate.”

Grave and prolonged economic damage takes its own tragic toll on lost livelihoods and lives.

The Financial Times had another interesting analysis of whether the UK government has been captured by epidemiologists over other experts, treating them like demigods. At least 22 experts have questioned the high casualty projections of the dominant models. The high-end estimates have so far proven to be exaggerated. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the projected US Covid-19 death toll by 4 August will be 68,841 (within the much wider range of 30,000–176,000). The actual estimated death as at 12 April was just short of 22,000.

To put this in perspective, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the annual fatality toll from flu and pneumonia in 2017 was 55,672 and from diabetes another 83,564. Australia recorded 158,493 deaths in total in 2018 from all causes. In the 45 days from Australia’s first Covid-19 death on 1 March to 63 deaths on 16 April, around 19,500 Australians would have died from all causes, but there was no daily chart on the front page of the newspapers recording the mounting toll every day. Against Australia’s maximum capacity of 6,636 beds, on 15 April there were just 214 coronavirus patients in hospital, with 76 in an intensive care unit.

Third, at some point the cure becomes worse than the disease. The harshness has been justified as prioritising lives over jobs. But “flattening the epidemic curve” comes at the cost of flattening economies. A spate of reports from Goldman Sachs, the International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, Oxfam, World Bank, and World Trade Organization warn of dramatic decelerations and contractions in GDP and trade from the pre-pandemic forecasts, with a resulting ballooning of poverty with job losses and income falls. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook forecasts the global economy will shed around $9 trillion in 2020. In the “Great Lockdown”, world output will contract by 3%, hitting both advanced and emerging economies simultaneously for the first time, and cause steep rises in unemployment, debt and bankruptcies.

The vanishing boat traffic in Venice’s famous waterways (European Space Agency/Flickr)

Grave and prolonged economic damage takes its own tragic toll on lost livelihoods and lives. This is seen at its most acute and more immediately in developing countries whose people “fear hunger may kill us before coronavirus”.

However, advanced economies are not immune. The UK has recorded a sharp rise in the number of people dying at home, including from cardiac arrests, because people are reluctant to call for an ambulance. They fear that beds may not be available, or that they might contract the virus in hospital. Because an efficient and universal-access health system operates inside a robust and resilient economy, decreased wealth will inevitably lead to degraded public health infrastructure and a resulting loss of life. Most elective surgery is postponed while hospital beds lie idle awaiting coronavirus patients. An article in Lancet Psychiatry says Covid-19 could have “profound and pervasive impact on mental health” caused by loneliness and anxiety. A 2014 US study found a 1% rise in the unemployment rate elevates the risk of dying next year by 6%. On 16 April the US Department of Labor reported that unemployment claims had risen by more than 20 million over the previous four weeks, around the number of jobs added over the past decade. The lockdown also puts women at much greater risk of domestic violence.

Many heroic assumptions are also being made: about the capacity of national governments to contain short-term damage and revive the economy from induced coma in the medium term; about the Trump administration’s skill in managing the economic and trade fallout; and about the limited global damage from economic downturns in China, Europe, and US.

Fourth, asserting state control over swathes of economic activities is not the only curtailment of freedoms. The extreme measures of quarantining entire populations also constitute de facto mass house arrests. The physical, mental and emotional health benefits of open-air exercise are universally acknowledged. A court in Germany has reversed a regional government’s ban on people going to the beach as a disproportionate curb on freedoms. In a BBC interview on 31 March, former UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption warned:

when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.

We have both the right and a duty as citizens to be vigilant against government over-reach. Democratic accountability generally improves public policy outcomes.

Fifth, Europe and the US have been less successful in their interventions than the East Asian states, which have mostly avoided generalised hard lockdowns. As at 15 April, without lockdowns, Japan (1.2 coronavirus deaths per million people/146 total deaths), South Korea (4.3/225), Singapore (1.8/10), and Taiwan (0.3/6) have far lower death rates than Spain (397.6/18,579), Italy (358.2/21,645), France (256.3/17,167), and UK (193.5/12,868) with lockdown.

London in lockdown (Simon Bleasdale/Flickr)

Lockdowns slow the peaking and help to ensure an even distribution of cases, but may not reduce the final numbers significantly. Anthony Costello of University College London claims alternative public health measures such as identification of cases and contact tracing could have softened the lockdown. Rigorous social distancing has shut down large parts of the economy and also left the UK vulnerable to a recurrence of the disease when restrictions are lifted because few people will have acquired immunity.

Indiscriminate shutdowns require the least and most vulnerable – the young and fit versus the elderly and infirm – to shoulder equally the risk of the virus spreading. The fatality rates in the big congested regions such as London, New York City, and New Jersey are the worst affected. And overwhelmingly the elderly and people with existing comorbidities are the most at risk. Yale University’s David L. Katz advocates a “vertical interdiction” strategy to target those most at risk. In some locations the toll has been grim indeed. In Canada half the deaths have been in aged care homes. New York, with many traits the opposite of Australia’s, was initially too casual about the virus and in the second week of April it resorted to mass burials. A strategy that makes sense for the biggest and most densely packed cities may be less appropriate elsewhere.

Australia’s low toll is better explained by physical isolation, vast open spaces, low density living, few multigenerational households, high use of private cars instead of mass transit, and sociocultural practices.

In the months and years ahead, Australia should learn from the stunning example of Taiwan in thwarting the spread of coronavirus but managing to avoid mass economic and social disruptions by using big data and analytics. Taiwan lies just 130 kilometres offshore from China, has 1.2 million people living or working there, and 3–4 million travel between the two territories annually. Yet Taiwan gained the upper hand with early and aggressive interventions through widespread and efficient testing, strictly isolating suspected cases, diligently tracing the movements of others who had been in contact with infected people through their mobile phones, and tight control at air and sea ports of entry.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on video conference with university students (Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr) 

Australia’s collateral costs could have been reduced and the health outcomes might not have been dissimilar with a policy of early checks at air and sea ports of entry by mid-February; isolating the elderly, infirm and vulnerable; quarantining the infected with serious symptoms; putting in place testing facilities at office complexes, shopping malls and other crowded public spaces; and leaving individuals responsible for personal hygiene and social-distancing precautions.

On the far side of the pandemic, Australia may want to rebuild a national health service without a parallel system of private health insurance schemes and hospitals. This will facilitate the creation of a national health emergency response unit, in coordination with states, to exploit big data and analytics and connect the health, pharmaceutical, customs and immigration records, trace people’s 14 day overseas travel history, and link them to mobile apps to monitor their in-country movements with appropriate safeguards, along with oversight mechanisms to meet privacy concerns.


COVIDcast Episode 7: The cost to the international economy

Published 17 Apr 2020 11:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Roland Rajah sat down with the Institute’s Director of Research Alex Oliver to discuss the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy. Roland is Director of the International Economy Program and Lowy’s lead international economist.

One of the key questions about the economic impact of Covid-19 is whether the shock will be temporary or longer-lasting. Rajah explains in this episode why he believes the economic shock will permanently change the global economy, at least in some respects. Looking at the International Monetary Fund forecasts released this week, he notes that even under the IMF's “rosy outlook”, by the end of 2021 “the global economy will already have lost at least $5 trillion”, the equivalent of missing an economy the size of Japan’s. Under the IMF’s more negative scenarios, by the end of 2021 the world would be “missing an economy almost the size of the entire US”.

Each week since the severity of the coronavirus crisis became clear, Lowy Institute experts have been sitting down to discuss the implications of coronavirus for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Episodes one to six are already online, and this is the seventh instalment in the series, which we’ll be continuing on a weekly basis as this crisis unfolds.

Among other issues Oliver and Rajah discussed were the G20 finance action plan announced this week, and the economic plight of developing and emerging nations. According to Rajah, the virus has inflicted a “violent and unprecedented withdrawal of funds from these countries”. He outlines a proposal made on The Interpreter this week that Australia should extend a significant loan to Indonesia, to boost market confidence and help address the financial shocks it is experiencing.

Amid speculation that China will exploit the crisis to its own advantage by providing economic aid to emerging countries, Rajah points out the limits China will face in doing so and that China will only gain the upper hand if other countries don’t also step up in ways that they can, and should.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


New Zealand: Life under lockdown and the view of outside

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to make further announcements around restrictions on Monday (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to make further announcements around restrictions on Monday (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Published 17 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Where are we in the fourth week of lockdown in New Zealand?

The borders are sealed. As I was writing this, the Flight Radar 24 app had only two domestic flights taking place across the entire country. There were no outbound international flights, and only three aircraft heading in.

The government has released further details of its economic support package. Another NZ$4 billion added to the ledger: $24 billion in total, and more to come.

And the chances of easing the lockout to permit a return to a minimum level of economic activity – outside the essential industries – is still being weighed up. A decision will come on Monday, 20 April.

But, so far, morale remains good, and the occasions of civil disobedience remain few and far between.

More important, however, is the question, what have we learnt this far?

Ardern has made it clear that New Zealand’s external borders will be very tightly managed for the next year at least.

First, every country is facing a choice between managing the health risk and managing the economic risk. It is clear that there is no simple nor speedy trade-off. “Putting the economy into hibernation” or “getting the place ready to go” are variations on the same theme. There seems to be no one answer. In New Zealand the emphasis is on getting the country healthy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in her press conference on Thursday: “Get the health right first.”

International trade is critical to economic stability, and it is not clear how long markets will hold up, so getting export industries operating smoothly will be a priority.

Second, state intervention is back in vogue. The economy might be global, but health is local. Citizens expect a response from governments. Nowhere is there an example of handing the management of this crisis to the private sector. This is a big change, particularly in liberal Western democracies. It has consequences.

Already over the last five years or so, we have seen a rise in nationalism. Now it is accentuated. This will lead to xenophobia if governments and leaders are not careful. And that pressure will rise if governments do not manage the Covid-19 crisis in a way that meets their citizens’ expectations.

An empty street in Christchurch, New Zealand (Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

 

Third, we are heading into a global recession. The data are there for all to see. Production down in many sectors of the economy. Unemployment up. Consumption slumping. Companies failing. Investment across borders looking shakier (and running into the nationalist factor mentioned above). Protectionism in both trade and investment are increasing around the globe.

Everyone is looking to see how Chinas economy picks up, and how that flows through the global economy. A glimmer of light there would be helpful, as the World Trade Organisation predicts a drop of 13–32% in global trade in 2020. But it’s not a panacea.

One example is particularly clear. International travel as we knew it in 2019 is dead. The World Travel Organisation, an agency of the UN, says that in 2019 there were across the globe 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals. We are not going to see that number again for the next few years. The industry globally is on life support. And until there is a vaccine which is universally available and administered, governments are going to be very cautious about who crosses their borders. Arden has made it clear that New Zealand’s external borders will be very tightly managed for the next year at least.

International cooperation is a big challenge. One case for hope is that the response in the medical sector – among those who will find the vaccine to control this virus, is a developing international effort. That at least should give us some comfort.

But in other areas, there is not that much on offer. Even the European Union, which prides itself on its ability to operate over 27 member countries, is finding it really hard to keep that sense of union.

And we have hardly started to respond to the needs of the developing world where risks of the virus spreading and taking hold are greater. For Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific will be the first area of concern.

The immediate need is for coalitions of the willing. Those countries which can identify initiatives which bring some positives to the international situation should be working with others that think the same.

There are signs that this is happening. Australia and New Zealand came to a workable solution to allow the transit on evacuation flights of their respective nationals from third countries. Canada, Australia, Brunei, Myanmar, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore have committed to keeping supply chains open and removing restrictions on the supply of essential goods, especially medical supplies. New Zealand and Singapore have pushed that further inviting other countries to join this initiative with a particular focus on Covid-19 related medical supply chains.

These are limited glimmers of light in a dark landscape. At this stage in the global response to Covid-19 it is good they are visible. Encouraging this sort of initiative in other jurisdictions and across other trade agreements is obviously a message that New Zealand and Australia will continue to push.

But we have a long way to go.


How much is too much? Covid loans for the Pacific

A water supply, solid waste and sanitation project in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
A water supply, solid waste and sanitation project in Nuku'alofa, Tonga (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 16 Apr 2020 13:30   0 Comments

There is a growing recognition that Australia will need to do a lot to help the Pacific get through the Covid-19 pandemic. Like everywhere, big sums of money are needed. The question is how to finance it.

Many advanced economies are rolling out budget packages of 10% of GDP or more. The Pacific might need something similar. If so, that could mean as much as A$5 billion.

For the aid dependent Pacific, funding at anywhere near this scale must come from outside. Though other development partners will need to contribute, Australia is by far the leading player in the region. So there is some expectation that Canberra will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

For nine Pacific countries, sizeable Covid loans combined with policy dialogue around how future government spending and development partner assistance might be adjusted seem a reasonable path forward.

 

Given Australia’s own budgetary pressures, consideration has naturally gravitated towards the idea that much of this may have to take the form of loans rather than grants. Yet, that sits awkwardly with the repeated warnings issued by many – including by the authors of this article, as well as the Australian government – about the mounting risk of debt overload in the Pacific.

Can a big round of Covid loans really be justified, especially at the scale that might be required?

Concerns about debt overload usually focus on the debt sustainability analysis (DSA) ratings produced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These DSAs generally point to very limited room for the Pacific to absorb significantly more debt, with many countries already judged to be at a high risk of debt distress (see the table below).

However, mechanically applying the existing DSA ratings is not the best guide to thinking about how to finance today's pandemic response. The DSAs are based on a host of assumptions that will now need substantial revisiting, most notably about the scale and nature of future government borrowing plans. Clearly, with the current situation facing the region – which also includes a major tropical cyclone which hit Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga – financing needs and priorities will be substantially reshaped. Like their rich country counterparts, Pacific governments will need to keep their economies (and societies) afloat today, even if this might come at the expense of spending plans for tomorrow.

Updated DSAs will be required. But policy decisions are moving fast. In a crisis, there is no other choice.