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Coronavirus pandemic

What if the realists are right?

All correct, in theory (Ricardo/Flickr)
All correct, in theory (Ricardo/Flickr)
Published 2 Apr 2020 07:00   0 Comments

If there’s one thing we can be confident about at the moment, it’s that policymakers won’t be turning to international relations (IR) specialists for advice on how to handle a truly global problem. Most of us are accustomed to being studiously ignored, but it’s still a bit deflating. Unlikely as it may seem, though,  IR types actually have some interesting ideas about their chosen subject matter and even about the implications of the current pandemic.

Rather tellingly, the only IR specialists that policymakers do take seriously are so-called realists. Keynes’s famous observation about “practical men” being the slaves of some defunct economist applies equally well to policymakers’ conscious or, more often, unconscious adoption of realist ideas. Unfortunately, the realist view of international affairs and human nature is uniformly grim and likely to add to our current problems.

Simply put, realists think individual states are in a struggle for survival in which, as Thucydides put it, the strong do as they will and the weak do as they must. Accumulating wealth and power, especially of the military variety, is the name of the game. It’s not hard to see the influence of such ideas in Australia, where few limits and little oversight have been applied to defence spending over the years, despite our benign geographical position. Increases in health budgets, by contrast, generally face more rigorous scrutiny.

One of the few examples we have of effective and enduring institutionalised cooperation is the European Union, which looks as if it may succumb to a variety of populist, economic, and pandemic problems that are currently testing political leaders everywhere.

It’s rather telling that many realists think that the same dynamics that Thucydides observed during in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BCE apply today. We are, some claim, caught in a “Thucydides trap”, in which tensions between a rising China and a relatively declining United States may tip the world into catastrophic conflict. One might be forgiven for thinking that globalisation had never happened. If realists are right, however, it may not be quite the fixture we imagined.

One group of IR scholars who take a decidedly more optimistic view of human beings, especially their possible rationality and potential for cooperation, are liberals – be they the political or economic variety. Liberal economists in particular have had their moments of influence, too – most memorably when Bill Clinton declared, “It’s the economy stupid”.

For a brief moment in the 1990s, it really did look as if the liberals and their promotion of global economic integration were going to win the most consequential argument of the era. International economic imperatives really did seem to have permanently changed the minds and priorities of policymakers. The old logic of conquest and occupation looked comically out of date in an era when multinational corporations could achieve precisely the same thing with far lower transaction costs.

But then September 11 happened, and George W. Bush launched his disastrously ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, and the rest, as they say, is history – rather than its end, as Francis Fukuyama famously predicted. Even before this calamitous turn of events, however, many on the left were highly critical of the role played by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which promoted policies the left claimed advantaged the developed economies over poorer parts of the “global South”.

While there may have been much merit in some of these claims, if there’s one thing the liberals were right about, it was the importance of international institutions as potential agents of international cooperation. Any of the big issues that collectively confront us – including climate change, economic disadvantage, and, of course, controlling pandemics – would seem to necessitate some form of institutionalised international collaboration.

True, the record of the United Nations and its multiple offshoots don’t inspire complete confidence, but this stems in no small part from the behaviour of powerful nation states determined to protect their sovereignty and pursue their national interests, come what may. The realists were right about that, at least. But does that mean that we give up on the liberal vision?

Sadly, it may. One of the few examples we have of effective and enduring institutionalised cooperation is the European Union, which looks as if it may succumb to a variety of populist, economic, and pandemic problems that are currently testing political leaders everywhere. Not only will this be a practical calamity, but it will also deal an immense symbolic blow to the very idea of international cooperation. Realists everywhere will see it as confirmation of their dispiriting views.

While we might expect nothing less from them, what is more surprising is the apparent delight some on the left are deriving from the EU’s problems. This is odd, to say the least. We know all too well what a divided Europe is capable of – it’s why the EU exists, after all.

Misguided neoliberal policies may be the least of the West’s problems if the EU falls apart and nationalism takes an even firmer grip. This is something the left ought to understand better than anyone, given what’s happened to them at the hands of fascists in the past. But that’s a story for another day.

Coping with crisis: How much “resilience” is on display?

Inside a temporary field hospital at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York (John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Inside a temporary field hospital at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York (John Lamparski/Getty Images)
Published 1 Apr 2020 15:30   0 Comments

“Resilience” has become a popular concept in 21st century life. In times of far-reaching social and economic change, with increasing stress and strain on both individual and group-level resources, “resilience” is often invoked as the thing that will see us through to emerge stronger and better able to cope in the aftermath.

The Covid-19 pandemic is certainly testing all of our resilience. A health crisis is crashing economies and societies. Hospitals are confronted with too little equipment and too few personnel to meet the surge in demand for critical care. Health care professionals are exhausted and overwhelmed, populations are by turns frightened, defiant, anxious, and some appear in denial. Governments have had to respond to a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, to coordinate that response with others, and to communicate with their citizens about the decisions they make.

But the idea that resilience is an individual attribute that helps people triumph over adversity on their own, without support or resources from others, is a myth. When we think about resilience as part of our social ecology, it becomes clear that resilience is grounded not in us as individuals alone, but in how well we are able, as individuals and communities, to access and navigate our way toward those people, systems, and resources that can help us when the going gets tough.

Resilience is not something we “have” so much as something we do, and also something we receive in terms of building our resilience capacity from the systems and resources around us. In other words, it is about our systems rather than just ourselves.

Near empty shelves at a store in New York City last month (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

The resilience scholar Michael Ungar identifies seven common principles of systemic resilience across different systems and contexts. These include the idea that resilience really only comes into its own in times of crisis; it is an interactive, interdependent process, not an attribute or characteristic. It also recognises that systemic resilience sometimes involves trade-offs between different system parts, and resilient systems are open, dynamic and complex. They promote connectivity, demonstrate experimentation and learning, and include diversity, redundancy and participation.

The Covid-19 pandemic poses a set of complex, severe, intersecting adversities that challenge systems at all levels, from the individual to the global. It threatens lives, families, communities, health systems, economies, and everyday connectedness and belonging. But those communities with well-established resources and rhythms for enabling and nurturing social cohesion and cooperation – such as support for the vulnerable, the equitable distribution of goods, services and resources – will be more resilient, even in the face of significant local and global pain and distress. The US is struggling on a number of these resilience yardsticks, despite enormous capacity in health expertise, systemic complexity and redundancy, which has reduced their capacity to adapt and transform rapidly as needed.

Those countries that have learned rapidly from the successes and failures of others are demonstrating a more resilient response than those who continue to adhere rigidly to an existing approach even when challenged by new evidence.

By contrast, a number of other countries have adapted swiftly by being open to new ways of conceptualising, organising, and implementing their responses at very short notice. One example would be Australia, which has largely set aside political party partisan bickering and competition in favour of working together for the safety and wellbeing of its citizens.  Not every country around the world has been able to demonstrate similar openness or willingness to shift gears at a time of great uncertainty and risk.

Complexity is a persistent feature of resilient systems. Simpler systems often lack the depth and range needed for critical transformations when things change suddenly. But complexity sometimes needs to be traded off against the need for stark clarity, for example in how health messages about behavioural and social change are communicated in order to keep people safe for as long as possible. Without this, the dynamism of complex systems can deteriorate quickly into confusion, panic, and resistance.

The importance of social connectivity has also been thrown into sharp relief. The global response to the challenge posed by Covid-19 to human social connectivity has been uneven. On the one hand, we have seen settings globally in which some individuals have privileged their own needs and interests above those of their broader communities, worsening the impact of Covid-19 considerably. On the other hand, new forms of connectivity have emerged with force. Human beings can be almost endlessly creative when it comes to how we connect, and the proxy forms in which we make those connections both felt and meaningful.

Yet such connectivity can also become weaponised, as deliberate disinformation by malevolent actors – enabled by enhanced connectivity penetration and reach – creates conditions for the deliberate sowing of dissent, undermining systemic resilience as a result.

When it comes to experimentation and learning, some countries have benefited by learning from the tragedies created by early approaches in countries such as China and Italy. Others, such as the UK, have embarked on early experiments that have resulted in rapid policy changes based on subsequent modelling. Yet other countries have subsided into fatalism or denial, in which neither experimentation nor learning has been embraced. Those countries that have learned rapidly from the successes and failures of others are demonstrating a more resilient response than those who continue to adhere rigidly to an existing approach even when challenged by new evidence.

Redundancy is about having multiple resource bases to meet the same need – for example, the ability to secure local food supply or protective equipment if routine import channels dry up or close down. The less diversity and the less redundancy, the more vulnerable a system becomes, and the capacity for responding effectively to Covid-19 is illustrating this graphically on a number of fronts in a range of different national and regional global contexts.

But of all these systemic resilience features, perhaps participation is the most important. The best policy settings, the most sophisticated medical expertise, and the most polished information campaigns will not help turn the tide of Covid-19 unless people – scaling all the way from individuals to entire population groups – feel motivated by the belief that their participation can make a difference to better or worse outcomes. This means providing consistent, reliable and above all truthful information so that people feel empowered rather than overwhelmed about what individuals can do to contribute, and why it is so vital that they do.

Beyond Covid, Australia’s big stake in India’s military reorganisation

Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 1 Apr 2020 14:30   0 Comments

Covid-19 will no doubt have many long-term consequences for our region that we can now only begin to imagine. One consequence that is easy to imagine in the face of a distracted and internally focused United States will be Australia’s greater reliance on regional security partners, such as Japan and India. This includes an ever-greater stake in the effectiveness of the Indian military, and especially its Navy.

India has just started to reorganise its outdated and highly inefficient structures. There have been positive developments, but a lot of problems ahead. Rhetoric aside, Australia will need a sober understanding of India’s likely future abilities to act as a regional security provider across our shared oceanic space.

First the good news. Last December, after decades of inaction, the Modi government appointed General Bipin Rawat as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, theoretically bringing India’s three armed services under unified command for the first time. The CDS supposedly provides a single point of advisor to the government on military affairs. But Rawat will still only be regarded as the “first among equals” with the other service chiefs and the extent of his powers is not yet clear.

India has just started to reorganise its outdated and highly inefficient structures. There have been positive developments, but a lot of problems ahead.

The CDS replaces an organisational model for India’s armed forces that was put in place as a temporary measure by the British in 1947. Importantly, this appointment is just the first step in what may become the most significant military reorganisation ever undertaken by India.

From Independence, Nehru and the Congress Party kept the military divided, siloed and deeply subordinated to the civilian bureaucrats of the Defence Ministry. As a result, the military has often been only at the periphery of governmental decision-making about defence issues.

Tight civilian control of India’s military has ensured that it stayed well clear of politics. Unlike many post-colonial states, India has not suffered from coups or the hijacking of resources or foreign policy by the military.

Even today, the idea of a single chief of armed forces remains somewhat controversial. Fears of militarism and military coups likely still exist within the opposition Congress Party.

But the system also comes with significant costs to military effectiveness. Indian armed forces are highly disjointed with each of the services doing its own strategy, war planning and capability planning. The Army would, for example, have little if any input into the Navy’s strategy or doctrine and vice versa.

Operational command was also separated. The Army and Air Force each maintain their own Western, Central, and Eastern Commands, but they are all located in different places, making joint operations difficult.

INS Airavat (L24) during drills with the US Navy in the Bay of Bengal in November (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

One Rawat’s first acts on his appointment as CDS was to propose the reorganisation of the Indian armed forces into unified theatre commands, in addition to tri-service commands for Cyber, Space and Special Forces. This has the long-term potential to transform India’s armed forces into a modern joint military and considerably enhance its effectiveness.

Indeed, the Navy, the only service with a strong power projection mentality, has been among the strongest supporters of joint commands. The Navy currently runs India’s only theatre command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, seen by some as important to India’s ability to project power into the Pacific. The Indian Navy, which inherited the British Royal Navy’s global perspectives, sees its role as protecting India’s interests wherever they may be, primarily between Hormuz and Singapore, but also potentially much further afield.

But the Navy might find that the proposed reorganisation will actually be restrictive. Rawat has also proposed merging the Navy’s Eastern and Western Commands, headquartered on India’s east and west coasts, into a single new “Peninsular Command”. This smacks of continentalist thinking, positioning the Navy as principally a coastal defence force whose main job is to defend India’s maritime borders.

There are also real concerns about India’s defence (and, particularly, naval) spending. Growth in spending has largely stalled in the face of a weak economy, and we should assume that there will likely be major cuts in defence spending in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

That could hit India’s military modernisation plans hard. Its bloated ground force of 1.2 million regular troops and 960,000 reserves means that the Army swallows up most of the defence budget. There may be little left to spend on modernisation.

The Indian Navy has long been the “Cinderella Service” with the smallest budget. In recent years, its share of the defence budget has fallen further, from 18% in 2012–13 to 13% in 2019-20. To put this in context, Australia probably spends considerably more overall than India on maritime security (although Australia’s maritime spending is split between navy and air force).

Budget cuts have already hit the Indian Navy’s plans. Its total planned ships by 2027 have now been reduced from 200 to 175. Future acquisitions of P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft may be reduced. As foreshadowed by this author in 2018, General Rawat is also questioning whether the Navy should go ahead with its planned third aircraft carrier, suggesting instead that it make greater use of airfields on India’s island territories. The Navy argues that this would not be an acceptable substitute.

These developments contrast with China’s military modernisation program. This included the establishment of five fully integrated theatre commands in 2016, bringing together the army, air force, navy and rocket forces. China’s PLA troop numbers are also steadily being reduced, freeing up money for modernisation and naval spending.

Australia has a big stake in the ability of the Indian military, and particularly its Navy, to deliver effective outcomes right across our shared maritime domain. We need to ask some hard questions about India’s capabilities as a regional security provider in the Indian Ocean in coming decades.

This piece was produced as 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.

Double disaster: Emergency preparedness in the era of Covid-19

Women in Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women/Flickr)
Women in Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh (Allison Joyce/UN Women/Flickr)
Published 1 Apr 2020 10:30   0 Comments

The humanitarian system is facing unprecedented uncertainty in the midst of the biggest pandemic since 1918. Over the last 10 years, the requirements for emergency relief programs have consistently outstripped resources – before the outbreak of Covid-19, efforts were aimed to address the needs of 166.5 million people in 35 countries, despite limited funding and capacity. And now, major crises, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Yemen, are seeing the potential implications of the spread of Covid-19 among highly vulnerable populations. In the coming months, existing operations will be tested further.

Yet what would happen if a new event struck somewhere in the world? As already witnessed in Croatia, where a 5.3 magnitude earthquake struck the capital Zagreb on 22 March, with the country on lockdown, a pandemic adds multiple layers to the challenges of disaster response. Emergency workers were forced to find ways to ensure that physical distancing requirements were adhered to in evacuation sites and emergency shelters.

Global restrictions on movement of people and goods and an uncertain economic climate are likely to further move the balance between international, national, and local responders, with a shift towards nationally led response.

If a large-scale disaster were to occur now, the humanitarian sector would be facing a system-wide response in the midst of a global pandemic. A situation of this scale, classified as a Level 3 response, or L3, would call for measures far beyond business as usual, even in a business attuned to unpredictability and adaptable to extremely difficult working conditions.

Existing L3 emergencies already face challenges which will be difficult to meet in the context of Covid-19. Should an event occur to make the situation worse, however, there are ways humanitarian agencies can look at reducing the impacts.

It is urgent to consider now, before it happens.

The US$2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Covid-19 comes on top of the $29 billion requirement to meet existing humanitarian needs in 2020. The 2020 appeal, which so far is only 3.9% funded, comes in the context of an impending global recession, and the possibility of reduced overseas development and humanitarian expenditures.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that there may be new funding opportunities opening up. Donors such as China, Russia, and Cuba are providing aid to countries such as Italy. And with people forced to further embrace technology to stay connected, there are also opportunities to harness new ways of financing, such as crowdfunding, which has grown significantly in recent years.

Surge capacity in an emergency is essential. Human resources are now strained and restricted in ways not dealt with before. Reduced mobility will hamper agencies’ ability to respond quickly. Even in the event that deployments can take place, staff may have to physically isolate for 14 days – a massive delay in a life-saving scenario.

Here, too, there are possibilities. The current profusion of agency and NGO personnel working from home could enable more professionals to provide remote support for emergency response. Collaborative surge could also enhance mobilisation among agencies to support those best placed to respond.

The elements of effective humanitarian coordination – personnel, systems, and processes – are all under immense pressure. During rapid-onset, large-scale emergencies, coordination is often a major stumbling block, with an influx of new people and agencies bringing varying capability and understanding of the context. Global and national responses to Covid-19 require coordination at many levels, on top of ongoing operations. National coordination bodies already responding to Covid-19 may be unable to scale up. Restrictions on travel and gatherings could rule out meetings in person.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (screen, top left) launches the Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, 25 March (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

Now is the time for testing remote coordination platforms. For example, WhatsApp was widely used in Indonesia as a formal and informal communications channel following the September 2018 Sulawesi earthquake. Movement restrictions might also relieve pressure on humanitarian coordination and minimise staff overflow or duplication of coordination systems, as occurred during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.

Global restrictions on movement of people and goods and an uncertain economic climate are likely to further move the balance between international, national, and local responders, with a shift towards nationally led response. Localisation is the path to national and local leadership, as well as more direct funding, but with health and emergency management systems being tested everywhere, a “double disaster” requiring system-wide response could swiftly overwhelm capacity. Regional and international support asked to augment local leadership may be limited, while local responders will bear greater operational risks, including exposure to Covid-19.

The heavy impact of Covid-19 on humanitarian supply chains and transportation would make logistics and transport even bigger obstacles in the wake of a major disaster, where critical infrastructure is often damaged and large volumes of relief items cause bottlenecks. This disruption is an opportunity for governments to increase engagement with local suppliers and to move towards cash-based responses, which can both avoid bottlenecks and enhance social protection.

Military deployments frequently provide support to relief efforts in large-scale crises, with vital assets, personnel, and supplies. But with many countries – France, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia – now mobilising military forces for domestic priorities, the likelihood of countries contributing forces overseas in an emergency is low. In the event of a major disaster, national defence forces might be the face of disaster response. This should be taken as an opportunity to develop more fit-for-purpose coordination mechanisms, better tailored to the local context. 

While it is critical to continue to address existing crises, humanitarian agencies also need to be prepared to step up should a major emergency occur. Covid-19 has already made evident what happens when we don’t anticipate the worst.  

Covid-19: New Zealand, isolated, yet far from alone

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference on Tuesday to discuss a national lockdown (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference on Tuesday to discuss a national lockdown (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Published 1 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Tumultuous times. Along with every other country, New Zealand faces an uncertain period. Remoteness might mitigate some impact of Covid-19, but it does not provide protection from the consequences of global disruption.

It is hard to imagine in late January as the disease took hold in Wuhan that seven weeks later New Zealand would be in total lockdown. Sure, there were early signs of an impending crisis, such as bans on passengers entering the country from China and Iran, but in the population at large, no-one was focusing on what this might mean long-term.

Luckily, there were people in the government, both public servants and ministers, who could. New Zealand has a national influenza pandemic emergency plan, instituted in 2002 and last overhauled in 2017 (it’s worth reading). What has happened since has followed that plan.

We have not seen the peak. We do not know when that will come. A shutdown for four weeks is a different thing from a shutdown for eight weeks.

The big decision, of course, was to move to total lockdown. That took place within five days of the public being told of the Covid-19 response the government was working on. The public has taken the message, which the government has kept clear and simple. Staying home saves lives. Education has been shut down. Social activity terminated. And all businesses have been closed beyond those providing essential services.

This unprecedented termination of economic and social activity comes with a huge cost. The government, as have others around the world, has created emergency funding programs on an immense scale. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (the central bank) has leapt into action. The key point is that the government has decided that to make an early, committed, and extensive attempt to stamp out the disease is what is necessary.

The reaction of New Zealanders so far has supported and understood that decision. There are almost no suggestions of alternative ways to go. Covid-19 deniers can’t be seen or heard.

The government has been helped by several things. First, constitutional and legislative frameworks have been followed: the rule of law applies. Second, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has through her behaviour and her sense of empathy established a rapport with New Zealanders. She has their confidence. They listen to her messages.

New Zealand has also had its fair share of national emergencies in the last ten years – the Christchurch earthquake of 2010, the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016, the Christchurch terrorist attack of 2019, and now Covid-19 – and a sense of resilience has built up. There is a “sense of community” in New Zealand that shows its value in times like this.

This is not to say that everything is easy. We have not seen the peak. We do not know when that will come. A shutdown for four weeks is a different thing from a shutdown for eight weeks, for instance.

The economy has taken a battering. The tourism and hospitality sectors are almost dead. Air New Zealand, a public icon much like Qantas in Australia, has announced that it has cancelled 95% of its flights, and has moved from an annual revenue base of NZ$5.8 billion to $500 million, a reduction of over 90%. New Zealand is an economy of small businesses, all of which are closed ­– and with 97% of businesses in New Zealand employing under 20 people, the effects of the shutdown are felt in every part of the country, and in every household (in itself, perhaps, this goes some way to explaining the national reaction – everyone is in this together).

Flickr photographer Jim & Robin Kunze took this photo of timber stacked at the Wellington port said to be bound for China only to be halted by the coronavirus outbreak. 

And the social consequences are not yet clear. With education in lockdown, and all the social networks that spread right across the country and in every community shut down, resilience is going to be tested.

There has to be planning for the future as well. Not just how the country recovers from the epidemic, but how the world will look when this is over and what New Zealand does to participate in that effort. For, like Australia, New Zealand is aware that its best interests reside in a functioning international system, be it in health, travel, trade, finance, or the management of risk in the international financial system.

The picture is currently uncertain. Trade flows have slowed right down. International cooperation is going to be necessary to get things going again. Where is leadership going to come from? There is not much sign of it around in a world besieged by disease, resorting to national decisions for national interests, and where the landscape of international cooperation has badly wounded institutions or initiatives lying around for all to see.

But just like Australia, New Zealand will have to urge, persuade, and encourage the big players, including the G7, China, the United States, Japan, the European Union, to put aside their uncertainy and prejudices, and cooperate in getting the global economy back on the rails. Easier said than done in times of isolation.

A political impasse in Timor-Leste as coronavirus looms

A policeman in Dili asks motorists to carry only one person per bike to ensure social distancing amid Covid-19 concerns (Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman in Dili asks motorists to carry only one person per bike to ensure social distancing amid Covid-19 concerns (Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 31 Mar 2020 16:00   0 Comments

In late January, Timor-Leste’s governing alliance collapsed after the largest coalition party, Xanana Gusmão’s CNRT, abstained on the government budget, leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak. By late February Gusmão revealed a new 34-seat majority coalition, which included six parliamentary parties: the exceptions being Ruak’s PLP, and the opposition Fretilin. Yet the PM’s resignation is not effective until accepted by the President, Francisco ‘Lu Olo’ Guterres ­– a senior figure from the Fretilin opposition. So despite the manoeuvring, Ruak remains in the top job, which likewise leaves his government in place for now as an interim administration.

One month later, the political situation remains at an impasse, and potentially far more complicated as the threat of coronavirus hits neighbouring countries such as Indonesia hard. So far, Timor-Leste’s relative isolation from international circulation has forestalled any outbreak, with just one confirmed case and 800 people in self-quarantine, with another 215 having completed their 14 days.

In political developments this month, the 34- seat alliance announced that Gusmão himself would be their Prime Minister designate. The President required all six parties to the alliance to fulfil legal requirements for party conventions endorsing the coalition. The other main development was a publicly announced “platform of understanding” between Fretlin and PLP, which together control 31 seats: two short of a majority. The announcement largely concerned parliamentary support for the interim administration, but could form the basis of an electoral partnership in future. In a sign of the times, the announcement took place in masks, with attendees socially distanced in another room connected by video link.

Timor-Leste confronts the pandemic as a developing society with an under-resourced health system.

Initially expected in March, Guterres’ response to the newly formed majority alliance is still awaited as circumstances shift. The President has publicly advised the CNRT to “think twice” before proposing the same rejected Ministers, and is clearly in no hurry to install the new alliance.

One alternative solution to break the impasse – an early election – now seems off the table in light of the pandemic. For its part, the new 34-seat majority has not taken the step of a no-confidence motion in parliament, a move which would definitely place the Prime Minister in caretaker mode, and in normal circumstances could lead to a new poll.

Yet these are no longer normal times. This unresolved debate, hotly contested by partisans in Timor-Leste’s political circles, may now be on temporary hold under the weight of necessity. With the threat from coronavirus growing, a government of national unity might be desirable right now, but such a prospect seems remote, with cross-party parliamentary support for the interim’s government emergency measures perhaps the more achievable goal.

Positively in this regard, a government request for urgent consideration of emergency budget measures received unanimous parliamentary support last week, boding well for the vote this week to authorise $250 million in general expenditures and $150 million for coronavirus preparations.   The latter measures will be used for medical equipment including respirators (assuming they can be sourced internationally), credit lines to smaller businesses, and direct financial support for citizens. Parliamentary support for these measures will be essential given the lack of a national budget, and the clearly restricted legitimacy of the interim government.

Despite the political impasse, preparations by the interim government and President have been systematic and reassuring. Following parliamentary approval the President issued a state of emergency decree lasting from 28 March to 26 April. The measures prohibit the entry of all foreigners unless specifically authorised, and require 14 days self-isolation for all arrivals. Schooling and higher education is suspended for the duration of the decree, and Timor-Leste’s bustling “microlet” public transport is suspended. Vendors and streets stalls can operate, provided social distancing and hand sanitation guidelines are followed. The decree also enables authorities to restrict freedom of movement and assembly inside the territory if deemed necessary, leading to supportive but cautious reminders from civil society of the need to respect human rights for the duration. An interministerial commission led by the PM has been formed.

Low tide at Adarai, Timor Leste (WorldFish/Flickr)

Timor-Leste confronts the pandemic as a developing society with an under-resourced health system. On the positive, Cuban medical teams, who have trained up hundreds of East Timorese doctors, remain in place, as do Chinese doctors, and some Australian volunteers. The Menzies School of Health Research from Darwin has greatly advanced Timor-Leste’s national pathology and lab facilities over the last year. The Australian government’s recent assistance with Covid-19 testing has been particularly welcome. The World Health Organization remains on the ground, although several aid agencies and contractors have withdrawn staff. Timor-Leste also receives fewer incoming visitors than most countries, facilitating the tracing and testing of recent arrivals and returnees.

Fear of an outbreak has many locals worried, and there are some examples of blaming foreigners for the virus. Political leaders have so far been effective in quelling panic, and will also be called upon to actively model social distancing. As for the public, local reports suggest they have taken to the new measures with gusto, in excess of new requirements, with many leaving Dili for the perceived safety of their home villages. Early signs that police had misinterpreted aspects of the decree by closing down certain shops will hopefully prove to be teething problems only.

In another positive political sign, there has been a notable decline in inflammatory rhetoric between the parties in the last week. But key questions remain. Despite the likely passage of emergency budget measures, the lack of a national budget raises concerns over the ability of the government to manoeuvre quickly. The reserve “duodecimal” budget system, which limits the state to one-twelfth of the 2019 budget each month, is relatively strict for 2020, and there are doubts that proposed amendments to make it more flexible will receive parliamentary endorsement. Likewise, having “interim” Ministers in key portfolios like Health and Finance is far from ideal.

The pandemic has already had a major impact on the current balance of Timor-Leste’s Petroleum fund, a percentage of which was altered a few years ago to a higher risk, higher return profile. The collapse in international stock and oil prices has already brought a US$1.8 billion reduction to the balance, with some projections suggesting it could go as high at US$2.5 billion. This volatility highlights the fragility of Timor-Leste’s sovereign wealth funds, adding to the sense of high stakes in ambitious plans for onshore oil and gas processing.

These wider questions, and the entrenched elite divisions, will continue in Timor-Leste, but may go on-hold for the near future as preparations for the coronavirus ramp up. As long-time observers know, once politically united, no one should underestimate the capacity of the East Timorese people to mobilise collectively in common purpose.


Of democracy and despots: Protecting political leaders from Covid-19

Russia’s Vladimir Putin visits coronavirus patients in a hospital outside Moscow (
Russia’s Vladimir Putin visits coronavirus patients in a hospital outside Moscow (
Published 31 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Since the onset of Covid-19, we have entered a twilight world few would have expected to witness outside of popular dystopian fantasies. While we are now receiving a steady stream of public updates on the virus and what we should be doing, we have seen a worrying trend of increasing numbers of leaders and significant others around the world succumbing to infection by the virus.

What are our leaders doing to protect themselves to enable them to lead us to the other side of this crisis? Is there a different standard of elite leadership security between that of totalitarian regimes and that of democracies?

Until recently, many would have considered the security practices of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s close personal protection team, in which they ensure the isolation of their Supreme Leader, as being slightly paranoid and overdone. But the Kims have long embraced a variety of protective measures, from the medieval to the modern, to safeguard their leadership dynasty – everything from the use of food testers to simply fleeing to more isolated areas of the country. Other tyrants are also ensuring they are not exposed to the virus, with Vladimir Putin reportedly being vigilantly subjected to 24-hour protection and putting on a yellow hazmat suit to visit patients in an infectious diseases hospital. 

How have persons of such eminence and importance fallen ill to infection so relatively early in the crisis? Is it a personal failing born of braggadocio, or a failing of those responsible for protecting them?

Perhaps leaders in the democratic world should be a little more attentive to their personal health and safety to enable them to attend to their responsibilities. Reports of US President Donald Trump’s cavalier and blasé attitude and misinformed statements are a concern for not only his security but also those who look to him for leadership and a pathway out of this crisis. It seems some of the more authoritarian approaches to this crisis and their expertise, as exhibited in China, are being sought after, rather than looking to the US for leadership.

The list of the free world’s political class, including royalty and other elites, succumbing to infection is steadily rising with the addition of Britain’s Prince Charles, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Other European elites include European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier; Begoña Gomez, the wife of the Spanish prime minister; and Prince Albert of Monaco. Spain’s Princess Maria Teresa is the first royal to have died of the coronavirus, and there are reports of a servant of the British Monarch being infected.



Many of these political elites are far from the heady days of youth. Senior members of the British royal family seem particularly susceptible, and the failure to protect Prince Charles has already tepidly entered debate in the media. The irrepressible Boris Johnson fell ill to the virus despite his almost Churchillian words of resistance. Ditto from our own Peter Dutton, with his specially trained Australian Federal Police (AFP) close protection officers being tested for the virus.

Regionally, the chief of the Philippine Armed Forces has tested positive for the virus, while other senior officials from around the world, such as the Iranian Vice President and two Ministers, have been stricken.

How have persons of such eminence and importance fallen ill to infection so relatively early in the crisis? Is it a personal failing born of braggadocio, or a failing of those responsible for protecting them? This pandemic is new, but the idea of our leaders succumbing to contagion, chemicals, or poison is certainly not. In the aftermath of 9/11, we found governments and leaders threatened via diverse means, including anthrax, and the responses to protect against these methods involved biological security measures.

Of course, if we go back to the 1918 flu pandemic, to which the current crisis is being compared, we also had a situation in which the public and leaders alike had to respond to an invisible enemy. Hundreds of years ago, records suggest a popular biological warfare method was to catapult the body of a deceased person infected with plague into the midst of the enemy’s town square, although the actual efficacy of this method is contested.



Our modern cities don’t see the invisible enemy introduced into our midst as vividly as our medieval forebears did, and apparently some of our leaders (e.g., Trump) have been as blinkered as the revellers in Florida or on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. The until recently, confusion about the virus was evident at the highest levels, with journalists David Speers and Peter van Onselen drawing out the inconsistencies two weeks ago the ABC Insiders program. Van Onselen tweeted that he had seen the Chief Medical Officer shaking hands just prior to being telecast.

In this time of crisis, we need leadership, and that means we need leaders who will be around to get us to the other side of this catastrophe as the predatory virus plucks off more politicians and reduces the herd of political elites. Fortunately, over the last week in Australia we have seen some robust leadership seeking to instil an iron rod in our collective security spines and move beyond impotent statements of intent and clumsy incongruencies in statements from our state and federal political elite.

As the pandemic continues to claim new victims, there will be more political figures added to this list. Perhaps it might benefit all of us during our time in isolation to grapple with the miscellany of the politics of the pandemic. In this regard, a timely book published on the cusp of the pandemic by an academic at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who previously modelled Ebola and Zika outbreaks might be worthwhile reading for a growing list of leaders who are self-isolating and quarantining. After all, we do not wish to choose the totalitarian measures inducted in Wuhan simply because our leaders were a little slow off the blocks to protect themselves and our communities.

From books to cooks: What readers recommend to cope in quarantine

What to do with extra time on our hands (David Sohair/Unsplash)
What to do with extra time on our hands (David Sohair/Unsplash)
Published 31 Mar 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The adrenalin is wearing off now. Covid-19 swept the nation into a frenzy, leaving us in a contradiction of being busy as buggery yet never actually leaving the house. Organising those able to work from home was the immediate scramble. That has now given way to intense debates about the economic cost of shutdown, because as the long unemployment lines show, remote working simply isn’t an option for many. As regular Interpreter columnist Bob Kelly observed on Monday, the whole experience is exhausting, and relatively speaking, Australia’s has only begun.

For wherever the balance of the health response lies, if the hope is to follow South Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore in apparent control of the outbreak, the example in these best of cases suggest that Australians must prepare to cope with at least some more weeks of isolated living yet. Another contributor Dominic Meagher explained the warning starkly, that complacency is an ally to the virus.

Still with hope that at some stage in the not-too-distant future I’ll be flooded by invitations to friends’ houses for a big cook-off to rid their pantry of stockpiled staples, I figured it’d be a great start to assemble some recipe ideas.

A few weeks back, we put out a call for books with an international theme to occupy a spell in quarantine. The response from readers was generous and at the same time instructive – the ambition was great, the suggested topics varied, all with a mind to putting this pandemic experience into proper perspective, or to simply escape the drudgery of the moment.

More suggestions have arrived than I’ve been able to publish. Sam Bateman sent me a note last week. “I’m surprised no one has mentioned Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov,” he said. “It’s a guide to being idle and apparently Tolstoy’s favourite novel.” Add that one to your pile.

Before we get to more book recommendations, I did think of what I hoped might be another fun distraction to test you on a weekend in isolation, you eager readers steeped in knowledge of the world.

Tell me a favourite national dish – better yet, a recipe.

Way back when, I worked as a cook in a Mexican restaurant. It was the Tex-Mex type, the kind where some wag noted that just about every meal on the menu is made up of the same handful of ingredients assembled in a different way. Frijoles, corn tortillas, salsa, equals tacos, burritos, enchilada. I loved it. My guilty pleasure is still a cheese dip chile con queso. And cooking remains a favourite diversion. Until self-isolation, I’d never tried making bread.



I’m not promising The Interpreter Cookbook. (Note to self, marketing idea.) But still with hope that at some stage in the not-too-distant future I’ll be flooded by invitations to friends’ houses for a big cook-off to rid their pantry of stockpiled staples raided from supermarket shelves, I figured it’d be a great start to assemble some recipe ideas. Either way, if I can get one recommendation to try, that’s another weekend afternoon schedule sorted.

Speaking of time to spare, let’s return to reading suggestions. Bec Strating has an abundant list.



Jim Della-Giacoma’s is direct.



Nick Bisley’s has red humour.



And finally, in an earlier list, Luke Dawes had shared pocket reviews. Here’s another from Nick, on the health theme, but of the enduring type of problem that doesn’t get attention. Doing Good Better, by Will MacAskill.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 15,000 children die each day from preventable diseases. Imagine the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami happening every three weeks, directed solely at children, and you'll understand the scale of the problem. Proportional to quality-adjusted life-years lost from cancer, we spend barely a tenth of what we should on malaria treatments, yet malaria is much cheaper to solve, and dollars go a lot further where malaria does the most damage. MacAskill dismisses aid sceptics, demonstrating that even if the eradication of smallpox were the only success after 50 years and over US$2 trillion in aid spending – a conservative estimate – it would still have been cheaper than what modern Americans pay for lifesaving cancer treatment. To emphasise: by his calculation, this is five times more lives than would have been saved by an end to global conflict in 1973. The philosophy MacAskill calls “effective altruism” might actually be better than world peace.

Indonesia: The rally of a community facing a coronavirus threat

students from GMKI, or the Indonesian Students’ Christian Movement, making hand sanitiser (Supplied photos)
students from GMKI, or the Indonesian Students’ Christian Movement, making hand sanitiser (Supplied photos)
Published 30 Mar 2020 15:00   0 Comments

Indonesians are brilliant in a crisis. In many ways, they have to be, in a country that unfortunately experiences more than its fair share of tragedy. Sitting on the “Ring of Fire”, Indonesia is no stranger to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and floods. Its transportation safety record is similarly bleak, with plane, train, bus, and ferry disasters all too common. Sprawled across the thousands of islands that make up the archipelago, it is the “rakyat”, or the general population, who immediately rally in Indonesia, while the central administration often dithers. 

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been no different.

In Medan, North Sumatra, a plucky team of students from GMKI, or the Indonesian Students’ Christian Movement, have stepped in to fill a gap in the city’s crisis response. They have started making their own hand sanitiser. 

Meliana Gultom is the head of the Medan chapter of GMKI and an education administration student. “Coronavirus has already infiltrated Medan,” she says. “We need to raise awareness about good hygiene practices, as the price of hand sanitiser has risen so sharply in the past few weeks. Making our own was something concrete that we could do to help now. We don’t just want words.”

Asked if they are not worried they might poison someone if they get the hand sanitiser formula wrong, they burst into giggles.

In Medan, hand sanitiser has been nearly impossible to buy for over a month, and when it can be found, the price of a small bottle has risen from IDR13,000 (US$0.80) to over IDR80,000 ($5) in some cases. 

The students decided to make their own sanitiser using a formula from the World Health Organization that they found online. The ingredients and the equipment such as bottles and syringes were all donated by GMKI members, and on the first day of production the students made roughly five litres. They then took to the streets of Medan, spritzing members of the public with a coin sized amount of liquid to remind them to keep their hands clean. They plan to distribute larger amounts of the hand sanitiser to churches and mosques, as well as refugee settlements sheltering people from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar and other countries.

“It’s important for us to do this,” says Jaya Sinaga, Deputy Secretary of GMKI Medan. “The government doesn’t seem to have the resources to do something similar, so we are helping them. There hasn’t been a fast response from the provincial administration, so hopefully they will see what we have done and get moving.” 

The Indonesian government has been widely criticised both locally and internationally for bungling its initial response to the outbreak of Covid-19. In the early days before a pandemic was declared, Indonesia’s Health Minister Terawan attributed the lack of local Covid-19 cases to the “power of prayer” and urged the public to “keep praying” in order to stay safe.

Faced with bungling from the administration, the public often takes it on itself to act. As Murdoch University’s Ian Wilson describes it, “Indonesia has long been a DIY society, largely in part due to the relative absence of reliable or equitable government services.” Religious organisations and even patronage networks often become doubly important when things go wrong, and can mobilise far quicker than the government, unfettered by bureaucracy, and often free of the red tape that government or NGOs may face.

The GMKI students are a good example. The students have the confidence of youth and the community spirit to just get it done.

Asked if they are not worried they might poison someone if they get the hand sanitiser formula wrong, they burst into giggles and point out that they have followed the WHO recipe closely. They’ve also been working with pharmaceutical students, who have supervised production.

And while they may have started work quickly, their strategy is impressively well thought out. It’s not just about raising awareness about good hygiene. The students are worried that the price of the materials used to make the sanitiser will also increase in the coming months. It currently costs them IDR7,000 (0.43 cents) to make 100 millilitres of the sanitiser. “We wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Gultom. “We hope the government is watching, so that they don’t let price gouging become a problem.”

“With all our resources, we will try to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in Medan. We hope everyone will follow us. We can defeat this. We’re all in this together.”

BBC Dad has learned a thing or two about working from home

Telework means video conferencing, which means lots of BBC Dad incidents
Telework means video conferencing, which means lots of BBC Dad incidents
Published 30 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Three years ago, my family and I briefly became famous for a blooper which became an online sensation. I was speaking on BBC News about South Korean politics. My young children burst into the room, onscreen behind me, and then my wife tried frantically to pull them out of my office. The whole thing plays like a live-action comedy of errors, and it became a hit. We could not leave our house for three days because of the press attention. I have since acquired the moniker “BBC Dad”.

It is a weird experience becoming famous for basically doing nothing. We lost control of our kids for a few minutes. Every parent in the world does that, so we are not exceptional. Whose kids are not cute? My wife and I have no interest in being celebrities. Indeed, the loss of anonymity is a very odd condition we still have not really reconciled ourselves to. We still do not quite believe it when some random person will approach us in a restaurant or airport to ask us about the video.

Coronavirus has brought much of this back. The video has once again been circulating as an example of how telework or video conferencing from home will inevitably go haywire. (That is true.) And because we live in South Korea, where the coronavirus clampdown began earlier than in the West, and with much greater force, there has been an overlapping interest in how we have dealt with it.

The truth is that it has been exhausting, and it will probably be tough for you too, especially if you have young kids.

I am not an expert in parenting or telework issues, but I have stumbled into these areas somewhat, if only because I am asked by journalists so often about these issues given the BBC Dad video visibility over the years. So here are some early thoughts on coronavirus’ impact on work and family from someone who has been exposed to telework’s problems for years.

  • Telework is primarily possible for white-collar knowledge professionals, so the possibility of a class divide over this new work mode, if it endures, is real. Workers in blue-collar and person-to-person service industries such as hairdressers or bartenders cannot telework. This is not the “wave of the future” for a lot of people.
  • Telework is a real challenge for parents with children under 10 years old. This could provoke a sharp divide between employers and parent employees, and between parent and non-parent employees. Teleworkers who are parents will be challenged to get much done at home without constant interruption. Right now, with my kids locked in the house so much because of coronavirus, I do maybe two hours of work a day. The rest is spent chasing them around, reading or playing games, and generally trying to make sure they do not just watch TV all day.
  • Telework can eat up family time and space, turning everything into work, just as your mobile phone constantly tethers you to work. We will miss the sharp division between home and office if we blend them together. Office will colonise home. Telework sounds like a convenience until you find yourself taking Skype calls on Saturday morning.

The coronavirus quarantine is grinding. We have tried to put on a good face for the interviews and Twitter, but it has been hard, and I imagine many Westerners will find this too in the coming weeks, as the clampdown there intensifies.

  • Telework means video conferencing, which means lots of BBC Dad incidents. This is simply inevitable. Kids, spouses, pets, and who knows what all will wander in front of your home computer camera. The sheer randomness of life all but insures a regular series of incidents like mine. My blooper occurred simply because I forgot to lock my office door when I was tired late in the day. (Really. All the conspiracy theories that we staged it to become famous are silly.) If my video incident was enabled by such a small, typical error, imagine what will come in the future if huge numbers of people start working via camera at home.
  • There are obvious savings and conveniences to working at home. You are not driving. You are not using the lights and facilities of another building while those in your house sit idle. You are more available to help out around the house, because you are home more. But simultaneously, you are also more likely to see work time seep away as you fool around in your house when you really should be working.
  • Telework could be stressful on marriages and relationships. Even devoted couples need a break and some time apart. Work does that. Work sends you to a new place to talk and interact with new people. It circulates you in the community, whereas working from home all the time will quickly become boring. I could work from home a lot more than I do as a university professor, but I actually like going to work, if only for the change of pace. I imagine many teleworkers will find that they miss that even as they see the convenience of home work.
  • The coronavirus quarantine is grinding. We have tried to put on a good face for the interviews and Twitter, but it has been hard, and I imagine many Westerners will find this too in the coming weeks, as the clampdown there intensifies. It is weird and rather unnerving to be afraid to go outside. We spend too much time watching TV, and it is a temptation to eat too much. The kids are cooped up and chase each other around, because they have nothing else to do and have too much energy. Without being able to move around outside much or go anywhere, our sleep routine has become looser and fidgety. Eventually, we gave up about a week ago and went out for a hike. All of us, especially the kids, just needed sustained time outdoors.
  • All of this will be a problem in the West soon – cabin fever, overeating, not enough exercise, family conflict as everyone spends too much time together in confined spaces, too much TV, and so on. We have tried hard to build a schedule for our time so that it is not just a landfill of whatever we wander into. Our daughter is doing Zoom education. It is not great, but it is something. I jog early in the morning when the trails are empty and social distancing is not too hard to do. We have stopped leaving the TV on for constant news updates. It is all too depressing anyway.

This will be a slog for the next several months, and my guess is that for all the convenience of telework, most people will enjoy going back to an office when this situation finally breaks.

Coronavirus and the threat to South Asian democracy

Customers queue outside a pharmacy on the first day of a 21-day national lockdown, Allahabad, India, 25 March
Customers queue outside a pharmacy on the first day of a 21-day national lockdown, Allahabad, India, 25 March
Published 27 Mar 2020 16:30   1 Comments

Like the rest of the world, much of South Asia’s 1.89 billion population is now under lockdown to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

While Western citizens can, for the most part, temporarily afford to follow preventive measures such as mandatory lockdown, social distancing, and self-isolation, these are tough options for millions of South Asia’s poor. Their tales of everyday struggle for food are well-documented.

By imposing lockdowns, the strongman and populist leaders of South Asia such as Narendra Modi of India, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Imran Khan of Pakistan,  Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, and KP Sharma Oli of Nepal seem to be genuinely adamant in their efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve.

However, no real plans are yet visible from South Asian governments for aggressive tracing, testing, and containment of the virus – techniques that have reportedly worked well in Taiwan, China, and Singapore, for now.

With the projected number of deaths, loss of income, and increasingly authoritarian governments, it is likely that chaos and protest will break out in South Asian cities.

Army and security forces are being deployed to keep the streets of bustling South Asian cities empty and to enforce lockdowns. Against this backdrop, how the crisis may change the South Asian political outlook is a pertinent question.

Three plausible scenarios present themselves: governments could turn more authoritarian, economies could well plunge, and grievances may generate unrest, anarchy, and radicalism.

Up until recently, democracy in South Asia has been as strong as it ever was – with some exception for India. Modi’s controversial move of framing a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and his abrogation of the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir have placed India’s secular democratic character into serious question.

In recent times, civil liberty activists in India have been arrested, minorities have been violently abused, universities have been under attack, and state surveillance of activists has been amplified.

It is no surprise, then, that the 2020 Freedom in the World Report has ranked India among the least free democracies, and the World Press Freedom Index 2019 ranked India (140) behind Afghanistan (121).

Political and civil liberties in other South Asian states – Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan – are also being suppressed, with the Freedom of the World Report ranking these countries in the category of partly-free to not free.

Except for Bhutan, enforced disappearances, unlawful detention and assassination of critics and opposition activists, media censorship through tough laws, intimidation, and political inequalities are rampant in these countries.

As democracy is going backwards, military and security establishments are gaining stronger footholds in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, following behind powerful political actors. With the lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19, the authoritarian grip on South Asia is likely to get stronger. 

Videos from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have surfaced on social media demonstrating physical abuse of citizens by security forces. In the early days of the lockdown, Indian police reportedly beat a man to death when he went to buy milk.

Rights activists and journalists are already pointing out that governments are suppressing the number of deaths related to Covid-19 to prevent mass panic. Some observers believe that South Asia is taking the approach to develop so-called herd immunity, without naming it publicly.

That means millions will need to be infected to become immune, and the virus will eventually wither away. But in such a process, it is inevitable that many would die.

To resist mass protests, it is conceivable that in the future, even lockdowns and surveillance of citizens could increase, and freedom of the press decrease – shrinking the space for political pluralism in the name of protecting national interests.

On the economic front, the outlook is equally grim. From 2017, the South Asian economy was slowing down. Moody’s Global Macro Outlook 2020–21 recently downgraded the economic robustness of India with a projected growth rate of 2.5%, whereas Pakistan is in debt and textile-export oriented Bangladesh is set to take a blow as markets in the West are now closed.

Although governments are injecting their economies with billions of dollars to bail out industries and support the vulnerable and the poor, it is not a sustainable option in this region. There are also chances that institutional corruption may get in the way of government bailout money actually reaching recipients, which would further contribute to public outrage.

With the projected number of deaths, loss of income, and increasingly authoritarian governments, it is likely that chaos and protest will break out in South Asian cities. Pre-existing grievances and an increased sense of existential insecurity may also feed growing radicalism

By all accounts, the news for democracy in South Asia is not good.

No planes or cruise ships – a crucial regional industry will need aid

Flights in and out of popular tourist hotspots such as Phuket in Thailand are cancelled (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
Flights in and out of popular tourist hotspots such as Phuket in Thailand are cancelled (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 27 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Airlines are cancelling up to 90% of flights due to the rapid decline in travel brought on by Covid-19. Most of the world is being encouraged, or ordered, not to fly, and mandatory self-isolation is increasing common anyone arriving in more and more countries. That’s if they are allowed to enter at all. The travel industry is taking an unprecedented hit, and that will extend to the tourism sector more broadly.

The focus presently in Australia is appropriately on the domestic response to the unfolding health and economic crisis. But Australia’s long-standing overseas aid program also has a critical role to play in supporting the response in the region. That starts with helping fragile health systems to cope with this evolving crisis, which also reduces the chance of the further spread to Australia. But when the disease is eventually controlled and the recovery begins, industries around tourism will need support, else the flow on effects of Covid-19 will be even more severe.

The tourism sector has employed tens of millions of people in the countries in Asia that Australia provides development assistance (by our calculations, based on data from the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Bank, as many as 40 million workers are involved). For the Pacific, tourist numbers are comparatively much lower, however the tourism sector has been a growing share of GDP and the sector employs nearly 100,000 people in Melanesia alone (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji).

Avoiding the demise of small businesses and sectors critical to livelihoods such as tourism is also vital to ensure regional stability.

For many of those people dependent on the tourism sector, income diversification is rarely an option. Jobs in the tourism, including as drivers, hotel and restaurant staff, tour guides, transport operators and entertainers, generally go to low skilled or unskilled people. These people may migrate from rural areas to more urban areas in search of employment, and are in casual roles, which are highly seasonal and lack any sort of job protection or broader social safety net. The sudden and unprecedented drop in tourist numbers will mean sudden unemployment.

Initial estimates suggest Covid-19 will cost Asia up to $115 billion in lost tourism revenue. Visiting people in remote and rural parts of Asia shows firsthand how the tourist dollar dictates whether or not children go to school, whether or not adults access healthcare, and whether or not a family of four lives in a safe and secure home, or on the street.

Happier times, a cruise ship off Bali, Indonesia (Ya, saya inBaliTimur/Flickr)

Australia is blessed with universal access to high quality health care and sophisticated social security system that will help those affected by the pandemic with a safety net. Not all neighbouring countries are as fortunate.

In economics, unemployment benefits are often thought of as an automatic stabiliser, kicking in when the economy deteriorates and people most need the support. It’s not often that the overseas development program is described in this manner, but in the context of the current health and economic crisis, it may be an appropriate way to think about what is needed in Australia’s response in the region.

The aid program does not have the flexibility to pivot entirely to crisis response, but there is flexibility in the humanitarian aid budget. The immediate need in parts of Asia will be to ensure food and health supplies are available and accessible. Given many Australian development NGOs or their local counterparts have an existing presence in remote and rural parts of Asia, Australian aid can play an important role in getting supplies to communities in need.

In the longer term, the pandemic points to the priorities that must be part of Australia’s new aid policy, especially the importance of helping build health systems and skills in the region, not just infrastructure. Support for developing social safety nets to see communities through future crises is also essential.

At the same time, avoiding the demise of small businesses and sectors critical to livelihoods such as tourism is also vital to ensure regional stability, so as not to completely derail the development trajectory that had been underway. The cruise ships might not be welcome now. But in the months and years ahead, the dollars those tourist can bring will be essential to recovery from the potentially life-threatening economic impacts of a pandemic long after the health impacts are dealt with.

COVIDcast Episode 4: Crisis looms in Southeast Asia

Published 27 Mar 2020 11:30   0 Comments

People collapsing in the street with respiratory problems. Doctors forced to use raincoats in place of proper protective equipment. And one of the world’s highest reported death rates from COVID-19. Indonesia is facing a looming crisis as the government’s tardy and piecemeal response to the coronavirus outbreak compounds the pressures on its over-stretched and under-funded health system.

In episode 4 of COVIDcast, Lowy Institute’s Executive Director, Michael Fullilove, sat down with Ben Bland, Director of our Southeast Asia Program and resident expert on Indonesia’s political system, to discuss the depth of the challenge facing Australia’s largest neighbour, and the response from President Joko Widodo.

It’s not a simple question of democracy versus authoritarianism but a question of whether states had prepared properly and were able to deploy their power quickly and effectively with the support of their population.

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, two and three are already online, and this is the fourth instalment in the series, which we’ll be continuing on a weekly basis as this crisis unfolds.

This episode focused on how Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is faring amid the global pandemic. Our Institute experts discussed the varying political responses across the region, the impending economic crunch and impact of geopolitics.

Bland, who is working on an upcoming Lowy Institute Paper about the Indonesian president, highlighted how Jokowi, as he is popularly known, has been caught flat-footed by the crisis:

[Jokowi] has a very “nuts and bolts” approach to managing the country, very focused on the economy, and I think that’s really caught him flat-footed in this case. With such a big crisis, tactics, which is really his specialty, is not enough. You need a strategy, you need powers of organisation, of delegation, of control, of narrative and communication … whereas he’s a guy who likes to see and do. What he needs to do is coordinate his team properly and that hasn’t been happening.

Bland and Fullilove also discussed whether authoritarian governments, which are the norm in Southeast Asia, have been more effective in responding to the pandemic. Bland argued that it wasn’t a simple question of democracy versus authoritarianism but a question of whether states had prepared properly and were able to deploy their power quickly and effectively with the support of their population. Singapore and Vietnam had been successful on that front, at least in combatting the first wave of the pandemic, but Thailand and Malaysia less so.

The deepening coronavirus crisis is likely to drive Southeast Asian governments to implement even more draconian measures in the months ahead, at a time when authoritarianism already seems to be on the rise. Bland argued that, in the region and beyond, governments will not rush to give up these expanded powers, adding to the pressures on global democracy:

One thing I do think we’ve seen in pretty much every country in the world, including developed and consolidated democracies, is a sense that more authoritarian or draconian measures are needed, and at the same time, fear, that once those measures have come in…[they] won’t retreat so easily.

COVIDcast is a pop-up podcast for anyone interested in understanding the effect of coronavirus on global politics, hosted by our resident experts and powered by the Lowy Institute, with production assistance from Madeleine Nyst and Erin Bassett.

Subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Lockdown: A dilemma for the economic optimists

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, Washington, 8 October 2019 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, Washington, 8 October 2019 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Published 27 Mar 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Everyone – including economists themselves – jokes about economic forecasting failures. But the intrinsic difficulties are compounded for the international economic agencies, especially the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Their mistakes are high-profile, as their conjectures are in the headlines and are made on a regular schedule. Unlike private forecasters, they don’t have the opportunity to “forecast early, forecast often”, continually revising to overwrite impending bloopers.

On top of that, they are severely handicapped in their ability to have an agile reaction to unfolding unexpected events. In the “forecasting rounds” that precede the compilation of their numbers, there is extensive consultation with the so-called stakeholders – the representatives of the countries whose performance is being forecast. “Consultation” may not be quite the right word: it’s more an arm-wrestle to get some consensus around the best technical forecast, and the forecast that suits the client government’s current public narrative.

The best arm-waving word to describe the impact on the economy might be “decimate” – in its original meaning of reducing by 10%.

In the feeble recovery after the 2008 crisis, the IMF came under sustained criticism for always being too optimistic about growth prospects. True, they did make technical mistakes, in particular underestimating the depressing effect of the budget austerity of this period. But this was greatly exacerbated by the pressure from member countries to mimic the domestic narrative, helping confidence by staying positive, even optimistic.

The Covid-19 crisis presents a huge problem. At this moment, it looks like it will be necessary to take draconian containment measures to avoid the sort of triage disaster that Italy is experiencing. Yet these sorts of drastic measures will be hugely damaging for the economy. Worse still, if the measures succeed in “flattening the curve” of the epidemic, they will spread the problem out over a longer period, so it’s not just a quarter or two that will be badly affected.

The best arm-waving word to describe the impact on the economy might be “decimate” – in its original meaning of reducing by 10%. Using this round number as in indication of the uncertainty, Australian unemployment could easily exceed 10%, and a fall in GDP of 10% in 2020 is by no means out of the question. But what international agency, sensitive to the views of its membership, would want to print figures like that, when the domestic authorities don’t want to startle the horses and have delayed their own budget process until October because everything is too uncertain?

The IMF made its most recent forecast in January, when their forecasters thought that the world would grow at 3.3%. For the moment, they are sticking to verbal descriptions for the prospects – “a recession at least as bad as during the financial crisis or worse” – when the Fund recorded minus 0.6% growth for the world as a whole in 2009, with minus 3.2% for the advanced economies, and minus 0.6% for the emerging economies. In 2009, China’s 8.7% growth countered weakness elsewhere, but that won’t be repeated in 2020. Let’s see how bold the Fund will be with its forecasts at the April meeting.

Meanwhile, the OECD published interim forecast figures early this month, but they would have been finalised some weeks earlier, in consultation with individual country authorities. Just weeks after publication, these numbers are already looking hopelessly optimistic. The OECD’s chief economist avoided saying very much at all about the forecasts in a recent Financial Times article. The OECD revised down its November projection for world growth in 2020 from an “already low” 3% to 2.4%, with a “downside risk” estimate of 1.5%. China dominates their story, which might be an indicator of how far they are behind current events. The impending revisions can only go one way – down.

The public judgment of South Korea’s Covid-19 response

Trains are disinfected against Covid-19 at Seoul Station, Seoul (Republic of Korea/Flickr)
Trains are disinfected against Covid-19 at Seoul Station, Seoul (Republic of Korea/Flickr)
Published 27 Mar 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Compared to many countries, South Korea has taken aggressive measures to address the outbreak of Covid-19. Most notable is its incredibly widespread testing: as of the most recent figures, it had tested 357,896 citizens and confirmed 9,237 cases. In comparison, as of March 20, Italy had performed just 206,886 tests but confirmed 47,021 cases.

These testing measures have helped South Korea slow the spread of the virus – at least for now – though vigilance is needed. Others have praised South Korea for their innovative testing strategies including public “phone booths”, which feature a medical professional on the opposite side of a glass-walled booth using a handset to communicate and rubber gloves to swab the patient. The booths, which can obtain results within seven-minutes, have allowed South Korea to increase its testing capacity ten-fold. Additional government measures include texting citizens when a case of Covid-19 is investigated near their location, and officials tracking the outbreak are allowed to use data from credit cards, cell phones, and security cameras to trace patients’ movements. While some might find this an invasion of privacy, health officials consider South Korea’s strategy exemplary.

South Korea has been praised for innovative testing strategies including public “phone booths”, which feature a medical professional on the opposite side of a glass-walled booth using a handset to communicate and rubber gloves to swab the patient.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) also provides detailed information about epidemiological links and the locations of outbreak clusters within regions of South Korea on its website. South Korea developed these new strategies for public health emergencies after suffering a severe outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. Additionally, in 2003 when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) infected thousands of people, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 41% of South Koreans were worried or somewhat worried about contracting SARS, low compared to other countries polled.

Due to South Korea’s perceived success in responding to such health crises, leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have contacted President Moon Jae-in inquiring more into the measures implemented in South Korea, while US media has similarly praised South Korean actions as potentially replicable. With this in mind, we wanted to undertand what influences the perception of South Koreans of their government’s response to coronavirus.

We surveyed 1,111 South Koreans from 2­–12 March via web survey, conducted by Macromill Embrain, using quota sampling by age, gender, and region based on census data. During these days, the number of new confirmed cases in South Korea ranged from 600 (3 March) to 114 (12 March), based on KCDC press releases. The largest jump in cases occurred days earlier on 29 February, when 909 cases were confirmed. The number of daily confirmed cases was mostly in decline after 3 March.

First, we asked on a five-point scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) “Please evaluate the following statement: I am satisfied with the South Korean government’s response to the 2020 coronavirus outbreak”. Overall, we found that a plurality (43.83%) agreed, while over a third (36%) disagreed. This response cannot be considered a blanket condemnation of Moon’s response, despite what some analysts have suggested.

Next, we broke evaluations down by partisanship, where we found stark differences. Support was highest among supporters of Moon’s own party, the Minjoo Party (3.93), and lower support among the smaller, more progressive Justice Party (3.39). In contrast, evaluations were considerably lower among supporters of the centrist People’s Party (2.45) and conservative United Future Party (1.79). A similar pattern emerges if respondents were separated by political ideology: progressives averaged a 3.81 on the scale compared to 2.86 and 2.28 for moderates and conservatives respectively.

What does this tell us? Firstly, the lack of an overwhelmingly positive or negative response despite the direct impact of the coronavirus suggests this issue has not galvanized a bipartisan response. Party identification and political ideology appear to be the most significant factors. Our data suggests that party identification, even in a country where parties frequently split and merge, still provides a powerful anchor in the evaluation of governmental performance, even in the face of a national crisis.

Legislative elections on 15 April may also serve as a litmus test for Moon and the Minjoo Party, especially if a second wave of coronavirus cases occurs. Opposition leaders are rallying support arguing that Moon’s government did not ban the entry of people from China and impose harsh measures fast enough. Politicians are criticising Moon for hosting a chapaguri (a South Korean noodle dish popularized by the movie Parasite) party for the movie’s director and cast when South Korea had more than one hundred coronavirus cases. Six weeks after the coronavirus outbreak, 1.5 million Koreans signed an online petition demanding Moon’s impeachment. However, there was later another petition with almost 1.5 million signatures to show support for Moon’s response, depicting this split in public perceptions once again.

While the election may be influenced by public perceptions of Moon’s response to Covid-19, other factors will likely also be at play, including Moon’s broader domestic and foreign policies, including his support of increasing minimum wages.

When reactions to a crisis such as this one are determined primarily by partisan allegiance, governments may struggle to build consensus. Despite what appears to be a commendable response to the virus from a public health perspective, South Koreans are likely to continue siding with their own party on the matter. Those who support the current government supported its Covid-19 response, and those who did not continued their opposition to its policies. Despite international praise, Moon’s Minjoo Party faces the challenge of defending the administration’s efforts against Covid-19 within the broader framework of Moon’s domestic policies.

Moreover, the partisan divergence in perceptions suggests that if South Korea had not already strong guidelines in place to address the situation, the government could have lost valuable time to partisan squabbling.

Erin Woggon and Kaitlyn Bison also contributed to the research for this article.

After coronavirus: Where the world economy will stand

Unlike the last decade, it will be a stock pickers market (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
Unlike the last decade, it will be a stock pickers market (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 26 Mar 2020 16:00   0 Comments

For all the drama of collapsing output, demand, and jobs in Australia and many economies around the globe, we should expect that output in most countries will begin to recover once new coronavirus infections peak and head down. It will not be soon, but it will happen.

This is, after all, a deliberate economic recession, one created and encouraged by governments to slow the spread of the virus. There is no reason to expect any extensive destruction of the physical capital on which resumed output growth will depend, and no reason to expect workers to lose skills and knowledge.

For that matter there is no reason to expect any big change in what we buy, what we produce, what kind of work we do, or in global trade and investment, compared to the patterns a few months ago. China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan are already heading back to work. Bar a major financial disruption – certainly a possibility, but one central banks are alert to control – much of the rest of the world will also be back at work before the end of the year.

Yet for all the likely similarities, it is also apparent that we will be in a somewhat different world.

Union Station, Washington DC (Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

One difference will be a big increase in debt. Coming out of this slump the level of output will be down and government debt vastly up. On numbers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, gross government debt was 136% of US GDP in 2018, and 66% of Australian GDP. We should expect that in a year or so it will be well over 150% of US GDP, and 80% of Australian GDP. Australia’s government debt to GDP will be similar to Germany’s, while the US will be similar to France, and Italy. For a few years these ratios will probably continue to increase.

At the same time households are to be likely adding to debt and running down savings. Borrowers who need it may be able to get mortgages repayments postponed, but the amounts will be added to their debt. Other families will have to borrow on their houses or run down offset balances. All up we should expect to see Australian household debt, already 120% of GDP, creep up. In this respect Australia is an outlier, mainly because of our preference for buying as opposed to renting homes. Even so, most advanced economies should expect to see a big rise in net household debt as consumers try to sustain their spending despite falling income.

In this crisis the rest of the world owes nothing to the leadership of either superpower.

Like households, many businesses will have to seek a moratorium on debt servicing. This will increase their debt coming out of the downturn. Some debt will be written off as companies go broke, but even so business is likely to come out of the pandemic more indebted than it went in.

The increase in debt compared to GDP need not much affect economic performance and is regardless a necessary consequence of trying to sustain demand while the virus is brought under control. But it will have a notable long term effect. During the course of the downturn central banks will cut interest rates to rock bottom, if they haven’t already. Because of the increased sensitivity of the economy to debt, central banks will have to keep rates very low even after economies have recovered.

Lower for longer is going to be so low for so long that for many years we can forget about central banks capacity to stimulate economies. They will have none. Central banks will retain their valuable capacity to smooth out liquidity strains and payments malfunctions, and to support debt for firms and households. Yet not even the Reserve Bank of Australia will have any capacity to ease the interest rate burden on households or corporations, below current levels. Central banks will have a general policy effectiveness only in one direction – raising rates. It will be many years before that capacity will be needed.

The Asian regional economy, with China at its core, is coming out the crisis faster and stronger than Europe or the Americas (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Australian federal government will be issuing several hundred billion in new debt, pushing the price of federal debt down and the interest rate up. To maintain its declared ceiling on bond rates, the RBA will have to buy them whenever the rate is likely to exceed its target rate. This is the point of the new policy. It means that the RBA has committed to indirectly funding the new debt intended to carry the economy through to time when the virus is under control. Like many other central banks, the RBA’s balance sheet will rapidly expand.

Fiscal policy will also be constrained, though not so completely. Most governments will be in deficit for a long while, including Australia’s. The big deficits expected this year and next mostly arise from a vast but avowedly temporary increase in spending on one side, and a collapse of tax revenue on the other. Fiscal policy will then turn contractionary as one off measures end, tax revenue begins to recover, and deficits begin to decline.

We learned in the years from 2009 that Australian tax revenue now recovers only slowly from a big downturn. This will be still more evident under the new tax thresholds and scales, with their built-in reductions. Yet the effect will still be contractionary, and perhaps severely.

Many other central banks had less policy space. But from 2011, the RBA was able to offset the impact of a contractionary fiscal policy by lowering the cash rate and sparking a housing boom. That will not be possible this time round. It follows that a sensible fiscal policy will aim to cut the deficit only slowly. It will be quite some time before government debt stops rising as a share of GDP, even if GDP growth returns to trend.

With interest rates even lower for even longer, financial market investors will have to buy shares. If markets valued companies fairly at the mid-February market peak, and if the economy global recovers to the levels of output and expectations of medium term growth which the market assumed in February, then overall equity prices have a very long way to increase. If the market bottoms out 50% below the February peak, for example, it will have to then increase by 100% just to get back to where it was. Unlike the last decade, it will be a stock pickers market. Many companies will emerge burdened with debt. Many tech companies, which lived on promise rather than sales, will find the post slump market uncongenial. Good fund managers may be able to beat the index.

Tacoma, United States, with social distancing measures in place (Tom Collins/Flickr)

The crisis also has wider implications. It has reminded us of the authority of the state over markets and supranational institutions. At the same time it has reminded us of how much nations have in common with all others, of the inescapable and irreversible fact of globalisation. It has queried the pretensions of the superpowers. In the global contest between China and the US, neither of the proponents have done well.

China quickly controlled the spread of the virus, but its tightly controlled communications also permitted the virus to get a hold, and not just in China. The US has plenty warning yet was unprepared for the epidemic when it hit, and fumbled the early stages of testing and isolating. The most successful countries in dealing with the virus have been Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea – all, like Australia, relatively small and with good health systems. In this crisis the rest of the world owes nothing to the leadership of either superpower.

Although the pandemic started in China, the Asian regional economy, with China at its core, is coming out the crisis faster and stronger than Europe or the Americas. Decoupling from China will seem even more of a fantasy.

It will be a new world, though one with familiar problems. We know about debt overhang and about the limits on monetary and fiscal policy from the past decade. Those constraints will be more pressing in the next.

For its part, Australia is getting by better than might have been expected. Iron ore and coal prices have held up remarkably well. Mining and farm exports look to be okay, at least so far. East Asia, the market for three quarters of Australia’s goods exports was first into this crisis, and looks to be on the way to being first out. Tourism and education will be slow to recover because both industries involve air travel and group activity. Their full recovery probably awaits not only a vaccine but its wide availability.

As for the impact on the idea of globalisation, it is certainly true that countries closed borders against foreigners, that the European Union members closed their borders against each other, and that various restrictions on cross border trade in medical supplies were proposed. Yet it is also true that countries shared information about the virus and its spread, the World Health Organization was able to coordinate and publicise high frequency data, and that countries learned from each other about ways to control the virus and treat the victims. So too the economic remedies have been broadly the same in most countries It was a universal, shared experience. Like individuals, countries were both isolating and communicating.  For a while nations have more in common than they usually suppose.

It will be a new world, though one with familiar problems. We know about debt overhang and about the limits on monetary and fiscal policy from the past decade. Those constraints will be more pressing in the next. In the last decade we became familiar with low productivity growth and faltering business investment. It will be a while before investment levels return to where they were at the beginning of this year, let alone move beyond them. Productivity growth will appear to be spectacular for a quarter or two as economies resume full production, then it will fade.

Still, after coronavirus, the sluggish performance of the past decade will be pleasingly recognisable.

In the shadow of a pandemic, political calamity grips Afghanistan

Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the peace deal signed in Doha between the US and the Taliban, Laghman province, Afghanistan, 2 March (Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the peace deal signed in Doha between the US and the Taliban, Laghman province, Afghanistan, 2 March (Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 26 Mar 2020 11:00   0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic has been dominating international news and monopolising the time of governments across the world as they scramble to respond and prepare. In the midst of this it was striking that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo found the time for a flying visit to Afghanistan this week in a bid to shore up a fragile peace deal and settle the political storm that is brewing in the country.

Pompeo met with the two men who claim to be Afghanistan’s rightful and constitutional President – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah – following a months-long dispute over last year’s Presidential election. “The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” Pompeo said in a scolding statement, warning their failure to strike a compromise “dishonours those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

Coronavirus looms as yet another challenge for an Afghanistan already victim to decades of war. While the pandemic has not had a debilitating impact on the country yet, the worrying developments in neighbouring Iran pose a potential danger.

Coronavirus looms as yet another challenge for an Afghanistan already victim to decades of war. While the pandemic has not had a debilitating impact on the country yet, the worrying developments in neighbouring Iran pose a potential danger, especially as Tehran continues to refuse treatment to Afghan refugees, compelling them to cross over into Afghanistan. With its medical infrastructure in shambles, Afghanistan is not at all equipped to handle a pandemic outbreak, which, at its peak, may affect 16 million people in the country.

Yet bitter politics stand in the way. Avoiding a second run-off only by a small margin, Ghani was declared the winner with 50.64% of the votes over Abdullah who captured 39.52% of the vote share. Alleging the ballot was rigged in favour of Ghani, Abdullah, as he did the last time, refused to accept the verdict. But unlike the previous time, he did not wait for American mediation. The Americans, he knew, were already busy elsewhere. So on 9 March, Abdullah installed himself as the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, just when Ghani was also being administered a constitutional oath and sworn in.

Domestically, confusion remains about who is in charge. Internationally, the reception of this political polycephaly has been divided, ranging from criticism and concern to withholding of funds. Among the major donor countries, only the EU and India, have so far made their stance clear by congratulating Ghani on his re-election. The US, on the other hand, appears to be hedging its bet on both “presidents”. Pompeo saw both men on his visit, separately and then together. Although the presence of US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony and the American opposition to the establishment of the parallel government can be understood as tangential support to Ghani, the US is yet to make its preference clear. In truth, the US cannot extricate itself from this political drama, nor can Afghanistan make do without its biggest donor.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Kabul, 29 February (NATO/Flickr)

In all this political pandemonium, the only side that appears to have gained anything is the Taliban. Having already managed to extract a deal from the US – which was previously reluctant even to acknowledge the role of Taliban as a stakeholder in the conflict – the group has managed to hoist itself as a legitimate player on Afghanistan’s political landscape. Although it also remains divided between those in favour of its negotiations with the Americans and those opposed to a conditional withdrawal, the Taliban has still shown its ability to operate under a united command.

The Taliban has also continued its offensive against “Kabul administration foes”, mounting attacks on security installations this month, while an insider attack in Zabul on 20 March, claimed to have been the Taliban’s doing, left 40 members of the Afghan forces dead.

While the strikes directed against the Kabul administration continue unabated, the Taliban has been holding parallel discussions over the release of prisoners with the Ghani government. It has demanded that unless 5000 members of the group are released from custody (“100 or 200 more or less does not matter,” a spokesman said), it will neither participate in the intra-Afghan peace process nor release the 1500 prisoners it has its captivity. Citing a combination of reasons including the pandemic scare and the clauses in the Doha agreement, the Taliban has forewarned both the US and the Ghani government to fulfil their primary obligation before the situation “prompts a major catastrophe”. The Taliban is watching the global disaster unfold and has called it a moment of “admonitory tribulation” and has vowed not to attack any healthcare workers.

For now, the Ghani government, in what looked like a quid pro quo, has extracted a token endorsement of its constitutional validity in return for discussing prisoner exchange with the Taliban on Skype. Yet the coronavirus threatens to make the technicalities of this prisoner exchange moot. All the players need to recognise the gravity of the situation at hand.

An Australian in New York with a warning about the weeks ahead

New York City, 24 March (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
New York City, 24 March (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 26 Mar 2020 10:00   1 Comments

After he reluctantly advised Americans to stay off the streets and businesses to let their staff work from home, US President Donald Trump’s commitment to fighting the coronavirus outbreak is already wavering. Trump’s tweet late on Sunday night that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” suggests short-term economic interests are ascendant in the White House, to the endangerment of American public health. For an Australian writing from a “new epicentre” of the outbreak in New York City, the consequences of a belated response to Covid-19 are now biting hard. It’s the product of a conundrum facing political leaders worldwide, where short-term social and economic stability are chosen at the expense of public health. However, this only leads to a greater health burden and deeper social and economic damage. Australia must avoid the same blunder.

Coronavirus attacks the weakness of political decision making, revealing society’s tendency to underestimate its severity and the lag of outbreak data, reducing political pressure on our leaders to intervene early. Meanwhile, narrower interests facing financial loss push to delay business shutdowns. Ironically, as the virus’ grip tightens, the trade-offs grow more extreme, and the second-order economic and social impacts become more disruptive.

Combined with resistant economic interests, two factors bias political leaders to underreact, fearful of disrupting their societies without the communal understanding of the collective sacrifices that must be made for public health.

Since the coronavirus spread beyond China, medical experts advocated for measures of isolation. Early in a country’s outbreak where cases were localised and traceable, tight isolation for the infected individual and their close contacts were recommended. As the virus spread further, the principle of isolation and “social distancing” belatedly scaled up across effected regions, alongside travel restrictions and border closures.

The trouble is that isolation runs counter to economic and social stability. Shut down the movement of people, and you choke off restaurants from their hungry clientele, hotels from their guests, and planes from their travellers. The economic impact of such a sudden stop is astounding when viewed across the breadth of a city such as New York. To remember that this wave is washing through most of the globe warps comprehension.

Our well-being is anchored in connections to our communities, and a general freedom of movement that we are accustomed to in Western society. Mobility is central to that, and we have limited patience when it is curtailed. There’s a reason we punish criminal offenders by restricting their freedom of movement and interaction.

A social distancing press conference (White House/Flickr)

In directing a country’s response to coronavirus, political leaders must decide what policies to implement along this spectrum. Their response is influenced by general public sentiment and the sharper influence of special interest groups, particularly those who stand to lose from particular outcomes.

However, the coronavirus exposes a “market failure”, which biases leaders to underreact. Citizens in those countries now crawling with cases consistently underestimated the prevalence and severity of the virus. Analysing Google searches for “coronavirus” shows a consistent trend of curiosity as cases escalated in China, complacency as isolated cases spread to their region, and a belated realisation of the scale and severity of it as cases proliferated exponentially in their own country. Part of this is wired in our psychology – our tendency to preserve the status quo, and to filter news of new cases with the apparent calm on the streets we walk.

Secondly, the rapid transmission of Covid-19 means that figures reported today are really a reflection of a past reality. In countries such as the US, where testing is limited, official statistics also underestimate the true prevalence of the coronavirus. This means official figures can lag current reality by an enormous margin.

Combined with resistant economic interests, these two factors bias political leaders to underreact, fearful of disrupting their societies without the communal understanding of the collective sacrifices that must be made for public health. Once political leaders and the general public grasp the reality of the outbreak, the opportunity for nimbler, less disruptive forms of containment has already passed.

This scenario played out in Europe and is unfolding here in New York. I fear Australia is travelling down the same path.

In the United States, Trump is now suggesting Americans should return to work by Easter as the virus continues proliferating, in the hope of reviving the economy before the November presidential elections. The economic cost of Covid-19 across the US is already staggering. However, the cost of underreacting now exposes us to even nastier second-order effects. Recurrent waves of the virus would force returns to isolation and city lockdowns, quickly straining social stability while prolonging an economic contraction.

As the world looked on with alarm at the eruption of Covid-19 through Italy last month, the US failed to apply the lessons of Italian complacency. Locked in my New York City apartment as sirens bounce across empty streets below me, I’m now witness to the result. Other countries, including Australia, shouldn’t make the same mistake.

Economic diplomacy: Fighting global pandemics from the G20 to ASEAN

The warning signs are everywhere (Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)
The warning signs are everywhere (Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)
Published 26 Mar 2020 07:00   0 Comments

Digital mates

The online summit between the leaders of Singapore and Australia on Monday didn’t get much attention amid a stock market meltdown and tensions within Australia’s newly formed federal-state leadership Cabinet to deal with coronavirus.

The virtual meeting made the best of international travel bans to sign off a new agreement on digital trade between the two countries, which in better times would have been pumped up as a pace-setting initiative to smooth the way for fast growing ecommerce amid troubled times for paragons of globalisation such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO).



Singapore and Australia have a long history and little to divide them. But as the world turns its back on international engagement in a desperate bid to deal with a disease pandemic, it will be bonds like this that will be necessary to restoring some cooperation when the WTO’s peers – such as the Group of 20 – are also struggling.

Meanwhile closer to home Singapore and Australia are just getting a view of what has always been one of their greatest shared economic and security nightmares – severe social dislocation in Indonesia, this time due to high death rates from undetected Covid-19.

Troika trouble

In the heyday of new global economic institution building during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), much was made of how the G20 economic leaders would straddle their many differences via a troika, bringing together past, present, and future leadership countries.

So, who’s on deck this year? Japan, acutely focussed on its failed bid to keep the Olympic Games on schedule; Saudi Arabia, more interested in oil price wars; and Italy, facing much more existential challenges.

Fortunately, the troika member-designate for the 2022 summit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra seems to have stepped into the vacuum to urge Saudi Arabia to bring forward this year’s G20 summit to today (Thursday).

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (G20 Argentina)

Nevertheless, the lack of clear leadership this time around to parallel the example of Gordon Brown as British prime minister in 2008 will make behind the scenes trust between leaders (or countries) even more critical to getting a substantial G20 response.

Action by the G20 is made even more problematic by US President Donald Trump’s apparent preference for the older Group of Seven (G7) to deal with international issues, when he is interested.

When a vaccine eventually slows this pandemic, old challenges such as climate change and new challenges like another virus will still need global cooperation to find solutions, even in a less connected world.

But last week’s G7 leaders communique only underlined why the G20 was created to bring more diverse countries to the table: it went on for 800 words with no specific actions and no numbers. There’s been no identifiable collective action since. And there was also no mention of China, the original cause of the pandemic, but also now the country showing the most capacity to provide medical support to other developing countries.  

It is hard not to see globalisation losing more momentum now that coronavirus has only added to the pre-existing centripetal forces from populist nationalism to lost faith in free trade. But when a vaccine eventually slows this pandemic, old challenges such as climate change and new challenges like another virus will still need global cooperation to find solutions, even in a less connected world.

While the G20 has had a post-GFC health stream, the 2019 Osaka communique notably focussed more on ageing demographics than pandemics and the whole G20 shift into new fields such as health has lost momentum as the group has flatlined since the GFC. (Read how Australia’s planning documents underplayed a pandemic here.)

In the meantime, there are many more immediate issues for today’s meeting. They include removing emerging obstacles to medical goods trade partly fostered by the US-China trade tensions, underpinning expansive actions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund given individual rich countries are debt burdened, and planning for vaccine distribution. And given the extraordinary role of the global cruise ship industry in facilitating this pandemic, the G20 should be pushing for a global protocol. 

As Australia’s GFC era prime minister Kevin Rudd argues:

Because of the entrenched interdependence of global public health, supply chains and financial markets, no single national response will work. Global action is not an optional extra.


When the much-vaunted idea of a Group of Two (China and the US) running the world had currency, a pandemic might have seemed like the potential moment for some cooperation.

But the unseemly sparring over the cause of the epidemic when China faces a reinfection cycle from returning citizens and the US seems at sea over a national control strategy, has only underlined how a caucus of other countries is needed to take control of this pandemic.

It is hard to see the US (and for that matter even more China dependent Australia) remaining as reliant on China for medical supplies after this experience. But like so many other aspects of the supply diversification debate that may not be the case for other countries now receiving Chinese aid.

And a crucial factor in the medical self-reliance battle will be how a Covid-19 vaccine is developed. Even if China is not first, it may well have the stronger pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity to deliver it quickly to the broader world.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai to reject the claims by other Chinese officials that the virus was created in a US military laboratory offers the slimmest of hopes that the G2 may at least not impede some global cooperation at this crucial moment.

Asia’s social isolation

Asia has spent a lot of time since its own homegrown financial upheaval in 1997 talking up its capacity to manage a new crisis alone with institutions like the Chiangmai Initiative on currency reserve sharing.

At the same time the region’s oldest institution, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), holds hundreds of meetings a year to reinforce the idea of growing pan-regional information sharing and cooperation. The Asian Development Bank has rushed out an assistance package for countries and businesses which is almost half that of the larger World Bank and is about to release a comprehensive economic impact assessment next week.

But it is striking that the coronavirus has not only seen little pan-regional institutional activity so far, but even more regressive actions on the cooperation front.

Taiwanese officials say the World Health Organization failed to take its early advice because it would have upset China and when the two most developed economies – Japan and South Korea – imposed travel controls they slipped into the sort of historical grievance sparring that has been going on for months.

ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr

What’s more striking is that even the countries that seem to be successful in dealing with the pandemic have pursued more organic local approaches rather than applying an agreed regional playbook drawn from their common experience of other pandemics. For example, Korea has emphasised aggressive testing, China a harshly enforced lockdown, Taiwan intensive contact tracing, and Japan much narrower testing.

However, as Asia plays a bigger role in the world, it is interesting and welcome to see the sinews of an Asian “model” for dealing with a global problem emerging in this crisis. But when these countries are being cited by the increasingly shrill media and academic critics of Australia’s national cabinet decision making on Covid-19, it needs to be appreciated that any Asian model is still fragmented.

And turning this emerging model into a confidence building policy package that can be applied more broadly in a future pandemic everywhere from the neighbourhood (Indonesia) to a faltering G7 member (Italy) will require some skilful multilateral institutional work.

Singapore and Australia have the trust, medical expertise and diplomatic links to at least help initiate this process in the Indo-Pacific.

What the G20 needs to deliver

(Fayex Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
(Fayex Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 25 Mar 2020 14:30   0 Comments

The Covid-19 outbreak has rapidly gone from a crisis for China to a crisis for the world. The pandemic is desperately crying out for international leadership.

So far that has been sorely missing. An extraordinary (virtual) meeting of G20 leaders, to be held on Thursday, will hopefully begin rectifying this.

Many are looking to the G20 to provide the same kind of leadership it did during the 2008–09 global financial crisis. In fact, the need for strong global action goes vastly further this time around.

The G20 should commit now to quickly developing, funding, and rolling out a global health effort to help emerging and developing economies manage what could be an explosion in devastating health disasters.

The global financial crisis was really a North Atlantic crisis, with the core problems lying within the tightly interwoven financial systems of the United States and Europe. Those two getting their own houses in order – or at least re-establishing stability – was the single greatest service to the rest of the world they could provide.

The G20 complemented this by delivering a coordinated stimulus, guarding against a descent into beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism, and supporting the rest of the world via increased funding for the International Monetary Fund and multilateral development banks. That helped restore global confidence, limit the damage, and enable the recovery.

Covid-19, by contrast, is a truly global crisis. As the pandemic intensifies, countries around the world are simultaneously not only facing a dramatic external shock but a massive internal one as well – in the form of national health crises and related public shutdowns coming at high economic cost.

Most worrying, the obvious next stage of the Covid-19 crisis risks being a health and economic disaster in the emerging and developing world. Weak health systems, low state capacity, poverty, slums, inadequate safety nets, and little ability to fund their own policy responses mean the human and economic costs threaten to be far more devastating than what we have seen to date. There is some speculation that the virus doesn’t spread as easily in tropical climates. But that remains unproven.

Acknowledging this harsh reality is fundamental to thinking about the global ambition required.

A 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 – also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 – virus particle (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Flickr)

The key for the G20 is to begin taking concrete steps while sending a strong signal they are willing to do “whatever it takes” depending on how things evolve – echoing the famous words of former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi at the height of the Eurozone debt crisis.

Today, a truly global crisis requires a global “whatever it takes”. The need is in two broad areas.

The first is delivering a large-scale global health response. The G20 should commit now to quickly developing, funding, and rolling out a global health effort to help emerging and developing economies manage what could be an explosion in devastating health disasters. The World Health Organization could lead in coordinating the response and mobilising funds.

This needs to be coupled with more immediate actions, in particular urgently removing the array of export restrictions on critical medical supplies recently imposed by many countries, including G20 members. These are particularly insidious beggar-thy-neighbour policies, and will hit smaller and poorer countries with little domestic industrial capacity the hardest.

The second priority is on the economic front. The need is not just about coordinating expansionary fiscal and monetary policies as in 2009 but also about ensuring that as many countries as possible are actually able to undertake such measures in the first place.

Most emerging and developing countries, including G20 members such as India, Indonesia, and Mexico, simply cannot finance the kind of massive fiscal expansions – on the order of 10% of GDP and possibly higher – that many advanced countries are currently pursuing to save their own economies.

Many currencies are already plunging, and an emerging markets crisis is now a distinct possibility – with the risk that events in one country could easily spark wider financial contagion and collapse.

Underwriting financial stability and enabling the fiscal expansion needed in these countries will require a large and multi-faceted effort – deploying and dramatically expanding tools including central bank currency swaps, IMF liquidity and balance of payments support, and large-scale budget financing loans from multilateral development banks. For the poorest countries, international aid will be critical.

All of this may need to go far beyond the scope and scale of that delivered during the 2008–09 crisis. Positively, the IMF has begun raising important new proposals that could help. The G20 should heed this advice but also be prepared to go much further.

Importantly, the rationale for a global “whatever it takes” is not too different to that justifying the massive increases in spending currently underway in advanced economies – namely, incredibly low borrowing costs and high returns to acting now to stave off the far worse alternative.

Conversely, the costs to not doing whatever it takes could be catastrophic. And not just in terms of the human and economic toll. It could also deliver a fatal blow to any remaining idea of a stable global order – especially one underpinned by liberal values and led by the United States and its allies.

Australia can’t let foreign aid fall victim to Covid-19

A DFAT-sponsored event in Timor-Leste to promote the rights of persons with disability, Dili, July 2017 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)
A DFAT-sponsored event in Timor-Leste to promote the rights of persons with disability, Dili, July 2017 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr)
Published 25 Mar 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic comes precisely at a time when Australia needs to keep sight of our Pacific neighbours and to offer strategic support and help in dire times.

With the 2020–21 Federal Budget now deferred until October, gauging what Covid-19 means for the Australian aid budget is impossible. Based on the cuts it has suffered over the past decade, however, the Australian aid sector should rightly be concerned.

Australia’s aid budget now sits at $4 billion, down 27% in real terms since 2013. While the ensuing economic crisis does not bode well, the aid budget also typically falls victim to voter misunderstanding and a general ambivalence among voters.

Now more than ever, Australia’s aid and support in the Pacific region require strategic reprioritisation, with an increased emphasis on high standards and transparency in both infrastructure and humanitarian goals.

In February, ongoing redistributions of Australia’s aid contribution were flagged in Senate estimates, showing a rise in aid spending in the Pacific at the cost of support in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South and West Asia. Spending has also been seen broadly to flow away from health and humanitarian programs towards infrastructure projects.

This growing shift is a cause for alarm. As noted in the Interpreter just last week, Australia’s largest aid beneficiary, Papua New Guinea, struggles to support the healthcare system for its 10 million citizens. PNG’s limited healthcare resources have long been teetering on the edge of crisis. Similarly, other Pacific countries suffer from stretched health services, as witnessed in the measles outbreak centred in Samoa last year.

The Australian Federal government announced in December last year a review into Australia’s aid budget. The review will seek to measure the effectiveness of Australia’s aid contribution and identify “new and emerging priorities”. Inevitably, Covid-19 will have an impact on those priorities.

The announcement came soon after the government greenlighted the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). The $2 billion initiative is focused on boosting infrastructure developments through grant funding and loans in the Pacific.

Analysts have framed the AIFFP through a geostrategic lens, seeing the AIFFP as a counter to the rise of the easy-access lending practices for infrastructure projects offered by China in the Pacific, which have provoked questions about transparency, military influence, and economic coercion.

Now more than ever, Australia’s aid and support in the Pacific region require strategic reprioritisation, with an increased emphasis on high standards and transparency in both infrastructure and humanitarian goals. The repercussions of Covid-19 will disproportionately burden our immediate Pacific neighbours, whose capacity to manage a crisis of this scale is severely limited.

Unfortunately, outside of AIFFP, Australia’s aid contribution has had few flag bearers in the federal government’s Expenditure Review Committee. Neither former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop nor current Foreign Minister Marise Payne have sat on the exclusive and male-dominated committee.

Without a strong advocate to protect it from the swinging axes, the aid budget has also suffered as its palatability in some electorates has soured with the rise of populist rhetoric and misinformation – which in turn has leveraged a general misunderstanding among Australians about the real size of the budget and the influence and effectiveness of the programs it funds. 

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne (The Commonwealth/Flickr)

The 2019 Lowy Institute Poll found that Australia’s foreign aid contribution was the only policy area in which more Australians said spending should be decreased rather than increased. However, it also found respondents to be greatly misinformed about aid spending. Earlier polling found that on average, it was believed by Australians that 14% of the national budget was spent on aid, and that it should be at 10%.

In reality, it sits at 0.8%.

This comes at a time when like-minded nations of similar size and influence have stepped up their aid spending – including the United Kingdom.

The toxicity of the political debate surrounding Australia’s aid budget, instigated by political fringe parties, has served only to increase the potential political cost of making any substantive changes. One Nation, for example, have called it their “moral duty to redirect the foreign aid budget”, while banging the populist drum with misinformed facts and figures.

The eventual outcome of the aid review will importantly need to “convince Australians that our investment overseas is money spent for them, not money taken from them”, as outlined by former Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific Senator Anne Ruston.

Very few Australians would change their vote due to changes to the foreign aid budget, but even fewer in such testing times. Therein lies the problem. The government is acutely aware that it stands to gain or lose very little politically by either increasing or cutting the aid the budget.

As a result, it has suffered from year-on-year cuts, forcing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to attempt to achieve more with less for the best part of the last decade.

Australia has a strong history of coming to support our Pacific neighbours in times of need. As Australians have begun to come to grips with the new challenges Covid-19 forces on us at home, we must not lose sight of our Pacific neighbours.

Disinformation and coronavirus

duncan c/Flickr
duncan c/Flickr
Published 25 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

The best way to prevent the novel coronavirus? Eating garlic. Or actually, try traditional Chinese medicine. In case you hadn’t heard, a vaccine already exists but the United States won’t share it. Wait a second, the coronavirus doesn’t exist at all, it’s all a conspiracy.

How did I hear all of these theories, which to be clear, have no basis in reality? From my mum, circulated in her numerous WhatsApp groups. The same groups told her that the novel coronavirus came from Chinese people eating bat soup (spoiler alert: it didn’t). It was only weeks later that she asked me if the United States military had brought the virus to China (also untrue).

The global pandemic that has killed thousands and closed borders is awash with disinformation. The World Health Organization declared an “infodemic”, an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the Munich Security Conference in February: “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher.

Disinformation in a pandemic is not new. Operation Infektion was an information warfare campaign by the KGB to spread the rumour in the 1980s that HIV/AIDS was a misfired American biological weapon. Throughout history, scared people have latched onto information that made them feel safe – regardless of whether it was true or not.

But this pandemic is different to any other. None of us are bystanders in this crisis. And more people are at home, more people are online, and more people asking the same questions.

The dilution of information on the internet is currently posing a risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher. During an outbreak, people need to be encouraged to do the right thing to control a disease or mitigate its impact. “It is not only information to make sure people are informed,” according to the WHO’s Sylvie Briand, “it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately.” Much of the misinformation spread online has been unintentional.

Malign actors are taking advantage of the environment of fear and confusion. A US State Department official reportedly told Congress that Russia was taking the opportunity to sow discord and panic in Western countries and undermine officials in the public eye. “The entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play,” she said. An accompanying report found that nearly two million tweets over a three-week period had disseminated conspiracy theories about the coronavirus overseas.

In this crisis not only is there an absence of clear and credible information from authorities that people trust, but state actors are filling the void irresponsibly. Politicians, officials and state-owned media, and even heads of state, have been elevating disinformation. One of the China’s official spokespeople tweeted a fake video of Italians singing “Grazie, Cina!” as China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, played in the background. For what it’s worth, many similar videos have falsely shown quarantined Italians singing Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Madonna’s “I Rise” in solidarity.

Another Chinese government spokesperson has doubled down on the rumour that the virus was brought to China by America, which is now being reported in Chinese state media. Russian media have also suggested that Covid-19 was created in a US laboratory in Georgia. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has said the virus is a possible bioweapon targeting China.

Trains are disinfected for Covid-19 at Seoul Station, Seoul (Republic of Korea/Flickr)

Many elected leaders in the United States have been similarly irresponsible. President Donald Trump has consistently misrepresented the scale and response to the coronavirus in the United States. He has disputed the mortality rate. He has claimed the coronavirus is no worse than a flu. He has circulated inaccurate medical advice. Some media organisations had also spread misinformation of this nature, although most have since changed their tune as the number of infections in the United States skyrockets. American politicians have also pushed the conspiracy that the virus originated in a lab in China.

Technology companies appear to be taking the challenge seriously, with some success. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have each made commitments to cleanse their sites of disinformation using existing tools, while working with the WHO to direct users to credible advice. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted:

As our community standards make clear, it’s not okay to share something that puts people in danger. We’re removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations.

Wikipedia’s approach has been to apply more stringent rules, rather than existing standards, with better results.

Moderating public platforms is only a fraction of the challenge. All of my mum’s inaccurate information was circulated on WhatsApp, the world’s most-popular messaging app, with 1.6 billion active users. Others such as Facebook Messenger and China’s WeChat both have over a billion users. These are effectively a locked box for content moderators.

These platforms were already struggling with the daily deluge of fake news. Now they also need to figure out how to respond to senior government figures using their platforms to spread lies. The Covid-19 crisis is a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and an information crisis.

Covid-19: Indonesia’s crises can severely reverberate on neighbours

A woman is sprayed with disinfectant on Monday before entering a local government office as a precautionary move against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, Indonesia (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman is sprayed with disinfectant on Monday before entering a local government office as a precautionary move against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, Indonesia (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 17:30   1 Comments

To date Indonesia has 514 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and growing. This may not sound particularly alarming, given Australia had 1396 according to the most recent figures, but this week Indonesia’s death rate rose to 48, the highest in Southeast Asia. A massive public health disaster in Indonesia now seems inevitable.

While Australia grapples with growing numbers of sick people, job losses, and more stringent social distancing measures, it hardly seems the time to be worrying about other countries’ management of Covid-19. But as UN Secretary General Guterres has warned, “if the virus is left to spread in the most vulnerable regions of the world – it could kill millions. Global solidarity is not only a moral imperative, it is in everyone’s interests.”

The Indonesian government is facing a pandemic that will impact on a country with 267 million people, 11 times that of Australia’s population, and could face upwards of 500,000 deaths. The scale of this pandemic threat is due not only to the size of Indonesia’s population, but also specific socio-economic and governance factors. Although Indonesia, rightly described as a “linchpin of the Indo-Pacific”, is a middle income country with impressive GDP growth rates, life for many Indonesians remains precarious.

The World Bank estimates that about 20% of Indonesians are vulnerable to falling into poverty in the face of economic shock and disjuncture. A number of policy measures have seen Indonesia’s public health system improve over time, but according to a World Health Organization review “the ratios of hospital beds, puskesmas [community health clinics], and physicians to population remain below WHO standards and lag behind other Asia-Pacific countries”. Indonesia also has more than 61 million tobacco users, including those exposed to second-hand smoke. Cardiovascular disease, much of it attributed to smoking, is the number one cause of death in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has been criticised from both at home and abroad for not responding quickly enough to the emergence of the pandemic. Throughout February and early March, Indonesia claimed it had zero cases of Covid-19, when neighbouring countries Singapore and Malaysia saw rapid growth in the spread of the virus, and tourists returning from Indonesia tested positive.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 (NIAID/Flickr)

Last week, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) belatedly activated a more effective crisis management mechanism in the form of a Rapid Reaction Team coordinated by National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) Head, Lieutenant General Doni Monardo. This followed calls last week for Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto’s to resign following a remarkably inept performance. Tensions had also emerged between Indonesia’s central government and regional administrations over a lack of concrete measures, including lockdowns.

Now Jokowi has turned to security actors such as the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) the Police and Armed Forces to manage what is predominantly a health crisis. This reflects a pattern of increasing presidential reliance on the security forces following destabilising election contests, but also attests to the President’s lack of confidence in the crisis management capabilities of civil agencies.

Indeed, the weakness in government coordination and communication outside the security sector is borne out by the anecdotal evidence of dozens of Indonesian public servants engaged in capacity building and skills development short courses in Australia. These public sector officials, overwhelmingly serious about developing policy solutions for governance and service delivery challenges across the world’s largest archipelagic state, routinely identify one issue above all others as the key problem in Indonesia’s bureaucracy – lack of whole-of-government coordination.

The coronavirus represents a massive disruptor for the global community and a profound test of leadership for governments across the world. Certainly, it will demand ongoing review of Australia’s budget position and an eventual recalibration of international development priorities.

Indonesian policymakers routinely attribute weak whole-of-government coordination to “ego sektoral”, a term which needs no translation, and which also exists in Australian Commonwealth and State government circles, albeit to a lesser degree. This weakness can be attributed in part to the need to further consolidate public sector reforms, but also to socio-cultural factors, including strong deference to hierarchy.

Traditional, hierarchical bureaucratic cultures are changing in Indonesia backed by a series of laws and regulations focussed on enhanced public sector performance, oversight and accountability, but not quickly enough. The result is that initiative and innovation remains stifled and the flexibility of the bureaucracy to deal with complex challenges and crises constrained.

These senior level coordination mechanisms to support whole-of-government decision-making are familiar to many in Australian government in the form of interdepartmental committees (IDCs). However, the equivalent mechanisms often do not exist in the Indonesian government, or where they are present, are often nascent or suboptimal in performance. In addition, coordination within agencies themselves (intra-agency coordination) as a vital foundation for effective whole-of-government coordination, remains a challenge, a fact which many Indonesian officials working on the 2018 Lombok earthquake and Palu tsunami and liquefaction disasters were made painfully aware.

Improvements in Indonesia’s public sector performance and policy-making processes can be attributed in part to sustained Australian aid investment in Indonesia. Indonesian policy-makers have benefited from the expertise of Australian university experts and consultants, backed by the strong buy-in of Australian governments at state and federal levels. A number of programs, including the Australia Awards in Indonesia short courses, have been specifically designed to enhance the Indonesian public sector’s ability to manage complex public policy challenges.

Perhaps recognition of the value of these initiatives was the reason for unprecedented submissions by Indonesia’s Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Minister for National Development Planning (Bappenas) Suharso Monoarfa to the review of Australia’s new international development policy.

According to The Australian, Monoarfa wrote that Indonesia had a “deep appreciation” for Australia’s aid support and that “the partnership supports important policy reforms that strengthen Indonesia’s stability and prosperity within the Indo-Pacific region and brings the relationship of our two countries closer.” He added Australia’s support gave Indonesia “the certainty we need to plan and budget for scale-up and replication of successful approaches”.

The coronavirus represents a massive disruptor for the global community and a profound test of leadership for governments across the world. Certainly, it will demand ongoing review of Australia’s budget position and an eventual recalibration of international development priorities. 

In the months following the peak of the virus, Australia should not forget the importance of assisting Indonesia both in combatting infectious disease and in targeting capacity building initiatives to build effective crisis management. Australia’s capacity building programs in Indonesia funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should give greater consideration to increasing military participation. This would cement closer links between civilian policy-makers and their security sector counterparts, the latter who possess more effective command, control and coordination experience.

Prioritising whole-of-government coordination in bilateral aid programs in Indonesia will become increasingly important as policy-makers contend with the array of complex challenges facing them posed by pandemics, climate change and social fragmentation. Although some Australians may question government priorities in helping Indonesia to recover from and minimise future pandemics during this difficult time, history has taught us that crises in Indonesia have an unfortunate tendency of reverberating dramatically on neighbours.

Philippines: Covid-19 will devastate the poor

Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 16:00   1 Comments

Flaviano Villanueva was in tears last Thursday. It was day five of the “enhanced community quarantine” in Metro Manila, where the priest runs a homeless centre. The sprawling Philippine capital of 13 million people had been sealed off, and police and army troopers were guarding municipal boundaries to prevent entry and exit. Businesses were shuttered, and public transport was scarce.

Early that morning, dozens of homeless people lined up on the street outside the Kalinga (Care) Center, waiting for the doors to open. They stood 1.5 metres apart, in line with the government’s guidance for the quarantine at that time. But the head of the barangay, or village council, who had not been happy having the centre there, ordered the it shut and drove the homeless away.

“The barangay captain said they were just following the law, no mass gatherings,” Villanueva said. “But the first law is to save lives. These are among the first people who are going to die.”

Shacks no bigger than a flatbed truck house large families whose members sleep side-by-side on wooden or cement floors. In the slums, where people are packed like bees in a hive, there is no such thing as social distancing.

In Manila, as in many other places, the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting the poor the hardest and exposing the gaping inequities in access to food, shelter, and health care. On 15 March, after a surge of new Covid-19 cases, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a month-long quarantine in the capital. He also mandated an 8pm to 5am curfew, deployed the police and the army to man checkpoints, and ordered the arrest of those who violated the law. Two days later, the quarantine was expanded to include the whole of Luzon island, home to 60 million people.

Whether fighting crime, tamping down Islamic extremism, or battling a pandemic, Duterte rules with a heavy hand, and with little care for the consequences. His repertoire is narrow – the iron fist, not the velvet glove. 

To be sure, few disagree that restrictions are needed to deal with the pandemic. But they took the country by surprise. With little warning, millions who eke out a hardscrabble existence in the city’s underground economy were left without any means of support as businesses closed and people were ordered off the streets. The government focused on enforcing the quarantine; little thought was given to mitigating its impact on the most vulnerable. While cops and soldiers were out on the streets, social workers were told to stay home.

It’s classic Duterte. On day one of his presidency in 2016, he ordered the police to conduct raids that killed thousands of suspected drug users and sellers in the shantytowns in Manila and other big cities. Little heed was paid to drug rehabilitation or to alleviating the misery and joblessness that drove the poor to the drug trade.

In 2017, the Army’s siege of the southern city of Marawi, then held by Islamic militants, killed nearly 1200 and displaced more than 350,000. Today, thousands are still in unsanitary refugee camps as government efforts to rebuild the ravaged city have sputtered.

Back in Manila, the pandemic threatens to break the already frayed fabric of families and communities that had not yet recovered from the war on drugs. Danny Pilario is a priest who has been ministering to the poor near the Payatas garbage dump in the northern part of the capital. Last week, he was busy trying to organize food and supplies for the widows of drug war victims and their neighbours.

Payatas is in the “red zone”, as there was a Covid-19 outbreak nearby. Policemen and village watchmen were manning checkpoints there, and only those with a quarantine pass were allowed in, making it difficult for non-residents to bring in supplies. Pilario sent money instead, so the families could buy rice and other goods in the markets nearby.

Pilario hopes he can keep these subsidies going. Even in the best of times, he said, the poor of Payatas earned barely enough for three meals. Now unable to work, they had no savings to tide them over. Many had already lost breadwinners to the anti-drug campaign.

Shacks along a waterway in Manila (Andy Maluche/Flickr)

Manila’s poor live in crowded settlements near government offices, shopping malls, or wealthy gated enclaves, yet they receive scant attention and support. When the drug war started, many Filipinos were oblivious to the carnage. Pilario said he found out about the killings only because of the stench of a rotting corpse in a shanty near the chapel where he said mass. The family did not have enough money to bury the dead man who had been lying in a wooden casket for weeks.

Those who work among the poor fear the havoc the coronavirus will likely wreak in Manila’s shantytowns. Many there don’t have running water, said Pilario. How can they even wash their hands? They can barely afford to eat, much less buy hand sanitisers. Shacks no bigger than a flatbed truck house large families whose members sleep side-by-side on wooden or cement floors. In the slums, where people are packed like bees in a hive, there is no such thing as social distancing.

For now, there’s a patchwork of efforts by local governments, churches, civic groups, and ordinary citizens trying to do what they can. Companies are donating food and supplies. An actress has called for donations for street vendors who can no longer peddle their wares.  A restaurant has opened its doors to the homeless, as have some churches and Catholic schools. Many groups are organizing donations, braving checkpoints, and overcoming government limits on food purchases to help the neediest as the government scrambles for a response. Filipinos are used to natural disasters and have pre-existing networks that are able to respond quickly to emergencies.

But time may be running out. In February, the first confirmed coronavirus cases surfaced, all of them traced to travellers from Wuhan. Duterte played down the threat of contagion, saying Filipinos had natural antibodies that would shield them from infection. Now he is buckling down and on Monday asked Congress for emergency powers to deal with the pandemic.

Five years ago, Villanueva opened the homeless centre in an unused office next to where his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, had a shop selling crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary. He envisioned a place where the poor would be treated with dignity and respect. The centre served 200 to 300 each time it opened its doors, as the homeless from around the city streamed in from early morning to mid-afternoon to get a hot meal, a shower, and fresh change of clothes. The centre also arranged for some of them to get access to alternative schooling while drug users were provided counselling and offered rehabilitation.

“I went all around Manila to buy oranges for them, and we were ready to give them vitamin C, a litre of water and N95 masks after they showered,” Villanueva recounted with regret in a phone call on Thursday evening. “We cooked adobo (chicken and pork stew), ukoy (fried shrimp and grated papaya), and sinandomeng (good quality rice) for them.”

On Saturday, he tried to reopen the centre but was again barred from doing so. Instead, two Catholic universities agreed to house the homeless. Some of the reformed drug users are now helping run these sanctuaries. They are good for now, but for how much longer?

“If the poor go hungry”, Villanueva warned, “chaos would follow”.

Pandemic peace or anarchical world?

An empty street in Venice, Italy, 21 March (Giacomo Cosua/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An empty street in Venice, Italy, 21 March (Giacomo Cosua/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

A number of leading thinkers have expressed optimism about the political and social implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, predicting everything from a newfound civic nationalism to a renewed faith in technocratic expertise. But such optimism isn’t just unwarranted – it’s dangerous.

Covid-19 is a transnational threat that demands global collective action. No nation can defend against it alone. By the time governments arrest the virus’s spread, it will already have accelerated a number of “anarchical trends” – processes and political dynamics that render the world a Hobbesian mess. The complacency that accompanies such optimism makes a genuinely anarchical world even more likely.

Destabilising enemies

Iran and North Korea face a destabilising combination: mass casualties from Covid-19 converging with stringent economic sanctions and political leadership under strain. The Trump administration has spent years squeezing both regimes with “maximum pressure” in the name of deterring an Iranian nuclear breakout and compelling a North Korean nuclear reversal. In both cases, the approach has not just been fruitless, it has fuelled enmity and defiance.

Political leaders who find themselves dependent on China are happy to pretend that China’s private and club goods are somehow public goods, and that they live in a Sino-centric order, when in fact they exist in an interregnum before the new anarchy.

Enter Covid-19 into this scenario. The pandemic substantially amplifies maximum pressure in both cases, with an effect that even the most depraved sanctions regime would struggle to equal. Iran already accounts for close to 90% of infection cases in the Middle East, and its regime lacks the resources to mobilise an adequate response. North Korea’s border with China has already had to close, stifling crucial trade flows. And in the name of social distancing, Kim Jong-un will face greater pressure to crack down on the jangmadang (unofficially sanctioned black markets that keep North Korean society afloat).

Iran and North Korea are being pushed into precisely the corner that maximum pressure advocates believed would force unilateral disarmament – but there’s little evidence to conclude either country will simply acquiesce. To the contrary, desperate circumstances provoke desperate political moves, such as internal conflicts over power or a military gambit that leads to war. And that’s without the Trump administration taking the opportunity to inflict further harm, as recent reports suggest it has considered.

Economic decoupling

The tariff war Donald Trump launched against China in 2018 has since initiated a partial decoupling of two deeply interdependent economies. Covid-19 is pushing this great divergence further and faster than it might otherwise have gone. Part of the reason is opportunism. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, for instance, mused that the pandemic “will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America”.

But part of the rationale for accelerated decoupling is strategic. The Trump administration was already working to mitigate vulnerabilities in the US supply chain and critical infrastructure that China might exploit for coercive purposes. And with most pharmaceutical ingredients manufactured in China, the pandemic introduces a strategic vulnerability that inhibits US competitive freedom of action, which is why the Trump administration decided to diversify its drug supply chain away from China. Inducing restraints on competition was once the point of entwining economies, but in an anarchical world, the risks of interdependence cast doubts on its benefits.

On the other hand, some of the impetus for decoupling is frighteningly irrational. The Trump administration has variously branded the virus as the “China virus”, “Wuhan virus”, and “Kung Flu”. While maybe accurate in terms of geographic origins, such labelling adds to anti-Chinese (and anti-Asian) backlash in the US, and to suspicion that US China policy is motivated by a racist clash-of-civilizations logic.

The Chinese government has also stoked tension between the great powers. It not only actively promoted a conspiracy theory that the US Army created the virus, but also withdrew press credentials of reporters from major American newspapers covering the pandemic in China.

A technician tests swab samples of sailors aboard the USS Blue Ridge in the South China Sea, 14 March (Leonard Adams/US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

Racially tinged grievance and conspiracy theories have consequences. US Senator Tom Cotton hinted at the dark place events could go when he seemed to vow revenge against China in a statement claiming the US “will emerge stronger from this challenge, we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world, and we will prosper in the new day”.

Transitioning out of order

For years, China has chipped away at, and at times directly challenged, the US position as global hegemon it has enjoyed for the past several decades. And largely because Trump has taken the view that global leadership is for suckers, American might abroad has steadily atrophied.

China is seizing on the pandemic to further hasten the demise of US leadership by posturing as the world’s new public goods provider. According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, more than 2900 social media messages from Chinese government and state media over the past week have promoted themselves as a partner of choice for European nations. Tweets from Chinese embassies across Europe have touted their government supplying masks, ventilators, test kits, and other medical equipment that Beijing has commandeered from its factories. And the propaganda campaign is working: the Italian government has lavished praise on China for its much-needed assistance, and Serbia’s president declared, “European solidarity does not actually exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”

In reality, China’s bid for its own hegemonic order has been far more aesthetic than substantive. Beijing’s initial coverup of the coronavirus epidemic and delayed response made the eventual pandemic much worse than it might have been. It hoarded breathing masks for weeks before “beneficently” distributing them. Most importantly, China has not established an adequate global architecture – liberal or otherwise – to support a new international order, and its own actions in recent years have undermined the existing one.

Now, however, political leaders who find themselves dependent on China are happy to pretend that China’s private and club goods are somehow public goods, and that they live in a Sino-centric order, when in fact they exist in an interregnum before the new anarchy.

Getting ahead of the curve

The pandemic is accelerating us toward a world where low trust doesn’t just impede cooperation but also fuels arms proliferation and military competition. The point of highlighting these grim intersectional risks is to understand what happens if we do nothing to change our fate, if we simply close borders, curb trade, and look after our own interests, rather than rely on alliances or institutions. What we’re getting from most governments is reactive blame-shifting and myopia, when what we need is foresight and collective action against a collective threat.

In India, praying the Covid away

 A urine drinking party to cure coronavirus infection, hosted by the Hindu organisation Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, 14 March in New Delhi, India
A urine drinking party to cure coronavirus infection, hosted by the Hindu organisation Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, 14 March in New Delhi, India
Published 24 Mar 2020 06:00   2 Comments

Crises have a way of shining a penetrating light and exposing the fissures in a society – or conversely, the exact nature of what holds it together. It is something we are seeing right now, the world over.

While India seems to have sidestepped the worst of the pandemic for now, what the crisis is so far revealing is just how deep the nexus between the media and right-wing religious propaganda is.

India is right next door to China, the epicentre of the Covid-19 infection, yet has, so far, registered just 283 infections, and only a handful of deaths, although its limited testing regime makes it difficult to paint a more accurate picture at this stage. There are real fears that if the country of 1.3 billion people is hit hard, India’s already overburdened health system will collapse, but authorities have been hailed for taking decisive action early on, such as closing schools, shutting borders, random sampling, and making health information widely available. The initiatives seemed to have worked, at least in helping Indian markets circumvent the kind of routing seen elsewhere in the world.

Still, some sections of India’s notoriously shrill – and increasingly partisan – television media have seized on the coronavirus outbreak, and in some cases they are harnessing it to add fire to other unrelated issues. One example is the long-running sit-in protest led by Muslim women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Television’s resident provocateur Arnab Goswami has spelled out, in great detail and with great emotion, just why the women should abandon their protest.

And here are two of his guests, genially discussing government responsibility.

This is normal-level debate: after all, India’s 24-hour news channel market is highly competitive, with something like 80 channels, so the tussle for eyeballs means that the evening talk shows are closer to “The Jerry Springer Show” in style than serious newscasts.

A clip from another channel, the Hindi-language News Nation TV showing anchor Deepak Chaurasia standing over a studio guest to berate him, recently did the rounds on social media – undoubtedly passing on a few ideas to newscasters from elsewhere in the world.



The advent of Covid-19 means that religious groups are turning to methods that they deem effective: prayer and exhortations to the gods. In India, Hindu efforts are being amplified in the media, with chanting sessions regularly given airtime. This is despite the fact that neither prayer nor chanting was deemed effective during the 1918 flu pandemic a century ago, nor any prior pandemic in history. Indian television channels have been airing interviews with saffron-clad sadhus, chanting sessions, and even videos of true believers drinking cow urine or bathing in cow dung, claiming the effluents to be effective safeguards against the viral strain. 

Meanwhile, even the Indian version of C-SPAN, Lok Sabha TV, aired advice claiming that eating garlic prevents infection.

Everything from rose essence to chilis have been touted as preventative measures, and in one memorable clip from the usually reliable NDTV, holyman-slash-entrepreneur Baba Ramdev presented products from his own, wildly successful Patanjali Ayurved range, and urged people to do yoga.

They could all be yet more examples of tidbits of charming Indian traditions that seem to do the rounds, but for one thing: the government has done little to reign in either the spreading of misinformation or the platforming of it. Could this be because the advice to take ayurvedic herbs and drink cow urine comes from the government’s main support base, the religious right? And could it be that the media is intentionally currying favour with the government by airing the views, without explicitly branding them as false? 

“The mainstream media is more guarded in its responses because of what the government has been doing through the back channels,” Dhiraj Singh, the former executive director of Lok Sabha TV, told me. “Such as sending out tax sleuths and stopping transmission. They’re all textbook intimidation tactics.”

Media watchdog website NewsLaundry has called out channels for giving a platform to misinformation on containing and preventing coronavirus, but otherwise contrary views have been relatively muted.

The danger of this cannot be underestimated: the vast bulk of India’s population, including educated elites, looks to religion for guidance. If the virus was to take hold in a teeming Indian city, it would spread like wildfire. In a country already riven by partisan politics and religious tensions, the consequences could be catastrophic.

The many prescriptions for isolation

Bondi Beach in Sydney (James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
Bondi Beach in Sydney (James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
Published 23 Mar 2020 17:30   0 Comments

Among the weapons Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has deployed in the early stages of the battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus was an appeal for the assertion of our “culture”.

Attempting to shame into submission the hordes who were storming supermarkets and coming to blows in the toilet rolls aisles, Morrison pleaded: “Stop it. It’s un-Australian”

What this actually meant is hard to say. What is appropriate Australian behaviour? What did he see in our national character that he considered this behaviour infringed and which he thought, by drawing attention to, he could stop?

A week later, after days of the government and medical experts calling on people to stay inside or, if they had to go out, keep a healthy distance from each other, images flashed around the world of Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach packed to the gunwales with defiant beachgoers.



If there is anything that symbolises Australian “culture”, it is such beach scenes. And the fact that this was happening despite the dire warnings about the risks of close contact might be seen to reflect another identifying feature of Australian “culture” – that laid-back attitude of “she’ll be right”.

The government’s response to this was to force the closure of the beach, surely an action which would normally be about as “un-Australian” as you could get.

As the coronavirus has seeped its insidious way around the globe and governments and their populations have been forced to reckon with it, the science has suggested that there is really only one clear option available to slow its spread until a vaccine against it is found. That is to isolate citizens from each other and adopt stringent hygiene standards.

But the responses in different countries and by different governments have been far from uniform.

From the very beginning of this now global crisis, political-cultural forces have worked against the containment of the virus.

Different cultures and traditions have produced starkly different behaviours, both by citizens and by governments aware of and sensitive to those cultures and traditions.

Religion, custom, social norms, political imperatives, attitudes of populations to authority, attitudes of authorities to their populations – a wide range of different influences have resulted in a wide range of behaviours.

In the major cities of Georgia, for example, trucks carrying Orthodox priests ply the streets sprinkling holy water and blessing crowds of citizens who came out, believing their faith will protect them. In the US, long queues of people stand waiting outside gun shops to buy weapons which they believe they might need to protect their supplies of vital goods (toilet paper included, no doubt) from desperate fellow citizens. In the UK, elderly citizens invoke memories of their stoicism during the Second World War blitz to persuade younger people to join the “coronavirus Battle of Britain”. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel summons the spirit of solidarity that followed the reunification of East and West to urge her people to stand together against the virus, but she struggles against the powerful post–Cold War sentiment that favours individual liberty.

For some, aspects of social distancing came naturally. Germans always queue respectfully and patiently. To the English, queuing is instinctive.

But from the very beginning of this now global crisis, political-cultural forces have worked against the containment of the virus. When coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, the instinct of the secretive Communist central government was to cover it up and to punish those who revealed its existence.

Once the terrible truth was out, however, the power of the authoritarian Beijing government was used to force compliance by all the citizens of the affected areas to adopt defensive measures that have resulted in the first successful containment of the virus.

Join the “coronavirus Battle of Britain” (Number 10/Flickr)

In stark contrast, in Italy, which took over from China as the country worst affected by the virus, deep political fissures in the country contributed to catastrophic confusion about how best to deal with the initial outbreak of the virus in the Lombardy region. The right-wing Northern League party, which dominates this proudly independent region, resisted adopting policies directed by the government in Rome. When Rome attempted to impose a lockdown in the north, more than a million people fled to the south where there was no lockdown, taking the virus with them and spreading it further.

In the UK, which initially flirted with allowing the virus to run its course and developing “herd immunity”, thus delaying containment measures, the government hesitated to rescind what Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to as “the ancient and inalienable right of Englishmen to go to the pub”, and then profusely apologised when the numbers exercising this right became a threat to public safety and a lockdown had to be imposed.

Where lockdowns have been imposed, there have been uplifting manifestations of cultural differences.

What might be called “balcony communities” have suddenly flourished. In Italy, residents have come out to the only place they can see other people, brought musical instruments with them, and joined in rousing renditions of popular songs. In France and Spain crowds on balconies have cheered health workers on their way to their now dangerous work in hospitals and clinics. And in Brazil, an estimated 3 million people have used the platforms of their apartment balconies to hold loud political protests over their government’s initial denialist response to the virus.



But in Germany, apartment living was a major reason the government resisted a total lockdown. In the colder north, balconies are less common and apartments are smaller. Official advice to the government was that compulsory containment risked higher levels of domestic abuse and mental-health disorders.

Different faiths and religious beliefs have seen different public behaviours. In countries where the Christian and Muslim faiths are strong, religious leaders have resisted the closure of churches and places of prayer. Greek Orthodox priests have told believers they cannot catch the virus from the holy cup. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, angry mobs have stormed Mosques closed for health reasons. In South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, decisions to allow large religious assemblies to go ahead have seen spikes in the spread of the virus. Believers in many countries have been fatalistic about their prospects of catching the virus, believing that their fate is in the hands of God.

Different experiences of political systems have also produced varied public responses to government campaigns to contain the virus.

Eastern Europeans, Russians, Iranians, and others who, from experience, do not generally trust what their governments tell them see government announcements on responses to the virus with a wary eye, too well aware of the difference between propaganda and truth.

In the US, where trust in government and suspicion of public officials has been in long decline, recent polls showed a majority of Americans were suspicious of official warnings about the degree of the coronavirus threat.  Only 40% of Republicans saw it as “a real threat”, compared to 75% of Democrats.

In California, a Democratic stronghold, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a lockdown of the state, but he hesitated to ask state police to enforce the lockdown, preferring citizens to “voluntarily regulate”.

This despite the fact that the US has one of the steepest upward curves in rates of infection.

In Japan, by contrast, where public obedience to authority is very strong, community responses to government coronavirus campaigns have been overwhelmingly positive. Japan has one of the lowest growth curves in rates of infection. Similarly, in South Korea and Singapore, a culture of public obedience has helped authorities.

Differing experiences of national security environments has also shaped policy and responses to it.

A family in the German state of Bavaria plays the board game Risk while staying at home (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In Israel, where draconian antiterror laws have long existed and official mass surveillance systems have been widely deployed, the government has mobilised these antiterror systems for public-health protection. Israeli carriers of the virus who defy bans on their movement can be identified by mobile tracking systems and apprehended. Healthy people going about their business who come in contact with an identified carrier can get a text message from authorities alerting them to the fact. There are concerns that this sort of surveillance for reasons other than counterterrorism might persist after the virus threat has passed, but there seems to be general public support for these measures at present.

As we enter an uncertain future, the potential of the virus to profoundly change the way the political world works is one of the greatest uncertainties. Depending on the severity and duration of the impacts of the virus on different populations, political upheavals seem certain to follow. Leaders will be tested and some will fail the test, none more so than US President Donald Trump as he faces his second-term election test in November. Systems of economic management will be tested, in particular where free-market ideology has dominated policy. Again, that means the US, but also the West more broadly, including Australia.

One of the most profound and important developments in global affairs since the Second World War – the creation of the European Union – will have its raison d’être and its cohesion profoundly tested.

At the centre of the European project has been the idea of creating a single European identity over the top of the national identities of its 27 member countries. The idea of lots of cultures under one unifying European culture has been at the heart of the EU’s evolution. The most important expression of this is the single market without internal borders.

The spread of the coronavirus in Europe – turning it into the epicentre of the crisis – has resulted in those internal borders beginning to be reimposed. One immediate result of this has been massive internal traffic jams and some of the major arteries of the European freight transport system ceasing to function.

The same is beginning to happen to people, including with European leaders shutting down the entry of refugees and asylum seekers, condemning large numbers of refugees from the Middle East being trapped in dire circumstances in camps on the EU’s borders, where they have been in limbo because of the inability of European leaders to agree for years now on a comprehensive plan for dealing with the refugee crisis. For the foreseeable future, trying to deal with an invading virus will have priority over dealing with desperate people seeking sanctuary inside European borders.

The test that now faces the EU is an existential one. The unity that has been the key to the idea of the EU and a European identity now faces grave challenges from the risk that Europe’s nation states will decide going it alone is better.

When we finally emerge from the coronavirus nightmare – and it is impossible to say when that might be – we may find a permanently transformed world on the other side.

Covid-19 and migration: Europe must resist a populist pill

Connections are fraying (European Parliament/Flickr)
Connections are fraying (European Parliament/Flickr)
Published 23 Mar 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Last week, the European Union closed all Schengen area borders in an attempt to stem the coronavirus pandemic, of which the Old Continent is now the epicentre.

This drastic response, which some consider to be the product of a weak and slow European administration, has also fed into the populist narrative of the far-right, fiercely in favour of inward-looking social policies and closed nations.

The coronavirus health crisis is indicative of what has now long been a trend undermining the foundations and principles of the EU, as well as those of democracy.

Most obviously, there is a blatant lack of coordination within the bloc. Since the start of the crisis, countries have reacted on a piecemeal basis, individually, when by its nature the virus knows no borders. Italy, the third economic power in the euro zone, a founding country of European integration, decided to close the curtains of its shops without the other member countries coordinating support. Later, Austria refused Italian nationals entry to its territory, marking an end to the free movement of people, a founding principle of the Union.

In Germany, the Bundestag surprised neighbouring France by stopping cross-border visitors without any real concerted plan with the French authorities. Finally, it was the European Central Bank that disappointed, refusing to cut its interest rate in the face of the gathering financial crisis.

This pandemic reinforces the arguments of those who have long opposed the acceptance of refugees in Europe and advocate tighter border control.

The EU was, until 2005, in a state of permanent construction. But with the failure of the constitutional referendum in France that year, and faced with the challenges since of migration, terrorism, Brexit, and now an all-encompassing health crisis, the Union seems to be at a standstill.

Such weakness benefits the far-right populists. Simplistic by default, aiming to divide, and ignorant of facts, the populist discourse has attracted an increasingly large share of the European electorate in recent years.

The coronavirus crisis risks becoming an accelerator in the disintegration of the European ideal if the member states fail in this crucial test, to coordinate public health measures and put in place common mechanisms for economic aid.

Some politicians will seek advantage in the chaos, relaying false information or scapegoating community groups, particularly migrants. The most striking example is in Hungary, which announced on 1 March, when thousands of people jostled at the gates of Europe, the closure of access to border transit camps – the only places in the country where it is possible to file an asylum request. Such a decision therefore amounts to suspending, as in Greece, the registration of applications for international protection, in direct violation of international and European law.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the former Minister of the Interior of the far-right League party, called on the Italian Prime Minister to resign, accusing him of promoting the spread of the epidemic by accepting the landing of humanitarian ships in its ports. In France, Germany and Spain, the leaders of far-right parties have also asked for border closures to limit the expansion of Covid-19.

The EU’s flaws in responding with a single and solid voice has therefore allowed the coronavirus to become a political tool used by populists’ parties to fight on migration issues. This pandemic reinforces the arguments of those who have long opposed the acceptance of refugees in Europe and advocate tighter border control.

To escape, European governments must above all demonstrate stronger cooperation, which they have so far lacked. Europeanization and cooperation between EU member states has, in the past, complicated the development of strategies and accountability, yet the cogs of this machine finally seem to be lubricated, giving hope of a message of unity. It started with measures announced on 13 March by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and was followed by the announcement by the ECB of its intention to buy €750 billion of additional bonds to keep afloat the people most affected. These steps credit the authority of the EU, but more should follow.

Europe's democrats will also have to regain control of the narrative. In times of crisis, the pessimistic interpretation prevails, that life has become bad, that the economy is approaching collapse, and that moral and social relationships are at their lowest. It becomes easy to accuse minorities or migrants. Progressives will need to develop a narrative of the future, emphasising the ideas of openness, pluralism, economic progress, and supranational cooperation. A new possible story could be, for example, that Europe is trying to make globalisation responsible, by taking the lead in the fight against the coronavirus.

Finally, in the aftermath of the pandemic, there is no doubt that the crisis will have revealed dysfunctions within the European Union. The fact that Germany and France each restricted the export of essential medical goods to Italy, which was so severely affected, is an illustration of such dysfunction. Not only did this weaken the union, it fed the populists catchcry that each should better serve themselves. A transparent and accessible audit of all EU systems will therefore be essential, and a reshaping of procedures will have to take place, putting EU citizens at the core.

The coronavirus crisis is a test of solidarity for Europe, but also a test of adaptability. The coming months will tell us how good a student Brussels can be.

Three years working in self-isolation – what I’ve learned, so far

A Bligh St knock-off it’s not: Social distancing in “shed life”, the view across the back fence to Interpreter HQ
A Bligh St knock-off it’s not: Social distancing in “shed life”, the view across the back fence to Interpreter HQ
Published 23 Mar 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Of course, we never called it “self-isolation” before now. Colleagues would instead joke down the line, “How’s shed life?” in reference to Interpreter HQ. You see, while the Lowy Institute occupies an elegant historic building at 31 Bligh St in Sydney, right in the heart of a hitherto bustling city, hosting prime ministers, important speeches, and foreign delegations, for almost three years now I have edited this magazine from almost a thousand kilometres away, working all by my lonesome in a backyard bungalow in suburban Melbourne.  

As I look across my desk, my connection to bring you all the analysis we feature about the great flux in the world is via a single cable, and a fairly precarious setup at that – a wire into an electrical socket that converts to an internet signal, running through an extension lead, out under an olive tree, into the house, another extension lead, then a power board to the broadband box, and eventually the World Wide Web.

The shed – it has carpet, a bright north-facing window, and once boasted an infestation of fleas – is about three metres by five. A hefty commute of eight steps separates the shed from the back door of the house. That’s if I don’t have to dodge the black Labrador, a wannabe Seeing Eye dog judged “too goofy” to help the blind, who instead fancies himself a pretty decent sub-editor (but protests all innocence about the fleas).

I’ve been working this way since finishing as a newspaper journalist in 2017, so I’m used to the routine of regular video conferences, keeping in touch with contacts and co-workers on the phone, and not going stir-crazy. I’ve done live-crosses with international television via webcam – a hasty CNN interview during Scott Morrison’s leadership takeover in 2018 left me scrambling to shove boxes of household junk out of view – and plenty of radio calls, including a 4AM stint on ABC Overnights when a possum dashed across the roof.

And I’ve had to improvise for those things that tend to be taken for granted when working in a central office.

Air conditioning, for example. The shed has none. So when Melbourne’s summers kick in at the 40-degree-plus range, even the dog breaks for shade. My computer has flashed me a sad-looking temperature gauge on several occasions, warning of imminent shutdown, and more than once I’ve resorted to balancing the laptop on ice blocks in a bid to keep it operating.



Or heating. The shed has none of that, either. During Melbourne’s winters, colleagues on video call are treated to the sight of me at the other end of the screen sporting a favourite pair of fingerless gloves and huddled under an Antarctic-rated jacket. I do have an electric heater someplace, the old oil type on wheels, but it turns the shed into such a sauna I feel like I should be running outside and diving into a frozen paddling pool.

All this new territory needs to be charted. What’s said now doesn’t need to be definitive, and won’t be the last word, yet the outlines are important.

But as much as “working from home” can get a bad rap, in these Covid-19 days, those of us lucky enough to be able to do so will have to adapt. Mrs Interpreter is now a co-tenant in the shed, which is bound to annoy the dog.

Advice? I found I actually missed my old commute, at first. Going to and from work is an important time to decompress from the stress of the day, a mental space to process (while swearing at other drivers, or casting wary side-eyes at weirdos on the train). So as much as this might sound self-serving, don’t work too hard while working at home. Remember to pace yourself.

I’m lucky, I have deadlines. The Interpreter aims to put out three to four articles each day, which means getting one set up the day before to appear at 6am Australian Eastern Standard Time, and others around mid-morning, lunchtime, and mid-afternoon, and sometimes extras. These markers help me progress through the day. While not every job will have such a neat structure, breaking up small tasks to be done in a set timeframe is a good habit to stop you from absent-mindedly wandering into the kitchen to grab a handful of peanuts and check if the oven needs a clean.

A colleague’s screenshot of our video conference call last September during the AFL finals. Go Tiges.

I spent more than a decade working in a busy newsroom, and another decade before that in the public service and in unversities. Yes, working from home does miss some of the benefits of incidental interaction, an idea from a chat while waiting for the lift, or bumping into someone by the staff fridge. But equally, there is less distraction. I normally make a habit to see someone in the city every week, either for lunch or coffee, just to escape the house a while – that will have to wait for now until quarantine is lifted. That, and what used to be a short one-and-a-half hour flight to Sydney every couple of months for me to check in at the mothership.

These certainly are changed days. For white-collar workers, working life might never go back. With big-city office blocks emptied and people working digitally from home, perhaps companies won’t see the need to pay the expensive overhead of a CBD lease anymore. Courts are rushing to embrace digital options, having sputtered along unwilling to relinquish a centuries-old obsession with paper, and Covid-19 might hasten the demise of cash money, too. Even drive-in cinemas could make a comeback.

And in international politics, the consequences appear momentous. The crisis will affect everything in some way, whether budget assumptions, global supply chains, or the trappings of power. I say this conscious of the post-9/11 prognostications that nothing would ever be the same after the terrorist attacks in 2001, and similar predictions that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the more recent global financial crisis. And while each of these events presaged drastic change that was later assimilated into a “new normal”, the point was still a major readjustment and far-reaching – and lasting – implications not only for the community, but also for relations between nations. Covid-19, as a political event, feels the same.

So I’m encouraging authors writing in this present crisis to plant a stake, so to speak. All this new territory needs to be charted. What’s said now doesn’t need to be definitive, and won’t be the last word, yet the outlines are important. That’s what we’ve been seeking to do these past few weeks, to see just how far the pandemic will reach across areas of diplomacy, global finance, trade, defence, politics, multilateral governance, and more.

But now that Melbourne is about to be put under quarantine, when will there be time to get a start on these superb reading suggestions we’ve been running? So far, I’m too damn busy to get the chance. And I need to tell the dog no more walks for a while, too.

Coronavirus and the Hong Kong protest movement

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hong Kong residents protest setting up a quarantine area in their neighbourhood (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, Hong Kong residents protest setting up a quarantine area in their neighbourhood (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 23 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

For authorities in both Hong Kong and in Beijing, there must be, in some circles, something of a sense of relief. The pro-democracy protests that defined 2019 had become a deadly hydra that was exhausting the resources and credibility of both governments. The enforced shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic looks to have solved a pressing political problem, at least in the immediate term. But assuming it’s all over would be premature at best, and complacency may well come back to bite those leaders in the near future.

From conversations with a number of protesters in Hong Kong, via encrypted chat, it is clear that this is not over, at least for them.

Andy is a volunteer who helps coordinate communications for the Hong Kong protest movement. He says the “spare time” has given activists a chance to regroup and to prepare for another wave of street action.

He notes coronavirus-enforced hiatus has seen new trade unions sprouting up, for instance, and has allowed more background work and structural developments on the ground.

To some in Hong Kong, the “Wuhan approach” rolled out in authoritarian fashion by Beijing – epitomized by the attempts to reconfigure local clinics for coronavirus treatment – is both inappropriate and ineffective in more liberal Hong Kong.

“The effect on the movement itself [of Covid-19] is surprisingly low to me, perhaps because the ‘brain’ of the movement hasn't been on the ground for months already – people have already adapted to movement online.

“People who are planning things are still planning things online.”

Even so, Hong Kong’s coronavirus measures have drawn many onto the streets. Attempts to convert local clinics into specialized coronavirus treatment centres has been met with widespread anger. Protesters consider the move ill-conceived and claim it may be risking the health of adjacent neighbourhoods.

Local attempts to stop the developments have been met with the kind of heavy-handed police treatment that marked the 2019 demonstrations. For instance, the Hong Kong Free Press reported protesters seeking to stop a coronavirus centre at the Tai Po Jockey Club General Clinic on 8 March were pepper-sprayed and arrested by police.

Beijing’s refusal to close the border between mainland China and Hong Kong, even as the coronavirus uptake in China turned sharply upwards, has also caused concern among Hongkongers. As such, the initial reactions of the Chinese government and Hong Kong administrators to the outbreak have only served to harden the sense among many that Hong Kong’s leadership has adopted a “Hong Kong-will-do-whatever-China-wants” approach. Among the chants heard at the Tai Po protests was “Five demands not one less”, an echo of a prominent street-march slogan from 2019, and a sign that momentum behind those actions remains.

Andy told me that many activists like him were currently focusing on volunteer work in the interests of public health at the community level, where government authorities have less reach and, in some cases, less authority. This work includes sourcing face masks and other supplies and disseminating news on the virus, especially information that has been “suppressed by international organisations, China and Hong Kong Governments.”

The strong counterculture in Hong Kong, which existed previously has been emboldened by the coronavirus outbreak and government responses to it. Andy highlighted “efforts by civilians … along the same lines of ‘if government can't govern, then we (will) do it ourselves’”. To some in Hong Kong, the “Wuhan approach” rolled out in authoritarian fashion by Beijing – epitomized by the attempts to reconfigure local clinics for coronavirus treatment – is both inappropriate and ineffective in more liberal Hong Kong.

Cases of confirmed, locally contracted coronavirus have flattened in Hong Kong*, and it is worth considering whether this is actually due to the government’s actions or to the grassroots work done by activist groups and others.

Meanwhile, many of those involved in the 2019 (and 2014) protests are far from idle. 

Local police recently revealed evidence of numerous bomb factories that were found in residential areas, and graphically warned of the dangers of such practices. According to authorities, the extent of the activity is “almost unprecedented.” They say 17 people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in three bomb plots.

As was evident during the height of the 2019 protests, violence is not widely supported among the broad protest movement, and most are planning for more peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.

Moku (not her real name) is a 23-year-old student who escaped from the infamous Poly U siege in November 2019. Via an online discussion, she said there have been “important protests” recently at Prince Edward Station and in Yuen Long district, both important points on the map during the street protests last year.

Activists, she adds, still mark the 21st and 31st of each month by taking to the streets, albeit in much smaller numbers than last year, to commemorate events known as 721 and 831, turning points in the protests last July and August

Moku believes the protests will start again soon. “In the atmosphere now, I think everyone would believe that the protest will continue and boost back to the previous scale after the virus, especially in the summer, when most students will be free from school.”

For now, the dreaded coronavirus may be putting a stopper on actual street demonstration in Hong Kong. But no one should assume the protest movement has gone away.

*As of 22 March, the recent spike in cases appears to have been largely due to “imported cases”, which may be the result of people fleeing European Covid-19 hotspots.

A speech for the age of the self-isolated

Getty Images
Getty Images
Published 20 Mar 2020 17:30   0 Comments

A week ago – though it seems much longer than that – Scott Morrison sat in front of a bookcase full of political biographies, theological handbooks and Australiana, and delivered a rare prime ministerial address to the nation.

There has been a lot of discussion about the communications tools, including websites and texts, that governments are employing to speak with their nations about the coronavirus pandemic.

But speeches remain the principal currency of public life – and unlike the Aussie dollar, they are actually appreciating in value in this crisis.

French President Emanuel Macron has received plaudits for his address to the nation last Monday. The gilded soundstage was more “Jupiterian” than Morrison’s background and the address was more formal. Macron declared half a dozen times: “We are at war”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a press conference alongside his scientific officials that many praised for clarity of expression. But within a few days, in the wake of confusion about whether the UK government was deliberately allowing the coronavirus to spread in order to build “herd immunity”, Whitehall had to course-correct.

As usual, US President Donald Trump is world’s worst practice. His promiscuous language in press conferences obscures the issues rather than clarifying them. He can’t stop himself from indulging in virus name-calling. His tweets are bizarre and self-involved.



The president couldn’t even get the facts straight in his Oval Office address last week. As CNN’s Peter Bergen observed, the speech underlined Trump’s “key weaknesses: his failure to do any homework, his narcissim and his half-baked policy ideas.” The prime-time address contained a number of significant errors and omissions, leading to this damning tweet by staff writer at The Atlantic and former presidential speechwriter James Fallows:



German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a strong speech from the Chancellery in Berlin. With the Reichstag behind her, she stated that the virus presented the greatest challenge to the German nation since the Second World War.

But the speech that has impressed me the most in the past week was given by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, on a St Patrick’s Day that featured neither parades nor parties. The speech is a model of lucidity. He lays out clearly what the Irish government is doing about the virus – and what the Irish people must do. “Everyone in our society must show solidarity at this time of national sacrifice”, says Varadkar. “In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best.”

And the Taoiseach concluded on a touching note that made me proud of my Irish ancestry:

Tonight on our national holiday I also want to send a message around the world that we are all in this together.

To the people of China, Spain and Italy who have suffered untold heartbreak and loss – we are with you.

To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you.

To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you.

Viruses pay no attention to borders, race, nationality or gender. They are the shared enemy of all humanity.

So it will be the shared enterprise of all humanity that finds a treatment and a vaccine that protects us.

Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world this Saint Patrick’s Day.

Lá Fheile Pádraig shona daoibh! (Happy St Patrick’s Day to you!)

Oí­che mhaith. (Good night.)

The media noise being generated about COVID-19 is deafening – but the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can penetrate it.

Books for quarantine: Hugh White suggests, plus a time for classics

Birgit Böllinger/Pixabay
Birgit Böllinger/Pixabay
Published 20 Mar 2020 15:00   0 Comments

“Why did no one suggest The Decameron?” asks prominent Australian strategic analyst Hugh White in a quick email responding to the excellent collection of books The Interpreter readers offered as distractions for a time in Covid-19 quarantine. “Too obvious?”

Slightly awkwardly, I don’t admit to White that I have no idea what he’s referring to, but instead shoot him back a message asking for a line to recommend why other people should read it.

The Decameron is the definitive self-isolation consolation,” White says.

Written in the 1350s, one of the early classics of Italian prose. Ten Florentine bright young things self-isolate together in a villa up in Fiesole to escape the plague down in Florence. They tell one another stories – mostly of love in all its forms – to pass the time. Many of them are very funny, some of them are borderline obscene. It is a kind of Tuscan Canterbury Tales, in other words.

I don’t want to interrupt Hugh here and admit that I’m such a philistine I don’t even know what “Canterbury Tales” refers to until Google tells me Chaucer something. But he continues.

And a nice reminder that things could be worse: The 21st century seems to have got off to a bad start, but read Barbara Tuchman’s The Distant Mirror to remind oneself how bad the 14th century was … and how much worse things could still get! And then mull over Auden’s The Fall of Rome (first brought to my attention by Allan Gyngell) with its eerie evocation of “flu-infected cities”.

It’s not only Hugh chastising me. Regular contributor (and another bloody Professor) Mark Beeson drops in a line.

“The reading list is a great idea, but why no classics?” Beeson says.

This is a once in a lifetime (we hope) opportunity to read some of the greatest books ever written. I could do a (very) extensive list, but the obvious ones are:

– War and Peace, Tolstoy

– Middlemarch, Elliot

– The Brothers Karamazov (and/or Crime and Punishment) Dostoyevesky

– Our Mutual Friend (and/or Bleak House/David Copperfield...) Dickens

– For something slightly more modern The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell

But why stop there, Mark? (He doesn’t.)

Could also throw in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust, but I’m the only person I know who’s ever got through it (during a voluntary period of unemployment – still took couple of months. He does go on a bit).

Kirsten Han also has a view, sent via Twitter.



Amruta Slee wrote she has been stocking up on books, just in case, after having a little practice a year or so back, spending six weeks at home following an operation.

Go for series - Karl Ove Kanusgaard may not be for everyone but he wrote six books in his My Life series and that should get you through a fair few weeks.

Hilary Mantel of course – and many of will want to revisit the first two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies to remind ourselves where we got up to – also takes up many hours of Google time as I cross reference people and events!

Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent book about the Troubles is gripping, unputdownable and will take your mind off the present for a little welcome while.

William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy magnificent and racy.

For those who missed it, Adrian Levy, Cathy Scott Clark’s The Exile about Bin Laden’s time on the run was thriller-like in its execution and a terrific resource on the continuing saga of al-Qaeda.

The Spy and The Traitor – Ben Macintrye’s terrifically entertaining story about Oleg Gordievesky.

You’ll need some detective fiction – Henning Mankell is always good company as is Donna Leon and you can’t beat Peter Temple.

For easy read fiction, what about Pachinko, such an eye opener for me as it taught me a lot about Koreans in Japan while being a bit of a potboiler, too.

And don’t forget some bingeing on TV – The Bureau, Borgen, Das Boot, 1864 Denmark’s War, and all seasons of The Bridge are up on SBS on Demand.

I’m still trying to remember if I’ve seen the film of Love in a Time of Cholera. For earlier suggestions, see here, or my original call-out, plus an article this week revisiting Why Nations Fall sent through from Scott Robinson. And I’ll run more suggestions next week. (Luke, I’ve not forgotten!)

How people power has flattened the Covid curve in Hong Kong

A trip getting out of the apartment has never been so meticulous: face mask and hand sanitiser are must-have items in the bag (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
A trip getting out of the apartment has never been so meticulous: face mask and hand sanitiser are must-have items in the bag (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 20 Mar 2020 10:30   0 Comments

The first half of March saw Hong Kong people’s attempt in bringing the city’s life back to normal amid the coronavirus scare. There are more people out in the streets, mostly wearing face masks. Many companies and the government have reduced the work-from-home arrangements and are getting people back to the office. Queues at certain restaurants are spotted during lunch hour. Toilet rolls, rice, hand sanitiser, and face masks are back in stock. Some public facilities have reopened. There have been even a few art openings this week, including a new art gallery by the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin and his son Arthur.

As many places around the world are just starting to feel the pain of Covid-19, which is hitting Europe and the United States hard, Hong Kong seems to have “flattened the curve” since the outbreak began in January. Wearing face-masks, keeping strict personal hygiene and social distancing, partially closing borders, and performing testing and contact tracing appear to be working. The coronavirus panic-buying and dysfunction of the city described as “symptoms of a failed state” in a Bloomberg opinion piece widely circulated in February are no longer uniquely Hong Kong. Even the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong has become crowded again.

But has Hong Kong succeeded in the fight against the novel coronavirus? Well, not quite.

Face masks are back in stock (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

It is indeed true that people seem to be relieved when the number of confirmed cases has been kept at a relatively low level, compared to many other places in the world with similar population size – Switzerland: 3115 cases, 33 deaths, out of 8.57 million population; New York City: 1871 cases, 11 deaths, out of 8.6 million; Austria: 1843 cases, 197 deaths, 8.8 million population. Hong Kong has 208 cases, 4 deaths, out of 7.4 million population. (All data as of 19 March.)

But the past two days (March 18 and 19) saw an exponential increase in terms of percentage – the number of cases in Hong Kong has gone up by 25% to 208. As the situation deteriorates around the world, it appears that Hong Kong is expecting a second wave of outbreak in no time, as forewarned by the vocal Hong Kong University microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung. The new cases are brought to Hong Kong by those who have returned, running away from places hit by the virus, and those irresponsible people who ignore experts’ advice on social distancing and continue to party in Lan Kwai Fong, which health officials have described as the “hotspot” for spreading coronavirus.

Fancy dresses have been left untouched in the closet as waterproof clothing and a cap to cover the head and hair are in fashion.

The trend is worrying, as this might jeopardise the collective effort of the majority of Hong Kong people who have been fighting the virus since January.

A trip getting out of the apartment has never been so meticulous. Face mask, hand sanitiser, and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol spray are must-have items in the bag. Fancy dresses have been left untouched in the closet as waterproof clothing and a cap to cover the head and hair are in fashion. Upon returning from outside, shoes must be off, and they, together with the waterproof outerwear, must be cleaned with disinfectant spray, diluted bleach or rubbing alcohol. Wash hands. Clothes go straight to the washing machine, immediately followed by a shower from head to toe. And don’t forget to clean the phone, keys, and door handle.

Such is the new routine that my friends and I have come up with when the novel coronavirus originated from Wuhan, China, began to hit Hong Kong towards late January. We have been practising social distancing diligently and avoid eating out.

It might sound like we were overreacting initially, but with the painful lessons from SARS – which in 2002–03 killed 299, including many medical workers – imprinted in our memories, and months of Hong Kong protests that have sent people’s trust in the government to a historical low, we know that no one is more reliable than our disciplined selves.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Hong Kong people’s spirit of resistance and resilience inspired by the ongoing pro-democracy protests has protected them from the deadly virus.

The government maintained the stance of no mask necessary at the end of January. In early February, when the city was facing a severe mask shortage, chief executive Carrie Lam told the media she ordered government officials not to wear masks. "I actually told them they cannot wear them. And if they are [already] wearing them, they have to take them off," she was quoted saying in the media, citing World Health Organization advice. Her comrade, labour and welfare minister Law Chi-kwong, also said that he did not need to wear a mask to go to work.

But people were well aware of the asymptomatic nature of the virus long before it was declared a pandemic, and the public’s distrust in the Hong Kong government and Beijing, which covered up the outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning, encouraged them to take advice from leading medical experts – whether teaching people how to wear face masks (link in Cantonese) via social media platforms, or with advice to wear masks to prevent germs from spreading, along with continuously providing updated medical research information to the public.

A medical workers’ unprecedented strike in late January and early February to demand complete closure of the border to mainland China also sent an alarming signal to the public, as medical workers made it clear that the influx of virus carriers and patients from the north could collapse the public healthcare system in Hong Kong. 

The warnings might have worried people and sent them into panic buying, emptying the shelves of supermarkets for a while and generating long queues to buy face masks, but the strong community response has worked.

This, followed by closure of schools, public facilities, and borders, as well as implementing home-office arrangements, has allowed Hong Kong to hold off the exponential increase in the number of cases for a long while.

But whether this can be sustained depends on the entire population. Fighting a pandemic is never a one-person job, but a collective effort. Many people in Hong Kong have learned their lessons. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and avoid unnecessary social contact and travelling. By taking care of yourself, you are also protecting others from getting infected.

People might have found a way to live with the virus for the time being, but the fight is still on, and it’s too soon to celebrate victory.

COVIDcast episode 3: The China story

Published 20 Mar 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Each week since the severity of the coronavirus crisis became clear, Lowy Institute experts have been sitting down for COVIDcast, a podcast to discuss the implications of coronavirus for Australia, the region, and the world. Episodes one and two are already online, and this is the third instalment in the series, which we’ll be continuing on a weekly basis as this crisis unfolds.

In Episode 3: The China Story, Lowy Institute’s Director of Research, Alex Oliver, sat down with Richard McGregor, our resident senior China expert and author of several books on China’s politics and government.

They discussed US-China great power competition, including the recent expulsion of American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post from China and Hong Kong, and what this means for the future of Western knowledge about China. As McGregor explains:

I think America is vastly over reported. China is vastly under reported, even more so after this expulsion. So it’s a real pity that the US decided to fight on this battleground because we all lose … As China comes out of the doldrums of coronavirus, they feel powerful, they feel emboldened, they feel angry, and most of all, they don’t think they need the foreign press anymore and they’re happy to have a fight with the US over that issue.

This episode also features a discussion on Chinese disinformation and propaganda; something we’ve dubbed the “geopolitics of infection etymology”; the apparent capacity of a centralised state authority to respond effectively and rapidly to the spread of the virus; and more.

COVIDcast is a pop-up podcast for anyone interested in understanding the effect of coronavirus on global politics, hosted by our resident experts and powered by the Lowy Institute. 

Subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloud, Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Why gender matters in the impact and recovery from Covid-19

A World Bank Cambodia Health Sector Support Program, shown here in 2013 (World Bank/Flickr)
A World Bank Cambodia Health Sector Support Program, shown here in 2013 (World Bank/Flickr)
Published 20 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

The Covid-19 outbreak has revealed the strengths and weaknesses in our collective global and national capacities to respond to this health emergency. Everything in our social world is gendered, and so it is with Covid-19. As with the experience of wars and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, women are often those least visible in crisis decision-making, yet within health emergencies they are conspicuous as healthcare workers and carers. This gendered reality is a remarkable pattern replicated across diverse societies and countries.

Front-line health professionals and workers most exposed to the infectious disease are likely to be women: nurses, nurse aides, teachers, child care workers, aged-care workers, and cleaners are mostly women. And 67% of the global health workforce is female, according to a 2019 study.

Among those workers – many part-time and casual, and most likely to be laid off or given shorter hours during the crisis and post-crisis – women are the largest group. Compared with men, women are more likely to be casual workers without sick leave/isolation leave work entitlements. Migrant women workers – nurses and domestic workers – experience double discrimination through both low-paid and/or casual work, with greater risk of wage loss and unemployment, limited access to healthcare and protective items.

As children are sent home, who will be taking time off work to homeschool them? As family members, neighbours, and friends go into isolation who will source food and provisions for them?

At least 67% of the global health workforce is female, according to a 2019 study (Banc d'Imatges Infermeres/Flickr)

In previous crises, the large volume of unpaid work largely carried out by women will increase exponentially. As a consequence of the Zika outbreak, many women had to expand their labour to perform vector control activities in communities, and those with children born with Congenital Zika Syndrome had to leave their jobs to provide full-time care for their children, and are still unable to return four years later. We don’t yet know the care obligations that will continue after this outbreak abates, but we can be certain that primarily women will carry out the majority of care labour.

Domestic violence, in particular, does not go away after the emergency.

Women and children in self-isolation or in quarantine are also vulnerable to domestic violence. Not all homes are safe, and enforced periods of isolation in the home will put many women at risk. Domestic violence is an indirect impact of coronavirus and more likely in stressed and at risk households.

Previous studies of emergency situations, including infectious disease outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–2015, revealed that women and girls experienced high rates of sexual violence and abuse. It was the “silent epidemic” experienced by women and girls who often had few options but to seek shelter in environments that they knew were dangerous. The emergency forced them into situations that were dangerous and harmful. Gang violence in El Salvador and Brazil has directly impacted women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services during the Zika crisis, with informal networks controlling who has access to provision and who does not. In the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was difficult to deliver specific sexual and reproductive health services, including care for survivors of family violence. This health emergency may create similar epidemics of sexual violence in high-risk situations.

For a woman who has been planning to leave her violent husband or family, the consequence of travel bans and city lockdowns is dire. What protection options are available for women migrant domestic workers who may be trapped in violent and abusive arrangements under self-isolation policies in the Asia and Pacific region? There is a vital need to ensure that sexual and reproductive services are prioritised during the Covid-19 crisis to ensure women and girls have access to services for maternal care, to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and for survivors of gender-based violence. This is being further jeopardised by concerns about shortages of contraception as a consequence of supply chain disruption.

A market in Can Tho, Vietnam (Teseum/Flickr)

Travel and trade bans will affect a vast number of countries including many businesses and developing nations in particular that are heavily reliant on tourism and trade. Therefore, there needs to be rapid response plans for these at-risk communities to campaigns, shelters, and support is available for women, men, and families that are going to face prolonged economic and mental strain after the outbreak.

Domestic violence, in particular, does not go away after the emergency. In the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, for instance, low-income households experienced a spike in domestic violence, with women and children often the target of income stresses as a result of unemployment. There is no doubt that Covid-19 will lead to significant economic depression in most countries, and women – who are more likely than men to be in low-income households – may be hardest hit.

To mitigate disproportionate gendered impacts, there is a need to ensure that economic investment during and post-crisis is not focused only on some sectors of the economy – for instance, in Australia, the manufacturing and trades, which largely employ men compared with the services sector, which largely employ women. There is a need to dedicate funding to support the economic empowerment of women who, whether health care workers, casual shop workers, or small business traders, will have managed high-load unpaid care roles and high-load low-paid work roles during this crisis.

At an individual and household level, men and women need to share the caring work involved in surviving the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be facilitated with improved government communications and risk mitigation strategies which actively target this issue.

Ensuring that public communication messages also include apps, hotlines, and clinic services for women and children to access sexual and reproductive care and gender-based violence crisis services during the outbreak is vital.

There is also the need to ensure women’s representation in Covid-10 recovery decision-making, since, as David Evans writes, “when women have less decision-making power than men, either in households or in government, then women’s needs during an epidemic are less likely to be met”. It is vital to also acknowledge that not just any woman will do when comes to crisis management: global health needs gender experts. Gender expertise is lacking in pandemic planning, outbreak response, and post-pandemic recovery.

Including gender-sensitive analysis and methods in the fields of technology, crisis economics, public health, engineering, and risk communications is crucial, since they are all vital for building future resilience to the next emergency, whether health, climate, or other disaster.

Is Singapore feeling safe enough to go to the polls?

A couple walking past a temperature screening check at Changi International Airport in Singapore, 27 February 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
A couple walking past a temperature screening check at Changi International Airport in Singapore, 27 February 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 19 Mar 2020 15:30   0 Comments

As news of a global pandemic dominated headlines and pushed most other news off the agenda, another breaking news bomb was casually dropped in Singapore on 13 March: the release of new electoral boundaries for the upcoming election.

Based on past experience, the release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee’s (EBRC) report is taken as a clear indicator that an election is near. Under Singaporean law, it’s up to the prime minister to decide on the timing of an election, as long as it doesn’t go beyond a five-year term. Given Singapore’s extremely short election period – there are only nine days of campaigning – the issue of when an election might be called is a matter of widespread speculation and interest. Singapore must hold an election before 21 April 2021.

It’s no surprise that opposition parties would be so opposed to an election at this point in time. Apart from the public health issue, potential mitigation measures could make it even more of an uphill climb for these smaller, under-resourced parties.

Parliament has usually been dissolved within two months of the EBRC’s report, suggesting that Singaporeans could be heading to the polls within the first half of this year. But the country is still in the throes of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a rising number of cases as the virus runs rampant in multiple countries. At the time of writing, Singapore has confirmed 313 cases, although there have fortunately been no deaths so far.

In his comments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept his options open. “We have two choices. Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances – but we have no certainty of that,” he wrote in a Facebook post, continuing:

Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand… Which way to go, and the elections date, will depend on what will best see Singapore through this major crisis.

From a logistical and public safety point of view, holding an election in the middle of an outbreak – when people are meant to be practising social distancing and staying home – would be an absolute nightmare. Lee Hsien Loong’s own administration has brought in stepped up measures to combatting the virus, including the cancellation or deferring of cultural, sporting, and entertainment events involving 250 or more people. It’s also unclear how Singaporeans who have been served stay-home or quarantine orders would be able to vote – or even if people would be willing to head out to polling centres at all.

Given this backdrop, a regular election campaigning period, with all the obligatory walkabouts, house visits, and nightly rallies, seems not only unfeasible, but highly undesirable.

A “COVID-19 election”, though, could give the ruling party even more of a strategic advantage than usual. Singapore’s international reputation is currently riding extremely high, as the government’s response to the outbreak is praised far and wide, reinforcing the People’s Action Party’s narrative as being the most effective party with the best track record in Singapore.



This narrative is, in a way, an accurate one, given that the People’s Action Party is the only existing party with a track record of governing Singapore, having been voted into power in 1959, six years before the island actually became an independent country. If given a choice in this time of crisis and anxiety, it’s highly unlikely that Singaporeans will pick now, of all times, to rock the boat by voting in opposition parties.

With a year to go before the current term has to officially end, not everyone is convinced by Lee’s reasoning, particularly since the number of new cases detected in Singapore is going up again. On Wednesday evening, the government reported 47 new cases. Although most of the cases had been imported, the number was still a new single-day high for the country.

“The new coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary situation. I have not come across people wondering about the current administration’s mandate until Mr Lee raised the issue,” says political scientist Ian Chong. He adds:

There ought to be opportunities to learn about how to better handle the situation and even hold elections under pandemic situations during the months in between [now and April 2021]. I note that some cabinet-level officials too indicated that their focus is on managing the pandemic rather than campaigning.

Many of the country’s alternative parties have chimed in on the issue. The Workers’ Party – the only other party to currently have seats in Parliament – called on Lee Hsien Loong’s administration to “take caution and exercise judiciousness” in choosing when to call an election.

“We are exposing more than 2.6 million voters to the virus on Polling Day because voting is compulsory and everyone must go to the polling stations to cast their vote,” said Progress Singapore Party leader Tan Cheng Bock. “Is this a risk we want to take?”

“We hope that the PAP will not capitalise on the crisis by holding the GE at this time as it will take away valuable resources needed to combat the virus outbreak and jeopardise the public's health and well-being,” the Singapore Democratic Party said in a statement.

In response to questions, Ariffin Sha, assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party, pointed out that while challenges long faced by opposition parties — such as the constantly shifting electoral boundaries — are still present, the situation with coronavirus presents new difficulties.

Commuters wear face masks on the Mass Rapid Transit train in Singapore, 18 March 2020 (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, we will need to take precautions and adopt measures that are unprecedented. Therefore, we will need to adapt and conduct a campaign in responsible manner,” he says. “This may hinder opposition parties as there may be no opportunity for rallies and large-scale walkabouts as there will be lesser opportunities to reach out to Singaporeans.”

It’s no surprise that opposition parties would be so opposed to an election at this point in time. Apart from the public health issue, potential mitigation measures could make it even more of an uphill climb for these smaller, under-resourced parties.

Chong points to different levels of access to and coverage of political parties in the country: “Parties that wish to do walkabouts, mass rallies, or large events during a time when a contagious disease outbreak is ongoing are simply not being responsible. This means that a lot of the campaigning may have to take place online. How people can have equal access to the various political parties under such circumstances is less clear.”

Parties with more resources or enjoy more positive coverage by the mainstream press are likely to have a distinct advantage. Those that are not covered or receive negative coverage are likely to be at an even greater disadvantage.

The potential loss of rallies would be a serious blow to alternative parties in particular. While PAP rallies tend to be modestly attended, some opposition rallies draw huge crowds as people take advantage of a rare opportunity to gather and hear directly from the opposition. These mass events are also incredibly important for these parties to muster supporters, raise funds through the sale of merchandise, and generate emotional impact and momentum.

The signs – from the release of the electoral boundaries report, to the emergence of politicians eager to meet-and-greet constituents in hawker centres and housing estates – are all pointing to a looming election, but nothing is official so far. Lee Hsien Loong could simply still be testing the waters to get a sense of how an election would be received at this moment. While the victory of his party has never been much in doubt even without the coronavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen how far the party might be willing to go to secure the largest margin they can.

Don’t succumb to complacency again: Beating Covid-19 will take a team

Training New York Army National Guard Soldiers to register people on iPads at a drive-through Covid-19 mobile testing centre (New York National Guard/Flickr)
Training New York Army National Guard Soldiers to register people on iPads at a drive-through Covid-19 mobile testing centre (New York National Guard/Flickr)
Published 19 Mar 2020 13:00   0 Comments

The past few days have been very alarming for many of us, but a tide has turned around the world in our fight against Covid-19. Major Western countries have now all come to their senses, discarding dangerously complacent strategies. No one is complacent anymore.

This new attitude will be more important than any specific measure. It’s the attitude that we all need to internalise and keep with us for the next 18 months. 

Australia has implemented an aggressive approach that will slow the virus. But it goes beyond government. Every single Australian has a role to play. Every institution, every business, union, church, council, every sports club. Every person.

The plan to beat the virus is clear. 

1. Slow it: hygiene, distance, and borders.

These are things that slow the virus. Everyone needs to do this. We need to help each other, especially kids. 

2. Find it: contact tracing, monitoring for symptoms, and testing.

Doctors and scientists are working on this all around the world. It’s hard and takes time. That’s why we need to slow the virus. Singapore and Taiwan are lighting the path we need to follow. 

3. Isolate it: strict isolation protocols are required, and people must obey them.

The lesson from Wuhan is that failure on this point can put your own family at risk. It will take discipline and support.

4. Control it: This is the hard part. We have 18 months of vigilance to prevent re-emergence.

No matter how much we slow it, it will still be there. It will come back. When it does, we have to react immediately to prevent one case becoming 1,000 again. But while we do that, we have to keep our lives, mental health, and the economy going. It will take solidarity like we haven’t seen in our lifetime. Our lives are literally in each others’ hands, now. 

5. Beat it: vaccines.

It will take at least 18 months to test, produce, and distribute vaccines. It needs to go out on a wide enough scale that when we reduce our vigilance, we don’t get mass outbreaks again. Scientists all around the world are working on this. We have to buy them the time it takes to do it right. There can be no shortcuts when it comes to vaccines. 

A 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 – also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 – virus particle (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Flickr)


Critically, we must keep our frontline defenders safe. They need the maximum protection: doctors, nurses, pathologists and other medical staff are the first priority. But also police, supermarket workers, anyone who is doing an essential service that demands high contact with many people needs to be kept safe.

The rest of us will stay safe by living in a safe community. When Covid-19 hits, it overwhelms, so we have to stop it entirely. The real threat is not to individuals, but to societies. We get through this together or not at all. 

The goal is to slow the virus so we can control it enough to go about our lives, not to shut everything down.

There’s one other part to this plan. For it to work, it has to be global. Australia’s risk is still there; other countries will have their own challenges that could be even greater, particularly among our neighbours. They’re going to need our help, and we’re going to need to help them in whatever way we can. If we don’t, we’ll be surrounded by contagion. Or just as likely, when it’s our turn to need help, none will be forthcoming.

We cannot divide ourselves over biosecurity like we did over terrorism. This is a battle we have to fight together. The People’s Republic of China and United States in particular both need to step up. Our two biggest assets are currently sidelined because they’re bickering over trivia. They need to stop it. We need them in the game.

Anyone who’s been in a team endurance event knows that every member of the team needs help at one point or other. Crisis moments come in waves, and they affect each of us at different times. We’re going to have to rely on each other a lot over coming months.

Remember, the goal is to slow the virus so we can control it enough to go about our lives, not to shut everything down. The level of personal sacrifice required will vary throughout this process and it won’t be equally distributed at every point in time, but we can get through it if as a world we pull together.

Countering extremism in the midst of coronavirus

Melbourne CBD (Getty Images)
Melbourne CBD (Getty Images)
Published 19 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Only four months into the start of the new decade, Australia has faced not one but two national crises: a bushfire disaster that has caused unprecedented damage to the natural environment and livelihoods, and now the Covid-19 pandemic, a global crisis which has hit Australia and already resulted in unprecedented restrictions and threatens to inflict long-term economic pain.

In dealing with these crises, the government has focused primarily on traditional categories of disaster and emergency management (DEM) such as emergency response, public-health measures, border security, and economic stimulus. Governments also traditionally put together strategic communications campaigns to project a sense of control and authority, and to mitigate the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories that commonly pop up during times of crisis.

However, governments are missing a key element of crisis response: they have not fully accounted for the acceleration of violent extremist narratives as part of their disaster management.

Disasters and emergencies play into “accelerationism” theory, found throughout the extreme right, which posits that the liberal-democratic order is a failure and that one must accelerate its demise through stoking social division and violence.

Governments must not only stamp out misinformation, but they must also account for the ways that disinformation and conspiracy theories fuel the acceleration of violent extremist narratives and the potential for violence by ideologically motivated extremist individuals and groups seeking to exploit the situation.

Given these back-to-back crises, the acceleration of extremism and extremist narratives during disasters is particularly clear in the Australian context. In a preliminary examination of some of the public statements of members of the Australian far right and alt-right, we see how they are interpreting the crises and how they are taking advantage of them to mobilise.

What we have found so far suggests that they have used these disasters (1) to contest government legitimacy, (2) to identify groups to blame, and (3) to encourage mobilisation – and in so doing tacitly incite violence – against outsider groups as a response.   

Some far-right extremists in Australia have spread the conspiracy through various social media channels that the bushfires were started by Muslims who committed “arson” or “bushfire” jihad.  This narrative was quickly picked up by US far-right and alt-right groups and spread globally.

The Covid-19 pandemic and legitimate government responses such as quarantining, self-isolating, and closing borders also play into the hands of right-wing extremist narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions.

Far-right figures have also used the government’s Covid-19 response to stoke distrust in government by claiming that the government is using the crisis to control average Australians.

Others in the extreme right have encouraged mobilisation and violent action as a response to crisis. For example, one Australian alt-right blog site writes:

The only thing white people need to change is their mindset. You get a couple of months of hardship… the empathy of the white man switches off due to pure necessity. The one thing that has protected the people of foreign lands … is that we Europeans follow the rules…. But what happens when our protection is gone and the surveillance is lifted? The white man remembers his inner brute. Even if there is only a temporary shutdown here, Australians will be a very different people after it is all over.

Disasters and emergencies play into “accelerationism” theory, found throughout the extreme right, which posits that the liberal-democratic order is a failure and that one must accelerate its demise through stoking social division and violence.

It is important for disaster-management and resiliency measures to recognise that when societies suffer from collective stress and anxiety during emergencies and disasters, they may be more receptive to extremist narratives and accelerationist thinking.

According to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, there will be a continued global increase in disasters. If the Australian extreme far right has attempted to use the bushfires and Covid-19 to further their extremist and conspiratorial narratives and to accelerate mobilisation, we can expect to see this dynamic replicated in future disasters, both in Australia and around the world. Therefore, this must be factored in government disaster management responses.

Governments should extend their concept of disaster management – particularly in this era of tech-enabled communication and the expansion of the far-right online ecosystem – to include understanding, responding to, and promoting resilience to extremist narratives. A key element in disaster response and recovery is maintaining not only the functioning of government and society but maintaining trust in the government and systems in order to prevent societal fraying and to maintain order.

If the acceleration of violent extremism is not addressed during these times of crisis, it will allow extremism and distrust of government to incubate and spread, which makes maintaining and recovering government legitimacy and trust in the long term all the more difficult.

Are you ready for how the coronavirus is transforming the world?

China is likely to seek more clean and healthy food from abroad, which will benefit Australian food and agriculture producers and exporters (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
China is likely to seek more clean and healthy food from abroad, which will benefit Australian food and agriculture producers and exporters (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 19 Mar 2020 11:30   1 Comments

As important as the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic and its containment are, leaders also need to start to think about the shape of the post–Covid-19 global economy.

If they don’t, we all face a serious risk of succumbing to the new anti-globalisation protectionism that is on the rise. Elements in the US are already pushing hard with rhetoric geared towards the economic decoupling of the US from China, including by referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu”. We need to ensure Australia does not fall into the same trap.

Our current economic reliance on China aside, China is very likely going to emerge from the coronavirus crisis much stronger economically. Just as the SARS outbreak of 2003 changed the Chinese economy, giving its tech companies new impetus, so too will the impact of Covid-19. During the SARS outbreak, fear kept many Chinese consumers home and drove them to shop online. For example, Alibaba launched its Taobao and T-mall online stores at the height of the SARS crisis, which enabled its transformation from a B2B online platform into the world’s largest consumer e-commerce company it is today.

By focusing on the fostering and amalgamation of medical, health, and technological advances, China will become the world’s leading economy sooner than expected.

E-commerce has been playing an increasingly greater role in China since the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown of much of the country. As a result, Chinese consumers will be more inclined to purchase goods and services online than at buildings where people gather, and where infectious diseases are more easily transmissible. Even online education will become more attractive to China’s students – presenting both a risk and an opportunity for our tertiary education sector.

The obvious said, once the world’s second largest economy is firing again Beijing will also have to focus on even more transformative changes to its economy.

First, Beijing will not want a repeat of any contagious disease outbreak that could further undermine its economy and system of government. Expect to see authorities there close the country’s so-called “wet markets” and implement public-safety campaigns discouraging people from eating bats and other exotic wildlife thought to have carried the coronavirus to humans.

China also is likely to seek more clean and healthy food from abroad, which will benefit Australian food and agriculture producers and exporters. And Chinese – and other – consumers might demand more processed foods (over live exports) from Australia, which could see more value-add dollars retained here.

Secondly, Beijing will likely double down on its commitment to innovative and transformative technologies. This will see a leap across the board, extending from its leadership in drones and automation, driverless cars and better communications, and smart-cities, to especially focus on healthcare and biotechnology.

Beijing’s commitment to China becoming a global leader in biotechnology stems from President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” strategy. Rather than surreptitiously acquire these technologies from abroad, which was a major factor in the recent China-US trade war, China will this time have to entice technology firms, and particularly start-ups, from around the world to bring it to them.

This will have a major impact on global financial services, with technology developers soon to find it easier to access a more open, yet still centralised, China. Silicon Valley venture capitalists may become more critical of Washington’s talk of decoupling from China and may look for creative ways to participate in developments on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Australian technology developers will need to look more closely at collaboration with China or risk losing out. Canberra will need to support and at least not hamper them.

This will bring Beijing to a third major initiative following the containment of the virus and repair of its economy. Beijing will have to do more than any other government to rebuild public trust. Authorities will have to demonstrate a global leadership position in medicine and health, and not just within its borders.

The most effective way to do this would be by taking a lead in technology that augments human biology – where medicine, health, science, and technology merge. For example, this is where bodies are enhanced by technology (think of contact lenses that let you connect to the internet via a screen in the lens.)

Research on such technology is already occurring in the West, but it does not receive adequate funding and often fails to progress due to incumbent prejudices and risk aversion. China will seek to become the home of such research and development. Indeed, more than 200 research facilities and more than 50 universities and colleges in China are already involved in such research. Biotechnology research centres in Shanghai and Jiangmen have received support from Beijing to bring research results to production. Beijing is likely to increase that support in the wake of the coronavirus.

This will change the world, with the arrival of developments and productivity that otherwise might not have come for decades.

The challenge is for China to demonstrate that it has a post-coronavirus plan. By focusing on the fostering and amalgamation of medical, health, and technological advances it will become the world’s leading economy sooner than expected.

If we want to continue to benefit from China’s ascendance, Australia needs to look beyond “selling stuff” to China to the next phase in our relationship, where we encourage our technology companies and research institutions to collaborate more closely with their counterparts in China. We will also need to entice Chinese investment into our tech companies – rather than just mining and agriculture.

That will require Canberra to rethink our foreign investment rules as they apply to mainland China. The question is whether it can look rationally at the new opportunities that could emerge from our largest trading partner ­– or will it continue to view China through the current geopolitical prism defined by Washington?

The future ain’t what it used to be

Might as well float a message in a bottle (Antonios Ntoumas/Pixabay)
Might as well float a message in a bottle (Antonios Ntoumas/Pixabay)
Published 19 Mar 2020 07:00   0 Comments

What do the East Timorese defence force, “clean coal”, women’s empowerment, and Kevin Rudd’s first-term government have in common?

The answer is the year 2020.

Back when 2020 felt like a halcyon time far-far away, this was the year that, respectively, the Government of Timor-Leste, the International Energy Agency, and the United Nations nominated as being either an end point or key waystation for their ambitious, transformative plans, road maps, and goals. Rudd marked this year as the one to think big towards in his Australia 2020 summit, held in Canberra in 2008.

All the plans are weighty. The Timor-Leste defence blueprint Forca 2020 (complete with covetous pictures of helicopters and surface-to-air missiles) runs to 148 small-font pages. While the IEA’s 2009 Technology Roadmap is a bantamweight 52 pages, the Beijing Plan for gender action a whopping 277, and the Australia 2020 summit report exceeds them all, coming in at 405. One can only imagine the forgotten bureaucratic sorrows endured in producing these documents: multiple drafts, impassioned quarrels over sub-clauses, the setting up of intricate monitoring and report frameworks, translation headaches.

None of these plans (or any of the myriad that also feature 2020) are likely to feature high on The Interpreter’s quarantine reading list”. But they are sitll worth labouring through, especially at a time when Covid-19 is sweeping away so many loudly proclaimed planned government certainties from last year, and decimating all plans for this one and next.  

Reviewing these documents should make us think about the actual practical value of that default governmental recourse: the long-distant end-goal.

When we get through this present crisis, let’s not plan for futures we do not intend to meet, to produce long-term fig leaves for business-as-usual, plans written at such a level of generality that avoids responsibility, promising faulty futures that we know we will never see.

For sure, planning is important. Goal-setting is a vital part of long-term government planning. It can inspire hope, mobilise resources, and create political space for actions that did not already exist. And, to be fair, pandemic planning is not the principal purpose for these particular documents, and governments have sought to scope out such scenarios elsewhere.

But to another extent, magnified exponentially by these last few weeks, there seems something both absurd yet strangely comforting about feeling emboldened enough to guess a course for endpoints years away.

The planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future. By 2020, Timor-Leste would be starting to develop its own air force; there would be 100 carbon capture storage projects globally, mainly for coal, and 12 broad goals for gender action meaningfully progressed.

And for what? No-one mentions the Forca 2020 plan in Dili nowadays; the concern there now is the aftermath of devastating floods, as well as Covid-19. Failed carbon capture and storage pilot projects litter the world. How many times have we been promised by the coal industry that emissions from coal can be safely captured and stored away in the not too distant future?

Two of these long-range plans do mention the word “pandemic” (similar to what Greg Earl has already noted). The Beijing platform for action mentions the word seven times but each time it is with reference to HIV/AIDS rather than a Covid-19 style super-virus. Covid-19 has kyboshed all meetings this year, including those intended to “tackle the unfinished business of empowering women through a new ground-breaking, multi-generational campaign”.

The public-health components to the Australia 2020 visioning make for eerie reading in the cold light of the present day. “There is … potential to leverage from Australia’s science knowledge, applying biowarfare technology to tackling the challenges of a pandemic” avers the Australia 2020 scribe, while emotionlessly noting that while “Australia prides itself on a willingness and ability to respond quickly in the event of a regional crisis … in the event of a pandemic, this would not be possible.”

We are four Prime Ministers distant (excluding his own return) from the Rudd years.

Nowadays, 2030 and 2050 are the new “2020”, the mystical target years. Think the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011–2030, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the 2050 emissions targets among others.

Hands up who thinks there will be unforeseen events that will ensnarl progress on the way?

Two points to end on.

First, obviously we need to plan, but let’s not do so pretending the future is predictable. When we get through this present crisis, let’s not plan for futures we do not intend to meet, to produce long-term fig leaves for business-as-usual, plans written at such a level of generality that avoids responsibility, promising faulty futures that we know we will never see. By all means set long-term plans. But better to know what concrete actions you will do this year and then the next to get there.

Second, just maybe, in an oddly counterintuitive but comforting way, the return of all those loose, saggy, convoluted planning documents will be one of those ineffable signs that the governments and institutions of the world as we know it are settling back to their normal rhythms. If that’s so, we’ll be on the first plane to any gauzily focused planning plenary going.

PNG: Coronavirus promises a testing time for Marape

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Published 18 Mar 2020 15:30   0 Comments

It’s been a volatile week for the PNG Hunters.

The Papua New Guinea rugby league team was celebrating on Sunday after staging a late comeback to clinch a 32-30 win against the Souths Logan Magpies in the first round of the Queensland Intrust Super Cup last weekend.

The Hunters were supposed to capitalise on that win and host their first home game in Port Moresby on Sunday against the Townsville Blackhawks.

But that match, like all Queensland Rugby League fixtures, has been cancelled – put off till at least June as sporting codes around the world contend with the travel and crowd restrictions that are coming as part of global coronavirus responses.

Already PNG’s health system struggles to support its nine million citizens. Diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are everyday burdens and demand a massive share of limited resources.

The Hunters’ season pause is an early consequence of the pandemic, but the effects of the virus on PNG will go far beyond sport to have a brutal impact on PNG’s health and its economic stability.

Already PNG’s health system struggles to support its nine* million citizens. Diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are everyday burdens and demand a massive share of limited resources.

PNG’s big hospitals have only a small number of intensive care beds – Port Moresby’s main public hospital has fewer than 10, and only some of those beds have ventilators for patients with respiratory issues. And for most people, hospital is not effectively an option, as 80% of the population live outside urban centres, supported by the informal economy. For many people, this crisis will pass without them even visiting a health clinic, let alone seeing a doctor or attending a hospital.

So PNG’s capacity starts far behind where it would hope to be to deal with a viral pandemic.

Acknowledging that fact, Prime Minister James Marape has over the past few days announced a series of measures to try to prepare the country. Declaring the virus as quarantinable disease under legislation, Marape said the looming crisis is not just a health issue but a national security concern. He announced new measures to try to hold off the arrival of the virus for as long as possible, and foreshadowed the first steps in how PNG will respond to the health situation if – or most likely when – it does.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and his wife Rachel at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, July 2019 (Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images)

In terms of trying to keep the virus out, PNG moved early to restrict travel from high-risk source countries. Health checks of travellers arriving at Port Moresby airport are being conducted, passenger movement cards are being recorded, and a number of suspected cases have been tested and reported negative.

In recent days, the government has again tightened quarantine measures for international arrivals. No cases of Covid-19 have yet been detected, although fly-in, fly-out workers at two of the country’s largest mines have gone into quarantine pending test results. And the Health Minister has reported a ‘probable’ case of the virus identified in a passenger who arrived from Spain via Turkey and Singapore before flying through Port Moresby to the city of Lae.

Among the new measures is a reduction in the number of pathways for people to arrive in PNG.

Flights from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, Honiara, Nadi, and Sydney are being scrapped as of this weekend. It means the only departure cities for flights to PNG will be Singapore, Cairns, and Brisbane.  That helps the health response – but it also is a reflection of economic reality for the national airline Air Niugini. More on that shortly.

The government is also preparing how it will respond if or when the virus is detected. The PNG Defence Force is being asked to provide facilities and staff to help deal with the first cases in Port Moresby, an isolation ward has been configured at Port Moresby General Hospital, and there are plans for additional facilities at Six Mile.

The World Bank has offered funding to help PNG to prepare for the virus. And while those funds are gratefully received, they are a tiny amount alongside the potential challenge the virus presents to a country of 10 million people.

And that’s before the economic challenges that also loom.

The tanking of global oil prices would seem to put any deal on an expansion of PNG’s LNG industry into the distant future. The government’s interlocutor on stalled talks for the P’nyang project ExxonMobil has announced a dramatic cut in capital spending already. The country’s most prominent producer, Oil Search, has seen its share price fall by around 70% since February. The glimmer of hope might be gold prices, which are up amidst the global volatility and could provide more momentum for projects like Morobe province’s Wafi Golpu project.

The flight reductions announced as part of the virus response come alongside brutal reality for the country’s national airline, Air Niugini. In a nation where the capital Port Moresby remains isolated by road from every other major centre in the country, air travel plays a critical role in everyday life. Even with the dramatic cuts in international capacity, the financial viability of the airline is set to be tested. Capital injections are already being discussed.

It makes for a testing time for Marape and his cabinet.

The PM concluded his statement on coronavirus preparations with a call for the country to remain positive in an environment of uncertainties.

His optimism is commendable in the face of the challenges ahead.

* This article originally said PNG’s population was 10 million, which was wrong. Official statistics and projections are that it’s less than nine million. The government announced last week that the planned 2020 PNG census will be deferred as part of its coronavirus response.

Middle East dispatch: MBS purge, dam dispute, refugees in jeopardy

Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, 2017 (OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/Flickr)
Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, 2017 (OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/Flickr)
Published 18 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Vulnerable cases

Early efforts to contain Covid-19 focused on quarantining those travelling by air, leaving the impression of coronavirus as a disease mostly affecting stable and industrialised nations with busy transport networks. Of course, the danger was always more widespread, particularly in fragile countries already under pressure from long-standing conflicts.

So in worrying developments from Iraq, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports 83 new cases of the virus in the country since 10 March, the first of which were recorded in a camp for internally displaced persons.

But outbreaks are also evident elsewhere where people have fled. A confirmed case of Covid-19 on the Greek island of Lesbos has also sparked fears of an outbreak at the Moria refugee camp, where over 20,000 refugees live in squalid conditions without proper access to medical care. Violence on the island has already led to humanitarian organisations suspending operations there.

As if refugees didn’t have enough to worry about, the pandemic now seems inevitable among refugee populations.

Refugee standoff

A Turkish court has sentenced three people smugglers to 125 years each for their involvement in the drowning death of Syrian Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi, his brother, and the children’s mother in 2015. The image of Alan’s tiny lifeless body of lying face down on a Turkish beach provoked global outrage and sympathy at the plight of refugees in the grip of a mass migration wave in 2015.

The image resonated particularly strongly in Germany, which went on to take in more than a million Syrian refugees – a move that has had profound political consequences for Germany’s domestic politics – and indeed Europe more broadly. It also precipitated a deal between the European Union and Turkey in which Turkey agreed to step up border patrols and take in millions of Syrian migrants returned from Europe in exchange for roughly $12 billion in aid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displays the 2015 photo of drowned Syrian Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi at the UN General Assembly in September 2019 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But after a blistering air campaign by Syrian government forces and their Russian backers against civilians in the Syrian province of Idlib prompted a new wave of displacement, Turkey reneged on the deal, announcing it would once again fling open its gates to Europe and assist Syrian migrants in attempts to flee to the continent.

A tense standoff between Turkish and Greek border guards ensued; with 35,000 Syrian migrants massed at the border, Greek border guards fired tear gas to repel the crowd, including women and children. Footage also showed Turkish security officials standing by while migrants tore down parts of the Greek border fence.

Now, the same week as the sentencing, Turkey has announced it will suspend its operation to aid the migrants to Europe.

So the crisis appears averted for now. Taken together, these events can be interpreted as an indication Turkey is once again willing to play a part in stemming a new wave of migration to Europe.

It is also a reminder – as no doubt Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intended – that Turkey holds significant leverage in controlling the flow of migrants to Europe, which remains beholden to Turkish whims, and that Turkey is willing to use the plight of refugees to secure its objectives as required.

Water wars

Sudan is leaning towards Ethiopia in an escalating disagreement with Egypt over a Nile dam project – a dispute many fear could lead to war.

Ethiopia initiated the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to provide much-needed electricity for its 100 million people. Upon completion, it will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric plant.

With the dam more than 70% complete, an agreement is becoming increasingly urgent, but further out of reach.

Egypt says the dam project was initiated without consultation and fears filling the dam’s reservoir too quickly could lower the Nile’s flow and impact Egypt’s water supply. Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its water supply to its 100 million population.

The US has sponsored talks between Ethiopia and Egypt in the ongoing dispute and has said the dam should not be completed without an agreement in place. Ethiopia failed to attend the last round of talks in Washington and has accused the US of overstepping its role as a neutral observer. US Donald Trump enjoys cordial relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Sudan has now refused to get on board with an Arab League resolution which expressed support for Cairo’s position that the dam should not infringe on its historic rights to the River Nile waters. Sudan is hoping the dam will also provide it a cheap source of power.

With the dam more than 70% complete, an agreement is becoming increasingly urgent, but further out of reach.

MBS purge

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ruthless quest for power has seen him purge more senior officials. On Sunday, 298 officials, including military and security officers, were arrested on charges involving bribery and exploiting public office. It follows the arrest last week of two of MBS’s senior family members – his uncle and brother to the King, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, and the cousin he deposed as crown prince in 2017, Mohammed bin Nayef.

As the well-connected Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute RUSI has pointed out, only MBS can know the reason behind this latest purge, and, in reality, the two senior royals posed little threat, having already been silenced or put under house arrest.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (UNWTO/Flickr)

What is worth noting is that MBS seems entirely uninhibited by the international reputational damage his actions cause – including the order for the dismembering murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate Istanbul in 2018, and Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen.

This latest purge has prompted renewed speculation that the health of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, may have deteriorated significantly – the implication being that the ageing monarch was unaware of his son’s power grab. But on Sunday, the Saudi royal court circulated photographs of the 84-year-old monarch performing royal duties.

Alternatively, the move has led to reasonable speculation that an attempt at a coup was under way, and that the king has given his son approval to carry on quashing dissent unopposed in any way he sees fit.

Still on Saudi Arabia and The New York Times’s talented Beirut-based Middle East bureau chief Ben Hubbard has just released a new book profiling the young prince, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman. Hubbard has spent more than ten years covering the Middle East, and some of his most fascinating work was filed from Saudi Arabia.

Iran: Sanctions vs sympathy

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference, 15 February (Tobias Hase/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference, 15 February (Tobias Hase/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
Published 18 Mar 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up some serious moral questions for society, including ones to do with decisions on treatment priorities for health workers under severe pressure. But another moral issue has arisen in the international relations field – in the midst of a pandemic, how appropriate is Washington’s anti-Iran policy of maximum pressure, which is spearheaded by a punitive sanctions regime?

Iran is one of the countries most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. How the coronavirus entered the country is open to question, but the epicenter appears to have been in the shrine city of Qum. It then spread quickly as pilgrims dispersed. Iran’s death toll is approaching 1000, and the medical system is struggling to cope – not helped by the government’s response, which has been slow and disjointed.

President Hassan Rouhani has publicly stated that the US sanctions regime is severely hampering Tehran’s ability to fight the disease, writing to a number of world leaders to emphasise the point, and seeking a multi-billion-dollar emergency funding package from the International Monetary Fund. 

Overlaid over this health crisis is the ongoing tit-for-tat between US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Iranian-backed Shia militias, which makes it politically difficult for Washington to allow any concessions around sanctions, even if it wanted to.

Some countries are assisting. China has sent medical experts to Iran and called on the US to lift sanctions, an appeal echoed by Russia and Pakistan.  And the UAE air force recently dispatched medical supplies to help Tehran’s beleaguered medical system.

US Secretary of State Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee two weeks ago that Washington has made offers to help Tehran and that it supports other countries doing so, but he has also urged countries to make their humanitarian assistance to Iran conditional on Tehran releasing detained foreign and dual nationals.

Pompeo has also claimed that the deal Washington struck with Switzerland to facilitate humanitarian trade means that the sanctions regime doesn’t affect Tehran’s ability to access required supplies to address the pandemic. Yet the actual mechanism by which this is supposed to occur would not appear to make it a speedy or responsive solution to Iran’s humanitarian needs.

Overlaid over this health crisis, of course, is the ongoing tit-for-tat between US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Iranian-backed Shia militias, which makes it politically difficult for Washington to allow any concessions around sanctions, even if it wanted to.

So while Tehran seeks to use concerns over the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country to garner international support for lifting America’s sanctions regime, Washington appears equally willing to try to ring-fence the humanitarian crisis from its broader (but still imprecise) policy of “maximum pressure”.  The longer the crisis continues, though, the louder the calls are likely to become for a shift in Washington’s position – and the more intense the debate around the morality of maintaining such a policy in the midst of a global pandemic.

Books for self-isolation: Revisiting Why Nations Fail

Published 18 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

Ed’s note: In response to a call on The Interpreter for reading suggestions in the event of a stint in Covid-19 related quarantine, Scott Robinson wrote that he’d recently revisited Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. “I feel that we often forget the lessons of this seminal text, and so I have written a review of the book that captures the core messages, and what I think is missing,” Scott said. (The same authors also released a new book, The Narrow Corridor, in 2019.)

Why Nations Fail posits that the relative success of nations is due not to geography, culture, or ignorance, but rather is due to how inclusive their political institutions are. The more inclusive their political institutions, the more inclusive their economic institutions will be. Inclusive economic institutions (economic policies that redistribute wealth and democratise the means of attaining wealth) result in an empowered body politic. As the barriers to creative destruction are removed and property rights are protected, the invigorated population invents and invests. The corollary of this is a “virtuous cycle”, whereby inclusive political institutions and economic institutions reinforce each other, as people vote to protect and expand their rights.

The cynical converse of this theory is that exclusive political institutions create what the authors label “extractive” economic institutions. Common forms are monopolies, slavery, serfdom, and feudalism. As wealth and power is concentrated, the ability of the holders of power to propagate and enforce these institutions increases. Elites, not accountable to the population, create and protect monopolies and resist any threats, such as creative destruction, to their supremacy. Policies that are inimical to the prosperity of the state are enacted. This enervates the population away from invention and investment, as the inevitable seizure of assets by the state make such pursuits abortive. Labelled the “vicious cycle”, the authors argue this as the principal reason why nations fail.

Acemoglu and Robinson employ a plethora of historical examples in support of their argument. These examples make up the bulk of pages. In citing the Western European example of why the industrial revolution occurred in England, they argue that the comparative weakness of the English crown, as compared to the Spanish and French crowns, led to the English crown having to cede powers to the parliament (through the English civil war and Glorious Revolution). Parliament, being a more inclusive institution than the alternative of absolutism of the divine right of kings, enacted policies that abolished monopolies, and granted and protected private property rights.

The mechanism through which this was assured, the authors argue, is that parliament was accountable to the people, and so people voted for a parliament that benefited the majority. The population then pursued invention and investments with surety, resulting in the industrial revolution.

The first reaction to this argument is to point out the flaws in the theory (lack of voting rights for women; only the wealthy, educated elite would vote or could get elected to parliament; susceptibility of people to rhetoric). However, these flaws are not fatal if cognisant of the alternative, the absolutism of the crown.

There are, however, two critiques of Why Nations Fail, and one seemingly unintended consequence that can be deduced from the book. The first is the oversight of the effect of trade interdependence. The second is the dismissal of geography.

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that culture, geography, or ignorance are not dominating factors in why nations fail. In concentrating on these three areas, they seem to preclude an obvious and overriding observation: that trade interdependence has a pivotal impact on how willing people are to centralise power to the state (a necessary precondition to inclusive political institutions), and critically affects the manner in which that power is exercised.

For example, if societal groups have an enduring and preeminent loyalty to only their immediate group, which may be limited for a multitude of reasons (geographic isolation, scarcity of resources), it is unlikely they will be willing or able collectively to centralise power alongside other isolated groups. Countries that consist of hundreds of such groups abound, especially in the Pacific. Unless and until interaction between these groups is frequent and mutually fruitful (trade interdependence), centralisation of political power is unlikely.

Accountability (the manner in which centralised power is exercised), is also affected by trade interdependence. If a particular isolated, self-sufficient group gains power over several isolated neighbouring groups, it is likely the powerful group will establish extractive institutions that benefit only themselves. As they do not interact frequently with or depend on the other groups, they are not accountable to them. The vicious cycle is guaranteed at the outset, given the lack of interdependence and lack of accountability.

The converse of this isolation is the concentration of several different groups that do not face such barriers to interaction, and that rely on trade with each other. Conjure a country rich in resources with several distinct groups that rely on trade with each other. Those on the coast would trade aquaculture products for resources produced by those inland, perhaps timber or stone. Given sufficient time, the economies of the separate groups would become intertwined, interdependent. It would be in the interest of any political authority to serve both their immediate group and those they trade with, as otherwise the valuable resources your group has come to rely on would be at risk. Inclusive institutions are far more likely to emerge under this scenario.

The second critique is authors’ dismissal of geography. As with the cultural example, intranational geographic isolation makes for a more suspicious peoples who are unwilling to centralise power. However, there is also the issue of geographic factors on the international scale. The prevalence of domesticable livestock, arable land, and plants that are able to be harvested make critical differences in the productivity of a people.

For example, the lack of horse, cattle, sheep, wheat, and barley in your country, no matter how altruistic and centralised your political systems are, will leave you at a disadvantage compared to a nation that has access to these resources. Higher productivity leads to more time dedicated to other pursuits (inventing, writing, thinking, creating permanent settlements). The importance of the absence of these resources is unduly discounted in the book.

Finally comes what can be deduced from the discussion, even if unintended. The authors have attempted to explain historically why nations have failed. In their thesis they rightly dismiss the factors of culture and ignorance, and discount the importance of trade interdependence and geography. The modern world, however, is far less constrained by these limitations – livestock and crops can be grown around the world, thanks to irrigation, people are able to travel to any number of nations, and global trade is indispensably intertwined. This largely removes these limitations.

So although Acemoglu and Robinson have attempted to explain the historical reasons nations have failed in the past, they have paradoxically provided both a predictive paper on why nations will fail in the future and a blueprint for prosperity for contemporary policy practitioners who are conversant with development theory.

In a sentence, it is those countries that establish inclusive political and economic institutions that will succeed.

Indonesia: Covid-19 crisis reveals cracks in Jokowi’s ad hoc politics

Indonesian medical officers spray disinfectant at Adisucipto International Airport on 16 March in Yogyakarta (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Indonesian medical officers spray disinfectant at Adisucipto International Airport on 16 March in Yogyakarta (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Published 17 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As he rose rapidly from furniture businessman to mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta to president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo stuck to the same approach to politics: build things, cut some red tape, improve access to basic services (though not necessarily their quality), and lean on civil servants to be more efficient.

It has proved to be a remarkably successful electoral formula, partly because of his natural talent as a political salesman, and partly because other leading politicians have performed so badly that these incremental improvements appear more revolutionary than they should.

But the Covid-19 crisis is revealing the weaknesses in his tactical approach to politics, his ad hoc leadership style, and the lack of strategic thinking in his government.

Across the world, this pandemic is shining the most unflattering of lights on the weaknesses of our political systems, societies, and economies. But the problem is particularly acute for Indonesia.

The initial response has been worryingly blasé, with controversial health minister Terawan Agus Putranto suggesting that prayers would help keep Indonesians safe from the virus and generally failing to get on top of the problem. As of Monday, Indonesia had only tested just over 1200 people for Covid-19, a worryingly small number, and reported 134 cases. No wonder that many scientists (and ordinary citizens) fear that the spread in Indonesia, with a population of more than 260 million people, is much more widespread. And no wonder that wealthy Indonesians had been decamping to Singapore, before it put restrictions on their entry (and others’) on Monday.

The lack of testing also points to a broader lack of transparency. Last week, Jokowi himself said that the government was holding back information about the spread of the disease from the public because it “did not want to stir panic”. An economy-first president, he is clearly worried about the impact of response measures on jobs and business. He has, rightly, tried to reassure people and to encourage them to take the appropriate basic precautions, such as vigorous hand-washing and minimising non-essential social contact. But the government needs to be far more open when managing a public health crisis of this scale in a sprawling democracy.

In the last few days, there has been something of a course correction, with Jokowi setting up a “fast response” team to tackle the crisis and asserting that the central government will take control. But there is a still a lack of cross-government coordination, and no clear and transparent plan for how to combat Covid-19. Jokowi’s political instincts – to build things, “go to the ground”, and carry out spot checks – are not sufficient for a crisis of this scale and velocity. One of the reasons that local governments started to implement their own measures was because they were losing faith in Jokowi’s ability to manage the outbreak.

On Monday, the smiling health minister Terawan held a public ceremony to give commemorative packets of jamu, a traditional herbal concoction, from Jokowi to three patients who had recovered from Covid-19. While Terawan presumably intended to boost morale, it was clearly the wrong message, at the wrong time, in the wrong manner. And it suggests that Jokowi and his government have a long way to go to get a grip on this crisis.

The challenge, of course, is not unique to Indonesia. Across the world, this pandemic is shining the most unflattering of lights on the weaknesses of our political systems, societies, and economies. But the problem is particularly acute for Indonesia. Not only is it the world’s fourth most-populous country, but it includes one of the world’s most densely populated islands, Java, suffers from still-high levels of poverty and basic health problems, and has a weak and chronically underfunded hospital system.

Indonesia has long been held back by a lack of coordination across ministries and between the central and local governments. Jokowi could not hope to fix this in two five-year terms in office, even if he had taken a more radical approach to reform. But now, more than ever, his government needs to move beyond its disparate, reactive stance and develop a coherent and clear strategy for tackling a health crisis that is testing us all, but could hit Indonesia particularly hard.

Limiting the global economic fallout from Covid-19

The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, 16 March, where trading was halted temporarily after steep losses (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, 16 March, where trading was halted temporarily after steep losses (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Mar 2020 10:30   0 Comments

Panic has now set in over the Covid-19 global pandemic. The coronavirus is spreading rapidly, especially in Europe and the US, and severe public-health measures are being put in place and are set to intensify. At the same time, economic policymakers are deploying their own emergency policy responses, and financial markets are either plunging, freezing up, or whipsawing all over the place.

With the worst yet to come, we are perhaps at the point of greatest fear and uncertainty. The first priority is to get the public-health response right – the only way to limit both the human and economic cost.

People come first. But the economic threat posed by the virus is also extremely serious, and the response needs to be correct. The last thing the world needs is for a devastating pandemic to be accompanied by a deep economic crisis, prolonged stagnation, and the attendant social damage and political dysfunction that would likely result.

The focus now needs to be on funding whatever is necessary for public-health systems to respond most effectively while providing financial relief to hard-hit households and businesses to cope through the peak of the crisis.

A global recession already looks inevitable, at least by the standard of the International Monetary Fund, which classifies global growth at 2.5% as signifying a world recession. With what has already happened, particularly in China and with global growth last year at only 2.9%, we are already looking at something well below that. As the crisis goes global, an outright contraction in 2020 is very possible. The question is how deep and how long it will be.

What are the immediate priorities for economic policy? This is a particularly unusual and uncertain crisis. Much will depend on how deep and how long the health crisis itself proves. But a few things seem clear.

The starting point is recognising that the social distancing required to slow the virus – both voluntary and mandated by governments – means the economic hit is going to be large, and there’s probably not much that traditional demand-stimulus policies can do to materially counter it. In part, that’s because people won’t go out to spend the money, but it’s also because the virus is an intensifying supply-side shock as well – with big disruptions to normal business activity and many workers pulled out of work, either for health reasons or as workplaces and schools are temporarily shut down.

The first-order economic damage of the virus will therefore be difficult or impossible to counter in any significant way. The focus instead needs to be on countering the second-order economic effects of the virus that could either deepen the short-term damage or lead to longer-term economic costs.

Stimulus is not the main game. That comes later when countries can more realistically start thinking about recovery.

Instead, the focus now needs to be on funding whatever is necessary for public-health systems to respond most effectively while providing financial relief to hard-hit households and businesses to cope through the peak of the crisis. The goal of financial relief is to prevent otherwise sound businesses from going bankrupt, to keep workers from being unnecessarily dislocated, and to stop massive loan losses from hitting banking systems and precipitating a financial crisis.

Supporting households is also critical from the broader perspective of protecting the vulnerable while also perhaps reducing any pressure some might feel to go out and work when they should be self-isolating.

The market cannot handle this problem. Socialising the costs via government budgets will be necessary. Fortunately, long-term government borrowing costs are incredibly low these days – below zero after adjusting for inflation – so there is plenty of scope to do so.

A staff member in protective medical clothing at Brisbane International Airport on 16 March. Strict new border measures came into effect Monday in Australia, requiring all overseas arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Central banks around the world, led by the US Federal Reserve, are also stepping up with emergency interest-rate cuts, liquidity injections, and asset purchases (quantitative easing), while regulatory controls on banks are being temporarily loosened. The focus is less on stimulating demand for the reasons given above and more about easing funding constraints, preventing financial markets from seizing up, and keeping credit flowing to households and businesses that would otherwise face their own funding squeeze.

Beyond these elements, there is a dire need for international cooperation. Independent central banks have already been coordinating in earnest. But international coordination among governments has so far been extremely lacking.

There are now signs the G7 and G20 might finally be more actively mobilised. The need goes far beyond coordinating emergency economic policies.

Until now, haphazard and beggar-thy-neighbour health policies have been the order of the day – from disjointed travel bans causing chaos to far more worrying export restrictions on critical medical equipment, including face masks and respirators. Not only does that mean that the right medical equipment potentially won’t be available where it’s most needed, but in a world built on fragmented global supply chains, few countries (if any) are likely to be fully self-sufficient in this regard. In other words, it could lead to everyone being made far worse off.

Strong global coordination is desperately needed. Unfortunately, today’s world is beset by crude populism, partisan politics, and zero-sum geopolitics. The virus, of course, is not hampered by such problems. The world cannot afford to be, either.

Anticipating Covid‑19 in the Pacific

Cruise ship anchored at Dravuni Island, Fiji (KHellon/Getty Images)
Cruise ship anchored at Dravuni Island, Fiji (KHellon/Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2020 13:00   0 Comments

With the confirmation of a coronavirus case in French Polynesia, the Pacific has officially joined the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis could have dramatic impacts on the small island states.

Understanding and managing critical risks, as well as strengthening the resilience of these small and fragile economies should be key objectives of local public policies and development partners’ efforts.

Tourism and exports

To prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the region, many Pacific Islands countries are taking advantage of their relative isolation by applying restrictive travel bans (such as in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and elsewhere). Some measures are more extreme than others. The Federated States of Micronesia is prohibiting entry to any person who has been in any country with a coronavirus case in the past two weeks – equal to approximatively half the world. Marshall Islands has closed all air travel in the country for a two-week period. Both Vanuatu and Cook Islands have turned back cruise ships – a critical source of income for the countries – as cruise liners suspend future trips.

While these restrictions were initially limited to China-bound tourists, they are now widespread, and – combined with the globally decreasing trend in travel – the economic shortfall involved will be much greater.

Islanders have only limited access to quality health services, and existing infrastructure and capacity do not seem well suited for a regional pandemic.

Tourism is crucial for many countries in the Pacific. For some, it offers one of the few opportunities for economic diversification. For others, tourism is the nation’s economic lifeblood. For Palau, Vanuatu and Fiji, it represents around 40% of GDP and often employs a significant proportion of people in formal employment. It is the main export from Palau (86%), Vanuatu (63%), Samoa (62%), and Fiji (51%). A decrease in the flow of Asian travellers could result in the loss of millions of dollars.

For the more diversified economies, the slowdown in Chinese economic activity is expected to greatly impact the export of certain Pacific products. In recent years, World Bank figures show China has established itself as one of the main trading partners for the region, accounting for 17% of Papua New Guinea’s exports, 7% of Fiji’s, and 67% of Solomon Islands’, translating to a dangerous economic dependence.

While Chinese consumption of fish products – a important export for the Pacific – should remain stable, the logging industry will be heavily affected by a decrease in industry-led demand linked to Chinese factories. In this case, Solomon Islands would be hit the worst, since 94% of its exports to China consist of wood products.

At the same time, the slowdown in the Chinese economy could also lead to a reduction in imports of Chinese products used in local industries. Products across the supply chain originate from China and will take longer to arrive in the region, hampering the pace of local production. Labourers on many Chinese construction sites around the region have also been unable to return to work, slowing the pace of Chinese-led construction, which has become a major feature of infrastructure construction in the Pacific.   

Health and sanitation expenditure

Some have theorised that the coronavirus does not adapt well in tropical heat, which might put the Pacific region at lower risk for the spread of the virus. But while much of the Pacific has a low population density, some areas are risk-prone for clustered breakouts, such as large cities such as Port Moresby, Honiara, or Lae.

Fear is particularly intense in Samoa, which is still recovering from last year’s devastating measles epidemic, which killed 83 people, mostly infants. Measles is said to have arrived in the South Pacific nation via a New Zealand traveller.

On average, 5.9% of the GDP of Pacific Island countries is allocated to health spending, but islanders have only limited access to quality health services, and existing infrastructure and capacity do not seem well suited for a regional pandemic. Increase in health expenditure will likely be needed.

However, most Pacific Island countries have limited budget resources and weak health systems, which make them less resilient and more vulnerable. For example, while Solomon Islands is far from the centre of the epidemic, its public deficit is equivalent to -3.87% of the GDP, leaving little space for fiscal and monetary interventions if a coronavirus outbreak occurs.

How Australia can help

In order to avoid both an economic crisis and a health disaster in the region, Australia should do two things.

First, Australia should continue to support the Pacific Island countries in their preparation for the arrival of the virus. Technical assistance and medical equipment to local health facilities play an important role in preparedness, and this preventive flow should be sustained throughout the length of the outbreak.

Should the virus land in the region, Australia must not hesitate to send medical personnel and equipment to support the efforts of its neighbours throughout the outbreak. As the situation in China has shown, early and strong measures are the best-known containment actions.

Second, Australia should be poised to provide longer-term economic support to the region. The Morrison government has little wiggle room in its own budget, with a new domestic stimulus package. It could instead look to provide short-term bridging loans to the region to support targeted interventions similar to those planned in Australia. This is not as effective as a large influx of humanitarian assistance or direct budget support, but it will help. In smaller countries where debt sustainability risks are most acute, the government should look at what additional measures can be provided through the aid program.

No one knows how long this crisis last, or how quickly the global economy will rebound. History tells us it’s often the most vulnerable economies that get hit the hardest. While the Morrison government prepares its domestic interventions, it needs to spare some thought for the Pacific as well.

Fighting Covid-19: Everyone needs to be their own Sherlock Holmes

Border controls buy time (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Border controls buy time (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2020 11:30   0 Comments

Over the past four months as Covid-19 has spread to cities and countries across the world, we’ve been inundated with strange terms and exponentially growing numbers. Names that once merely described locations are now examples to fear ­– Wuhan, South Korea, Iran, Italy – and ancient traditions that have never been diverted have been discarded like yesterday’s biohazard trash. The streets of Paris, empty. The Haj, cancelled. Tokyo2020 = Tokyo2021 please. Borders locked down, demands for self-isolation, all to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

The terrible power of this disease is not how deadly it is to individuals, but how crippling it can be health systems. Societies that blink can find themselves overwhelmed. Cases can jump from 200 to 2000 in a week. People needing intensive care and respiration can outnumber the beds and equipment available. The worst is when it takes a health worker, because then you add to the victims while subtracting from our defenders.

Covid-19 can be stopped. Complete control over this disease is the only acceptable strategy. And it is being done. Even when the outbreak seemed out of control, like in South Korea, the containment lines have been re-established. Best of all, complete control is the cheapest strategy, whereas planning for “herd immunity” – effectively allowing people to be infected in the hope of limiting the spread of the virus ­– carries a high cost in deaths.

Fighting Covid-19 is like surveillance of an enemy spy. You have to find it. Know everywhere it is. Everywhere it’s been. Everyone it met. Every. Single. Case.

By now, we’re all familiar with social distancing. Social distancing is like imposing border controls: it buys you time. It carries a cost, but it slows down the spread. Social distancing is Plan C. Social distancing is what you do when you don’t have control over the disease. 

Contact tracing was Plan A. We lost track of Covid-19 because of politics – suspicions about the transparency of reporting (China, Iran) or an initial failure to take threat seriously (the United States) – but control can be regained. Testing is Plan B. That’s how South Korea and China reasserted control. Right now, testing is difficult, with supply limited, which is why Australia is on Plan C, social distancing.

Europe is moving rapidly to Plan D, which is extreme social isolation. That is immensely costly.

What do I mean by control? I’m borrowing the phrase from Tom Marcus, the former MI5 officer who wrote about his experience in counterespionage. In his books, MI5 describe having direct visual surveillance of an enemy spy as “having control”. If they know what the spy is up to, they can intervene and foil the plot. Fighting Covid-19 is the same. You have to find it. Know everywhere it is. Everywhere it’s been. Everyone it met. Every. Single. Case.

This is the lesson from Wuhan. Doctors there talk about an army of Sherlock Holmeses, hunting for clues about where the virus has been. Only when we know everywhere this virus has been can the disease be controlled.

Testing and tracing is key. Right now, Australian protocols only permit testing if a patient can prove an epidemiological link to a known case, or if they’re sick enough from pneumonia to be admitted to intensive care and doctors can’t find any other explanation for the symptoms. Yet if only 18% of cases are likely to be admitted to an ICU, that means for every case of the virus we find hiding in the community, there were probably at least six more a week ago, which in that time undetected can produce 60 more cases. Then each of those needs to be found, but with no clues to start with.

So instead we need to test every suspect case. At present, it appears there’s a global shortage of the reagents needed to do the tests. Labs around the world are working on it. That’s why social distancing is needed to buy them the time they need.

Every person in Australia ­– and across the world – who has flu-like symptoms needs to immediately self-isolate. Call health authorities (in Australia, the hotline for Covid-19 triage is 1800 020 080) and let them know you’re a possible case. Then start doing your own contact tracing.

Write down everywhere you’ve been for the two weeks before the onset of symptoms. Everyone you met. As much of what you remember you touched. This is not easy. Call everyone you met and tell them you have symptoms. Find out if they do. You may need to tell them the symptoms – often they’re mild. Sore throat. Persistent dry cough. Aches. Fever. Short breath. Find out how the virus got you. You’re a virus hunter now.

When you find where it came from, now that person can isolate, too. Two cases off the streets. Time to find out how it got them. Help each other. Jog each others’ memory. Write it down. Tell your health authorities. If you find a cluster, you just saved your city. Aggressive, persistent contact tracing is the cheapest way to stop this disease.

Then comes the hard part: we have to keep control for at least 18 months until our scientists can produce, test, and then distribute a vaccine. No one is immune – that’s the problem. And the virus won’t be eradicated. We still don’t know the original source. Vaccines can’t be faster – safety protocols cannot be compromised. A mistake and the public may never trust vaccines for any disease ever again. Months of vigilance is what it will take. 

Getting through this will demand a level of solidarity that is hard to imagine in a world as divided as it has ever been. Yet we now have a common enemy to unite against. It can be done.

Readers respond: Books to collect for Covid-19 quarantine

Alvaro de la Rica/Unsplash
Alvaro de la Rica/Unsplash
Published 13 Mar 2020 14:00   1 Comments

Earlier this week I asked The Interpreter readers to suggest books related to international affairs that people might look to read in the event of a coronavirus quarantine, particularly those books that have long sat on shelves, admired but unopened. With “social distancing” and “self-isolate” now regular conversation points, plenty of suggestions arrived. Here’s a selection that might help see you through a stint at home.

“I had a chuckle at the thought of getting through a single book if self-isolated with Mr 3YO!” wrote Elizabeth Buchanan.

I have three more 19th century adventures with the wonderful Erast Fandorin to get around to reading. Best described as “Tolstoy writing James Bond with the logical rigour of Sherlock Holmes”, this Russian historical thriller-mystery series is my holiday from academia and polar geopolitics. Author Boris Akunin (pseudonym for Grigory Chkhartishvili) is regarded as the Russian Arthur Conan Doyle. If Conan Doyle were alive and in self-imposed exile. Thank me later!

Allan Gyngell has one book squarely in mind.

No question for me. It’s Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Since I bought it in Washington in 1982, “The path to power” has been reproaching me, unread, on my bookshelf. Its time might be coming.

Marguerite Elson has two books on her to-do list. Dan Pfeiffer’s Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again is one, and the other, Sophie McNeill’s We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know.

Luke Dawes offered some fiction. “Over the last six months, I've taken to getting through the enormous pile of books of my own shelf, and writing 500-word aides-memoire for myself so that I remember what I liked, what I didn't, and how I might apply any lessons from the book in my daily life.”

Luke offered several snippets of his reviews, I’ve included a couple here, and will aim to include more in a follow up article next week. The first, Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst.

I’m not much of a fiction reader – I read Stephen King’s 11.22.63 last year, similarly attracted by the historical setting – but discovering Alan Furst at this late stage in the game feels rather like uncovering a lost city. Furst writes like the good listener and keen observer that lone children tend to be, describing one minor character as “a man, obviously, of considerable vanity and, like most vain men, a close accountant of small insults”. This is where Furst stands out for me, and contrasts so well with John le Carré. Le Carré’s agents are so familiar with Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin that the reader is treated as one of the cognoscenti. “You know how Brno is in spring,” he seems to say with a sigh, even though you haven’t a clue. Furst gives the reader just enough to figure out the references alone, without the need to have been educated at a boarding school in pre-Thatcher England.

The second was again non-fiction, Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner – perhaps doubly apt given a couple of months ago, the risk of pandemic wasn’t on many minds.

Superforecasting (suggested subtitle, Fifty Shades of Maybe) imparts four core lessons: (1) we are bad at forecasting; (2) we are bad at knowing why we’re bad at it; (3) when we know why, we’re bad at correcting for it; and (4) even when we correct for it, we grow in confidence a lot faster than we grow in skill. We embrace flimsy reasons that explain our poor track record, but dismiss suggestions that our accurate guesses were not as clever as we think. Superforecasting is partly the history of forecasting, and partly a how-to guide. Top-scoring forecasters consume a varied diet of information and apply hard numbers to their punditry, routinely beating experts by up to 30%. They also question assumptions and change their views to reflect new information, which by Tetlock and Gardner’s account is disappointingly uncommon even among experts and high-level policymakers.

Twitter users also chimed in.





I’ll leave the final recommendation for now to Elliott Brennan, who wrote he was considering revisiting is Albert Camus’ The Plague.

I know this seems the plainest and most boring example, but for decades reviews and reflections on this work have focused on the allegorical aspects of the novel, whether the plague that besets Oran represents Nazism or authoritarianism more generally, and how they should be responded to.
These are obviously relevant to worrying trends in international affairs today, but what is so often lost when people talk about the novel is the wrenching and beautifully written personal stories it tells about isolation, love, pain, loss, boredom, guilt, hope and death. Interwoven within all of this is a message that the best way to fight the plague is with decency and appreciation for the suffering of others (just think toilet paper crisis...)
This gets to a side of Covid-19 we don’t see much of in the news, the personal. Worry about parents and grandparents, relatives and friends. Physical isolation from family abroad and so on. Where so many, including US President Donald Trump, seem only able to see the virus in its numerical mutations (stocks, number of infected, number of deaths), the message Camus delivers in The Plague is an important reminder that the virus and its effects are deeply individual as well as they are broad.

Many thanks to all who got in touch. Any more recommendations for convalescence reading, I’d love to hear, too.

What a difference six weeks and a viral outbreak make for Donald Trump

From riding high, Donald Trump’s political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days (White House/Flickr)
From riding high, Donald Trump’s political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days (White House/Flickr)
Published 12 Mar 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Donald Trump doesn’t pretend to care about things he’s not interested in. 

When Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services brought him warnings about the spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 in China in early 2020, the President readily agreed to institute travel bans, and then proceeded to minimise the crisis, treating the pandemic as a foreign threat best addressed by closing borders.

Trump opined about the small number of the cases in the US without acknowledging how few people had been tested. He failed to react to rising levels of concern across the country as events were cancelled, hundreds of schools were closed, Washington State announced a state of emergency, and a large cluster of cases was discovered in a suburb just outside of New York City.

However, on Monday morning this week the US stock market dropped 7% within the first five minutes of trading, and those losses jolted Trump into showing an interest in governing through this crisis.

At this moment, Trump’s chances of being re-elected are seriously threatened by the prospect of a severe economic downturn and public perceptions that he has mismanaged this pandemic.

On Tuesday Trump went to Capitol Hill to discuss legislative approaches to protecting the American economy with Republican lawmakers. They discussed payroll tax relief, help for hourly wage workers, small business loans, and affordable testing and treatment options. Significant disagreements remain between Trump and the Congress, and between Republican and Democratic members of Congress, but a government-wide commitment to tackling the crisis was on display on Tuesday.

Monday’s stock market losses reflected a set of interrelated concerns about the Trump administration’s non-response to the crisis, the global economic impact of Covid-19, and Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the oil market. But talk of legislative action appeared to temporarily restore confidence in the market. Wall Street recovered half of its losses from Monday on Tuesday.

On the day before the markets reflected panic about the economic threat posed by coronavirus, New York Times political reporter Peter Baker asked Trump whether he regretted eliminating the global health unit of the National Security Council (NSC) – set up by the Obama administration to deal with novel infectious disease crises like COVID-19. Trump reflected:

I just think this is something Peter that you can never really think is going to happen. I’ve heard all about this could be a big deal, you know, before it happened … But who would have thought, how long ago was it – six, seven, eight weeks ago – who would have thought we’d even be having this subject? We were going to hit 30,000 in the Dow like it was clockwork, right?

Members of the disbanded NSC global health unit rightly take issue with Trump’s characterisation of Covid-19 as an event that could not be anticipated. The likelihood that future administrations would confront a novel infectious disease crisis led the Obama administration to not only create the global health unit but to include a pandemic exercise in the official presidential transition process.

But Trump’s comments to Peter Baker also reflected the extent to which his political fortunes had shifted dramatically in recent days. Just six weeks ago, it appeared that Trump’s unorthodox approach to the presidency had won over the domestic and international audiences he cared about. 

On the international front, Trump received a warm welcome at the World Economic Forum in January. The relative strength of the US economy appeared to minimise concerns within the international business community about Trump’s protectionist trade policies and challenges to democratic norms. Fareed Zakaria, the academic/journalist, who is a regular at the World Economic Forum, noted that the mood in Davos this year was that Trump would get re-elected, and that “the issue of the American economy outperforming everyone else has overridden concerns that American democracy may be underperforming in some sense”.

On the domestic front six weeks ago, Trump had beaten back efforts to impeach him. And without encountering much resistance from his party, was freely taking revenge on those who had opposed him over the course of the Ukraine and the Mueller investigations. Perhaps most importantly, it was seemed likely six weeks ago that enough voters were willing to give Trump a second term, given the performance of their retirement investments on the stock market.

Six weeks ago, the Democratic Party was attempting to pick up the pieces from the Iowa caucuses, and the Republican Party was energized by the prospect of running a general election campaign against a Democratic Socialist. 

Within the past two weeks, however, another politician, the moderate and well-liked former Vice President Joe Biden, experienced a meaningful reversal of fortunes. Biden emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and his message about being a safe harbour – decent, competent, and stable – in the midst of a storm contrasts sharply with perceptions of Trump.        

On Wednesday (US time), the World Health Organization declared that Covid-19 was a global pandemic, and Wall Street tumbled into a bear market, with the Dow closing at a loss of nearly 6%. At this moment, Trump’s chances of being re-elected are seriously threatened by the prospect of a severe economic downturn and public perceptions that he has mismanaged this pandemic.

Economic diplomacy: Rising risks and missing links in a pandemic

Australia actually has a relatively high level of domestic production capacity for toilet paper (Alan Powdrill/Getty Images)
Australia actually has a relatively high level of domestic production capacity for toilet paper (Alan Powdrill/Getty Images)
Published 12 Mar 2020 13:30   0 Comments

China syndrome

Former Trump administration economic adviser Kevin Hassett had a backhanded compliment for Australia amid this week’s financial market turmoil when he described it as a closely watched proxy for the Chinese economy.

Complaining that Chinese data on the recovery from coronavirus was so hard to read, he predicted Australian export figures would now be watched more than ever. But unfortunately this meant: “I would also expect that, because Australia is so close to China that this will end up being a net negative for you.”

While Australia’s growing export dependence on China gets attention, what is less appreciated is just how much the overall economic exposure has grown in recent years compared with other Asian countries.

Australia has become significantly more dependent on China across exports, imports, and incoming tourists than the average of Asia’s ten other largest economies, lending weight to Hassett’s warning.

Australia has become significantly more dependent on China across exports, imports, and incoming tourists than the average of Asia’s ten other largest economies.

The Chinese share of Australia’s inbound tourists has risen by 1.7 percentage points to 15.8% over the last four years. While the average Asian country* is still more dependent on those tourists at 21.6% of all tourists, that share has risen less than Australia’s over the time.

But the situation is starker on the trade side. The share of Australia’s imports coming from China rose by 2.7 percentage points to 25.8%, while the average Asian country China import share only rose 1.4 percentage points to 21.3%.

However, as Hassett warned, the big disparity is on the export side, where Australia’s dependence on China has risen eight percentage points to 38.2% over the past four years. The average Asian economy dependence has only risen 2.1 percentage points to 16.3%.

The only Asian country that managed to reduce its dependence across more than one of these three measures in the period was South Korea, but that was probably due to China cutting back engagement to punish Seoul for deploying a new missile defence system.

So, while that action may bolster the argument for Australia to diversify regional economic links away from China, in the short term the current dependence makes Australia even more reliant on a Chinese recovery from the novel coronavirus Covid-19 than many other countries.

 * The Asian figure is an unweighted average of Japan, India, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Vietnam.

Paper trail

Disease epidemics might prompt a focus on hunkering down at home, but they still draw attention to foreign risk exposures in an interconnected world.

So, it is interesting to see how Australia’s key forecasts of broadly defined national security risks have dealt with the prospect of an Italian-style economy-wide shutdown due to a pandemic. The answer – at least by word search – is surprisingly little.  

The 2013 National Security Strategy makes reference to a pandemic only five times compared with 48 to terrorism, 26 to war, six to climate change, and five to a financial crisis. There will undoubtedly be a bit of reflection in the future on whether a disease epidemic requires more than the passing observation that: “Trans-border threats such as pandemics remain a possibility in our increasingly connected world.”

Perhaps forewarned by the Christmas bushfire deployment, Chief of Defence General Angus Campbell revealed last week that the military was working on how to support civilian agencies on Covid-19, and had sufficient legal power to do so, but did not want to alarm citizens about its plans.

However, he won’t get much guidance from the 2016 Defence White Paper, which made no reference to pandemics, epidemics, or disease, even though it made eight mentions of climate change.

Wei Wu was reunited with his family in Canberra on 17 February, after 14-day quarantine on Christmas Island. Of more than 240 people evacuated from Wuhan province and quarantined on the island, none was found to carry the novel coronavirus (Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper wasn’t much better, with only two references to a pandemic, compared with 34 to climate change and 40 to terrorism. But that was the same as the number of references to a financial crisis, which provides an interesting benchmark. And the paper also discusses disease in nine instances in a noticeable contrast to the silence in the defence and national security documents.

But while these security-oriented forecasts seem to have underplayed a coronavirus-style threat, the Reserve Bank of Australia appears to have paid even less attention to its role in underpinning economic activity through an epidemic.

Its 2019 Financial Stability Review refers to terrorism once, financial crisis 12 times, and climate change 43 times (admittedly there was a special focus) – but has nothing on pandemics or disease. 

Working on the chain gang

The supply chains at the heart of the modern global economy have become the new national security topic du jour due to coronavirus, but it remains to be seen how much they will be untangled.

It seems to have been quickly forgotten that trade interdependence has been under scrutiny many times in the past couple of decades, most notably in the Asian region in 2011 with the Thai floods and the Fukushima tsunami in Japan.

But risk management by businesses and stockpiling by governments seem to have been adopted as the more effective way to manage supply-chain security than a return to self-sufficiency, as some are now advocating.

As Capital Economics observed in a note last week:

It could be that the efficiencies of just-in-time production continue to make it worth taking the risk of an occasional shutdown – particularly one that is likely to hit competitors too.

And Australia’s remarkable toilet-paper panic buying in a rare manufacturing industry with a relatively high level of domestic production capacity only underlines that consumer mania is indifferent to supply-chain security.

However, first impressions can be deceptive. Clothing makers have diversified to many countries due to rising labour costs in China. But even in this basic industry, China has remained the global powerhouse in supplying the upstream textiles for the relocated clothing factories.

Australian Industry Group trade analyst Louise McGrath points out that even though China supplies a quarter of Australia’s imports, the coronavirus shock has quickly moved beyond that one country. As she puts it:

The impact to supply chains and logistics has been a global domino chain reaction, especially as major trading partners Japan and South Korea and industrial partner Italy start to close schools and villages to stem infections. While very few of these impacts are within your control, how you react and treat your customers and suppliers is in your control and may have repercussions long after the crisis has abated.

Many supply-chain experts say that businesses often only understand the risks they face from their immediate suppliers and not the underlying threats from disruption to those suppliers.

This new study showing how 90% of Australia’s medicine supply comes from abroad argues that while much of that product appears to come from the US, it really often depends on Chinese-made ingredients.

So as the more hysterical debate about diversification of suppliers grows due to the pandemic, there may be a case for a future government study of where the economic-wide risks really are, and what the realistic alternatives are.

Covid-19 in China, the US, India: Comparative crisis management 101

The spread of the virus is putting very divergent political systems to the test (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
The spread of the virus is putting very divergent political systems to the test (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Published 12 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Whatever else the rapidly evolving and increasingly global health crisis may or may not do, it’s shining an unforgiving light on the relative capacities of national health systems. Even more importantly in the longer-term, perhaps, it’s providing a searching examination of political leaders, and the ability of very different political systems to deal with unexpected crises.

When the novel coronavirus Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan there was a rather predictable pile on, as commentators from the US in particular pointed to the possible failings of the Chinese system. Too much secrecy, self-protection, and poor regulation of dodgy cultural practices were held up as examples of all that could go wrong in non-transparent authoritarian regimes governed by strongman leaders.

There was initially something to such criticisms, no doubt, as protecting the reputation and authority of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party seemed to take precedence over protecting the people. But once the scale of the problem became clear, China’s leaders moved rapidly to assert control and imposed draconian controls over the movement and behaviour of the population.

Whatever you may think of the CCP and the way it runs the country, it knows how to do social control. China’s population may not like it much – unless it’s happening in Xinxiang, of course – but they are used to living with authoritarianism, and are seemingly more willing to make the implicit trade-off between social order and social control.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese government responded to the virus outbreak at first with secrecy, then with draconian control (UN Geneva)

Even those people who consider that an unacceptable bargain would have to concede that – when it comes to controlling pandemics, at least – it seems to be working. From being the epicentre of the global crisis, China has now become something of a role model for effective policy implementation, something confirmed by its rapidly falling infection rate. Certainly China also appears determined to shift the narrative in its favour.

In the United States, on the other hand, an altogether more chaotic story is emerging. Not only has Donald Trump admitted that he didn’t realise that flu of any sort actually killed people, but he has appointed his deputy, Mike Pence, to oversee America’s response. Pence has no medical qualifications, and his handling of a 2015 HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor of the state has come under renewed scrutiny. A former US Centers for Control director reportedly said of Pence that his inaction as governor gave Austin, Indiana, with a population of around 4200, a higher HIV prevalence than “any country in sub-Saharan Africa”. Yet Pence has now been put in charge of overseeing response to a public health crisis in a country of 327 million people.

Trump announced on Thursday a ban for non-essential travel to the US from Europe – exempting the United Kingdom.

Ironically, many of the working poor who propelled Trump into office do not have healthcare cover, have poorly paid jobs, and simply cannot afford to take time off work to “self-isolate”. The idea that a nation of supposedly rugged individualists would actually embrace such an infringement on their liberties is another question, of course.

US Vice President Mike Pence (second from left) in a briefing on coronavirus with health insurance executives on 10 March (White House/Flickr)

More than half the American population is incapable of dealing with an unexpected $500 financial emergency. Health and human services secretary, Alex Azar told Congress that the government couldn’t control the price of test kits for Covid-19, something that may explain the fact that the US has performed five coronavirus tests per million people, compared with South Korea’s 3,692 tests per million.

It is not unreasonable to infer that true infection rates may be much higher than reported in the US, and that treatment will not be easy to access for the swelling ranks of impoverished Americans.

Crises proved an especially searching test for strongmen leaders who like to project an aura of competence if not invincibility. At least the infrastructure and capacity for such a response may be available in the US, if it can be mobilised and made available to those that need. The challenge is even more daunting in India.

India’s national health minister has announced a suite of measures to deal with the outbreak, including a ban on the export of pharmaceutical drugs and ingredients, screening international passengers, the formation of rapid response health teams, public awareness campaigns, the precautionary shutting of schools, and collaboration with private hospitals and laboratories. The government has also suspended most visas and visa-free travel until 15 April, and the national carrier Air India has cancelled flights to Korea and Italy. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rumours and misinformation about coronavirus have added to the growing sense of alarm in the country (Wikimedia Commons)

However, health experts have raised concerns about the India’s ability to deal with a spreading epidemic, given the extremely uneven nature of its public healthcare system, its generally poor record of dealing with communicable diseases.

The first cases of Covid-19 in India were detected in the state of Kerala, where a well-functioning health system and responsive government has so far been able to detect, treat, and contain the virus. Other more populous states with dysfunctional healthcare systems, such as Uttar Pradesh, are unlikely to fare so well.

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, a Hindu monk, claimed that overcoming mental stress by practicing yoga could prevent people contracting coronavirus. Adding to the growing sense of alarm is the spread of rumours and misinformation via social media, particularly Whatsapp and YouTube which are widely used in India.

Even in Australia, where expectations about competent and timely leadership are currently much lower, the corona crisis will provide yet another test for a government with a reputation for bungling and obfuscation. This really is an issue where the safety of the nation is at stake. One more stuff up could prove terminal, and not just for the government.

Covid-19 will kill Moon Jae-in’s Korea détente

Happier times: South and North Korean government officials in 2018 at Kaesong Industrial Complex, North Korea (Seung-il Ryu via Getty Images)
Happier times: South and North Korean government officials in 2018 at Kaesong Industrial Complex, North Korea (Seung-il Ryu via Getty Images)
Published 12 Mar 2020 07:00   0 Comments

South Korea has become the country worst hit by the novel coronavirus outside of China, with numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases now more than 7500 and deaths more than 50. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has faced severe criticism in recent weeks for his handling of the virus ­– an online petition on the Presidential Blue House website calling for his impeachment has attracted almost 1.5 million signatures.

Just when it looked like things could not get worse for Moon, North Korea test-fired its first two short-range ballistic missiles of the year on 2 March, despite the United States and South Korea having already announced the cancellation of the annual military exercises due to concerns about Covid-19. It had been hoped the virus outbreak would calm political and diplomatic tensions on the peninsula, yet North Korea has shown that it is committed to bolstering its nuclear deterrence at the time of its choosing.

The coronavirus has without a doubt dealt a huge blow to Moon’s popularity domestically, and if the situation persists, Moon’s Democratic Party will receive less support in the upcoming legislative elections. In the context of the outbreak, struggling economic reforms, and the lack of progress in denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea, Moon’s only lifeline to improve his domestic standing is to push for the resumption of South Korean tourism to the North’s Mount Kumgang, a pledge that he has made since the beginning of 2020. Unfortunately, this plan may not succeed, due to North Korea’s closing its own border to cope with the virus outbreak.

Moon’s inability to make advances in inter-Korean relations this year will only deepen North Korea’s view of him as unable to act independently of the US.

Tourism was left as the only path for Moon to signal the continuation of his engagement policy, and as a way to seek to salvage his domestic political ratings.

Moon has often sought to compensate for what has now become a longer-term decline in his domestic approval ratings by pointing to the success of his Korea détente. In late 2018, when statistics began to show that Moon’s economic policies had failed to deliver the expected improvements, Moon pushed for an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong and signed the Pyongyang Declaration with North Korea Chairman Kim Jong-un. Moon also sought to kill two birds with one stone by formulating the “Peace Economy” concept, which entailed North-South economic cooperation to solve South Korea’s economic woes.

Unfortunately, the collapse of the Hanoi summit – the second meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump – dashed any hopes for sanctions relief. This left tourism as the only path for Moon to employ to signal the continuation of his engagement policy, and as a way to seek to salvage his domestic political ratings. This explains Moon’s determination to restart South Korea’s tourism to the North without US backing.

The unopened 105-floor Ryugyong Hotel looms over Pyongyang, North Korea (Jen Morgan/Flickr)

Leaving aside unresolved issues regarding South Korean tourists’ safety while visiting North Korea, Moon’s support for tourism is thus a logical step, considering North Korea’s perceived turn towards tourism that also followed the Hanoi summit. During the past year, North Korea has attempted to burnish its image as a normal country in international media, and opened its new tourist facilities with the goal of earning hard currency in the face of international sanctions.

Yet with the onset of Covid-19, North Korea has closed its border with China and prohibited all tourists. North Korea’s inability to cope with a potential coronavirus outbreak means that it will not reopen its border until the virus is brought under control. The increasing number of infected cases in South Korea will prevent the North from admitting any tourists from the South, even if Moon somehow gets his tourism scheme worked out with the US. Plans to reopen Kaesong Industrial Complex and cross-border reconnection project will also be put on hold for an indefinite period for the same reason.

In the absence of any ties to bind North Korea to a path of engagement, Moon will not be able to use rewards to restrain the North’s provocations. It will also make it more difficult for Moon to be able to point to North Korea’s goodwill to keep the US invested in the denuclearisation process, like he did in 2018. The best Moon can do at the moment is to push for sanctions relief on North Korea and inter-Korean healthcare cooperation to help the country cope with coronavirus. Still, North Korea has many times denied that it has any confirmed cases and rejected foreign aid, emphasising economic self-reliance and undercutting Moon’s hopes to use the crisis to resuscitate North-South ties.

With Trump no longer interested in another summit with Kim before the US election, Moon cannot maintain his role as a mediator, and his perceived failures will linger for the rest of the year.

As Moon’s approval rating declines without any measures for him to revive it, provocation by North Korea during the time of the coronavirus outbreak will further paint Moon as an incompetent leader in both domestic and foreign affairs. He will certainly face more domestic opposition to formulating and implementing new plans for inter-Korean cooperation after the outbreak ends. With resumption of tourism off the table, Moon’s lack of options to engage the North, not a lack of will, is what will kill the Korean détente.

Coping with Covid-19 as the Tokyo Olympics loom

Japan’s Minister for the Olympics Hashimoto Seiko has already said that it was feasible that the Olympics could be postponed (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Japan’s Minister for the Olympics Hashimoto Seiko has already said that it was feasible that the Olympics could be postponed (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Published 10 Mar 2020 12:30   0 Comments

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were meant to be a welcome stimulus for the Japanese economy, and an opportunity to showcase Tokyo as a vibrant, “must visit” global city. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was also hoping that the Olympics and subsequent wave of nationalism would give him a political boost in opinion polls.

Instead, the recent rapid spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has the potential to postpone or possibly cancel the Olympics and Paralympics and weaken Abe’s political base. According to the most recent situation report by the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 9 March, 109,577 people are infected with COVID-19, including 80,904 in China, 7382 in South Korea, and 488 in Japan.

At this stage, the postponement of the Olympics, scheduled to be held from 24 July to 9 August, is highly likely. Japan’s Minister for the Olympics Hashimoto Seiko has already said that it was feasible that the Olympics could be postponed to the end of the year. Abe’s readiness to declare a state of emergency to deal effectively with the Covid-19 crisis is another indicator that a postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic games is on the cards. A postponement would allow time for a potential vaccine to be produced, reduce public concerns, and restore a sense of calm before the Olympics are held.

If a pandemic is declared by the WHO and the spread of Covid-19 continues to accelerate, the possibility of a cancellation of the Olympics and Paralympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) increases. A senior member of the IOC said on 25 February, for example, that if organisers judge that it is too dangerous to hold the Olympics, they are more likely to cancel the Tokyo Olympics than to postpone or move the location. Moreover, Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion who has been on the IOC since 1978, has speculated that the IOC would make a judgement by late May as to whether to hold the Tokyo Olympics on schedule or not.

Should the number of Covid-19–related fatalities seriously escalate in Japan, considerable pressure would fall on Abe to step down as Prime Minister to take the blame for inept handling of the virus outbreak.

What does this mean for Japan? Cancellation of the Olympics would be disastrous and would only happen as a last resort. It would also have political as well as economic ramifications for Japan that were not conceivable at the start of the year.

Politically, the cancellation of the Olympics and Paralympics would be embarrassing for the Abe-led coalition government already struggling to emerge from a long-term economic malaise and grappling with a shrinking and aging population. Indeed, the slow and unclear response by Abe to the Covid-19 outbreak is damaging his political reputation as a stable and effective leader.

In particular, the decision to allow passengers on the Diamond Princess to enter Japan, the initial slowness to stop movement of people from the People’s Republic of China into Japan, and the sudden cancellation of schools without consultation were poorly executed decisions. The shutdown of schools, which was announced on 28 February and came into effect on 2 March was severely criticised by opposition parties and parents of schoolchildren.

Abe’s snap decision was possibly due to the result of criticism and frustration regarding the government’s quarantine control on the Diamond Princess. There is considerable criticism of Abe in the media and his standing in the polls is declining. Should the number of Covid-19–related fatalities seriously escalate in Japan, considerable pressure would fall on Abe to step down as Prime Minister to take the blame for inept handling of the virus outbreak.  

The economic fallout would also be immense. The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are estimated to have cost Japan more than 1 trillion yen (some US$9 billion), and Japanese companies have reportedly paid more than $3 billion in sponsorship deals to organisers. The US TV network NBC alone has already paid $1.4 billion for broadcast rights. Hotels in Tokyo have spent some $1 billion for renovation in preparation for the Olympics. The drop in tourism in particular due to Covid-19 would be a massive blow to the economy. It is estimated that Japan’s GDP would shrink at 0.2%, despite the fact that the GDP already shrank at 6.3% as a result of its sales tax hike to 10% in October 2019.

The Covid-19 outbreak has already damaged the Japanese and global economies. The consequences of the virus now seriously threaten the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, as well as Abe’s political legacy.

Books I’ve been meaning to read: Covid-19 and preparing for quarantine

Unread books as a source of guilt (Paul Schafer on Unsplash)
Unread books as a source of guilt (Paul Schafer on Unsplash)
Published 10 Mar 2020 06:00   2 Comments

(Update: A list of reader responses to this article is available here.)

With news dubbed #toiletpaperpanic taking hold on social media in Australia last week, the empty supermarket shelves explained in careful columns about the totally rational irrational impulse buying in the face of Covid-19, and me, unable to find even a single roll at the local shops, I couldn’t help but think of the glorious yobbo wisdom attributed to comic Barry Humphries.

I hope your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny doors down.

What this particular colloquialism even means, I don’t really know, but as a kid, I first read it in a terrific compilation of schoolyard wit called Far Out Brussel Sprout. It’s a saying that has stuck with me for years without ever really being useful. It just seems to fit this particular strange moment.

And so thinking of old books and coronavirus, I wondered what I might read should the need for a spell in isolation arise. Then I spotted a tweet from journalist and commentator Annabel Crabb, and realised I’d actually missed an important step in the plan.



So perhaps we should be preparing for a panic run on the wine store, too.

But first, what to read?

I’d love to hear short pitches from The Interpreter readers on other books related to international affairs that you have been meaning to read – or a movie or TV series to watch – and why now might be the time.

A few years ago, I was persuaded to give away all my books. Every one. And I had hundreds, a collection that I’d compiled my whole working life, to be stacked lovingly on bookshelves when I had virtually no other furniture in the house, and carted across the country, moving from job to job, city to city.

Yet much as it horrified me when first suggested, relinquishing this little library was a liberation. No more guilt.

Tell me you haven’t bought a book of impulse, one with every intention to sit and read? Only onto the shelf it goes, never really opened, to be discovered much later down the track. “Oh, yes, I meant to get to that.” Then you spot another, and another, and the shame is compounded.

Maybe it was just me.

In the years since, I have to confess the habit hasn’t entirely been kicked. Right now, sitting on my bedside table, started once but then put down, overlooked for months upon months and the cover since stained by spilled coffee, is a book I’ve been meaning to read.

The Forsaken by Tim Tzouladis looks fascinating. It’s about a group of American migrants in the 1930s, workers who fled the hopelessness of the Great Depression for the promise of a socialist utopia, in Soviet Russia.

Yes, they put the land of opportunity in the rear vision mirror, the great American dream was actually a desire to leave. Migrants seem extraordinarily brave to me in any instance, with the courage to uproot from everything familiar in the hope of a better life. These Americans took culture with them – they set up a baseball league in Russia, for instance. Yet for all the promise of jobs, secure income, and social welfare held out to attract them, in the years to come most of these American migrants wound up victims of the gulags, crushed by Stalin’s ruthless reign.

It’s lump of a book, published in 2009, 470 pages, loads of footnotes promising detailed research. With all good intentions, I’ve never properly committed to plough through and finish it. Everything and anything got in the way.

So black market dunny paper now sourced, celebrity chef Adam Liaw consulted, it’s time to stockpile the rest of the supplies. We’re told to be cautious of the media reporting about Covid-19 – at least the political news – so let’s start a reading list. I’d love to hear short pitches from The Interpreter readers on other books related to international affairs that you have been meaning to read – or a movie or TV series to watch – and why now might be the time. Just don’t send emus. We’ve got enough of them asking about. Like the one Jürgen Klopp had to deal with.



Side effects: Covid-19 allows India a chance to lend Myanmar a hand

A guard at Indira Gandhi International Airport following the evacuation from Wuhan province in China (Amal KS/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
A guard at Indira Gandhi International Airport following the evacuation from Wuhan province in China (Amal KS/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
Published 5 Mar 2020 13:30   0 Comments

The Indian Air Force last week evacuated 112 people stranded in Wuhan, one of several operations by India to the the Chinese city at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. But while India is one of many countries to help its citizens in need, what was also striking about this particular mission was that 36 people in this group were foreign nationals, primarily from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Maldives.

The evacuation was somewhat overshadowed by the intense media coverage of US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to India, as well as attention on the outbreak of communal violence in the country. But while India’s evacuations of not just its own citizens but also those belonging to neighbouring countries was mainly a humanitarian mission, it did have significant political ramifications reflecting India’s regional diplomacy.

The evacuation was in keeping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first policy” – a point that was certainly not lost in local news media coverage in Myanmar. India appeared to be making sure to capitalise on the chance to strengthen friendships in the region. The evacuation was closely followed by a state visit by Myanmar’s President U Win Myint to New Delhi to deepen bilateral ties. The Indian Navy chief of staff also made a visit to Myanmar last week – not long after China’s President Xi Jinping also visited the country.

Such developments are important to note for at least two reasons.

The international airport in Mandalay, Myanmar (AFP/Getty Images)

First, the Indo-Chinese rivalry in Myanmar has increased as India has stepped up its “Act East” policy. Myanmar is of special importance to India not only because it acts as a bridge to the larger Southeast Asia region, but also because India competes directly with China in creating strategic ties. Beijing is seeking to establish a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor under its Belt and Road Initiative, while India is facilitating the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which would connect the port of Kolkata in India to Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

The second reason to pay attention here is that Myanmar is expanding its efforts to seek regional support in the face of pressure internationally over its treatment of the Rohingyas, and is increasingly looking to India for help. Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for perpetrating genocidal acts against the Rohingya, and slow progress on the safe return of thousands of Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh since 2017 have halted the flow of foreign aid into the country. In addition, the Trump administration placed immigration and travel bans on Myanmar in January, citing national security reasons. This has prompted Myanmar to seek regional support.

Myanmar will not break off its relations with China … nevertheless, with the coronavirus outbreak, India is fast emerging as a counterweight for Myanmar’s strategic relations in the region.

While Myanmar had readily turned to China, marked by Xi’s visit to the country in January, the first by a Chinese President in 19 years, the outbreak of coronavirus has badly weakened Myanmar’s trade with China. Moreover, the spread of coronavirus is being seen as a major health threat to Myanmar. The two countries share large border areas, and tourism brings many Chinese travellers.

In light of the health risk, Myanmar has suspended visas for Chinese travellers as well as asking tour companies to suspend services to Chinese travellers temporarily. A flight full of passengers from Guangzhou was returned on arrival over coronavirus fears. It was a big step for Myanmar, however, to impose such harsh restrictions against China, as it could impact Myanmar’s relations.

Under these circumstances, Naypyidaw is also turning to New Delhi. Indeed, the foundations of such a move were laid last year, when the two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in a bid to boost military cooperation. Importantly, during President U Win Myint’s visit last week, India and Myanmar signed ten memoranda of understanding focussing on development projects with India’s assistance, particularly in Rakhine state, which has witnessed notorious violence as the Rohingyas fled persecution.

Myanmar will not break off its relations with China, as evident by its provision of humanitarian assistance to Beijing to fight the coronavirus and other recent announcements such as a commitment to cooperate against the illegal wildlife trade. Nevertheless, with the coronavirus outbreak, India is fast emerging as a counterweight for Myanmar’s strategic relations in the region.

India has a chance to sustain this momentum in the deepening of India-Myanmar relations. But it can only do so by providing a serious alternative model of economic cooperation. In the current climate of the economic slowdown and domestic unrest in India, this might seem unlikely. Yet if Modi is serious about putting the neighbourhood first, now is the chance.

Does Australian travel policy to Covid-19 countries make sense?

(Tobias Titz/Getty Images)
(Tobias Titz/Getty Images)
Published 4 Mar 2020 15:30   1 Comments

The Australian government has enacted its Emergency Response Plan for Covid-19. However, the decision to impose travel restrictions on China and then Iran, but not on Korea or Italy, has raised suspicions that the policy may be more motivated by politics than health. The reality is that there are medically important differences that explain the divergent responses.

First, decisions have been made on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPCC). The government initially restricted travel with only Hubei Province, requiring people who had been there to self-isolate for 14 days. Then, on 1 February, a level 4 travel advisory (“do not travel”) was applied to the whole of the Chinese mainland. The situation was highly uncertain and imminently irretrievable: 100,000 students were about to fly to Australia from various parts of the People’s Republic, including Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first identified. A decision was needed with not much more information to go on than “it’s highly contagious, and it kills people”. Early moves by the Chinese government to conceal the nature and scale of the situation, coupled with their strident domestic restrictions, cast widespread doubt on the reliability of epidemiological surveillance. A history of official dishonesty and a chronic lack of transparency added to the problem.

Restricting travel to and from Iran is now at least as important as restricting travel with China ever was, and for purely public health reasons.

The AHPPC made the best decision possible at the time. Since then, with more information and good evidence that the virus has been significantly restricted outside of Hubei, restrictions have been gradually reduced. Throughout the ordeal, Australia has supported Chinese people, demonstrated solidarity, and been at the forefront of global efforts to deal with Covid-19. Undoubtedly, more could and should be done, but official accusations that travel restrictions are extreme and an overreaction are unbecoming.

The Japanese and South Korean situations are different. The vast majority of cases in each country are accounted for. There are a handful of clusters of the virus, with almost every case being known: who has it, how they got it, and who they've been in contact with since. Health authorities have good awareness of the risk in Japan and South Korea. The risk is clearly higher than usual, which accounts for the government having imposed level 2 travel warnings on each country, but it is a known, manageable risk.

Likewise with Italy: surveillance of the virus in Italy is highly transparent, engendering a strong degree of trust. Even so, there is a level 2 travel warning (“exercise caution”) on travel to Italy, and a level 3 warning (“reconsider”) on ten towns in the north that Italian authorities have put under isolation. The chief health officer explicitly commented that it won’t be possible to completely restrict travel to every country where the virus is present, and with 74 countries having reported cases to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no doubt that is correct.

Iran is an entirely different situation. Knowledge of transmission in Iran is driven by deaths. Iran has recorded more than twice as many Covid-19 deaths as South Korea. That implies at least 10,000 cases unaccounted for. Restricting travel to and from Iran is now at least as important as restricting travel with China ever was, and for purely public health reasons. Iran is likely to experience a human tragedy, and Australia and other countries should do everything possible to support the Iranian people. But we should do that while also making every possible effort to contain the virus where it is.

WHO has been emphatic that the evidence shows Covid-19 can be contained through targeted, evidence-based measures. That does not mean every country should impose the restrictions seen in China. Singapore offers a better example of how to contain this virus: basic personal hygiene, sensible social distancing, targeted restrictions on movement in and out of epidemic zones, support for people most vulnerable or affected, and proportionate preparations for the unexpected are all part of a sensible response. Healthy people wearing equipment that gives them no benefit, but which is urgently needed by frontline medical workers, is not. Australia has been well served by our health professionals – they have planned for almost this precise situation and they've demonstrated their readiness every day since whistle-blowers first alerted the world to this threat. 

Covid-19: Nearing a global pandemic?

Health workers screening spectators before a soccer match in Lecce, Italy, 1 March (Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Health workers screening spectators before a soccer match in Lecce, Italy, 1 March (Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 2 Mar 2020 15:30   0 Comments

The novel coronavirus, or Covid-19, has spread throughout the world in three short months. Outbreaks have been reported in more than 50 countries, there are 88,000 confirmed cases, and at least 3000 people have died. But while the numbers of new cases and deaths in China might be steadying (based on official figures, the accuracy of which is uncertain), the numbers outside China are increasing at a worrying pace.

While the vast majority of cases are still within China, there have been more new cases reported outside of China than within China since 25 February. And the number of confirmed cases outside of China has already outstripped SARS, the viral respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus in 2002–03. In just over a month, there have already been more than 6000 cases of Covid-19 outside of China. By contrast, there were approximately 3000 cases of SARS outside China in the first three months of the outbreak.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been reluctant to label the novel virus a pandemic. WHO is walking a fine line between leading a global healthcare response, retaining access to China, and avoiding panic. Its constant praise for China’s efforts to combat the virus has attracted criticism, though others claim this was the best way to secure access for the WHO observer team to China.

The head of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said that “using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear. This is not the time to focus on what word we use.” The organisation last declared a pandemic when H1N1, or swine flu, infected approximately 61 million people in the US alone in 2009. It was accused of exaggerating the threat, and WHO officials fear that the word ‘pandemic’ would lead to panic.

This stands in contrast to the response of US and Australian authorities. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spokesperson Benjamin Haynes said on 26 February that the novel coronavirus has already met two of the three criteria for a pandemic, and the world was moving closer to meeting the third criteria. The CDC has said that a coronavirus outbreak in the United States is a matter of when, not if. In doing so, US health authorities have essentially contradicted the claims of US President Donald Trump that “because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low”. The Australian government has activated its pandemic emergency plan, as new cases were reported over the weekend in countries as widespread as Azerbaijan, Ecuador, and Ireland.

It’s worth noting that a pandemic declaration did not happen during the SARS outbreak. A pandemic is often declared after efforts to contain an outbreak in specific regions or countries fail. The idea is that such a declaration will prompt governments to switch from containment measures (quarantining individual cases) to mitigation (shutting schools and other mass gatherings to slow the spread). A number of WHO officials have expressed concern at the binary nature of government responses: they would prefer governments be focused on containment and mitigation, rather than one or the other.

The rapid spread of the virus outside China also drastically raises the economic stakes. The shock to the global economy now looks like it is going to last much longer and be potentially far deeper than was thought just a few weeks ago. The hope that the economic hit might be painful but short-lived looks increasingly unrealistic. The case for governments and central banks to provide immediate policy support has gone up.

Much will ultimately depend on the effectiveness of the public health response of governments around the world.

WHO’s Tedros said “The steps that China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time”.

That time appears to have run out.

South Korea’s struggle with coronavirus

Disinfection against the coronavirus in a Seoul market (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Disinfection against the coronavirus in a Seoul market (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Published 27 Feb 2020 10:30   0 Comments

South Korea now has the second worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, surpassed only by China. More than 1100 people are infected, and seven have died. Unsurprisingly the political fallout is widening. The media coverage is getting sensational. Everyone has watched too many movies, and even South Korean TV is getting in on the action.

On 25 February, the government designated the city of Daegu and its neighbouring North Gyeongsang province as “special care zones” under “maximum containment”. It is not clear just how severe movement restrictions, specifically will people be allowed to exit these hot zones? The greater Daegu area accounts for around 75% of South Korean coronavirus cases.

I remain optimistic that this will not explode into an epidemic as we are seeing in China. South Korea has a far better medical system than China (or North Korea). And the reason we have so much good information about coronavirus in South Korea is its open press. What you hear here is far more credible than what we receive from China.

The real Korean issue, in my opinion, is if coronavirus spreads to the North. The health care system there is primitive and minimal. Any serious coronavirus cluster in North Korea might well spiral into a genuine plague. And one can only imagine how the state there will respond – throwing those infected into concentration camps and letting them struggle on their own would be my guess.

Back in South Korea, I see three major political ramifications, beyond the immediate epidemiological debate.

1. Will this impact the upcoming legislative elections?

South Korea’s National Assembly elections occur on 15 April. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that coronavirus will hurt the ruling, left-liberal Democratic Party. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is already moderately unpopular. He has staked his presidency on the unrelated issue of outreach to North Korea. Moon has pursued a vigorous détente with Pyongyang, and he helped midwife the meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Moon himself has met Kim, too.

Unfortunately, those meetings have not created a breakthrough. The basic standoff – the North wants to keep its nuclear weapons, while the US will not rollback sanctions unless it gives them up – is still in place. Worse, Moon’s government has been in regular tension with America over the North, and South Korean contributions to US defence costs here. The alliance is popular here, and consequently Moon has taken much criticism in the conservative press.

So Moon’s Democrats were already facing a tough election. If coronavirus keeps going for a few more weeks, it will likely throw the elections to the right.

President Moon Jae-in during a special government meeting on 25 February to discuss measures to prevent the further spread of coronavirus (Getty Images)

2. How much can the liberal state violate personal freedoms in a medical crisis?

To my mind, the core issue behind the spread in South Korea is the country’s basic political liberalism. South Korea is a free society. People enjoy freedom of movement, association, and religion. Should the South Korean state simply strip people of these freedoms in the circumstances of an epidemic? Indeed, can the South Korea state, constitutionally, even do that? (No one really knows.) Do we really want liberal states to feel free to lock people up for weeks, just because they have a headache or a temperature? What constitutes a severe enough emergency to warrant such draconian measures?

When this is all over and the recriminations begin, I think Moon Jae-in will take the greatest criticism over the lack of a China travel ban.

Recall that South Korea has 53 million people. Of that, 1100 are infected, and only seven have died. That seems like a low bar to start declaring emergency civil liberties restrictions akin to wartime. The state has encouraged people to avoid congregations, to wash their hands, wear masks, and so on. But that is different than actually using state power to quarantine people against their will.

Coerced quarantine has been Japan’s answer for the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and that has been very controversial, especially for the healthy people that were onboard. A church in Daegu at the centre of the outbreak there similarly illustrates these tangled legal issues. Its congregants resisted state testing for coronavirus and held services when other churches desisted. The virus spread, and now the South Korean state is actively hunting down thousands of churchgoers who have not turned up.

3. Should South Korea have banned Chinese travellers?

When this is all over and the recriminations begin, I think Moon will take the greatest criticism over the lack of a China travel ban. There is now nearly universal consensus across South Korean opinion that the president should have moved quickly to cut off China travel, much as many other countries did. In fact, at the time of this writing, South Korea still has not done that. The logic seems to be that now is too late, so what is the point?

I have argued elsewhere that this hesitation is almost certainly political. It is now well-known that China has been bullying vulnerable states in its orbit not to impose travel bans. Such bans impugn the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping, as their legitimacy is based solely on performance not popular will.

South Korea is open to such pressure. China is its top export destination, and South Korea remains export dependent. Moon personally wants better relations for many reasons. Beijing can help bring North Korea to the table, as the North is singularly dependent on China for access to the world economy. Better relations with China also mean more political space against Japan and the United States. This is deeply attractive to the South Korean left which sees Japan as an opponent, an unrepentant colonialist of the past. And Trump’s relentless picking on South Korea similarly creates a desire, especially on the left here, to draw distance from the Americans.

The next few weeks will be crucial on this final point. If coronavirus persists into March, Moon will likely be pushed into a China travel ban. China will hit back economically, as it has in the past, but Moon will face an electoral disaster if it looks like he put his personal diplomatic projects over the health of the nation.

Be vigilant to reawakened racism in the face of a viral outbreak

A restaurant window in Shanghai, 18 February (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
A restaurant window in Shanghai, 18 February (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 25 Feb 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Apparently sparked by ignorance over the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, a woman wearing a face mask was allegedly assaulted and called “diseased” this month at the Grand Street subway station in New York City’s Chinatown. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a man sitting next to a Chinese-British writer on the London underground jumped up and rushed away, saying “I’m not sitting next to the coronavirus.”

Earlier, at one of Rome’s popular tourist sites, a café posted a sign saying “all people coming from China are not allowed access in this place”. A notice on the window of a nail salon in Vietnam read “Sorry we don’t accept Chinese customers for coronavirus.” And a restaurant in Hong Kong declared on their Facebook page that going forward they would take orders only in Cantonese or English, and not Mandarin – a not-so-subtle way of saying mainlander customers were not welcome.

More and more people of Chinese origin, and in a good number of cases, even people of other east Asian descent, have experienced this kind of xenophobic hysteria across the world since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus epidemic.

The alarming intensification of Sinophobia, to a certain extent, is a reaction to the rise of an authoritarian superpower, which is also the world’s second largest economy.

While quite a few mainstream media outlets in the West have called out the panic based on ignorance and racism, such sentiment still echoes. A regional French newspaper ran a front-page headline warning of “yellow alert”, alluding to the century-old racist phrase “yellow peril”. An op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. (Chinese authorities subsequently expelled three reporters from the Journal, an overreaction not least because the newsroom and opinion section are operated separately). 

This kind of derogatory language, which historically has symbolised bigotry toward Chinese, is all too familiar. Bruce Lee, for example, in a 1972 movie with settings in the 1910s Shanghai, famously kicked a sign "Sick Man of East Asia" which insulted Chinese people as disease-stricken “weaklings”.

Sadly even today, the click bait of sensational photos and videos showing “weird” food culture, presumably in China, without serious verification, still flood social media when a health crisis such as this one takes place. Among them, a video showing a Chinese woman taking a bite of a cooked bat became almost the symbol of the root cause of the current outbreak, as the spread of the virus was believed to have begun at a Wuhan seafood market where wildlife trade was also happening. The true story behind the video, however, is that it has nothing to do with Wuhan, and it was not even set in China. The woman, host of an internet travel show, was posing for the camera trying a local delicacy in the Pacific island nation Palau back in 2016, an act not that different from what Anthony Bourdain did on his CNN show Parts Unknown. Nor does placing blame on culinary culture alone – even allowing that most Chinese don’t tuck into “unusual” dishes – does not explain other public health emergencies.

With 28 countries so far reporting confirmed cases of the virus, caution over the mysterious deadly illness is expected and natural. Yet it is important to emphasise that Chinese people are the victims, not the culprits, of this epidemic.

The alarming intensification of Sinophobia, to a certain extent, is a reaction to the rise of an authoritarian superpower, which is also the world’s second largest economy. In recent years, an increasingly assertive China has unsettled its neighbouring nations, prompting deep suspicion and mistrust in the region, and among its main rivals in the West. Such sentiments, unfortunately, have spilled over to innocent people of Chinese origin or descent, and the current virus outbreak appears to have compounded the problem.

Meanwhile inside China, as they suffer from this crisis and the economic loss it has caused, citizens are making every effort to get through the hardship, with China’s social media buzzing with stories including donations of critically needed medical supplies, efforts to take stranded people shopping, and the sharing of vital information to help one another out. Construction teams have worked around the clock to build new massive hospitals in a matter of days, and doctors have stayed on shifts to the point of exhaustion.

And more impressively, over the last two months, doctors and scientists have pushed back against the stern ruling Chinese Communist Party structures in a backlash; reporters and grassroots netizens have taken risks pushing the envelope of censorship – even in the face of attempts to control information. The general public has found a renewed urgency in trying to hold the authorities accountable, seeking transparency and prodding the officials into action.

Viruses don’t discriminate, they affect everyone, regardless of one’s colour, nationality, or language. From SARS to MERS, from H1N1 to Ebola, like any patients impacted by diseases in any corners of the world, Chinese people deserve empathy, respect, and help from the international community. By trading panic and hatred for compassion, it will be easier to achieve a shared goal of defeating the pathogen. “Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you” is a quote often attributed to Confucius – but it is a sentiment that is heard around the world.

Why the COVID-19 outbreak may help China move a little further forward

Patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus in a temporary hospital at a sports stadium in Wuhan, China (STR via Getty Images)
Patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus in a temporary hospital at a sports stadium in Wuhan, China (STR via Getty Images)
Published 21 Feb 2020 10:30   0 Comments

The novel coronavirus viral strain COVID-19 has dominated weeks of headlines and led to extraordinary measures in an effort to quell its spread. The decision to quarantine Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak – still stands as the most significant emergency action, effectively isolating tens of millions of people. But the international response has hardly been less momentous, with dozens of countries essentially shutting their borders to any foreigners entering from mainland China, and the World Health Organisation declaring a global health emergency.

Having returned to Australia from Beijing last month, it has been noticeable how much the dramatic and at times fear-laced media coverage of the virus has in turn dominated dinner table conversations, with friends and family occasionally quoting distorted statistics and reports. Yet for all the misunderstanding and disturbing reports of prejudice against local Chinese communities, it is clear to me that the coronavirus outbreak will eventually have an upside.  

None of this is intended to minimise the tragedy for those in Hubei province and elsewhere, with more than 2000 people so far succumbing to the virus. But nor is it wrong to say this epidemic will serve to improve many aspects of public health, not only in China, but internationally. The last thing that China’s President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government needs – especially during heightened political times – is to allow another international backlash against its approach to domestic health emergencies to stand unaddressed.

Dealt with effectively, the biggest benefit would be to China’s public health status. But in addition, China’s reputation would improve.

Beijing has undoubtedly learned from the mistakes it made 17 years ago during the SARS outbreak, another coronavirus with which COVID-19 shares a similar a genetic make-up. Officials were rightly sacked for negligence soon after the SARS episode, and in the following three years Chinese authorities announced investments of 25.7 billion RMB ($5.4 billion AUD) towards public health facilities for treating infectious diseases. It was a demonstration of the capacity within China and its authoritarian structure for mass labour mobilisation, as well as a swift and direct investment to sectors in need.

In response to the COVID-19 strain, the international health community as a collective has a chance to help China in reforming and reshaping its national health structure – a task China itself has already commenced. Given Beijing’s ambition to be a leading player internationally, the opportunity is there to direct China to adhere to the requirements established by international health organisations, especially in areas such as addressing poor rural healthcare systems, conditions in live animal markets, and public hygiene standards. All of these factors are suspected as having contributed to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Dealt with effectively, the biggest benefit would be to China’s public health status. But in addition, China’s reputation would improve.

The virus that causes COVID-19 (in orange) in a scanning electron microscope image (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Flickr)

It remains too early to conclude whether local officials in Hubei province did enough to alert health authorities. The death of Dr Li Wenliang – who had sought to warn colleagues about the risk of the new viral strain – has become a high-profile example of where the system is seen to have failed. Multiple critics have point to a repeat of problems evident during the SARS epidemic. An entrenched impulse among Chinese government officials to withhold negative information significantly hampered Beijing’s ability to effectively publicise the 2003 outbreak – and may have done so again.   

The international response to the novel virus also provides a measure of how global cooperation can be effective in combating such an outbreak. On 29 January, just five days after inspecting a patient with the virus, scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne successfully grew the coronavirus in culture. The isolated virus serves as an important tool in detecting whether patients are infected before showing symptoms. The work has already been shared across the globe, a complement to frantic efforts to develop a vaccine.

This latest outbreak appears to have been brought to light and world attention much more effectively, suggesting Beijing has learned from previous mistakes. This learning curve may, in turn, lend to greater transparency towards other domestic issues in China which pose a grave risk to wellbeing.

There is no denying that the coronavirus outbreak is serious, or reason to downplay concerns. But building a 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days is a signal of taking the danger seriously, and hopefully also a capacity to bounce back – stronger – with new policies, networks and guidelines as a result of this crisis.

The author attends Peking University with partial funding from a Chinese Government Scholarship.

Coronavirus and the flow of information in the Chinese party-state 

Medical staff lead patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus in group exercises at an exhibition centre converted into a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province (STR via Getty Images)
Medical staff lead patients with mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus in group exercises at an exhibition centre converted into a hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province (STR via Getty Images)
Published 19 Feb 2020 14:30   0 Comments

As the novel coronavirus outbreak crisis is unfolding across China, the Communist party’s efficiency is once again in the spotlight. On the one hand, there’s the capability to mobilise resources from across the state that allows to build new hospitals in a matter of days, a feature of Chinese governance that especially local officials like to highlight. On the other hand, critics suspect concerted efforts by Chinese authorities to cover up the real extent of the outbreak reminiscent of the initial Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

A picture of decisive and potent government action either way, however, oversimplifies the more complicated underlying dynamics.

A key issue that has resurfaced during the current coronavirus outbreak is concern about the accuracy and transparency of China’s official statistics. With a poor record in providing consistent and reliable data, general scepticism over the numbers provided by authorities is further fuelled by several changes in diagnosis and classification criteria that first lead to a drop in cases, followed by a steep surge in recorded infections and fatalities within days.

Apart from broader issues that hamper most efforts in data collection, managing these during the outbreak of a major public health emergency is never easy. In addition to common problems stemming from collection error or vague statistical categories, an obstacle to better information lies in misaligned incentives for government authorities. Next to the challenges of access to information in authoritarian regimes, blame is often put on local officials as a main source of distortions in the data.

An electron microscope image of the virus that causes COVID-19 (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Flickr)

 China’s highly centralised style of governance discourages local officials from raising negative information with Beijing. As upward accountability often trumps concern for the broader community it serves, it is very plausible that local officials have downplayed the severity at the outset of the new coronavirus as has been reported by numerous news outlets.

A meeting of the party’s politburo standing committee in early February highlighted that local authorities would be given room to determine the level of risk regarding the virus to inform localised response strategies. At the same time local governments were reminded to still aim to meet China’s economic targets despite the outbreak. By presenting local authorities with the conflicting targets of both containing a further spread of the virus while at the same time pursuing economic growth, Beijing effectively passes the buck.

Shifting difficult responsibilities to other levels of government allows central authorities to distance themselves from missteps in the eyes of the broader public and to justify further efforts at political centralisation and control.

Shifting difficult responsibilities to other levels of government allows central authorities to distance themselves from missteps in the eyes of the broader public and to justify further efforts at political centralisation and control. As President Xi Jinping has already punished local leaders and replaced them with political allies, it is difficult to judge whether this is only an appropriate response to local government failure or if it constitutes another power move from Beijing, or both.

In addition to the dynamics playing out between central and local authorities, other problems in addressing the current health crisis stem from coordination problems within local governments and between functional departments. Responsibility for health care in China is fragmented across multiple agencies, each looking after its own interests rather than that of the sector as a whole. Functional offices are structured in a vertical hierarchy extending from Beijing. This means that a particular office of the central government controls all equivalent offices across the geographical layers of administration.

While technically different government branches also report to the local government and party committee under the jurisdiction of the same geographical level, the dual authority structure is ultimately biased towards Beijing. As a result, different local government agencies that are supposed to work with each other often solely focus on their own goals and do not share information with each other, which results in a lack of coordination at the local level. China is by no means the only country that has administrative inefficiencies. But it may be unique in just how disconnected government agencies are.

While Beijing has taken steps that allow local hospitals to report directly to the Ministry of Health and the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the wake of SARS, this step ultimately means that the new governance arrangement continues to operate within a context pre-structured by hierarchy. It therefore does not actually offer any institutional recourse for the lack of local interdepartmental coordination.

Getting an accurate read on the current situation therefore remains challenging at this stage. Questions will remain as to what extent the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak is a result of the misconduct of local officials or central authorities taking advantage of a crisis to further tighten their grip. The country’s peculiar governance arrangements, however, make it less likely that the government response is easily summarised as following a single purposeful objective despite more centralised power under Xi Jinping.

It simply shows how the system reproduces itself and therefore makes a fundamental change in the government response unlikely.

The politics of racism as the Philippines struggles with coronavirus

An already divided country now has another crisis to argue about (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
An already divided country now has another crisis to argue about (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 17 Feb 2020 06:00   0 Comments

It would almost seem nothing could further divide politics and society in the Philippines – and then the coronavirus arrived. Only three cases have been confirmed in the country, but rampant fears and unchecked anxieties are playing into the existing division.

The first half of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term consistently forced that gap wider, with disputes over the deadly war on drugs, attacks on the media, the judiciary, and more recently with the collapse in US relations. A public health crisis joins an already crowded set of headlines.

The Philippines is somewhat of an outlier in the region in its rhetoric towards China. While Duterte has stopped short of a “solidarity” visit to Beijing, unlike Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen, his government faces repeated accusations of courting goodwill with China at the expense of Filipinos.  

Critics say the government had dragged its feet in issuing a travel ban on China and its territories in the wake of the virus outbreak, putting it out of step with much of Southeast Asia. While the utility of such bans is controversial, the optics gave the “yellows”, as the anti-Duterte opposition are known, fuel to the argument that the President is ceding sovereignty to China, first in the South China Sea, and now in public health.

A public health crisis joins an already crowded set of headlines for President Rodrigo Duterte (Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr)

It’s a claim that has followed Duterte since the early days of his leadership. Taking office in 2016 just weeks before an international tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines’ claim to disputed waters in the South China Sea, the country’s official stance towards Beijing softened, prompting protest from left-leaning activists. A preoccupation with securing investment has high-profile critics wondering aloud if infrastructure projects could be “trojan horses with dire consequences for the Philippines”. 

Now, by tying its initially slow response to the coronavirus to investment, the Duterte administration is struggling to establish credibility in a fight against anti-Chinese racism. 

Authorities ordered tighter screening of passengers arriving in the country from Hubei province in early January but struggled to maintain control on information and public fears as the crisis escalated in China and then across Southeast Asia. 

A slow down on flights between the Philippines and Wuhan temporarily allayed fears, but as the first known case in the Philippines was confirmed 30 January, public fears spiked. The 38-year-old Chinese national is believed to have contracted the virus in Wuhan, his home city. Just days later, a 44-year-old Chinese national died in a Manila hospital – the first coronavirus related death outside of China. 

An order in late January to repatriate Filipinos based in China helped to stem criticism of the Duterte administration momentarily. Planes sent from Manila to bring nationals home would be loaded with donations of supplies for Hubei province’s hospital, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teddy Locsin Jr. wrote in a typically expletive-laden Tweet: “China helps us we help China”. 



Less kind words have been reserved for left wing critics. In an almost invert of domestic discourse everywhere, the hard right in the Philippines has consistently accused the left of “Sinophobia” in its demands to close borders. Conservative columnist for the Manila Times, Rigoberto D. Tiglao, laid out the argument in a column last week, dismissing critics as “rabidly anti-Duterte and anti-Marcos and racist.

And Tiglao has a point. Reports from across the world of heightened prejudice against the Chinese diaspora are a foolish and dispiriting response to the virus outbreak. Yet even so, the credibility of those lawmakers, journalists and conservative activists who otherwise offer fulsome support of Duterte’s other domestic policies – including the President’s well-known pattern of invective – seems stretched when it comes to racism.  

Chinese-Filipinos are the country’s largest ethnic minority, and are well-represented in the upper echelons of the business and political community. Still, the long history has not shielded them from fears.

Indeed, Duterte’s own comments muddy the waters. He has linked anti-racist comments with the importance of China as a trade partner. “China has been kind to us, we can only also show the same favour to them. Stop this xenophobia thing,” he said shortly after the death of a Chinese national in early February. By making coronavirus and criticisms about the public health response an identity issue, it appears Duterte and his aligned supporters seeking to wedge the left by its own language and values. That criticism should be heard — but it’s the ethnic-Chinese minority who should be listened to. 

Chinese-Filipinos are the country’s largest ethnic minority, and are well-represented in the upper echelons of the business and political community. Still, the long history has not shielded the community from fears. Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown and the oldest in the world, briefly became a hub for rumoured cases prior to the first confirmation.  

Col Tiu, an ethnically-Chinese Filipina, wrote at length for Rappler about the stress and ostracisation the community is feeling. “I have never seen the Chinese be more sorry just for being Chinese. I have also never felt more ashamed for having a Chinese family name,” she said, noting cases of discrimination such as Chinese students singled out for self-quarantine by schools.

The last word should go to Teresita Ang See, a leader with the Chinese-Filipino community group Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran. She is convinced that the associated racism is more detrimental to the country than a public health crisis. As she puts it: “The ‘you vs. us’ attitude, finger-pointing, and racism are deadlier and cause more permanent damage than the virus we are now fighting collectively as one humanity.”

Next steps in Australia’s coronavirus strategy

A cruise ship docks in Sydney at the weekend. Australia is one 72 countries to so far impose coronavirus travel restrictions (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
A cruise ship docks in Sydney at the weekend. Australia is one 72 countries to so far impose coronavirus travel restrictions (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)
Published 10 Feb 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Australia is one of 72 countries that have so far imposed coronavirus travel restrictions. This has slowed the virus and bought us time, but at a price: people’s lives have been interrupted (especially students) and industries have taken a big hit (especially education and tourism).

That time must now be used effectively. Three things must be done: eliminate panic, develop some form of treatment, vaccine, or cure, and put in place more sustainable policies to slow down the virus.

Developing a treatment, vaccine, or cure will take time, but on the first point, there is already no need to panic in Australia. The travel restrictions worked. No one has become infected here. The public are not at risk from coronavirus.

Australian’s should feel completely safe doing everything as normal, interacting with their Chinese-Australian friends and classmates, going to Chinatown and eating in Chinese restaurants. There is no need for panic-buying, no excuse for racism.

Australia can hardly appear credible if it says in one breath that it’s not safe for those people to come here, while also sending people back there.

Outside the People’s Republic of China, only 360 people have the virus. Of those, just 75 contracted it without going to the PRC. Most of those 75 are in Singapore (19), Germany (12), and Korea (12), according to World Health Organization updates. The risk of infection is incredibly small to anyone who has not been to the PRC in the past two weeks, and not treating or comforting one of those 360 people. The only exception seems to be the cruise ship near Japan, where the origins of the virus are still being investigated.

Travel restrictions worked but they should only be temporary. Sustaining funding for other (ongoing) health services is also a public health matter. Coronavirus could eventually have a bigger public health impact on Australia through lost income and revenue than by direct infections. The effect of stigma is also a matter of public health.

Blanket travel bans are too blunt to be sustained. Australia has more data now and can refine our response into a more durable policy. We need to replace, reduce, and eventually remove blanket travel bans.

This needs to be done gradually to avoid sparking fresh panic. Reassurance comes from recognising the growth rate of new infections is steadily declining, as shown by calculations based on data from the series of WHO Situation Reports into coronavirus:

More reassurance can be found in acknowledging the number of cases per million people outside Hubei province is small. China is massive, so when a place like Sichuan has 363 cases, those are among more than 80 million people in an area about the size of France. Hubei remains the epicentre, with 72% of all cases: 27,100 in a population of nearly 60 million, representing 458 confirmed cases per million people (x100 more than Sichuan). According the most recent figures:

  • 9 provinces have fewer than 3 confirmed cases per million people. They are collectively home to 290 million people, 743 of whom have coronavirus.
  • 12 more provinces have fewer than 10 cases per million people and are collectively home to 629 million people with 3,698 confirmed cases.
  • 9 provinces have between 10 and 19 cases per million people and are collectively home to 418 million people with 5,657 confirmed cases.

These are arbitrary categories intended for context only, and final decisions must be based on medical rational. But recognising the risk is different in each province means Australia can employ more refined options.

For instance, Australia could develop a short-term points system to be removed by the northern summer. Assign points based on considerations such as the following:

  • The number of confirmed cases per million in a person’s province.
  • Willingness to sign an affidavit declaring no travel to riskier provinces or contact with people suspected of carrying coronavirus in the past 2 weeks.
  • Understanding of how to contact authorities if their situation changes.
  • A good reason for travelling to Australia (for instance, being enrolled in education, having a job here, visiting family, etc).
  • Being willing to affirm social contact will be kept relatively low in their first two weeks in Australia.
  • A willingness to enter self-administered quarantine for two weeks and have access to somewhere that makes this possible.
  • Or being willing to enter government-administered quarantine in Australia for two weeks (sites such as previously mothballed “fly-in, fly-out” accommodation that can be quickly reconnected with basic services are already being used).

Many people in China represent low risk, especially to Australia, which is in the middle of summer (not a hospitable environment for the flu-like coronavirus). Those low risk people who are willing to make a little effort should be welcomed soon. People from slightly higher risk provinces could be asked to accept slightly more onerous obligations, commensurate with individually estimated level of risk and need to be here.

The cost of such a system would be far less than sustaining complete travel bans with the whole of the PRC.

For the duration of such travel restrictions, we should unequivocally extend the visas of anyone who would otherwise be required to return to a travel-restricted area. Australia can hardly appear credible if it says in one breath that it’s not safe for those people to come here, while also sending people back there. Whether people accept that offer should be up to them: they may not have the financial means to support themselves in Australia, or they may prefer to return home. But the offer should be made, and it should be unconditional.

Finally, a public message of solidarity with the people of Wuhan would count for a lot. It may or may not ease the strain on Australia’s relationship with the PRC, but it fits with Australians ethos as a friendly people. Projecting a message, such as “Go Wuhan” along with the face of Dr Li Wenliang (the hero who blew the whistle on coronavirus) onto the Opera House costs almost nothing, and it would send a powerful signal to the Chinese people that Australians understand their suffering and sacrifice.

Knowing someone is standing beside you in tough times is also important for public health.

Chart of the week: Trust in China

Published 6 Feb 2020 15:00   0 Comments

Almost 30,000 cases of coronavirus have been officially confirmed, amid reports of Chinese authorities increasingly cracking down on information at the epicentre of the crisis. With governments around the world imposing travel bans, as well as local Chinese communities being unfairly stigmatised, trust is clearly frayed.

The Lowy Poll has charted public attitudes about “trust in major powers” for 15 years, and the results on China are revealing. In 2019, just 28% of respondents said they trust China “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world. This was a sharp fall from 2006, when 53% said the same. In addition, the most recent Lowy Poll found 45% of respondents have “not too much confidence” in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs, while 23% have “no confidence at all”.

This lack of trust looks likely to be further tested.

As Hong Kong wards off coronavirus, authorities struggle to win trust

A Hong Kong market on 29 January (Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
A Hong Kong market on 29 January (Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
Published 30 Jan 2020 11:30   0 Comments

Fresh vegetables were gone. Instant noodles, bread, and crackers were nowhere to be seen. Sanitising products like bleach, Dettol hand soap and Clorox wipes were sold out, and many other food products and daily necessities were out of stock. The streets were eerily empty, but long queues for face masks were everywhere. Days after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, people in Hong Kong are in panic, worrying the mysterious virus will be imported from across the border as hundreds of thousands are expected to return from mainland China after the Lunar New Year holidays.

Meanwhile, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia are evacuating their citizens from the centre of the outbreak. Papua New Guinea has banned travel from all Asian ports. The Philippines has sent passengers from Wuhan back to where they came from and stopped issuing visas on arrival to Chinese tourists. Taiwan has tightened restrictions on those visiting from China in a bid to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Airlines around the world are either suspending or slashing the number of flights to China.

Such is the dramatic global reaction towards the exponential growth of the number of confirmed cases and death toll of 2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus. As of 30 January, there have been about 8,000 confirmed cases in 19 countries – more that 7700 in China. The outbreak has already claimed 170 lives in China.

Witnessing the events unfold in the news, how can anyone have faith in those in power to keep this deadly disease from spreading further and ensuring those in need get treated properly?

Some have commented that alongside the spread of the coronavirus is panic, and the people of Hong Kong and the international community are overreacting. They claim that such reactions simply reinforce the spread of fear, causing bias and discrimination against Chinese people, rather than dealing with the new virus properly.

But such an unprecedented level of panic is caused not just by fear, but by the lack of trust. Reactions of the people of Hong Kong and the international community are a vote of no confidence in the authorities’ abilities to protect people and contain the virus. Authorities here are not only the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments, but also the World Health Organization (WHO), which is supposed to “lead partners in global health responses”.

Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China and with a border adjacent to the mainland, is at the forefront. The panic buying seen across the city on January 29 came after the city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, refused to completely close the border to the mainland in order to minimise the chance of allowing the virus from entering the city, despite repeated calls from frontline medical workers, medical experts, and local citizens over the past week.

Some have taken extreme measures: Molotov cocktails were hurled in an attempt to burn down a new housing estate designated as a quarantine facility. The toilet of one of the border checkpoints and a local hospital were bombed as a threat to the Hong Kong government to close the border. Frontline medical workers are threatening to go on strike on February 3 if the government still refuses to close the border, citing the fact that the city’s medical system is already overwhelmed and cannot handle an influx of patients from across the border or an community outbreak of the coronavirus. People are angry, accusing Lam’s government of not putting their lives as priority. 

At the same time, the people of Hong Kong and the international community will not forget about the horror of SARS from 17 years ago: when SARS, which belongs to the same family of the novel coronavirus, first erupted in the southern province of Guangdong at the end of 2002, China was in denial, suppressing the news in an attempt to cover up the situation—negative news and critics must be silenced for the sake of the Communist Party’s stability and rulership. But the coverup of the severity of the disease eventually led to a much wider epidemic, resulting in 8098 cases and 774 deaths in 17 countries. Hong Kong itself lost nearly 300 lives, including a number of frontline medical professionals.

Sadly, history is repeating itself. When the virus first emerged in Wuhan, there had already been heated discussion on social media. But at the beginning of January, eight in Wuhan were arrested for “publishing or forwarding false information on the internet without verification”. The authorities at the time were still stating that the unknown disease “could be prevented” and was “under control”, denying person-to-person transmission.

Eventually, the city of Wuhan, which is home to 11 million people, was locked down on January 23. This lockdown was then extended to 15 neighbouring cities in the Hubei province, affecting nearly 50 million people. Later the authorities admitted that more than 5 million people had already fled the region before the lockdown. Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang (link in Chinese) later admitted on a live TV interview that there was a delay in disclosing the situation of Wuhan, but he added that the city government could not reveal information to the public without approval from officials further up the hierarchy.

Quarantine is an ancient method of containing contagious diseases, and the lockdown of Hubei province might help contain the virus to some extent. But videos and messages circulating on social media originated from Wuhan have depicted a bleak picture of the city. Local citizens and medical workers are devastated: with hospitals running low on supplies and equipment, countless people are stuck waiting desperately for treatment.

At the same time, as of Wednesday, the WHO still refuses to declare the virus as a global health emergency. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told the media at the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva that the situation was of “grave concern”.

Witnessing the events unfold in the news, how can anyone have faith in those in power to keep this deadly disease from spreading further and ensuring those in need get treated properly?

The people of Hong Kong and the international community’s dramatic reactions should not be blamed – distrust has made them swich to survival mode. People’s fear must be addressed properly in order to restore their faith as the first step to fight this pandemic. That, however, might be easier said than done.

Coronavirus: One step forward, one step back for the global economy

Producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China's northern Hebei province (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China's northern Hebei province (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 Jan 2020 16:30   0 Comments

For a second there the global economy was off to a slightly better start for 2020. The US and China finally inked an initial “phase one” trade deal that at least promised to pause hostilities for a while. That provided some much-needed respite for a world economy, which last year reached its weakest point since the global financial crisis. Shortly after, the International Monetary Fund was quick to provide a more upbeat global growth outlook, suggesting that slowing economic activity might be bottoming out.

Enter the Wuhan coronavirus. We can only speculate what ultimate impact – both human and economic – the virus will have, depending on how far it ends up spreading.

The most important channel of economic impact will likely be the hit to Chinese consumer spending. That’s less a function of the inherent danger of the virus – which is still unknown – and more about the precautionary response of the government and Chinese consumers leading people to stay home instead of heading to the shops, eating out, travelling or doing leisure activities. Other government containment efforts will also add to this – including lost output as businesses stay shut for longer following the Lunar New Year.

The indirect effect of a sharply slowing Chinese economy would be felt by others and could be a major difference compared to the SARS experience.

How big of an impact for the Chinese economy might this prove? Comparing it to the 2002–03 SARS outbreak suggests the shock could be substantial. While China’s economy continued to grow briskly through that episode, the underlying story suggests today’s experience could be quite different.

In 2003 Chinese consumption growth suffered a sharp slowdown. The economy was only able to escape a drop in headline growth because investment and exports were booming at the time, with China having entered its hyper export-led growth phase following its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organisation. The government was also able to help with stimulus measures.

This time around things are very different. Consumption is now an even more important driver of the economy while investment and exports have been weakening – reflecting China’s efforts to reduce its reliance on debt fuelled investment and pressure on the external front from the trade war with America.

There is also much less scope for sizeable stimulus today, with Chinese policymakers aiming to stabilise macro leverage in the economy in order to contain systemic financial risks. China might also be reluctant to let a weaker yuan serve as a natural exhaust valve – for fear of encouraging capital outflows but also potentially reigniting economic tensions with the Trump administration over the exchange rate. Having said that, if things worsen China’s top leadership may eventually judge that more support is needed to buttress things.

All up, if the Wuhan coronavirus crisis proves around the same scale as the SARS episode then China’s economy could conceivably be looking at economic growth dipping from the current 6.1% rate to something in the 4-5% range this year, even on the government’s rosy numbers. This is of course simply a guess. A lot of variables could influence that. A wider epidemic would spell bigger problems. Conversely, even successful government and public precautions might still impose a significant cost on the economy, if that is what it takes to halt the spread of the virus.

What might the impact be on the global economy? China accounts for about a fifth of world output on a purchasing power parity basis – the IMF’s preferred measure – meaning a Chinese slowdown to say 4.5% would directly knock off 0.3 percentage points from the fund’s latest global forecast of 3.3% for 2020 (made only last week). That alone would effectively wipe out the 2020 uptick in global growth that the IMF was hoping for, and instead keep the world economy growing at a similar pace to last year – already the slowest pace of global growth since the 2008–09 crisis.

Knock on effects for other economies could however make things worse. It is not clear how far the virus itself might spread in other countries. But the indirect effect of a sharply slowing Chinese economy would be felt by others and could be a major difference compared to the SARS experience. Not only are the risks of a sharp Chinese slowdown greater this time around but China is also now a far more important source of demand for the rest of the world, particularly in Asia.

What about for Australia? Australia’s tourism and education exports to China would appear most in the firing line. China has announced a halt to overseas tour groups. However, Australia’s tourism exports to China only amount to about 0.2% of GDP. Education exports amount to a more sizeable 0.6%. But the experience during the SARS epidemic was that education exports remained resilient, suggesting less cause for concern.

Meanwhile, the fact that the overall slowdown in China’s economy will be consumption led should help insulate Australia’s more important commodity exports from major damage (if China were to resort to renewed stimulus it could even provide some boost). Australia’s much less significant agricultural exports could however take a hit from weaker Chinese consumption.

A weaker Aussie dollar in response to increased global risk aversion and slower Chinese growth should however provide at least a partial offset – giving a boost to Australia’s international competitiveness, including tourism, education, and agricultural exports to other countries.

The economic risks for Australia therefore look less severe than some might fear.

All of this, however, depends on how far the virus ultimately spreads.

Wuhan coronavirus: How upfront has Beijing been?

The difficulties of managing a public health crisis have been accentuated by timing, on the eve of Lunar New Year (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
The difficulties of managing a public health crisis have been accentuated by timing, on the eve of Lunar New Year (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 24 Jan 2020 13:00   0 Comments

It is too early to make a definitive judgement about how Beijing has handled the outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China.

But it is already clear that any assessment will have to take into account not just the medical side of the virus’s spread. Just as important in a public health crisis is how the authorities manage the disclosure of the information about the virus within the government, and to the public.

So far, the handling of the crisis seems to have underlined one of the ongoing problems with the authoritarian strictures of the party-state, which places a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability.

In such a system, lower-level officials have no incentive to report problems until Beijing allows them to do so. Under the rule of Xi Jinping, such restrictions have only grown tighter.

The difficulties of managing a public health crisis have been accentuated by this one’s timing – on the eve of Lunar New Year, when literally millions of people would have been coming from Wuhan, a transport hub. Any official shutting down Wuhan would also have been shutting down the new year, a time when millions of Chinese get to reunite and celebrate as a family.

Screening arriving passengers with thermal scanners at Hankou railway station in Wuhan (Photo: AFP via Getty)

Beijing has already had a test run in how not to handle a crisis of this kind, when the flu-like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) began spreading in late 2002.

China initially delayed responding to requests for more information from the World Health Organisation when the virus first appeared in southern China in November 2002. It wasn’t until February 2003 that Beijing told the WHO. As late as April, Beijing was still suppressing the numbers of people who were infected. It took a courageous doctor at the military hospital in Beijing, who informed the foreign media about the true count of patients, to force Beijing to deal with the issue openly.

As a result, the epidemic took longer to control, it spread further, both in China and overseas, and more people died.

There was one other lesson for the whistle blowers. No one thanked them later. Just because they did good, they did not do well.

One reason for the quarantine order was that so many people in Wuhan had not been able to find a bed in a hospital in the city that they had begun to hop on planes and go elsewhere in the country looking for treatment.

Fast forward to 2020, and it is instructive to look at what has, and hasn’t, changed.

From all the reports coming out of China, albeit in a haphazard fashion, the medical and public health staff has performed with the skill that you would expect from highly skilled professionals. They isolated and identified the virus quickly.

But from that point onwards, the early signs are that the SARS syndrome has been at play again.

In early January, eight people in Wuhan were detained for “spreading rumours” about the virus. The official police report said they had been spreading “fake news” which had harmed social stability.

Various officials in Wuhan continued to downplay the spread of the virus in the opening weeks of the year. As late as Tuesday evening, the Hubei provincial party secretary and governor hosted a lavish Lunar New Year event, despite reports that many of the performers were ill.

But by then, the issue could no longer be contained. With infections and deaths rising, the authorities in Wuhan issued an order on Wednesday effectively quarantining the city, no small thing given its size and importance as a transport hub in central China.

One reason for the order was that so many people in Wuhan had not been able to find a bed in a hospital in the city that they had begun to hop on planes and go elsewhere in the country looking for treatment. Hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai and Dalian were reporting coronavirus patients, too. Some have been diagnosed in Hong Kong, and as far as the US.

Could the virus have been contained, and its spread limited, if officials in Wuhan had levelled with both their bosses, and the public, earlier? It is impossible to say, but at the moment, it certainly looks that way.