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Coronavirus pandemic

Zooming out of digital diplomacy

A screenshot of the ASEAN Brazil Open Ended Trioka Dialogue in August (Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr)
A screenshot of the ASEAN Brazil Open Ended Trioka Dialogue in August (Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr)
Published 13 Oct 2021 10:00   0 Comments

We’re firmly entrenched in an era of hybrid diplomacy, floating between in-person and videoconference diplomacy. In speaking to those in the game, three facts have come to light: there’s no turning back; videoconferences are inadequate; and the only way out, is forward.

Foreign ministries have already invested in platforms to ensure secure interaction with partners, and brought in consultants to maintain, train, and upskill staff to perform on these platforms. They have also implemented plans to reform hiring and recruitment to better reflect the new environment. Multilateral agencies have similarly trimmed the numbers of in-person conferences, increased and facilitated access to online meeting platforms, and started addressing questions of online protocol, norms, and procedures. As post-pandemic foreign ministry budgets tighten, the videoconference will become further entrenched.

Stuck with an inadequate platform, diplomacy needs to innovate.

However, videoconference diplomacy was an emergency measure, allowing a propped-up version of the practice to stumble on. But the solution was hardly modern, instead based on technologies more than three decades old had anyone bothered to use them. According to most diplomats, it serves as an inadequate platform on which to rest the practice of diplomacy.

Videoconference diplomacy lacks nuance, subtlety, and the personal touch. There are no breaks, sideline chats, quiet drinks, or steps outside to calm tensions, build rapport, or explore new opportunities. It lacks the “essence” of diplomacy.

The essence of diplomacy can be understood as the norms facilitating estranged interaction that have remained by and large continuous since humanity’s earliest ancestors met their neighbours, and decided to remain separate, but at peace. Over time, these norms became features of diplomatic systems across culture and time. They include the primacy of communication in spoken, written and/or symbolic and ceremonial form; a mode of thought emphasising patience, precision and deliberation; the development of a professional corps of cosmopolitan mediators with appropriate status, skill, and distinction; the development between corps a shared sense of purpose, rapport and behaviour, from which a “stock market of reputation” could form.

In an in-person conference setting, there are distinct modes of interaction in which the essence of diplomacy plays a prominent role: the administrative, the symbolic and ceremonial, public oratory, group and personal liaison, and intermediary liaison. Videoconference diplomacy allows interaction in the administrative and public oratory modes, but severely limits interaction in the symbolic and ceremonial, group and personal liaison, and intermediary liaison modes. Videoconferences do not build trust. This means much of the essence of diplomacy is lost.

As one diplomat put it, a young diplomat starts working with partner country diplomats at the same level. They age together, develop professionally together, and throughout their career recognise each other as reliable or unreliable colleagues seeking to solve the same problems together – and that relationship starts in the quiet moments of idle conversation they share on their first posting, during breaks from serving senior diplomats. How can young diplomats build such relationships in videoconference?

The Seminar for Diplomats 2021 at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria, 7 September (Fiorda Llukmani/IAEA)

Videoconferences also reinforce long-term trends that weaken the essence of diplomacy. The most significant of these is the growing tendency of the executive to not just formulate and plan, but also implement policy. When the executive implements policy, personal and party supporters take roles previously assigned to diplomats. The executive no longer receives advice borne of institutional memory and professional knowledge embedded in foreign ministries but rather advice borne of ideology and/or political acumen. Most importantly, the wisdom of utilising intermediaries in interaction with partners is forgotten.

The result is policy implementation that becomes increasingly narrow in scope, more politicised, and sometimes erratic and emotional. Patience, precision and deliberation gives way to opportunity in the electoral cycle. Politicians are not diplomats.

The “second life” diplomats once led for three-year stints at post could in the future be replaced by three-hour stints in a simulated virtual environment.

Stuck with an inadequate platform, diplomacy needs to innovate. Videoconference diplomacy could be what the airship was to innovation in transport technology. Airships allowed travel over the Atlantic but specific drawbacks meant they never replaced the ocean liner. Yet, within three decades people were squeezed into economy class with peanuts and a Chardonnay, crossing the Atlantic in airplanes. Airships were a stepping-stone to the airplane. Videoconference diplomacy could be an inconvenient, awkward, difficult moment on the way to a more digitally enabled future for diplomacy.

There are hints as to where diplomacy could go. Simulation platforms adapted to use facial expression and body movement recognition, whole body avatars, proximity interaction, and augmented reality environments can already replicate the entire United Nations diplomatic experience, everything from “chance” meetings with an interlocutor on the Plaza before passing security, to turning your back and exiting the General Assembly chamber as a least favourite leader speaks.

Combine this with artificial intelligence hosting, facilitation, and mediation, instantaneous interpretation and translation, and big data inputs into foresight and decision-making, and the “second life” diplomats once led for three-year stints at post could in the future be replaced by three-hour stints in a simulated virtual environment.

The “essence” of diplomacy is not lost, it’s just frozen on a poor video connection. For diplomats, innovators, and students of diplomatic studies, it’s time to think beyond the videoconference.

Australia should donate surplus vaccine to Indonesia

Part of a shipment of 500,000 AstraZeneca delivered by Australia to Indonesia in September (Timothy Tobing/Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
Part of a shipment of 500,000 AstraZeneca delivered by Australia to Indonesia in September (Timothy Tobing/Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
Published 12 Oct 2021 10:00   0 Comments

In the middle of this pandemic, every vaccine is precious. Australia should give its spare locally-made AstraZeneca vaccines to friends in Indonesia.

Indonesia has a vacuum of need for vaccines that is predominantly being filled by China, and yet Australia happens to have millions of spare doses that could save thousands of Indonesian lives. In these circumstances, it is in Australia’s interest to be confident and generous in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia’s first priority with vaccination aid was to support the Pacific. Yet the Pacific’s supply is now guaranteed, and Australia still has surplus doses.

Besides, the challenges that face Pacific nations are not just supply, but also the logistics of distribution to very remote and, at times, hesitant populations. The largest Pacific population, Papua New Guinea, has been a major target of vaccine aid from Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, PNG has been unable to distribute their vaccines fast enough and has even been forced to transfer some to other countries to avoid wasting their supplies.

At home, Australia started its vaccine rollout far too late, but is now on a journey to reach some of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Despite having a shortage of supply during the crucial winter months that led to extended lockdowns for major cities, Australia now has the reverse dilemma – a growing stockpile of over six million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines sitting in fridges and an ongoing production of one million doses a week.

The more Indonesia and other neighbours are protected from the virus, the safer Australia will be from future incursions and potentially new variants.

Australia must not let what is a remarkably good and overwhelmingly safe vaccine expire. It would be negligent to hold onto the millions of spare AstraZeneca doses while friends are battling this pandemic without enough protection. From a purely self-interested perspective, Indonesia is a close neighbour, friend, strategic partner and the world’s third largest democracy.

Indonesia has only fully vaccinated a little under 20 per cent of its population, with around 35 per cent having received at least one dose. That leaves nearly two-thirds of its population without having had any vaccine.

Complicating Indonesia’s rollout further is the fact that it is an archipelago. Given Australia still faces significant challenges reaching some remote populations, it’s easy to imagine the logistical hurdles facing a nation with the world’s fourth largest population spread across so many islands.

Despite this, Indonesia is still administering approximately 1.2 million doses a day and at that rate would be able to use Australia’s surplus vaccines within a week.

At work in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the informal economy (ILO Asia Pacific/Flickr)

Thus far, Indonesia’s vaccination needs have been filled by the Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. Indonesia has supplemented these vaccines by prioritising its limited supply of Moderna to its most at-risk healthcare workers, but the overwhelming need for more vaccines remains.

Other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, are already supplementing their Chinese-made vaccines with other recognised options. Thailand already uses AstraZeneca as a booster to their Sinovac vaccines.

Despite early supply constraints, the AstraZeneca vaccines are more efficacious than the Chinese vaccines and make Australia an attractive partner for Indonesia and its largely unvaccinated population.

Indonesia has already suffered a deadly second Covid wave, peaking in July of this year, and the risk of a third one is on the horizon. Indonesia’s death rate grew to more than 2,000 cases a day in July, and its cumulative death rate of over 500 per million ranks it among the highest in the region.

At the time, the Morrison government did announce it would donate 2.5 million doses to Indonesia in July, delivering only around 500,000 by September.

Unfortunately, successive Coalition governments also dramatically cut Australian health programs in Indonesia prior to the pandemic. This diminished Australia’s capacity to help Indonesia combat communicable diseases prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But limiting Australia’s assistance in Indonesia not only limits the country’s influence, but it also increases the likelihood of local Indonesian outbreaks of various diseases arriving on Australian shores. This year has served as a reminder that until the virus is quashed everywhere, it’s always at risk of spreading. And as global experts have warned, a country cannot afford to only vaccinate itself – getting on top of this virus means a need to vaccinate the world.

So, for all the debate about when to ease restrictions at home, Australia is in the fortunate position to be able to help its neighbours. The more Indonesia and other neighbours are protected, the safer Australia will be from future incursions and potentially new variants.

The Morrison government has been, in my view, short-sighted about the potential benefits of Australian aid to generate influence overseas – but donating surplus vaccine supply is a perfect opportunity to change that.

Indonesia could use the help and it’s clearly in Australia's interest to support the region achieve high vaccination rates, especially when Australia has the luxury to offer help. More than that, it’s the right thing to do.

Indonesia: painted politics

A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 30 Sep 2021 10:30   0 Comments

Street art has been much discussed across Indonesia’s airwaves in the last couple of months. Three spray-painted murals expressing a critical perspective on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic were quickly covered over by officials, igniting heated debates about free expression and the role of street art in national politics harking back to the country’s independence struggle.

Although the graffiti controversy has dimmed slightly in recent weeks, the debate could soon surge again with the potential for a third wave of the pandemic in Indonesia – with the country already an epicentre for the virus and one of the biggest contributors of daily cases globally.

The murals appeared in the context of complaints about official responses to Covid-19, with many of the problems in the health sector still to be addressed. The most controversial street art was painted in a tunnel on the outskirts of Jakarta, depicting a figure that resembled President Joko Widodo with his eyes covered and captioned “404: Not found”. Evidently a reference to the internet standard “404” error when a hyperlink is broken, the image has become a symbol for many in Indonesia disenchanted with the government, while the phrase “404: Not found” has turned into a rallying cry for freedom of expression. The street art ruffled the feathers of authorities, who claimed it insulted the President as “a state symbol”, leading police to search for the unknown creators.

Two other murals fed the polemic. Graffiti with the words “Tuhan Aku Lapar” (God, I’m Hungry) and “Dipaksa Sehat di Negara Yang Sakit” (Forced to be Healthy in a Sick Country) were also later censored.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945.

The administration is seemingly sensitive to the shortcomings in its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which has been widely criticised as inadequate. But the crackdown has only drawn more attention to it. The chasing down of street artists has prompted the university students alliance Gejayan Memanggil in the city of Yogyakarta to call for mural contests, giving rise to aspiring Indonesian Banksys.

“This should be seen as policy feedback for government,” Adinda Tenriangke Muchtar, Executive Director for Jakarta-based think tank The Indonesian Institute, told me in an interview. “When we talk about democracy and abiding by the law, we need to question whether there is discrimination in society that incites this kind of expression – simply because people don’t have avenues to be heard or [responses to] their aspirations are tone deaf when submitted through formal political channels.”

The feedback reached the top. In his State of Union address in August, Jokowi, as the President is widely known, said he was aware that the government had received criticism for failing to resolve a number of problems. He thanked the people for their feedback and called them to continue to build a “democratic culture”.

Police subsequently announced that they would no longer pursue the creators of the “404: Not Found” mural, describing it as a “work of art”. Instead, they announced a mural contest with a Chief-of-Police Cup as a trophy. But observers saw this move as far too late. The threat of criminal charges had already been made and the desired “chilling effect” already achieved. Citizens will undoubtedly be much more hesitant about similar public expressions of criticism in the future. But then again, the writing has long been on the wall in Indonesian politics.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945. The most iconic example was the phrase “Freedom is the Glory of any Nation. Indonesia for Indonesians!” captured by Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys. Historian JJ Rizal explained that the mural became an outlet for people in the newly-born nation to despise colonialism. The kind of work that Oorthuys’ camera recorded has long been both a means of mass communication and a valuable propaganda tool.

Other murals in West Java shot by photographer J. C. Taillie in 1947, such as “Terus Berjuang oentoek Keselamatan Bersama” (Keep Fighting for Our Safety), depicted pro-independence spirit, whereas graffiti scrawled on the wall of a house in West Java that same year called for “Full Independence and International Brotherhood of All Freedomloving Peoples”.

Indonesia’s street arts became a distinct subculture in the New Order era under Suharto, where a group of artists in Yogyakarta called Taring Padi created several murals as avenues to give voice to public critics. After Reformasi in the late 1990s, street art flourished in the country, with Respecta Street Art Gallery (RSAG) establishing Indonesian Street Art Database, a network of independently managed, community-based efforts towards a more comprehensive historical archive of murals, accessible not only to passers-by, but also to the public at large.

There seems no doubt that murals will continue to play a crucial role in Indonesia’s political discussions.

Diagnosing Indonesia’s health challenges

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector: A Covid-19 patient at a general hospital in Bogor in January (Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images)
Long before the pandemic, Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector: A Covid-19 patient at a general hospital in Bogor in January (Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 14 Sep 2021 10:00   0 Comments

In July, Indonesia was dubbed one of the global epicentres for Covid-19. Media reports warned of a health system collapse and cemeteries overwhelmed with burial demands. But a little more than a month later, Indonesia’s situation seems to be improving. The second week of September marked seven consecutive weeks of falling case numbers.

Those headline figures can obscure local challenges. The latest figures from the World Health Organisation suggest that the situation has improved nationally but concerns remain about the possibility of a prolonged outbreak outside Java, where health infrastructure is poor. Gaps in vaccination rates between regions and continuing issues with testing mean that Indonesia still has challenges ahead.

Last month, presenting the 2022 budget to the parliament, Indonesia’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani emphasised that the proportion of money allocated to the health sector in the next year will comprise 9.4 per cent of total spending, much higher than the minimum of five per cent mandated by law. While a significant part of the health budget will be allocated to deal with Covid-19, the Minister highlighted that there will also be support for health system reform. A particular aim will be strengthening health promotion and preventive functions.

Covid-19 has amplified the specific vulnerabilities in Indonesia’s health systems in need of urgent attention.

But it would be misleading to suggest that the pandemic has unmasked the vulnerabilities in the health system. Many chronic problems in Indonesia’s health system, including gaps in health infrastructure, the availability and quality of health workers, inequities in access to health care, to name a few, have long been apparent. A major review of the Indonesian health system published in 2017 outlined a comprehensive list of necessary reforms.

Indonesia has been consistently underinvesting in its health sector, spending only about three per cent of its GDP on health. Decentralisation in 2001 shifted much of the control of public expenditure on health and service delivery to local governments, leading to arguments about geographical disparity in health infrastructure and service delivery. Other indicators point out the persistent gender disparities in health.

Donning personal protective equipment in the pandemic (F. Latief/ILO Asia-Pacific/Flickr)

The years since 2001 have seen a series of reforms in the health sector, including efforts to improve the quality of health workers in 2013, and most importantly the adoption of universal health care in 2014. However, experts continued to argue that more reforms are needed to address the challenges posed by the country’s changing demographic and epidemiological landscape.

For example, despite a decline in infant and child mortality rates and a corresponding increase in life expectancy over the past five decades, stunting among children and anaemia among women continues to be a problem, indicating underinvestment in improving nutrition as well as challenges related to food security. Questions have also been raised about the sustainability of universal health care, particularly with high costs of treatment and economic loss due to non-communicable disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular illness.

A weak system for collecting vital statistics meant Covid case numbers and fatality rates went under-reported, also complicating the vaccination roll-out.

Covid-19 has amplified the specific vulnerabilities in Indonesia’s health systems in need of urgent attention. Disruptions to health services including essential services to children and mothers and services for people suffering non-communicable diseases in the early days of the pandemic have been widely documented.

The expanded public expenditure budget on health for 2022 reflects the increased priority, at least in the short term, on the health sector. Yet many difficult trade-offs remain. A large proportion of the health budget for the coming year will still be allocated to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The emphasis on strengthening and transforming primary care, aligned with a call by the World Health Organisation, may come at the expense of secondary and tertiary care. Beyond expenditure issues, health reforms will likely also require regulatory changes, including those governing the production and distribution of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and licensing of the health workforce.

More importantly, many regulations and policies that affect the health system are outside the sector. One example is trade policy. Only last month, the government threatened to impose new restrictions on the import of medical equipment and supplies that can be produced domestically. This approach is reminiscent of the government export ban on medical supplies in March 2020, which ended up backfiring.

A further challenge is the lack of high-quality data necessary to mount an effective response to the pandemic. A weak system for collecting vital statistics meant Covid case numbers and fatality rates went under-reported, and complicated the vaccination roll-out.

Such problems in Indonesia’s health system have been known for years. What has changed is that the pandemic has sounded a clarion call for urgent action.

This theme will be discussed at the Australian National University’s 2021 Indonesia Update, In Sickness and In Health: Diagnosing Indonesia, to be held online from 15–17 September. The Update will feature leading scholars and practitioners discussing the ways Indonesia and Indonesians have encountered, navigated, and overcome the challenges of achieving longer and better quality of life. Information and registration details can be found here.

Cruising into stormy weather

For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Published 4 Aug 2021 13:00   0 Comments

Cruise ships became an unhappy herald of global distress in the first weeks of the pandemic. The virus leapt from deck to deck in the close quarters of these huge floating palaces. Ship owners scrambled. Where once cheerful and cashed-up tourists had been welcomed by their thousands, vessels were abruptly barred from port. Only the challenge compounded. Stranded passengers had to be returned home.

For the cruise industry, 2020 exposed a business model that had sailed to riches on the currents of modern globalisation. First and hardest hit, much like the airline industry, its major “cargo” is people rather than goods. Ships that once made major contributions of local economies transiting the islands of the Pacific, bumping along the Mediterranean coastline, weaving through Asia or up and down Africa, North and South America – anywhere waters could carry them – were “warehoused” in great marooned fleets off the Philippines and elsewhere.

In 2019 cruising attracted nearly 30 million passengers. Yet estimates since the resumption of cruising in late 2020 report only 600,000 passengers have braved the decks.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), as business ground to a halt over the course of six months in early 2020, it was estimated that 2500 jobs were lost every day in a sector that previously would have generated US$50 billion in wages and supported 1.17 million employees in the same period.

Many vessel owners found themselves orphaned as the pandemic struck. With ships registered under flags of convenience and companies incorporated in countries such as Liberia or Panama, crewed by multinational labour, fearful governments only felt obliged to the fate of their own citizens. The companies, with their millions of dollars in capital investments, could fend for themselves, leaving a hazy horizon into which the cruise industry sails.

Cruise ships anchored at Manila Bay, Philippines, on 31 May 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

But the CLIA estimates that by September 2021, around 57 per cent of the industry will be back in operation, rising to 77 per cent by the end of December. With new rules in place on passenger numbers, social distancing and public health measures, as well as inevitable outbreaks, the numbers will take time to recover. Still, the optimism is nonetheless striking.

And massive investments already made are a powerful incentive to salvage the industry. Prior to the pandemic, cruise lines are said to have invested almost US$24 billion in new greener vessels. In 2020, the maritime industry was supposed to see the ramping up of clean shipping – which included a shift from the nearly three per cent of global carbon emissions that shipping currently produces, to a 40 per cent reduction on 2008 carbon intensity levels by 2030.

The ambition will be tempered. Most vessels would have been ordered well before any fears of a global health crisis emerged. They were designed for pre-pandemic conditions. With the Covid outbreak and subsequent decline in passenger numbers that would ordinarily absorb the heavy investments by cruise lines, the ship operators will inevitably have to carry the costs or increase ticket prices, reducing the industry from a mass market tourist attraction to more of a niche player.

To give a sense of the shuddering cost, in 2019 cruising attracted nearly 30 million passengers. Yet CLIA estimates that since the resumption of cruising in late 2020, only 600,000 passengers have braved the decks, mostly from the United States, Singapore, the Caribbean and Europe – regions that traditionally have had the most enthusiastic cruise customers.

And not everyone is happy to see the cruise liners haul into view. In Barcelona, for example, a city long troubled by concern over tourist traps, local protests greeted the lifting of a ban on cruisers in June that had been in place since coronavirus struck. Similar protests took place in Venice.

Protests at Barcelona’s harbour on 19 June 2021 after Spain’s transport ministry lifted a ban on international cruise ships (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

Adding to the extra costs will be the price of operating on greener fuels as the maritime industry as a whole makes the transition to zero carbon and carbon neutral energy by 2050.

In the United States, home to the world’s most lucrative cruise market, President Joe Biden’s US$1.9 trillion Covid relief stimulus package may be the cruise lines’ major source of hope. US economic research indicates that Americans were spending up to 42 per cent of their stimulus cheques.

Nevertheless, even the flush US consumer may not be able to save the cruise industry from the aggressive new regulations that are expected to be implemented in Europe, which in turn will add pressure on the global maritime regulator, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), to follow suit.

A growing and vociferous environmental lobby has focused on the effects of cruising on the marine environment.

In the latest raft of regulations from the IMO, existing vessels will need to meet new rules on operational emissions, with the carbon intensity of international shipping to be reduced by 40 per cent in the next decade. These measures are due to be enforced from 2023. Effectively, tomorrow in shipping terms. However, the IMO has come under fire for its lack of ambition, not least from some of the early movers looking to shift to greener fuels, who fear they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Moreover, the European Union has included the maritime sector in its Emissions Trading Scheme for the first time and the expectation is that this will be enforced from 2023, adding yet more costs for operators.

A criticism aimed at both the IMO and EU regulators is that the new rules will allow the shipping industry to continue to pollute through a lack of controls over the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG). According to CLIA, some 51 per cent of cruise ships currently on order will be fuelled by LNG, which is considered less polluting than diesel as it produces fewer particulates and sulphur and nitrous oxide emissions

However, environmental organisations have expressed alarm that methane, which can be a residual element of the exhaust gases, as well as methane leakage in the mining and transportation processes, could see rising levels of methane deposited into the atmosphere. And methane is around 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although it remains in the atmosphere for less time.

Armed with this knowledge and the growing pressure on the maritime industry – and the cruise industry in particular – most observers expect further, more stringent, measures to be applied to the shipping industry in the next few years, with regulators targeting LNG as a fuel well before the end of this decade.

In addition, there is a growing and vociferous environmental lobby that has focused on the effects of cruising on the marine environment – from problems caused by invasive species carried in the ballast water tanks of larger ships, to the detrimental effects of large-diameter propellers on local ecosystems. A recent example includes the alleged damage to the coral reef around the Mexican island of Cozumel.

Cruise passengers on board before disembarking on 19 June 2021 in Cartagena, Spain (Alfonso Duran/Getty Images)

The cruise industry has altered dramatically since early 2020, and the changes so far are only the early moves in a protracted transition. Expectations of consolidation in an industry where there are few players are not far-fetched. Reduced demand and substantially inflated prices will play into this scenario. The question for cruise companies is how much of a burden the transition to climate-friendly fuels will be.

Meanwhile, those who were employed in the cruise industry prior to the Covid pandemic are finding jobs hard to come by, particularly those who worked in the vessels’ hotel sections.

If shipping is to make the transition to greener technology, that too may limit employment opportunities, with a decrease in demand for new vessels impacting cruise ship building, which is centred mainly in European yards, in Finland, Italy and France, with smaller vessels built in Norway.

It is the acute and urgent changes to the economic ecosystem of the cruise business that will mean, by 2030, cruising will be unrecognisable from the industry that set sail at the start of the decade.

Cruise liner Ruby Princess is moored in Port Kembla, near Wollongong, NSW, with more than 1000 quarantined crew on board in April 2020 (Department of Defence) 

Sun, surf and a sandbox escape from a pandemic

Locals and some of the first tourist to arrive in Phuket enjoy the beach in Nai Harn on 4 July (Thomas De Cian/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Locals and some of the first tourist to arrive in Phuket enjoy the beach in Nai Harn on 4 July (Thomas De Cian/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 14 Jul 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Before the pandemic, Thai island Phuket offered visitors the perfect blend of sun, beach and seedy-but-fun nightlife as one of the region’s best-known tourist destinations. Now, it offers visitors something much more novel: a quarantine free holiday.

As of the start of July, fully vaccinated visitors from select countries can fly directly into Phuket and go straight from the tarmac to the beach. Spend a full 14 days there and visitors (or savvy Thai nationals) are welcome to continue their trip around Thailand, effectively spending their quarantine term in a resort under a program that is being called the “Phuket sandbox”.

The program isn’t without controversy. Fears over the safety of Phuket communities, as well as cynical assumptions that few would take up the confusing and expensive offer, blighted the program in its first weeks. Still, if it goes well, expect to see other holiday favourites such as Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao accessible shortly afterward.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to record a case of Covid-19 which saw tourism grind to a halt in the first couple of months of 2020.

Thailand was the first country outside of China to record a case of Covid-19 which, paired with mass cancellations of trips from Chinese visitors, saw tourism grind to a halt in the first couple of months of 2020. The sharp, sudden decline in visitor numbers and then eventual rolling lockdowns smashed the country, where tourism accounts for around 12 per cent of GDP.

The delicate balance between economic imperative and public health has been revealing of governments around the world. In Thailand, that balance has looked desperate as the government moved to open something – anything, anywhere – to tourism.

Phuket is a natural choice. With a long-time reputation as one of Thailand’s best resort islands, Phuket has the infrastructure, particularly an international airport, to support the program. And as one of the most visitor-dependent provinces in a country already vulnerable to the whims of tourism, it is among the most desperate.

For the half a million residents of Phuket the “sandbox” is a double-edged sword. The tourism industry has been all but destroyed by a year of no visitors, but public health is also paramount. The government in Bangkok promised the plan would not go ahead until the community reached 70 per cent vaccination by the 1 July launch, which did in the end fall short – but only slightly. The province has been plagued by the same issues as the mainland in terms of securing vaccine stock and navigating complicated online systems. Still, the vaccination program will continue alongside the opening of the sandbox.

Long tail boats at low tide, Phuket, Thailand (Ryan Kartzke/Flickr)

Full vaccination can’t come soon enough. At least six tourists have tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving on the island under the sandbox program. One of the first to be identified was a visitor from United Arab Emirates who had taken the test as part of requirements upon arrival. Drivers and hotel staff who had come into contact with the man were placed into self-isolation. Health officials confirmed the tourist was vaccinated fully with the Sinopharm vaccine.

Worry more about domestic arrivals,” provincial chief doctor Kusak Kukiattikoon told local media. His blunt words refer to the growing disaster on the mainland, with new daily record deaths as the Delta variant surges through the country. Fresh restrictions are expected imminently including restrictions on interprovincial travel – essentially ending the quasi-quarantine of Phuket before heading elsewhere.

Ironically, the launch of the Phuket sandbox may have become a spreader event for the political elite in Bangkok who attended. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who proudly attended the launch on the island, went into self-isolation after an attendee tested positive. Spokespeople for the prime minister’s office reassure that he has so far tested negative and will continue his work as usual.

He may well use that time spruiking the sandbox idea to other leaders in the region. As planned travel bubbles, such as that between Singapore and Australia, collapse under the weight of new cases and unsteady vaccine programs, the sandbox could become an option for other tourist-friendly countries in Southeast Asia.

“The sandbox is much more than just for Phuket or Thailand. It sets a possible way forward for other Asian countries,” tourism magnate Ho Kwon Ping told Bloomberg. He pointed to other possible locales such as China’s Hainan province, islands in Vietnam or even Indonesia’s Bali. That may be overly ambitious for the time being, but it shows an industry pivoting towards creative ideas which acknowledge the pandemic is a long way from being over.

By the end of the year Phuket expects to have played host to 100,000 visitors. A long cry from the 10 million in years past but a respectable start for a devastated community fighting its way back.

Covid crisis deepens in junta-ruled Myanmar

People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 Jul 2021 10:30   0 Comments

A worsening third wave of Covid-19 is a cruel new blow in Myanmar, still reeling from the human costs of the coup on 1 February, and with a military junta more focused on combatting dissent than combatting the virus.

Thousands of new cases have arisen since late May, and the Delta, Alpha and Kappa variants have been detected. From 1 to 11 July, the junta-run health ministry reported almost 35,000 cases nationally and over 500 deaths. But low testing rates, and the regime’s haphazard pandemic response more broadly, mean these figures only provide a partial picture.

Cases have been reported among people detained in Yangon’s overcrowded Insein Prison; among border guard police in western Rakhine State; and in the town of Myawaddy on the border with Thailand. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, the six hospitals accepting Covid patients are reportedly at capacity.

In Kalay, a town in northwest Myanmar where locals have fiercely resisted army rule, aid workers and residents have estimated hundreds of Covid-related deaths and pictures on social media show people queuing to replenish scarce oxygen supplies. One local resident told Radio Free Asia that a local crematorium was overwhelmed and people were having to fend for themselves.



The outbreak has also breached Myanmar’s borders, with parts of Ruili, a city in China’s Yunnan Province bordering Myanmar, sent into lockdown after a string of cases were detected, including among several Myanmar nationals.

The Myanmar junta has progressively announced a patchwork of restrictions, including stay-at-home orders for a number of townships in the commercial center of Yangon, the capital Naypyidaw, and across at least six other states and regions. On 8 July, schools were ordered to close across the country for two weeks to stem infections.

But given the extent to which the military has terrorised the population to cement its rule in the months since 1 February, trust in the regime’s pandemic response is understandably low.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid.

After the coup, testing, surveillance and vaccination all fell away, according to UNICEF’s Myanmar office. As Covid spread silently, state media spent more time denouncing dissenters and extolling the regime’s imaginary achievements than on urgent public health messaging.

Under Myanmar’s civilian government, Dr Htar Htar Lin was in charge of the country’s vaccine rollout, which had begun only days before the military seized power. In mid-June, she was arrested in downtown Yangon (along with her husband and seven-year-old son) for her involvement in the nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The detention of a high-profile health professional, while the country grapples with its worst surge in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, gives a sense of the junta’s priorities.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid. The military crackdown itself has left almost 900 people dead, more than 5,000 detained, and some 200,000 people internally displaced. Parts of the country, in both urban and rural towns, have seen armed resistance; decades-old conflicts continue in ethnic nationality areas; and a collapsing economy is pushing more people into poverty.

Any country would struggle to contain the current Covid outbreak, but in post-coup Myanmar the challenges appear particularly acute. High among them is the junta’s relentless pursuit of its critics at all costs, including the continued targeting of medical workers – further damaging an already struggling health system.

Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of workers’ strikes in protest at army rule, placing them in a difficult bind as rising numbers of people seek medical treatment for Covid-19. Some medics have resorted to providing care in secret.

The junta’s response has been brutal. At least 240 attacks on healthcare facilities, personnel, ambulances and patients have been recorded since the coup. Twelve healthcare workers have been killed, hospitals taken over, and more than 150 medical personnel arrested, according to Insecurity Insight, an organisation specialising in risk assessments. As Physicians for Human Rights noted, “the human rights emergency of the coup is morphing into a public health disaster.”

Queues for Covid-19 tests in Mangshi in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, bordering Myanmar in China’s southwestern Yunnan province (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Like all countries that don’t produce vaccines, Myanmar will need to scramble to secure doses in the months ahead. But the junta’s plans are typically opaque.

Myanmar had secured an initial batch of vaccine from India prior to the coup, some of which were then reportedly appropriated by the military. But supplies from India dried up as that country focused on its own severe outbreak. China has since donated 500,000 doses and the junta recently revealed it is negotiating with Russia to purchase a supply of the Sputnik vaccine.

The country’s vaccine rollout is also complicated by the fact some people are rejecting vaccination in protest at the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted de facto leader, detained since February and only sighted in a few brief court appearances, has reportedly had her two doses.

As Myanmar’s Covid crisis deepens, its neighbours may not be in a position to offer much assistance, with countries across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, all experiencing their own worst outbreaks to date. As has invariably been the case under decades of military rule, Myanmar citizens are being left to draw on their own strength and resources.

Aiding the Pacific during Covid: An update

Oxygen concentrators are unloaded in April at Jacksons airport, Port Moresby, PNG (United Nations in PNG/Flickr)
Oxygen concentrators are unloaded in April at Jacksons airport, Port Moresby, PNG (United Nations in PNG/Flickr)
Published 5 Jul 2021 06:00   0 Comments

More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, how much outside financial support is the Pacific receiving and how far does this go in helping the region weather the crisis?

This time last year in The Interpreter we took stock of the provision of Covid-19 related external financial assistance to the Pacific. Back then, the pandemic was rapidly taking hold but the international community’s response was only just getting started. Announced support had reached US$570 million or 1.7% of the region’s GDP – far below what was needed given the scale of the pandemic shock to the Pacific’s small and vulnerable economies. Additional support was also available from the International Monetary Fund via its expanded rapid financing windows. But only Samoa and Solomon Islands had been able to access this at the time. 

After avoiding the worst for many months, Covid-19 outbreaks are now underway in a number of Pacific countries. So where do things stand in terms of the provision of international financial assistance?

The multilateral development banks have scaled up their support significantly over the past year, with over $1 billion in Covid-19 related support. Bilateral donors have also responded with about $700 million, mostly in the form of cheap loans from Japan and Australia. The G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) first announced in April last year has now been extended by a year to the end of 2021, allowing Pacific governments to in total defer $480 million (1.5% of regional GDP) otherwise due to bilateral creditors. Curiously, however, there has been limited uptake of the expanded IMF rapid financing windows despite their large potential scale. Only PNG and Tonga have also turned to the IMF since our last stocktake, with Tonga accessing half of its annual quota.

The big recent news is the expected allocation of $650 billion in new IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). SDRs come with no conditionality and can be readily exchanged for hard currency. Calls for a new SDR allocation have been made since the start of the pandemic but were blocked by the Trump administration, a position the Biden administration has now reversed.

The new SDR allocation is expected to be completed by late August. The Pacific should be among the biggest beneficiaries relative to economic size, receiving around $700 million in new SDRs – equal to about 2% of regional GDP. The Pacific might also benefit substantially further depending on what happens with plans for richer countries to channel their own new SDRs to poorer and more vulnerable countries that need them more.

Overall, the scale of external financial assistance to the Pacific now looks very sizeable, as shown on the chart below. Including the expected allocation of new SDRs, and only including IMF rapid financing amounts that have actually been accessed, the total scale of external financial support to the Pacific now amounts to $3.3 billion or around 10 per cent of the region’s annual GDP. And, unlike at the time of our previous stocktake, the majority of this constitutes new money in response to the pandemic, rather than reprioritised or frontloaded financing that the Pacific was going to get anyway before Covid-19 struck.

There is, however, a lot of important variation across countries. The scale of support is very large in many of the smaller Pacific economies but relatively low in PNG, the largest country in the Pacific by a wide margin.

How far does all this go towards meeting the Pacific’s financing needs?  

In December last year we published a Lowy Institute Policy Brief estimating that the Pacific required at least $3.5 billion in additional recovery financing over the next three years in order to avoid a lost decade due to the pandemic. Crucially, this additional financing needed to be above and beyond that which the Pacific had either already received or was otherwise expected to receive in our baseline scenario. Although total Covid-19 related external assistance has now reached $3.3 billion, most of this was already incorporated into our baseline at the time. That largely leaves only the expected $700 million allocation of new SDRs as true additional financing for the Pacific that should be counted towards our estimate of the required amount.

Nonetheless, the new SDR allocation will be significant – on its own taking the Pacific about a fifth of the way towards the $3.5 billion figure we estimated was needed over the next three years for the region’s recovery. There is also the potential that sizeable additional amounts might be made available if richer countries follow through on plans to channel their own new SDRs to poorer countries.

After having avoided the worst of the virus for so long, widespread vaccination is critical, but progress is mixed and most countries in the region are struggling.

How much the new SDRs do to lift the Pacific’s outlook will depend on whether and how effectively countries are able to capitalise on this to expand government spending on healthcare (including vaccine rollouts) and support to households, firms, and the economy in general – rather than mostly use the new SDRs to bolster central bank reserves (though in some cases this may be necessary).

Unfortunately, it is important to recognise that the outlook in the Pacific has also darkened considerably since we estimated the region’s recovery financing requirements late last year.

After having avoided the worst of the virus for so long, widespread vaccination is critical, but progress is mixed and most countries in the region are struggling. Vaccine supply and access now seem much more uncertain and difficult than what we assumed last year. And vaccine rollouts in Australia and New Zealand are also moving slower than expected – pushing back when the region’s vital tourism industry can hope to restart.

All of this bodes ill for the Pacific’s outlook and consequently how much external financial help it will need.

The bottom line? A lot of financial help is flowing to the Pacific and more is on its way. The scale up in international support to the region has so far been substantial. But there is no question vastly more is needed.

Main photo used with permission from United Nations in PNG via Flickr.

Thailand’s overcrowded prisons hit by Covid-19 surge

A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2021 12:00   0 Comments

Thailand emerged from the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the best performing countries in the world in terms of minimising cases and deaths. But 2021 has been a different story.

A surge in infections since the beginning of April has seen thousands of new cases each day and a spike in deaths. While authorities moved to close parks, gyms and cinemas (although shopping malls stayed open), mandated face masks in public and tightened quarantine requirements for travellers, the virus was already rampant in settings where social distancing wasn’t possible, including the country’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.

More than 17,000 people in prison have contracted Covid-19 in this third wave in Thailand, and the tally is rising daily. On 25 May, the Thai health ministry reported 882 new cases in prisons in the preceding 24 hours (alongside more than 2300 new cases among the general population). Prisons across greater Bangkok have been hit particularly hard, but cases have also been reported at prisons in Narathiwat in the south and Chiang Mai in the north.

As of 17 May, people in prison made up more than 70% of the 9635 new cases reported nationally that day. At one prison in Chiang Mai, some 61% of offenders tested positive.

It takes little imagination to comprehend the heightened health risks faced by people detained amid a global pandemic. Unsafe and unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, overcrowding and limited access to health services are issues in prisons around the world, and the physical and mental health of people in prisons is typically well below those living on the outside. Infections may be spread within and between prisons through new admissions, prisoner transfers, visits and staff deployments across multiple prisons, affecting people in prison, staff and the community.

Serious Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported in prisons in India, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom, to name a few. In the United States alone, as of 18 May, just under 398,000 people in prison had tested positive, with an estimated 2680 deaths, according to The Marshall Project, a not-for-profit group focused on reporting on the US criminal justice system. The figures are even higher when accounting for people across all detention settings, as tracked by the New York Times.

A protest sign at Bangkok Remand Prison in Bangkok in February calling for release of four activists being held on royal defamation charges (Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

In Thailand, which has consistently had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the risk of an outbreak was always high. With a total prison population currently estimated at over 307,000 – three times larger than the country’s official prison capacity – Thai prisons are chronically overcrowded. At one facility, the Thailand Institute of Justice recently reported that 35–45 people were forced to share a single cell, sleeping shoulder to shoulder. The country’s strict drug laws are a key factor fuelling imprisonment rates, with more than 80% of people estimated to be detained on drug-related offences.

The full scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons was only brought to light after several prominent student activists involved in anti-government protests last year, and detained on charges of insulting the king, revealed they had tested positive to the virus. Among those infected were Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who made headlines last year after publicly calling for reform of the monarchy, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, and several others who are now out on bail.

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

After being slow to act, Thai authorities are now scrambling to respond. Measures flagged to address the outbreak across multiple prisons include the ramping up of testing and vaccinations for people detained, an increase to the quarantine period for new prisoners to 21 days, a halt to prison transfers and consideration given to the early release of 50,000 people. Prison authorities were also instructed to establish field hospitals to treat patients.

However, few officials are sounding optimistic. “Prisons are overcrowded,” Aryut Sinthoppan, director-general of the corrections department, told reporters this month. “So there are limitations to hygiene and disease control efforts.”

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year (by 16%, according to one estimate) as a result of two mass releases in 2020, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

Prisons are not the only sites that have seen major outbreaks during this third wave. Factories and construction workers’ camps that include many migrant workers, as well as dense urban communities without adequate housing, have also been disproportionately affected. More than 2000 cases were detected at a single factory in Phetchaburi, south-west of Bangkok, more than half of whom are migrant workers from Myanmar.

Thailand’s vaccine roll-out is also attracting widespread criticism, with concerns over supply and distribution, and the urgent need to vaccinate people most at risk. An estimated 1.94 million people have received at least one Covid vaccine dose (either AstraZeneca or Sinovac) to date. Prime Minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is one of the lucky ones – earlier this week, he posed for the cameras with his vaccination certificate after receiving his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Fiji: Cannabis should be high on the government’s agenda

Cannabis leaves dry in a temperature controlled greenhouse in Thailand, which in 2018 became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise medical marijuana (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Cannabis leaves dry in a temperature controlled greenhouse in Thailand, which in 2018 became the first Southeast Asian country to legalise medical marijuana (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2021 05:00   0 Comments

Fiji’s capital Suva has been in and out of Covid lockdowns over recent weeks, and my Netflix got a workout. I watched a TV show called “Cooked with Cannabis”. Admittedly there were a few baked hippies, but the cooking was good. Jokes aside, the show revealed the sophisticated and lucrative global cannabis industry, projected to grow to an extraordinary US$90.4 billion internationally by 2026.

Watching the show also got me thinking about Fiji’s economy as the country fights through a second wave of the pandemic via containment measures and a vaccination drive. Fiji has taken an almighty hit. GDP was slashed to approximately $4.3 billion in 2020, with growth falling by 19%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Foreign tourists have vanished, all non-essential businesses have been forced to close, and the much mooted Pacific travel bubble is likely to be off the cards for the immediate future. With national debt levels soaring, a nasty storm is brewing.

Fiji needs to diversify its economy away from a reliance on tourism. Despite the government’s best efforts to provide relief through food ration deliveries and a $90 emergency payment to families affected by Covid, these well-intentioned initiatives have arguably fallen short. Many people complained that calls to the food-ration hotline went unanswered, or the deliveries never arrived, while the need for Fijians to provide tax details in order to claim the relief payments meant those in the informal sector were all but left behind.

That’s where cannabis presents an opportunity.

A cannabis industry in Fiji would not be limited to growing the crop. A whole value-add supply chain could be created.

Currently marijuana or saba (pronounced “samba”, yes, like the dance) is illegal in Fiji. But of course the leaf is grown. One of my favourite news pieces from 2020 was about villagers shooting down police drones with spear guns to hide their marijuana plantations on Kadavu, an island south of Suva. The police still managed to haul in crops said to have a street value of FJ$86 million (A$50 million) in a four-week operation and amount to the largest seizure ever in the country. 

But it seems ironic that at a time when some families can’t afford to put food on the table, millions of dollars worth of this currently illegal crop would be uprooted.

The over-reliance on tourism, comprising almost 40% of Fiji’s GDP before the pandemic has left economic void. Rebooting the agricultural sector is an area the Fijian government has identified as one which could be strengthened. Fiji has a solid history of agricultural exports. In the 1970s sugar exports accounted for 70% of the country’s export earnings. More recently, yaqona (kava) has been targeted as a growth opportunity in the sector, due to its widespread use in the region for relaxation and stress relief. Unfortunately, yaqona takes several years before it can be harvested. Like other agricultural products, it is also exposed to heightened risks of environmental damage, for example cyclones.

But “weed” is different. As the name suggests, cannabis is a resilient crop and capable of harvesting after three months. As the “spear gun incident” attests, it clearly grows well in Fiji.

With an ideal climate, remote islands capable of quarantining cannabis operations, a world renowned “brand Fiji” offers a special opportunity for economic diversification. Just look at Fiji Water.

The idea of a marijuana industry in Fiji is not new. The idea was debated most recently in March at a Nadi Chamber of Commerce roundtable. The government was adamant in response it has no plans to legalise marijuana.

But “legalisation” need not mean we all get “cooked with cannabis”. Fiji could do what other countries have done, legalising marijuana for medicinal and hemp fibre production, while banning recreational use. Such a move would follow similar regulation in countries including MalawiLesotho and Uganda, as well as Thailand in Southeast Asia, among others.

Security cameras show the marijuana greenhouses at the Rak Jang farm in Thailand on 25 March 2021 (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

A permit system could be created for growing marijuana on designated islands in Fiji. Alternatively, the government could create a stated owned company to manage production ­– afterall if there is a Fiji Sugar Corporation, why not a Fiji Cannabis Co.?

A cannabis industry in Fiji would not be limited to growing the crop. A whole value-add supply chain could be created, for example, through hemp fibre production (Fiji’s garment manufacturing industry has also felt the pinch under Covid), as well as labs to extract the valuable CBD oil, which is used for pain relief and various other ailments. This could all be carried out in Fiji and create jobs for Fijians.

There will be concern about any partial legalisation leading to greater recreational use of cannabis among the local population. It cannot be ruled out, but the same “slippery slope” argument can also apply to tobacco and alcohol as gateways to substance abuse. Those partial to the saba are still likely to partake, whether it is legal or not. These are the types of risks the government should be able to manage with responsible regulation and enforcement.

From a business perspective, there is a chance for Fiji to be the region’s “first mover” in the cannabis industry. Research and a feasibility study should be first undertaken to determine the viability and opportunity that a cannabis industry could present. From there, a better judgement can be made about what would be required to regulate it.

And just maybe the volatility of the pandemic could be the catalyst for Fiji to innovatively diversify the economy and generate a new export market to its advantage.

When border control goes over the line

Passengers after flying in to Australia from India on 15 May (Rohan Thomson/Getty Images)
Passengers after flying in to Australia from India on 15 May (Rohan Thomson/Getty Images)
Published 19 May 2021 11:00   0 Comments

The failure of the Australian government to return citizens and permanent residents from New Delhi on the first repatriation flight to Darwin since the recent shutdown of air travel from India amounts to an Australian policy failure and a breach of international law.

A travel ban on direct flights from India was imposed on 27 April in response to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. That was followed by 1 May orders issued under the Biosecurity Act that further halted all direct or indirect air travel from India, with potential criminal penalties of five years imprisonment, fines of up to $66,000, or both. Those orders expired on 15 May; however, all passengers boarding the now-resumed Qantas repatriation flights coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade must have secured two Covid-negative tests days prior to departure. This resulted in 70 passengers, made up of 46 who returned Covid-positive tests and 24 close contacts, being denied seats on the first flight. That plane landed in Darwin with only 80 of an anticipated 150 passengers on board, notwithstanding that the initial set of resumed repatriation flights were for the most vulnerable Australians in India.

Two more DFAT-coordinated flights are scheduled for May and, given the ongoing high incidence of Covid-19 in India, it must be anticipated that similar circumstances will arise and Australians will be denied a right to board. Australians in India are not awaiting their repatriation flights in controlled quarantine-style hotels and remain susceptible to community transmission. Alternate commercial air routes to Australia via transit countries are very limited at present, due to other countries also suspending flights from India.

The effect of these polices and laws is that many Australians are trapped in India awaiting the next DFAT-coordinated flight. On the basis that more than 9000 Australians are reported to be in India seeking repatriation, under current legal, policy and operational settings, it will take many months for them to arrive in Australia.

A Qantas plane carrying returning Australians at RAAF Base Darwin (Department of Defence)

Over the years, Australia has developed a reputation of coming to the aid of citizens in peril as a result of terrorist attacks, natural disaster, civil strife or armed conflict. In 2002, there was a medical evacuation of 70 Australians from Indonesia to Darwin following the terror attacks in Bali. “Operation Bali Assist” involved five RAAF Hercules aircraft, 12 crews and five aero-medical evacuation teams, and a total of 15 flights. During “Operation Sumatra Assist”, following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, there were a total of 70 aero-medical evacuations of 3530 Australians. More than 5200 Australians and 1200 other foreign nationals were also evacuated by the Australian government in 2006 as conflict engulfed Lebanon.

Likewise, Australians have been evacuated by the Australian Defence Force from regional trouble spots including Fiji (1987) and Solomon Islands (2000). These evacuations of Australians in peril, some of whom were critically ill and others who would have been carrying post-disaster illnesses such as dysentery and typhoid, had become such a regular part of military operations that “non-combatant evacuation operations” (NEOs) are now standard ADF training. DFAT has been keen to stress, however, that there are limits to such operations, as occurred when Australians were caught up in unrest in 2011 during the so-called Arab uprisings.

Australian governments have previously demonstrated a capacity to repatriate citizens in times of emergency and medevac the critically ill.

On 10 May this year legal proceedings challenging the Indian travel ban were dismissed by the Federal Court of Australia on the basis that Health Minister Greg Hunt had power under the Biosecurity Act to issue the 1 May orders. Constitutional legal arguments that there is a right of citizens to enter Australia were ultimately not heard.

International law is clearer on the right of citizen entry. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states in Article 12 (4) that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”. An exception exists in a time of “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” and the Australian government would no doubt argue that ministerial declarations under the Biosecurity Act have made clear that such conditions exist. This argument would be countered in view of the quarantine controls placed on all persons who enter Australia. The legality of the government’s travel caps are currently being challenged on these grounds before the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also creates obligations towards Australian children in India. Article 3 (1) makes clear that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” for administrative or legislative decision makers. This raises for consideration whether the rights of accompanied and unaccompanied Australian children in India denied entry to Australia have been taken into account.

The operative effect of the Biosecurity Act orders, and now the conditions of carriage on Australians boarding Indian repatriation flights, is that citizens are being left behind. All the evidence suggests some will continue to be stranded in India for many months. In 2020, DFAT undertook the herculean task of coordinating the repatriation of Australians from all parts of the globe. The outcomes were remarkable. DFAT supported the return of 26,600 Australians to 30 June 2020 on 315 flights from 90 countries, including 63 non-scheduled commercial flights.

In the case of India, however, Australia is clearly failing, and the government’s legal and policy response needs a reset. Australian governments have previously demonstrated a capacity to repatriate citizens in times of emergency and medevac the critically ill. The time has come for a shift in thinking with respect to Australians in India.

Patent waiver for vaccines is a plus, but no panacea

How long must the developing world wait for ready access to vaccine supplies? (throgers/Flickr)
How long must the developing world wait for ready access to vaccine supplies? (throgers/Flickr)
Published 19 May 2021 06:00   0 Comments

The United States has thrown its support behind demands from developing countries to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) rights for Covid-19 vaccines. Other rich countries, including Australia, that are yet to change their position at the World Trade Organisation should also do so with the hope of delivering a fast resolution.

The IP waiver would allow developing countries to manufacture or import generic vaccine doses without the permission of the patent-holding firms.

When it comes to patents, and other IP, the goal is always to balance the benefit of providing an incentive for innovation against the cost of restricting access to new ideas and technologies – in this case lifesaving vaccines.

Vaccine nationalism and commercial incentives threaten to leave developing countries stuck at the back of the queue even longer, increasing the risk of more dangerous variants emerging in a vicious cycle.

The WTO rules already recognise the need to circumvent IP for humanitarian reasons, following the shameful debacle two decades ago over access to HIV/AIDS treatments. However, proponents of the waiver say the existing WTO flexibilities are too cumbersome and inefficient, hence the need for a general waiver to cut through.

An accurate view of the value under patent also matters. The vaccines in question were developed by private companies, but with billions of dollars in direct public funding and other government support. In addition to rewarding private risk-taking, the patents therefore also privatise the gains from significant public risk-taking.

In any case, temporarily waiving vaccine IP would hardly destroy the incentive to innovate. The waiver is only being sought in the context of a once-in-a-century global pandemic. There is little reason to expect a “slippery slope” towards a general weakening of IP rules. History suggests there are plenty of powerful forces to prevent that from happening, and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai herself has made it pretty clear that this is not the direction in which things are headed.

More fundamentally, the originator vaccine companies should still make plenty of profit, as long as rich countries agree not to use any new generic vaccines themselves – as is the case with the existing WTO flexibilities. Pharmaceutical companies already plan to hike vaccine prices once the acute part of the crisis is over. To the extent developing countries were able to access cheaper generics, the originator firms would presumably then aim to extract even higher prices from rich countries. Whatever one might think of that, innovation incentives would thus be little changed.

How effective the waiver will be in lifting global vaccine production is another matter. There are reasons for scepticism.

Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine (New York National Guard/Flickr)

First, key vaccine inputs are in short supply – from vital biomedical ingredients to bioreactor bags. This appears to be the key immediate constraint and will need to be overcome for any ramp-up in global supply to happen.

Second, vaccine production is more technically complex, compared to the making of many other medicines. Waiving patents would not unlock all the knowledge required, especially for the new mRNA vaccines. Tech transfer is therefore crucial but requires the participation of the originator firms – and they are already busy.

Finally, there might simply not be a lot of additional vaccine production capacity out there. Prior to the pandemic, global vaccine capacity was put at 3.5–5.5 billion doses a year. In April–June last year, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) surveyed vaccine manufacturers globally and identified the potential for between 2–4 billion doses in additional capacity to be brought online without jeopardising the production of other vaccines. Since then, companies producing Covid-19 vaccines have announced total capacity plans amounting to between 11–13 billion doses in 2021 and 19 billion in 2022. That suggests that much of the potential capacity identified by CEPI a year ago is probably already in the process of being tapped.

Waiving vaccine IP would nonetheless probably deliver at least some increase in vaccine production, especially over time and by pushing originator firms to sign more licensing agreements.

Any additional global supply would be extremely valuable. Despite the big target figures, vaccine production had only reached 1.2 billion doses in total by the end of April – well below the pace required to meet targets for 2021. Moreover, new and more dangerous variants will likely continue to surface – reducing vaccine efficacy, requiring more doses to reach herd immunity, and potentially rendering large portions of global vaccine supply ineffective. Booster shots might also be required to maintain immunity.

Vaccine needs in rich countries would then persist, with vaccine nationalism and commercial incentives threatening to leave developing countries stuck at the back of the queue even longer, increasing the risk of more dangerous variants emerging in a vicious cycle.

The vaccine waiver is thus worth doing. What else is needed?

Overcoming the shortage of input supplies is clearly critical. Calls to remove export restrictions and ramp up government investment to increase supply make sense.

More money to help developing countries purchase enough vaccines is also critical. A new World Bank study suggests that the task may not be so daunting – with most lower-middle-income countries having already pre-purchased most of what they might need for herd immunity and the remaining task for low-income countries only amounting to around US$4 billion in additional funding for the COVAX facility.

That’s good news. But it drives home the key point that, right now, timing is more important than money. Developing countries need far greater access to already available as well as near-term vaccine supplies. Rich countries – including the US and Australia – have begun sharing more vaccine doses. That’s commendable, but there is a lot more worth doing in recognition of the world’s common interest in beating the pandemic.

US President Joe Biden has said he wants to use the upcoming G7 summit in June to push forward a multilateral plan to vaccinate the world. Australia will also be at the meeting. With hope, it will deliver the necessary ambition.

Main image via Flickr user throgers.

Australia and migration: Will the Covid pause become a full stop?

An empty shop seen in March in Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
An empty shop seen in March in Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
Published 18 May 2021 13:00   0 Comments

In late 2019, I published a short book titled Our Very Own Brexit, which argued that Australia might one day break from Asia as Britain had broken from Europe. The trigger I envisioned for such a break would be a debate about population, with one of our major parties defecting from the long-standing bipartisan consensus on high immigration levels. They would say that Australia was full and that immigration must stop. If Australians supported such a policy, I argued, we would effectively be pulling up the drawbridge, signalling that our multicultural experiment had gone far enough and announcing that our long-term trajectory towards integration with Asia had been a mistake.

I never anticipated, of course, that immigration would grind to a halt as a result of a pandemic. In fact, I never made a prediction at all. I referred to this Australian Brexit as a worst-case scenario, a policy shock that seemed unlikely but which had become more plausible in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump, and the rise of the populist right in Europe, all of which had been considered unthinkable by countless experts.

Still, is my worst-case scenario now coming true? Do I feel vindicated? Not really. Or at least, not yet.

Our Brexit moment has not yet arrived, but we are still on a path to a political future with much more scope for policy shocks of that kind.

To understand why, let me explain why I thought – and still think – Australia’s politics is evolving in ways that make such a radical policy break possible. It’s important to stress, first of all, that a stop on immigration is unlikely to be driven by public sentiment. There just isn’t much evidence that Australians are becoming more hostile to immigration. Similarly, the British public was pretty indifferent to Europe and the European Union – it was politicians who brought about Brexit. An Australian halt to immigration, if it ever happens, would also be driven by politicians.

So when I read opinion polling of the kind which appeared in The Australian on Monday, saying that 73% of Australians believe borders “should remain largely closed until at least mid-2022, or the pandemic is under control globally”, I’m not moved to say that my predictions about an Australian Brexit are coming true. I see this poll result as a temporary artefact of the pandemic, not the permanent or natural state of Australian public opinion. And when our government eventually moves to reopen the borders (Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says migration will return to pre-Covid levels when safe to do so), I predict public opinion will follow.

Frydenberg’s comments, which the Labor party opposition declined to criticise, indicate that elite consensus on high immigration is intact, and the current pause is temporary. What caused Brexit was a break in Britain’s elite consensus – Conservative party backbenchers and the UK Independence Party drove the Tory party leadership towards a referendum. The public then decided to punish a political class which had, in a largely bipartisan fashion, advanced Britain’s integration with Europe without giving the public much say.

Those conditions don’t yet prevail in Australia. There is no crack in the elite bipartisan consensus on high immigration levels, and not yet enough resistance to this consensus from backbenchers and minor parties.

Lyndhurst, in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia (denisbin/Flickr)

But in Australia, as in every Western democracy, big, centrist political parties are losing their lustre, declining in membership and voter support. Voters feel freer than ever to vote for independents and minor parties. Oftentimes, this shift is mistakenly interpreted as showing that the public is radicalising. But another way to interpret the election victories for Trump, Brexit and European populist parties is that radical fringe ideas are no more or less popular than they have ever been, it’s just that the mainstream parties are no longer powerful enough to suppress or co-opt the people who believe in them. Those are the conditions you need for fringe issues to go mainstream, as occurred with Brexit and as could occur in Australia with immigration.

So my conclusion is that our Brexit moment has not yet arrived, but that we are still on a path to a political future with much more scope for policy shocks of that kind. And one important thing has changed – Australia has now experienced zero immigration, and it doesn’t seem so bad. You might argue that this is short term, and that Australia’s comparatively gentle Covid economic downturn was only made possible by colossal levels of deficit spending, something that can’t easily be repeated. Yet some economists argue that all the familiar arguments in favour of high immigration – it prevents population ageing, it maintains economic growth, it helps with skills shortages – are myths. Japan demonstrates that it is possible to improve already high living standards even while your population ages and shrinks.

And Covid has had a second political effect: it has reinforced the view of every modern Australian government that the country’s openness to the world as a trading partner, tourist destination and home for new immigrants occurs solely on Australian terms ­– it is something that can be turned on and off at the government’s discretion and without too much risk. As John Howard declared in 2001, “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come”. This is a complacent and arrogant view which shows that the sheer scale of the economic and military power shift to Asia, particularly China, has not been fully internalised by political leaders. And it assumes that Australia is still on the winning team – that its ally the United States remains economically and militarily ascendant and will maintain a strong interest in Australia’s security.

Combined, these two factors encourage the view that population policy is purely an internal matter for Australia, and not even a very urgent one. But Australia’s population debate must shift to one about power and influence in a region where the US has lost command, and in which Australia is a diminishing power in relative terms. In those circumstances, a larger population is a necessity, not an optional accessory.

India’s Covid-19 wave is spreading south

Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2021 11:00   0 Comments

Images of the pandemic in Delhi that currently saturate the international media depict ailing patients struggling to find beds, oxygen and medical attention. Amid a highly privatised healthcare terrain with underfunded public hospitals, access to Delhi’s hospitals has long depended on one’s own jugaad (capacity to develop “workarounds”), personal networks and ties to “big men” who lean on hospital officials to provide beds – characteristics that have played into Delhi’s pandemic scenario in a disastrous way.

As the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps south, there is hope that the different nature of South India’s health system will prevent the pandemic from taking hold in the same way.

Tamil Nadu, the state in which I live, has long had a clear commitment to providing quality health services at affordable cost, which stems from its history of democratic action and inclusive social policies. Access to hospital care is more equitable and transparent than in the North, and the state’s public health insurance is higher than in most other states (at approximately A$2500 per year).

Tamil Nadu has a streamlined model of centralised purchasing and distribution of essential medicines. This reduces the black market for medicines, as illustrated currently by the long queues to buy antiviral drug Remdesivir at regulated prices at government pharmacies in the state’s cities. Rural health infrastructure is more developed than in the northern states, which removes pressure from city hospitals. The neighbouring state of communist-led Kerala shares many of these characteristics.   

“We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe.”

While the 2020 Covid wave was fairly well controlled in Tamil Nadu, with cases peaking at 600 per day, the second wave poses more of a challenge. This wave appears to be largely driven by a virus variant found in India determined by the World Health Organisation as of “global concern”, and the rising caseload in Tamil Nadu currently sits at 29,000 per day.

Since Tamil Nadu’s recent change of government – a coalition led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party was sworn in on 7 May, following April elections – the existing Covid measures have been expanded. The state has implemented a Covid command centre modelled on Mumbai’s “war room” initiative, which manages an online system of triage to track hospital bed availability and funnel patients to them. Oxygen buses have been established outside hospitals in the state’s capital city Chennai, and a full lockdown began this week throughout the state. In rural areas, health officials have been posted in each district to implement Covid measures and oversee village health workers. Hospitals are full, yet there is an absence of stories of people being unable to access beds or oxygen.

While these characteristics may make the Tamil Nadu healthcare environment appear more resilient and able to manage a predicted further upswing in Covid cases, local beliefs and practices pose a significant challenge to the course of the pandemic here.

In the villages near me outside Pondicherry, there is a diversity of beliefs, largely divided along generational lines. Middle-aged and elderly people ­– who are generally illiterate or semi-literate in this area – tend to believe that Covid is not a serious illness, given that the first wave in 2020 did not amount to much in this area. Election rallies held in March and April this year were strongly attended throughout Tamil Nadu, with few people wearing masks. Distancing is generally not practised in daily life, and community transmission is now widespread. Older people largely distrust vaccines and feel that vital information about side effects is hidden from them. Some believe coronavirus has been created or leveraged by authorities in order to reduce the population. Covid-positive deaths that occur in vaccinated people – whether in the village or among Tamil celebrities – reinforce the belief that vaccines are dangerous.

A volunteer inside a bus converted to provide oxygen to Covid-19 patients waiting to be admitted at a government hospital in Chennai, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

Younger people feel torn between different belief systems. They are mostly high-school and university-educated, and their access to technology exposes them to an array of ideologies. Government messaging interrupts mobile phone calls with upbeat audio messages encouraging people to wear masks and get vaccinated. Information circulated on WhatsApp mostly promotes traditional immune-boosting supplements that are popular in the South (turmeric, neem, ginger). Less benign memes shared on social media promote anti-masking, anti-vaccine messages and big-pharma conspiracies.

As one university-educated youth told me, “We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe. We were born at home with the help of traditional midwives and ‘grandmother’s medicine’ [local remedies]. We’re wary this is a medical scam of big companies, to get people to buy medicines.”

Public-health measures in rural areas reinforce the fear of stigmatisation of being identified as Covid positive. For example, health workers in a nearby village place wide circles of sanitising white power around the homes of people identified as Covid-positive, which visibly marks a family and home as a site of contagion. It’s therefore understandable that villagers decline testing, and pass off their coughs and fevers as just a cold. Now that community transmission is widespread, contact tracing becomes mostly a matter of encouraging close contacts to self-isolate.

Tamil Nadu’s health system holds the promise of greater resilience than North India’s health sector, yet it remains to be seen in the weeks ahead how it will withstand the anticipated upswing in demand. Australians of Indian background have been vocal on social media recently, expressing their deep distress about loved ones unable to access healthcare in North India. Hopefully, South India’s health system will withstand this Covid wave better, and Australians of South Indian background will not experience the same sense of helplessness and frustration for their relatives.

Philippines community pantries give help – and send a message

Locals wait in line to receive goods at a community pantry in Antipolo City, Philippines (Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Locals wait in line to receive goods at a community pantry in Antipolo City, Philippines (Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 6 May 2021 10:00   0 Comments

A handwritten slogan can be spotted on cardboard posters at stalls across the Philippines: “Give according to your means, take according to your need.” These are makeshift community pantries, ad hoc efforts that provide free items such as rice, vegetables, canned goods and even facemasks that benefit millions of Filipinos. And while there are food banks in countries across the world, the community pantry in the Philippines has come to represent so much more. It is not only an expression of compassion for the poor, but a political statement against the state – a symbol of national solidarity in a country struggling to survive the pandemic.

Fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

The double economic burden of job losses and rising prices of commodities has afflicted the Philippines, which has yet to recover from one of the world’s longest and strictest Covid-19 lockdowns. Goods from community pantries can therefore mean the difference between life and death for many Filipinos. Most contributions flow from the rich and the middle class. But people who are struggling financially are also donating what little cash or groceries they can share. Some even come from rural areas to give – fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

Community pantries not only exhibit generosity, they also demonstrate respect and consideration for others. Most of those who line up for hours take just enough for themselves and their families, mindful that others behind them are also in need. There is no sign of the type of hoarding that was evident in supermarkets across the world at the onset of the pandemic. Instead, the system is built on what Filipino sociologist Randy David describes as “faceless giving and discreet receiving”. The community pantry, David says, “offers no space for the self-promotion and obligatory acknowledgments that usually accompany the mass distribution of emergency assistance”.

“Sharing is caring” (Marian Ticzon)

But this is more than a noble instrument to help others. The community pantry also sends a political message of public frustration about government ineptitude in providing for the nation. The Philippine government provided only up to PHP 8,000 (A$215) in 2020 and a maximum of PHP 4,000 ($107) this year for each of the country’s 18 million low-income families, not enough to buy their daily essentials. Ana Patricia Non, the 26-year old lady who first started a pantry in her neighborhood that inspired replicas nationwide, explained the reason behind her initiative: “I’m tired of complaining. I’m tired of inaction,” she said. “The fact that this has gone viral, it means this is a gut issue.” As it inadvertently exposed institutional shortcomings, the boom in community pantries should therefore serve as a wake-up call for the government to do more for its people.

The community pantries in the Philippines can also be seen as a political statement repudiating government malice towards charity and volunteerism. A few days after Non’s community pantry spread far and wide, the national police openly linked it to the communist movement and accused it of being a vehicle to recruit members. In keeping with President Rodrigo Duterte’s resolve to quell the long-running communist insurgency in the country, those “red tagged” as communists by the police often end up dead. Fearing for her life and the lives of other volunteers, Non was forced to close her community pantry after police officers visited her and started asking questions. It took assurances from the city mayor and the head of the country’s Department of the Interior and Local Government for her to reopen.

The temporary closure of Non’s pantry prompted public outrage, which unexpectedly resulted in more food and cash donations, which she used to support other community pantries. Its growing support tacitly indicates the Filipino public’s pushback against the Duterte administration’s unwarranted intimidation.

Batasan Hills, Quezon City (Eyriche Cortez)

Because of limited government assistance, community pantries symbolise national unity born out of necessity – of weary folks finding solace in helping others. From just one community pantry in Metro Manila, by the end of April there were 358 community pantries scattered across the Philippines. Such initiatives are essentially a stopgap measure to help more people survive the socio-economic crisis plaguing the country. The community pantries essentially target these Filipino families who have gotten used to not knowing when their next meal will be. As Non puts it: “If the items in the community pantry ran out, that is a good problem. The goal is for the food to be consumed, not to be displayed.”

But as with other charities, these community pantries may eventually suffer from fatigue and slowly fizzle out, as their sustainability and longevity are not guaranteed. Yet community pantries in the Philippines demonstrate a revolutionary expression of human compassion, political activism and national solidarity that will continue to bring out the best of Filipinos during the worst of times. Philippine Senator Francis Pangilinan regards such initiative as a form of people power against hunger: “It warms the heart. It fills the tummy. I believe that there's no greater power than a united, empathetic action altogether toward one goal.”

India’s power illusion

A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
Published 4 May 2021 13:30   0 Comments

India was proud to boast about being the “world’s pharmacy” as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, particularly after other members in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue asked India to mass-produce Covid-19 vaccines for export across the world. Indeed, high-minded government decrees about India’s exceptionalism have become familiar to close observers in recent times, whether about India becoming the vishwaguru (world teacher) or India transforming into a global economic power. But the bragging has suddenly quietened now.

Less than two months after the Quad leaders gathered, a desperate India, devastated by a mix of arrogant misgovernance and an official aversion to scientific advice, resembles something more like an empty drugstore, run-down and ramshackle as the government pleads internationally for life-saving anti-Covid medicines and regular supplies of oxygen.

New Delhi’s mishandling of the second wave of the pandemic has resulted in a humanitarian disaster. The virus has proved relentless and levelling, poor and privileged alike struggling to find doctors, hospital beds and oxygen, or even the wood and space in crematoriums to burn the dead.

India’s ambassador to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu oversees a shipment of medical aid supplies to India (USAID/Flickr)

The health crisis has reinforced a sceptical view that despite the bold claims, India is not on the rails to becoming a world economic power. India spends a paltry 1.5% of its GDP on healthcare – some estimates put the figure as low as 0.34%. Either way, the spending falls far short of any of India’s partners in the BRICS grouping and nowhere near the 17.7% spent by the United States. Even before the pandemic, figures indicated the rate of poverty and unemployment in the country was at its highest in 45 years.

Covid has crushed all pretence. In March 2020, the sledgehammer lockdown wasted the country’s much-vaunted demographic dividend by precipitating the largest exodus of internal migrants in India since the 1947 partition. Rather than a government caring for its citizens to showcase strength, the image presented to the world was one of administrative incompetence, shambolic health facilities and economic weakness.

The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power.

The crisis has exposed a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government bedevilled by skewed priorities. Massive rallies, for example, were allowed with barely a face mask in sight in the vain hope of snaring power in state elections. In another instance, more than 9 million pilgrims were permitted to attend a Hindu religious gathering. As recently as 22 April, when Delhi’s lockdown was already one week old, the government was touting a US$3 billion project to build a new central vista as a seat of government, including a new parliament and prime ministerial residence, describing the construction as an essential service.

India’s pressures are mounting. Despite border clashes with China last year, money requested to modernise military equipment was cut by 38% in this year’s budget. The decision to remain aloof from economic groupings such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership now look even more foolhardy and together with the Covid crisis could stunt the government’s Indo-Pacific ambitions. China’s latest defence budget is forecast to be US$209 billion, while India’s is $65.9 billion. A long-standing economic advantage has given China a military one.

But the government does not relish such facts. Regrettably, the suppression of the truth, which was a characteristic of Beijing’s tactics to cover up the outbreak of coronavirus in late 2019, is now a method used by New Delhi to hide its own negligence. It recently ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of the government. And people complaining about oxygen shortages have been threatened with seizure of property. But those who failed to build sanctioned oxygen plants seem have got off scot-free.  

New Delhi has also passed the buck to its counterparts at the state level. The central government initially fast-tracked emergency approval for anti-Covid vaccines used in Western countries and Japan, but only a fortnight later, as the number of dead rose, it decided not to import vaccines, saying the states could. But many states do not have the cash to pay for vaccines, having already been entangled in a dispute with the central government over the share and distribution of revenue from the general services tax. Meanwhile, the self-styled global pharmacy has struggled to ramp up vaccine production to meet the urgent demand in India alone.

India’s humanitarian catastrophe is simultaneously a big foreign policy blunder. The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power. A crisis compounded by ineptitude has cruelly increased India’s dependence on foreign assistance and swept away all illusion.

India: Smoke and mirrors

A burning pyre at a makeshift crematorium in Delhi, India on 1 May (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A burning pyre at a makeshift crematorium in Delhi, India on 1 May (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 3 May 2021 13:30   0 Comments

Watching a Hindu cremation, in which the body is burned on an open funeral pyre, is a profoundly confronting experience. The body is placed onto a cement platform. A pyre is built around it, with wood stacked in a triangular tunnel to allow the fire to breathe. Ghee is scattered around the structure to help the flames along. As you watch the fire burn and with bits of ash flying high and all around, you grieve and reflect, but as it grounds down and the deceased returns to the earth, you pass over into acceptance. It is raw, primal and earthy – but it is above all, deeply soulful.

The open cremation needs fuel, it needs space, but most of all it needs time. It can take an hour or more for the body to burn and for their soul to be released, and it shouldn’t be rushed. 

Which is why the photographs of corpses wrapped in white cloth and lined up outside crematoriums, under the scorching April sun, is for me perhaps the most potent of all the images bleeding out of Delhi. It is unimaginable to be forced to rush through the moments of saying goodbye and letting go. To have to, as I’m reading about, fight with fellow mourners for firewood or space. Makeshift crematoriums are now being built in car parks and parks across the capital, and trees are being cut down for fuel, meaning the scars on the city are now physical, as well.

Indians are angry – not just at their own government, but at the international community, for ignoring them in their time of need.

The current crisis in Delhi and elsewhere in India, where a wave of Covid-19 has exploded like a bomb, has catalysed the country’s deep sense of malaise. The virus does not discriminate on the basis of religion or economic status, but the cheek-by-jowl living in India’s cities make its people a prime target. Already, the healthcare infrastructure was overburdened, and in some cases archaic and ineffectual. Now, it is teetering on the verge of collapse. Delhi is a city choking to death.

And the worst is yet to come, with experts predicting that the peak of this wave will come in about mid-May. It is unimaginable to think how the crisis could worsen – and how much more loss is to come. 

The crisis has also exposed how easily ruptured the carefully nurtured bilateral ties can be. Indians are angry – not just at their own government, but at the international community, for ignoring them in their time of need, or seemingly condescending to them, such as in Angela Merkel’s throwaway comment about Europe “allowing” India to be the world’s pharmacy. At the same time, Australia continues to keep its gates closed to even Australian citizens in India, potentially trapping them in a ticking time bomb of contagion.

 Nigambodh Ghat crematorium, Delhi (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India is a country that is too populous and too fragmented to be governed efficiently. It might be a democracy, with signs of economic growth everywhere, but those things that happen well happen because of its people, not its rulers. The vaccine facility pumping out Covidshield? A private company with one shareholder. Schools, hospitals and aged-care facilities are privatised where possible. In fact, the growth of the private health system means that people struggle to access public health. Indians are rightly proud of having found a workaround to systemic government failings by creating a parallel private system, but perhaps that has been counterproductive: in failing to hold the public system to account, it has allowed it to continue to degrade. (To be fair, India has a ridiculously low tax base, with between 1 and 3% of the workforce paying taxes.)

The same can be said of the country’s vast networks of NGOs, which are now a vital part of the economic system, as they so regularly step into the breach of services which should be government-funded.

Anyway, it is all now moot, as no one, private nor public, is able to access an efficient supply of oxygen.

Private shipments are being arranged: for example, the entrepreneurs behind the courier service Delhivery have announced they have chartered flights from China to help bring in oxygen compressors. Mass appeals for funding for NGOs such as the Hemkunt Foundation and Give India have gained enormous traction. The PM-CARES Fund, which was meant to fund 162 oxygen plants across 14 states (so far, just 33 have been delivered), received a $50,000 boost from Australian cricketer Pat Cummins. Interestingly, the IPL cricket schedule is continuing, with matches this week in Delhi and Ahmedabad, although it is attracting increasing criticism. “There is another month to go – a month when there will be more cases, more deaths and greater anxiety, all matched by the triumphalism and crassness of the tournament being played in a bubble,” writes Suresh Menon in The Hindu.

Patients suffering from Covid-19 are treated with oxygen at a makeshift clinic outside the Shri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Indirapuram, Uttar Pradesh (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

Just how this will play out politically is starting to become evident. My personal barometer is my family WhatsApp group, where my many Modi-loving relatives have recently fallen silent, preferring instead to post photos of their first and second vaccinations. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lost enormous support, across the country, over his government’s mishandling of the crisis. From failing to anticipate the second wave and prop up the health infrastructure accordingly to holding mass election rallies in West Bengal, Modi appears not just tone-deaf but wilfully intent on denying the enormity of the infection. It is also clear that the Indian government is minimising the casualties. The real number is estimated as anywhere from two to ten times the official figure. Media outlets have now stationed journalists outside crematoriums to keep count.

A week ago, I sent some money to a friend in Delhi, a driver who has struggled to find work. He messaged me a short time later on Facebook to tell me he’d received it, adding that he was, at the time, at one of the city’s crematoriums after a distant relative had died of Covid. My friend, who has spent enough time working for journalists to know what we’re interested in, then stood out the front for an hour, photographing and videoing bodies arriving, and the sheer volume of cremations on the go. It was unsettling: for that hour, my phone pinged repeatedly, with each message heralding the arrival of a new set of bodies. 

The true number of casualties may never be known.

Family members of Covid-19 patients wait outside an oxygen filling centre to get their cylinders replenished, 1 May in New Delhi (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Covid crisis in India also presents what could be the first major challenge to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Conceptualised as a security grouping, the Quad has swiftly attracted attention and hopes that it will be able to counter the regional threat of China’s domination, perhaps even as a kind of Asian NATO. However, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar this month told the Raisina Dialogue that the Quad is about far more than security, having cooperated so far on wide-ranging issues, from counterterrorism, supply chains, higher education – and yes, vaccines. When his country’s Covid caseload blew up the following week, that vaccine cooperation was in scant view, with the US lambasted for continuing to withhold the raw materials needed for vaccine production.

Despite moving quickly to release the materials and send over plane loads of supplies in assistance, the Biden administration is in danger of losing that goodwill, with many Indians on social media criticising the US over its perceived self-interest. Australia, too, has sent over humanitarian supplies, including oxygen concentrators and personal protective equipment, but is dogged by its decision to shut down flights between the two countries – even for Australian citizens in India and their families. Many have pointed out that even when the UK and US reached their peaks in caseload numbers, flights were not banned. The crisis has, in this way, shone a light on the worst reputational attributes of three of the four Quad members: Australian xenophobia, US exceptionalism and Indian ineptitude.

I am fortunate that I haven’t lost any friends or family members. But the grief I feel is profound, and intensifies every time I look at social media and scroll the endless posts of people begging for help for hospital beds, ICU places, oxygen, remdesivir, money. But India, meant to be an emerging global leader, doesn’t need handouts – it needs better infrastructure and leaders who care about more than power. It needs a total systemic overhaul. The best thing its partners could do in this case would be to forever hold India’s leaders to account.

Taking the measure of prejudice in a pandemic

A demonstration against racism on 27 March 2021 in Los Angeles, California (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A demonstration against racism on 27 March 2021 in Los Angeles, California (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Published 30 Mar 2021 06:00   0 Comments

Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute released Being Chinese in Australia, one of the largest surveys of the Chinese Australian community. Around the same time, the Scanlon Foundation published its annual Mapping Social Cohesion report, which also includes a survey on the Chinese population in Australia. Both surveys find significant shares of Chinese Australians reported having been threatened or attacked in past year, and many respondents associated their negative experiences with the debate surrounding Covid-19.

These findings echo a larger narrative about the rise in anti-Chinese and more broadly anti-Asian sentiment in the Covid-19 context. Originating out of Wuhan, China, the Covid-19 pandemic instantly became associated with China and Asia more broadly, and this appears to have led to increasing instances of discrimination against people of Asian descent. Numerous news reports highlighted racist incidents and, in extreme cases, violent attacks against Asians. While stereotypes linking Asians with disease are not new, especially during epidemics, the origin of Covid-19 became deeply politicised, once again bringing about scapegoating of those of Asian descent.

Despite the wide media coverage, however, there is very little data available to provide a more detailed picture of who expresses racial prejudice. This link is crucial to any efforts to stop it from continuing.

To fill this critical gap, we fielded surveys on the YouGov online panels in Australia and the United States in September 2020. The surveys were designed to collect representative samples of 1,375 adults in Australian and 1,060 in the United States.

The central difficulty of exploring racism in academic research is the potential presence of social desirability bias ­– when asked directly, people may conceal their opinions in order to conform to social norms. In our study, we sought to reduce this potential bias by including direct and indirect (list experiment) questions to ask about respondent’s attitudes towards Asians.

Specifically, using direct questions, we asked respondents to rate how worried they are about catching Covid-19 from Asian Australians/Asian Americans, white Australians/white Americans, and African Australians/African Americans. In the list experiment, we randomly assigned respondents to either a control or treatment group. The control group was presented with four venues: (1) Italian restaurant, (2) nightclub, (3) gym and (4) Indian restaurant, while the treatment group also had a fifth item: (5) Chinese restaurant.

Despite Australia’s much lower infection rate, higher proportion of Asian diasporas and a smaller economic recession, the population shows a slightly greater worry about catching Covid-19 from Asian Australians, compared to their American counterparts and how they view Asian Americans.

Importantly, respondents were not required to say whether they felt concerned about each venue but were asked only how many venues they avoided for fear of Covid-19. In this way, the sensitive question was asked in an indirect manner with the aim to elicit more representative responses. Admittedly, this sensitive item we included in this survey (i.e., Chinese restaurant) may not represent the broad Asian population. However, the political rhetoric around Covid-19 was deeply anti-Chinese and thus, we used this option to capture whether this sentiment was internalised by the broader population.

We then linked these responses to key socioeconomic factors including political affiliation, age, gender, education, employment status, and income, to identify the characteristics of those who are more likely to express racial prejudice.

Our analysis draws several key findings. First, despite the much better control of the disease spread, Australians are slightly more worried about catching Covid-19 from Asian Australians. In direct questions, Australians expressed a higher level of anxiety about catching Covid-19 from Asians averaging 2.74 out of 5, compared to 2.53 among Americans (a statistically significant difference). Similarly, the list experiment suggests that 46% of the Australian respondents would have avoided Chinese restaurants for fear of Covid-19, compared to 39% in the United States (a difference not statistically significant).

Second, in the United States, the most significant predictor of anti-Asian bias is political affiliation. In Australia, the picture is more complex ­– anti-Asian bias is linked to a wide range of socioeconomic factors including political affiliation, age, gender, employment status, and income.

Finally, while the list experiment largely confirms many findings from direct questions, they also indicate important and interesting differences. When asked directly, we find few differences across age, gender and employment, indicating most Australians do not report racial bias in who may be disease carriers. However, when asked indirectly through our list experiment, we find that younger people, women, and the employed were significantly more likely to avoid Chinese restaurants under Covid-19. The contrast between the two sets of findings points to the potential presence of social desirability bias and suggests some of the anti-Asian bias may be unconsciously internalised.

Our findings demonstrate the complexity involved in anti-Chinese and more broadly anti-Asian sentiment under Covid-19. For Australia, the worrying sign is that despite a much lower infection rate, higher proportion of Asian diasporas and a smaller economic recession, the population shows a slightly greater worry about catching Covid-19 from Asian Australians, compared to their American counterparts.

Anti-Asian sentiment is unevenly shared across different demographic groups. However, many may not choose to express their racial prejudice explicitly. Combined, these findings point to a need for more substantial efforts to document and address the long-held biases from a history of Chinese and Asian exclusion, as many others have advocated.

Lockdown déjà vu in the Philippines

A policeman guards the entrance to a Manila neighbourhood under strict quarantine, 16 March (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
A policeman guards the entrance to a Manila neighbourhood under strict quarantine, 16 March (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 Mar 2021 15:00   0 Comments

It’s hard to tell whether the Philippine government intentionally sought to mark exactly one year since 15 March 2020 Metro Manila Covid lockdown by tightening quarantine restrictions once again, first on 15 March and then further on 22 March. New Covid cases have been piling up at an alarming rate recently, with the capital as the epicentre, home to roughly a tenth of the national population. City mayors, with the backing of the administration, resolved to impose stricter checkpoints, a 10pm curfew, and a limit to general public mobility and economic operations. What little difference a year makes as an end to one of the longest lockdown periods in the world becomes that much more unimaginable.

The latest move has been prompted by the abrupt increase in daily average cases (more than 4600), the second-highest in Southeast Asia. The numbers are comparable to the height of transmission last year and show a 113% hike from the end of February to the present. On 18 March, the Philippines recorded its highest-ever number of confirmed infections in a day, at 7103, breaching the 70,000-mark of active cases, the highest since August last year. Two days later, the record was broken once more, as cases in a single day reached 7999. More than 12,000 deaths have been reported. Whereas Indonesia, the country with the most Covid cases in the region, has steadily curbed infections, the Philippines is on the uptick.

Earlier this month, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque exclaimed the “excellent” response of the Philippine government to the public health crisis, compared to developed nations with more modern medical facilities. He also likened the shared experience of the past year to a “vacation”. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte attempted to downplay the return of stricter quarantine impositions, saying it is only a “small matter”.

After a year, you might think a lockdown would be a last resort, an act of desperation – not something done because nothing else had been worked out.

The reality of having spent a year supposedly controlling the disease yet having to resort to the same hastily imposed restrictions speaks volumes. How can the response be “excellent” if the capital is seemingly going back to square one?

Testing for Covid remains an inaccessible privilege for the majority of Filipinos. The vast majority of dedicated vaccination facilities remain run by private enterprises. Duterte himself publicly stated only in November that he had just realised that affordable and accessible testing was important. Civil society groups have been calling for free mass testing since the beginning.

Despite the president’s epiphany and the collective groans of a nation, public services only offer Covid tests for those with symptoms. In private establishments, the cheapest reliable tests are priced at about $52, equivalent to a fifth of a minimum wage earner’s salary in the capital. 

Public officials have also only just begun developing a national system for contact tracing this month. Throughout the past year, local governments have been left to their own devices and resources to address this challenge, resulting in various discrepancies in methods and outcomes.

Vaccine rollout remains snail-paced. Nearly three weeks after acquiring vaccines, 90% of them have been distributed, according to the Department of Health (DOH), but less than half of the entire medical workforce has been inoculated. The DOH assures that the numbers will soar once more of the donated supplies arrive, but there is little more than a scramble for supplies, rather than a definitive plan.

Military officials secure quarantine checkpoints during lockdown in Muntinlupa City, Philippines, May 2020 (Minette Rimando/ILO/Flickr)

It’s no wonder that the capital and possibly the country are facing another lockdown, eerily marking the constraints put in place last year. Chronic mismanagement has left the fundamentals of the public health crisis sorely unaddressed. After a year, you might think a lockdown would be a last resort, an act of desperation – not something done because nothing else had been worked out.

Worse, the return of restrictions looks to carry the same pitfalls it did the first time around. Throughout last year, more than 100,000 individuals were arrested for low-level quarantine violations. Police averaged around a thousand arrests per day nationwide. Just two days after curfew was reinstated, however, the police had arrested 6498 people in Metro Manila alone.

The Duterte administration is doing the same thing as last time, while leaving out what it should be doing, but somehow it expects a different result. The timing is also suspect. Tensions are high, as is the demand for political accountability – reintroducing quarantine policies immobilises the opposition, elevates police power above all and presents the appearance that something is being done.

It seems Duterte is unfazed by the international pressures of seeing neighboring countries far surpass his regime’s efforts in addressing the pandemic. The virus cannot be put in handcuffs, and it will outsmart indolent officials at every turn. As long as these practices remain the standard, the Philippines will have to grapple with its own government’s failures before it can truly make strides for public health.

The Quad gives a boost to India’s vaccine diplomacy

Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2021 13:00   0 Comments

The most notable takeaway from the first-ever “Quad” leaders meeting involving the US, India, Japan and Australia at the weekend was the agreement on expanding the global vaccine supply. The vaccination capacity of India will be increased to produce 1 billion doses by 2022, the leaders announced in a joint statement, as US and Japan plan to fund Indian production of Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which Australia will then distribute across Southeast Asia.

This will undoubtedly boost India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts where it has been providing vaccines to the developing countries, both in its neighbourhood as well as globally. So far 71 countries have received vaccines manufactured in India, fast garnering it the title of “the world’s pharmacy”. Largely, these are developing countries which did not have adequate access to the vaccine.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has won attention for its efforts to make vaccine availability more equitable. There has been criticism that India is working outside the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative in supplying vaccines – although India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rejected the “hypocrisy” of such claims, asking “Which one of these countries have said that while I vaccinate my own people, I will inoculate other people who need it as much as we do?”

The strategic significance of India’s vaccine diplomacy also cannot be overlooked. India is now competing with China in the vaccine diplomacy sphere, as both countries vie for strategic influence in the region. After the troops of both countries disengaged from their borders after a dangerous stand-off last year, their rivalry has now shifted to vaccine diplomacy.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, India has not missed a chance to seek political influence in its region through displays of strategic altruism. The focus on Southeast Asia as a priority region has important geostrategic implications. China has sent more than 60% of its global vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, Beijing has attempted to employ a soft-power strategy in this region to soften the stand of these countries on territorial disputes such as that over the South China Sea.

The Quad leaders meeting held on 12 March (Washington time) was historic, not just because it was the first of its kind, but also because it highlighted how the four countries can realistically cooperate in creating a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. Creating an equitable access to an effective vaccine distribution has now become a central goal of the Quad as outlined by the leaders’ joint statement entitled “The Spirit of the Quad”.

Expanding the global vaccine supply is an important chapter for the Quad because it is an early example of international cooperation in efforts to roll out vaccines to the low- and middle-income countries. Supporting India’s expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity has given the Quad a shot in the arm in its cooperation mechanisms in the region.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region. It is doing so as to not appear too antagonistic, which arguably was one of the reasons that eventually led to the demise of the first iteration of the Quad after early meetings between officials in 2007. The reconstituted Quad is now more in tune with the regional realities in that it is seeking to link its security objectives with prosperity and development objectives.

Yet the focus on vaccine collaboration is not purely to act as a counterbalance to China. Another notable element from the Quad leaders’ meeting was to highlight the willingness for the countries to cooperate in areas of climate change. This recognises that the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific involves a linkage of the security and development needs of the countries in the region and is not solely reliant on one dimension or the other. The Quad leaders’ meeting has promoted a framework that fosters multilevel cooperation.

It is also important to note the historic origins of the Quad as a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when the four countries came together to coordinate disaster relief. The Quad’s initial rationale for multilateral cooperation was essentially for delivering humanitarian assistance, which later evolved into more security-oriented cooperation. In that sense, by focusing on delivering vaccines in the region, the Quad is playing to its strength of cooperating to provide regional assistance.

There has been cautious optimism for the future of Quad since its rebirth in 2017, as it now looking at wide ranging areas of “practical cooperation” that is mutually beneficial to all the countries in the grouping – as well as the wider region.

Covid vaccines: Charity begins at home

AstraZeneca vaccine boxes in a refrigerator in Bari, Italy, 9 March (Donato Fasano/Getty Images)
AstraZeneca vaccine boxes in a refrigerator in Bari, Italy, 9 March (Donato Fasano/Getty Images)
Published 10 Mar 2021 12:30   0 Comments

There has – rightly – been a strong reaction in Australia and more broadly to the Italian government decision, endorsed by the European Union and some of its leaders, not to permit AstraZeneca to export 250,000 contracted doses of its Covid vaccine to Australia.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio hasn’t helped to calm matters by saying that the Italian government’s decision last week was not intended as a “hostile act” towards Australia, but was instead the result of AstraZeneca delaying the supply of its vaccine to Italy, which was “unacceptable”. And, adding fuel to the fire, he is also quoted as saying that “it is right for countries of the European Union to block exports to nations that are non-vulnerable”.

There is, of course, no logic to this. Refusing a contracted vaccine shipment from the EU to a country like Australia because of an entirely unrelated bilateral dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca and, moreover, punishing Australia for having done so much better than Italy in fighting Covid is just nonsense. And Di Maio, of course, has form on all of this, as the former head of the nationalist/protectionist Five Star Movement in Italy.

Fortunately, according to Health Minister Greg Hunt, the Italian/EU decision is unlikely seriously to undermine the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in Australia. Australia is still receiving vaccine shipments from Europe. And it just underlines the tremendous wisdom Australia has shown in ensuring that the bulk of AstraZeneca’s vaccine supply will be manufactured in Australia.

But it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that the rollout of vaccines is not just about fighting a pandemic. It is an intensely political exercise, in terms of both domestic politics and geopolitics.

So frustrated are some EU members that they have either already approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for use or are assessing it with a view to doing so, despite the European Medicines Agency not yet having given the go-ahead.

Italy, for example, has a very new government under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, its (roughly) 66th government and 30th prime minister since 1946. Draghi is an excellent choice and brings huge experience to the job, not least his term as President of the European Central Bank. But Italy has had more than 3 million Covid cases, and its total deaths from Covid have just passed 100,000. Meanwhile, only about 8% of Italy’s population has been vaccinated. So it is all about the new Italian government being seen to do something about the major health crisis that it still faces.

And why wouldn’t the EU Commission in Brussels and some other EU leaders – French President Emmanuel Macron in particular – support Italy’s stance? The rollout of the vaccines in EU member states has been very slow – only around 8% of the EU population has been vaccinated, compared, for example, with around 30% in the UK. Insisting that the big pharmaceutical companies not be permitted to export vaccines to non-EU countries until they have delivered what they have contracted to provide EU members is part of a major battle with the vaccine producers. But it is also a sign of the weakness and lethargy the EU and some of its members have shown in dealing with the pandemic. It looks suspiciously like a European version of the “America first” policy of the previous US administration.

That unhappiness with the EU’s coordination efforts and slow response is also manifesting itself in other ways. So frustrated are some EU members – Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – that they have either already approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for use (as Hungary has) or are assessing it with a view to doing so, despite the European Medicines Agency not yet having given the go-ahead. And Poland, while indicating that it won’t buy Sputnik V, is assessing the Chinese Sinovac vaccine for possible use.

And speaking of the Russian and Chinese vaccines, both countries are playing a very clever geopolitical game by offering their vaccines – for sale or for free – to developing countries across the globe. Sadly, that isn’t for charitable or development purposes. The main aim is not to ensure that poorer developing countries don’t miss out because the rich are hogging vaccines. It is, transparently, to buy influence and goodwill.

The World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative involves many more countries – including Australia – in a welcome facility to provide vaccines to the developing world. The Biden administration has announced that it will provide $2 billion to the Covax arrangement. China is a donor to Covax. But Russia is conspicuously absent, as, by the way, is India.

Australia has undertaken to provide vaccines to its Pacific neighbours, a sensible decision, not only because of their fragility and lack of funds, but also for sound geopolitical reasons. Australia does not want China, in particular, to strengthen its already substantial influence in the region through its Sinovac vaccine. And assisting, for example, Papua New Guinea to combat Covid-19 is also an important way of resisting the spread of the Covid virus to Australia from the neighbourhood.

Tackling the Covid-19 virus requires a global approach. But – as the Italian decision has shown – charity, unsurprisingly, does begin at home, and for much wider national interest reasons than good international citizenship.

Vaccine hesitancy and the risks in rural Papua New Guinea

A crowd gathered at Wawoi Falls, Western Province, PNG (Mikaela Seymour)
A crowd gathered at Wawoi Falls, Western Province, PNG (Mikaela Seymour)
Published 5 Mar 2021 06:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact globally, with more than 114 million cases and 2.5 million deaths. With 1365 cases and 14 deaths, Papua New Guinea has fared better than most, even though experts believe the infection rate is much higher than reported. The recent rise in reported cases is prompting additional concern.

PNG’s Health Secretary Osborne Liko has said widespread vaccination is the most effective intervention to fight the virus. In a recent World Health Organisation survey included in the PNG national deployment and vaccination plan for Covid-19, of 1332 Papua New Guineans, 85% were happy to receive a Covid vaccine. However, this data does not distinguish between urban and rural populations who have had different pandemic experiences.

Considering the pandemic’s limited impact in non-urban areas, motivating residents to accept the Covid-19 vaccine may be challenging. For example, in rural Western Province, not much has changed since the pandemic began. Markets are still occurring, gardens are being cultivated, and sago is still being made – life continues much as it did before Covid-19 arrived.

I began work as a doctor in rural outreach patrols in Western Province in January 2020 and returned to Australia in March when the government ordered citizens home. At that time, amid warnings of “bodies in the streets”, the outlook for Covid in PNG was grim. Luckily these predictions have not eventuated.

High vaccine uptake in rural PNG is essential to prevent more aggressive disease and protect its neighbours such as Australia.

In January 2021, I was granted a special exemption to return to Western Province one year after leaving. While Australia has seen multiple lockdowns, border closures and behavioural change, not much evidence of that can be seen here.

In Balimo Hospital, Middle Fly, the Covid-19 ward remains empty. Although some nasopharyngeal swabs are available, as yet no tests have been performed.

In rural aid posts, the health workers wear masks to attend to patients, but they did this before Covid-19 due to the high rates of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB). Patients are seen in well-ventilated rooms with ripped fly screens and broken windows, or the traditional wood panels held open by sticks, ensuring good ventilation and keeping healthcare workers safe from MDRTB, and likely Covid-19.

The Covid-19 education we deliver focuses on cough etiquette, social distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing. The messages are received calmly, despite almost certain widespread community transmission. At the end of the session, the same question is always asked: “What do we do if we have no soap?” The majority of these villages find it challenging to access shops and do not have a consistent supply. Sustainable Development Project and OkTedi Development Fund have been providing soap since the beginning of the pandemic. Anecdotally, mothers have found diarrhoea, skin disease and “simple cough” have decreased in their children since soap was introduced (diseases that contribute 10.96% and 4.55% of all disability-adjusted life years in PNG).

The health clinic at Wawoi Falls (Mikaela Seymour)

From a front-line worker’s perspective, it is unclear exactly how 80% of the population that lives rurally will be vaccinated. Polio and measles “surge” patrols saw some villages receiving excess doses of vaccines, with incorrect timing of injections and poor record keeping, while many other villages missed out. Avoiding the same mistakes with the Covid-19 vaccination will be essential.

The lack of electricity and refrigeration in most aid posts and the use of cold-chain portable cooler boxes will limit the vaccines’ geographical reach. In 2012, only 41% of PNG clinics physically had a refrigerator, and as few as 40% had any electricity.

Covid-19 vaccine patrols may also generate resentment. Many communities already feel neglected by only seeing maternal and children’s health clinics (MCH) with nothing being done for the MDRTB, leprosy and other chronic disease sufferers. Arriving with another vaccine clinic for a virus that seems inconsequential in day-to-day life will not be received well.

Many mothers already avoid vaccination patrols due to fears around their children having too many injections, and feel they do not require medicine as “they are not sick”. This is despite long term education and promotion of PNG’s extended program for immunisation. These same beliefs will likely translate into adult vaccine hesitancy. Only 49% of children in Western Province receive any vaccination, it is unlikely we’d achieve better results for the adult Covid-19 vaccination.

Without widespread, efficient vaccination there will be ongoing transmission of the virus leading to new variants, as has already been seen in the United Kingdom and South Africa. This may cause an increase in the severity of illness in PNG and may render vaccination campaigns in other Pacific nations less effective, as a new PNG strain could act as a site of re-infection. High vaccine uptake in rural PNG is essential to prevent more aggressive disease and protect its neighbours such as Australia.

Despite the omnipresence of the virus, life in rural Western Province has remained unchanged. Considering the many other health threats rural communities face, it may be hard to convince rural communities to prioritise Covid-19 vaccination. A lack of uptake of vaccines could jeopardise PNG’s ability to reach herd immunity, preventing open international travel and remaining a re-infection risk. Any vaccination campaign must complement existing efforts to strengthen healthcare systems, or it will likely lose the support of the community it is meant to serve.

Vaccine nationalism: Rich nations must also care for the poor

Only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Published 10 Feb 2021 06:00   0 Comments

While the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be the perilous equaliser of humankind, regardless of race and nationality, the vaccine for it however revealed the disturbing inequality between the advanced and developing economies.

In a speech last month, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of the unequal access to vaccines:

More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one low-income country. Not 25 million. Not 25,000. Just 25.

The lone country referred to was Guinea, which inoculated a handful of its senior officials last December. However, nobody was vaccinated after them, which was the reason Our World in Data stopped tracking Guinea’s vaccination efforts since it does not represent “the start of a real national rollout.”

Since January, the majority of the more than 80 million Covid-19 vaccines available worldwide have gone to only a few high and middle-income countries like US, China, Israel, UK and the United Arab Emirates. India is the exception, with its domestic vaccine manufacturing capcity. With their vaccination campaigns underway, wealthy nations have also pre-purchased access to supplies that can cover more than their populations. As a result, high-income countries with only 16% of the world’s population currently hold 60% of the vaccine doses.

Such hoarding has left the rest of the world scrambling for supplies, while the low-income economies have no choice but to wait potentially for years to be able to inoculate much of their populations. This is reflective of the unfortunate cycle that repeats itself during a global pandemic: “Rich countries benefit from new health technology first, while poor countries have to wait years or decades for it to trickle to them.” It is estimated that about 85 countries will not have widespread access to the vaccines until 2023, while mass immunisation might not happen until 2024.

Wealthy nations have pre-purchased access to vaccine supplies that can cover more than their populations (U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr)

This is especially true for countries in Southeast Asia. As a high-income economy with a small population, Singapore will likely achieve widespread vaccination by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia are expected to follow suit in 2022, then Indonesia and the Philippines in 2023. However, poorer countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar may not be able to achieve widespread vaccination within the next five years.

To address this concern, a global effort to support the equitable distribution of vaccines was launched called Covax, which carries the largest and most diverse portfolio of Covid-19 shots. More than 190 rich and poor nations signed on to gain access to vaccines to cover 20% of their population. However, this facility is being undermined by many wealthy countries that have also struck “side deals” with pharmaceutical companies to guarantee their supply. Most of these bilateral deals were arranged in advance of the vaccines’ approval, whereas Covax has been hesitant to order stocks prior to approval. This consequently increases vaccine price and reduces the global supply of doses meant for Covax.

Without the vaccines to protect their health, the poor in the developing world will continue to be out of work and have less money to spend, causing a reduction in sales for exporters in North America and Europe.

Such hoarding is reflective of the apparent vaccine nationalism among rich countries, as state leaders prioritise their country over the planet. While understandable, it is nonetheless irresponsible to turn a blind eye on the rest of the world. In fact, vaccine nationalism not only prolongs the global pandemic, but it also delays the world’s economic recovery.

Failure to fully vaccinate developing countries (which comprise more than half of the global population) may cause mutation and new strains of the virus that current vaccines do not protect against. This may lead into future outbreaks that risk reinfecting those wealthy countries that have hoarded vaccine supplies. Vaccine nationalism is also economically counterproductive if poor countries miss out on mass immunisation. Global supply chains, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing industries, will continue to suffer as developing countries struggle to produce raw materials and electronic parts or components needed by multinational companies in advanced economies.

And without the vaccines to protect their health, the poor in the developing world will continue to be out of work and have less money to spend, causing a reduction in sales for exporters in North America and Europe. Such a grim outlook proves that the world’s economy is interconnected and its recovery is dependent on a healthy global economy – and not just of individual rich countries. 

Generally, most of the discussions among advanced economies on how much vaccine they can spare to the developing world (if any at all) are framed as a moral dilemma – balancing their responsibility to their citizens, while considering the global common good. However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research challenges that notion and concludes that the equitable distribution of vaccines is in every country’s public health and economic interest.

International Chamber of Commerce Secretary General John Denton has said “purchasing vaccines for the developing world isn’t an act of generosity. It’s an essential investment for governments to make if they want to revive their domestic economies.” Thus, in their race to vaccinate their people, rich nations should likewise be compelled not to leave their poor neighbors behind.

Helping Indonesia’s children in a time of pandemic

Bogor, West Java. It is reported the Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States (Aditya Aji/AFP via Getty Images)
Bogor, West Java. It is reported the Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States (Aditya Aji/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 2 Feb 2021 13:00   0 Comments

While the Indonesian government is taking important steps to improve pandemic management – appointing a new Health Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and preparing to provide a free vaccine for all – its attention is mostly focused on adults, people with underlying health conditions and the elderly as vulnerable population. As the country grapples with the economic, social and political impacts of Covid-19, there is one group of society that is often missing from discussions: children.

It is reported that Covid-related mortality rate among Indonesian children has been 45 times higher than that of United States. School closures also take a toll on children’s emotional well-being because many in Indonesia cannot access online courses, leading them to miss a grade or even to quit school. This situation worsens when children, at an age where they are supposed to interact with their peers and play at school, stay at home for a long time, coupled with the potential for increased rates of domestic violence in households where parents may have lost jobs.

The unpredictable disruption for many children in Indonesia from Covid-19 extends further. More than 1.2 million workers in both informal and formal sectors have been laid off, resulting in children being lured into labour to help their parents earn an additional income stream. Family circumstances can change quite quickly, and nobody knows what will happen tomorrow to the breadwinner. Middle class families may fall into poverty due to ripple effects of travel bans, a lack of savings and the absence of health insurance.

Now is the time to roll out a universal child benefit by providing a fraction of financial support on a regular basis to buffer relative child poverty.

Before the pandemic, there had been progress for children. Indonesia successfully reduced poverty in 2019 by more than 9% through targeted social protection, such as Bantuan Pangan Non-Tunai (BPNT, or non-cash food assistance) and Program Keluarga Harapan (PKH, or the Family Welfare Program). Under PKH, poor families receive cash transfers on the condition that they have sent their children to school, pregnant mothers have regularly checked in for local health services posts (posyandu), or the family has elderly or disabled family members. Some studies showed that PKH improved students’ attendance at elementary level, and BPNT reached some 96% of female beneficiaries.

However, implementing targeted social protection only benefits families listed as beneficiaries in the national database, which is subject to exclusion or inclusion error fuelled by migration, death, illness or unemployment. There are also incomplete data related to marginalised children, especially disabled children, due to fear of shame in the family. An estimated 49% of Indonesian children under the age of five do not have a birth certificate, putting them in danger of being excluded from registered social assistance.

Moreover, the fact that Indonesia is prone to disaster should justify a program of blanket coverage, because children from any socioeconomic level might lose their parents and legal documents at any time. While the ravages of Covid-19 continue, the world is also being threatened by a hunger pandemic, which could further increase the stunting prevalence among children under five years old.

Resuming posyandu, a government service for monitoring babies and kids’ growth and health, after lockdown (Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr)

There is an answer to these challenges. Now is the time to roll out a universal child benefit (UCB) by providing a fraction of financial support on a regular basis to buffer relative child poverty. UCB is a cash transfer paid regularly to the whole population of children, depending on some eligibility requirements, made by subnational governments. For example, Sabang City in Aceh is piloting the GEUNASEH program to improve nutritional intake of children under six years old through monthly bank transfers of IDR150000 (US$11). In Papua province, UCB is also being piloted by targeting children up to four years old born to indigenous Papuan parents.

A study by UNICEF indicated that UCB can be designed to fulfil both monetary and non-monetary needs of children. In addition to reducing child labour, this large-scale grant is effective in tackling shame associated with being recipients of social assistance. This will result in more confidence among children from disadvantaged families, along with strengthened social cohesion. A previous evaluation of a similar bulk payment scheme has shown providing inclusive pension benefits to all elderly in Aceh special province since 2012 had a significant impact in improving consumption and mental wellbeing.

Levying a one-off wealth tax from the top 1% could compensate for the loss of public revenue. 

UCB has been implemented in 15 OECD countries. But only a handful of middle-income and lower-income countries are in favour of UCB, due to fiscal constraints. Although economic growth in Indonesia across 2020 has stabilised, the government has said it will prioritise its national budget allocation to economic recovery programs. In light of this, there are three strategies that could be pursued to expand the fiscal space for implementing a UCB in Indonesia.

First, levying a one-off wealth tax from the top 1% could compensate for the loss of public revenue. Argentina has passed a so-called “millionaire’s tax” to fund medical supplies and relief measures. The UK government has started to discuss how a net-worth tax could work, based on the report from the independent Wealth Tax Commission’s proposal that this initiative could raise up to £260 billion. A wealth tax can also narrow the inequality gap, because there are income-poor but asset-rich groups in the society, such as the wealthy who have retired elderly.

Second, Indonesia can seek to optimise the role of subnational government in spending Dana Desa (village fund transfer) for child-sensitive budgets. The Indonesian government, through Law no. 6 of 2014, aims to empower villages by allocating some state budget to be managed directly by these villages. This Dana Desa is projected to increase every year. The subnational governments should pass a bill concerning child-sensitive budgets as political buy-in, followed by a UCB rollout and monitoring by village heads, government officials, faith-based leaders and civil society groups to ensure its transparency. 

A third approach is leveraging public-private partnership, such as through corporate social responsibility programs. In addition, engaging Islamic philanthropy can also be a good idea given the rapid growth of zakat (alms-giving) sector in Indonesia. Some provinces, such as Aceh Special Province, even obligate civil servants to pay zakat through a specific qanun (regional regulation subjected to Islamic stipulation). 

If a silver lining from the experience of Covid-19 in Indonesia can be found, it might be by experimenting with UCB to safeguard the sustainability of children’s well-being during the recovery and beyond. After all, today’s children will be the citizens of tomorrow. The Indonesian government should display a strong political will and commitment to fulfil children’s rights and potential.

Can vaccines offer an exit plan from Covid-19?

Australia should consider investing in domestic manufacturing capacity for revolutionary mRNA vaccines (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
Australia should consider investing in domestic manufacturing capacity for revolutionary mRNA vaccines (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 Jan 2021 06:00   0 Comments

As recently as six months ago, naysayers were warning, “We may never have a vaccine against Covid-19”. Yet a year after SARS-Cov-2 emerged, the first vaccine programs are already rolling out in the US, the UK, India, China, Israel, Chile, Indonesia and many other countries. Israel has already vaccinated more than 20% of its population within one month of commencing, and is seeing a dramatic impact on infection rates. Australia has flagged commencing vaccinations in the coming weeks, with early jabs from mid-February ahead of a wider drive in March.

Extraordinary vaccine development

The year 2020 saw an extraordinary global effort in expedited vaccine development, while still subjecting these vaccines to the usual regulatory hurdles. There are more than 60 vaccines in clinical development and over 170 in pre-clinical development, which is very good news for the world. Some, such as the vaccines being developed by Merck and the University of Queensland, have dropped out of the race, but that is to be expected in vaccine development. Normally, vaccine development takes many years, or even decades, and dropouts are expected along the way.

There are three basic technologies being used – whole virus (killed or attenuated), protein (using a key protein from the surface of the virus) and vectored vaccines (which deliver genetic code or protein piggybacked onto a harmless other virus). These three methods are tried and tested old technology, especially whole virus and protein subunit vaccines. A further breakthrough technology are the new RNA vaccines (typically referred to as mRNA), in which the genetic code for the protein that elicits an immune response is injected into the body. All aim to trigger a protective immune response against the virus. Many vaccines, including some Covid-19 vaccines, generate more robust immunity than natural infection.

In Australia, we have contracts for AstraZeneca (a vectored vaccine), Pfizer (a mRNA vaccine) and Novavax (a protein vaccine). We are also fortunate to have domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity at CSL in Melbourne, which will manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine under license, thereby avoiding supply-chain problems which may occur when procuring directly from overseas. In a pandemic, having domestic manufacturing capacity is a huge advantage. CSL is also technically able to manufacture Novavax, but is not set up to manufacture mRNA vaccines.

The knowns and the unknowns

At this stage, only three vaccines have had phase 3 clinical trials published. These are the final data required to assess a vaccine, which show the efficacy of the vaccines against disease in humans, usually compared to a placebo or other (non-Covid) vaccine. These are the vaccines by Oxford-AstraZeneca (a vaccine vectored on a non-replicating chimpanzee adenovirus), Pfizer/BioNTech (mRNA vaccine) and Moderna (mRNA vaccine). We can directly compare the one endpoint that all three trials reported on – protection against symptomatic infection.

Looking for an answer, New York, December 2020 (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

The best by far are Pfizer (95%) and Moderna (94%), both of which require two doses given three weeks apart, with AstraZeneca substantially lower at 62% after two doses. An accidental reduced dose schedule in the AstraZeneca trial provided data suggesting giving a low dose followed by standard dose may improve efficacy to 90%, but this requires confirmation in a further clinical trial, and there are suggestions the effect was due to spacing the doses further apart (three months instead of four weeks). All vaccines were close to 100% effective in preventing death and serious disease.

What we do not know yet is the efficacy of these vaccines in preventing all infection (symptomatic and asymptomatic). This is of interest in assessing the ability to achieve herd immunity. Only AstraZeneca has published data on asymptomatic infection, and the vaccine is not very effective on that front. Data presented to the US Food and Drug Administration for the Moderna vaccine suggests it is quite good at preventing asymptomatic infection.

The only complete exit strategy is a vaccine with high enough efficacy to achieve herd immunity and eliminate the virus.

We also do not know the duration of efficacy of these vaccines, which like the protective efficacy will probably vary. Some vaccines, such as measles, give lifelong immunity, but others, such as whooping cough, have waning immunity over time. It is likely coronavirus vaccines will have waning immunity, which may be addressed with booster doses – we do not yet have long enough follow-up data to know the duration of efficacy and when a booster may be needed.

We will have many more vaccines becoming available over time, and some will be better than others. Unpublished reports of efficacy for whole killed virus vaccines by Sinovac is 50%, and Sinopharm, 79–86%; for the Sputnik vectored vaccine, 92%; and for the Novavax protein vaccine 89% in the UK, but only 60% against the South African mutant. . If Australia were to consider adopting any of these vaccines, these would need to be assessed under regulatory protocols including published phase 3 clinical trials. We do not know the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the mutant strains. The standout so far seems to be the mRNA vaccines.

Vaccines as an exit strategy?

The pandemic today is much worse than it was even six months ago, so the risk of infections coming into the country through breaches in hotel quarantine is high. If any of the highly contagious mutant strains arising in the UK, Brazil or South Africa is introduced into the community, controlling the outbreak will be much harder. There are some suggestions that current vaccines may not be as protective against South African and Brazilian mutants. If this becomes a problem, vaccines can be revised to match these strains, but Moderna reports good protection against the UK and South African mutants.

The majority of the Australian population is non-immune to the virus, so we will remain vulnerable to outbreaks until we can vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity, or at least protection from death and severe disease. Until that time, we will live with that risk and with a level of restrictions which impede complete economic recovery.

The government has stated that herd immunity is the ultimate goal. Herd immunity occurs when enough of the population is immune to protect everyone, including unvaccinated people, from community transmission. For that, we need a vaccine of at least 80–90% efficacy against infection and about 70% of the population vaccinated. Herd immunity cannot be achieved through natural infection. In the pre-vaccine era, no infection controlled itself through herd immunity – not smallpox, measles or any epidemic infection. They caused ongoing, massive epidemics, over and over, until vaccines were used.

The only complete exit strategy is a vaccine with high enough efficacy to achieve herd immunity and eliminate the virus. Initially, children will not be vaccinated, because clinical trial data in kids under 12 years are not yet available. This means herd immunity is still possible if a very high proportion of adults are vaccinated with a high efficacy vaccine. But the task will be easier once kids can also be vaccinated.

It is unlikely that lower efficacy vaccines will be able to achieve herd immunity, but they will reduce the risk of death and serious illness. However, someone vaccinated with a lower efficacy vaccine may still get infected, and this has implications for the opening up of society. A vaccine which cannot achieve herd immunity will result in SARS-Cov-2 circulating long-term and continuing the risk of outbreaks.

The choice of vaccine will have implications for international travel. The idea of immunity passports showing evidence of vaccination is not without precedent, as this already occurs for Yellow Fever. However, the type of vaccine received may result in a different stamp on the immunity passport. Someone vaccinated with a lower efficacy vaccine could travel, get infected and bring that infection back into the country, so might get a different risk assessment to someone who receives a high-efficacy vaccine. Airlines too may assess passengers differently based on which vaccine they have received.

Where to from here?

In the immediate future, we will need to keep using restrictions and non-pharmaceutical measures to control outbreaks, which will also impact on societal and economic recovery. Careful and strategic decisions about vaccines matter, and diversifying our options with more agreements with different manufacturers will help, so that we can rapidly pivot if the need arises.

Vaccine development is an uncertain game, and the UQ vaccine may not be the only one in our portfolio to not be realised. Further, as new vaccines come out, there will continue to be wide variation in efficacy and safety, so having many options will keep us better protected. We already know the efficacy of vaccines may be less than the new mutant strains, so we need vaccines that can protect against these.

Herd immunity remains possible, given the promising early data on the mRNA vaccines, and if any country can achieve this, it is Australia – we have an enviable record of very high vaccination rates for our National Immunisation Program.

We should also consider investing in domestic manufacturing capacity for mRNA vaccines, as this revolutionary technology is likely to expand in the future, including to development of new drugs and treatments for many diseases. Australia would be well served if we have this capacity.

We will need to keep using restrictions and non-pharmaceutical measures to control outbreaks (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

Using the Australian Open as a Tokyo test run

Tennis players enter the quarantine zone to train at Melbourne Park (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Tennis players enter the quarantine zone to train at Melbourne Park (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Published 27 Jan 2021 13:30   0 Comments

Focus on the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament these last few weeks in the local media has been intense. Still, it’s possible that Olympics officials in Japan are monitoring the first tennis Grand Slam event of the year even closer than we are in Australia.

As tournament organisers struggle to quieten tweeting tennis players in quarantine hotels in Melbourne and Adelaide, in Tokyo, sports officials are doing everything they can to keep the Olympic dream alive. Especially after the recent story from The Times, citing an unnamed source, which suggested that the Japanese government has already secretly decided the Games can’t go ahead (a report since denied).

This year, the Olympics and the Australian Open are united by a common opponent: Covid-19. These two major international sporting events have a few other traits in common, as well. Both involve international athletes, coaches and media, potentially travelling in from coronavirus hotspots around the globe.

The Australian Open is also an important chance for Olympic organisers to convince themselves that major sports events can take place safely.

Australian Open organisers chartered flights from three international airports to bring in around 1200 international athletes and media. The Olympics will have to deal with a similar issue, albeit on a grander scale: more than 200 countries and territories are represented and 11,000 athletes are due to take part.

Both events are lengthy affairs, too. Different to a one-off football final, the Australian Open and the Olympics take weeks to complete rather than a single evening. The health risks posed by potentially infected athletes, coaches and media is presumably higher as they hang around for longer and have more interactions with locals. At both events, in-stadium crowds are also planned. 

Tokyo organisers have also said that the viability of the Games, which are due to start on 23 July, will not be dependent on the availability of a vaccination or athletes. That’s another shared trait with the Australian Open where, presumably, no one taking part will have had a Covid-19 jab (or maybe want one). Melbourne Park is not a good place for aching arms, after all.

For all these reasons and more, the Australian Open, due to start on 8 February, is an ideal dry run for Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Some five months ahead of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, it gives all those involved in Tokyo a chance to observe what works and what doesn’t at a comparable international sports event.

Forming the Olympic Rings in the sky in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi, Japan, before the postponment of the games in 2020 (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images) 

The quarantine issue is a considerable challenge for instance. So far, the Australian Open’s 14-day hotel lockdowns have attracted plenty of criticism from tennis players. It’s hardly surprising in this social media age, where gripes are seldom kept behind closed doors. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Tokyo organisers, after they decided that athletes will be limited to arriving in Japan just four to five days ahead of their event and then leave within 48 hours of completion.

At the Olympics, athletes will be tested when they leave their home country and on arrival in Japan. That’s less rigorous than Australia’s testing regime, which takes place throughout the quarantine period. Japanese health officials hope these steps will be enough to stop the more contagious UK-variant of the virus from hitting the country, where Covid-19 cases are already soaring. But upscaling the Australian quarantine model is worth keeping in mind.

The Australian Open also gives Tokyo and IOC officials a chance to review their public relations tactics, too. Should an Australian Open participant set off a Covid-19 outbreak in Melbourne, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will no doubt front the cameras and receive a grilling by local media. This will give Tokyo organisers important insight into communications around a mid-tournament outbreak. Anecdotally, Tokyo Olympic Committee (TOCOG) press conferences so far have been confusing, haphazard affairs. Olympics media representatives are not known for their media transparency once the games begin, either.

The Australian Open is also an important chance for Olympic organisers to convince themselves that major sports events can take place safely, even when crowds are involved. After all, there’s a lot on the line in Tokyo.

Japan’s spending on the delayed Olympics is now believed to have hit $20 billion, with the figure rising daily. Part of that cost involves paying compensation to the buyers of apartments in the athletes’ village, which were meant to be handed over to residents months ago. Its TV rights contract with US broadcaster NBC is reportedly worth around $1.3 billion alone. That would be in jeopardy if the games were to be cancelled. Should the games not proceed, the insurance claim will be astronomical, and not even that likely to succeed.

Undoubtedly, dealing with Covid-19 is one of the toughest challenges for any sports administrator and athlete. There are many competing interests that need to be weighed up, constantly. Even worse, in contrast to the high bounce of a Rafael Nadal second serve or a fast-finishing Usain Bolt, the opponent this time around is totally unpredictable. All the more reason for Olympic organisers to keep a close eye on events at Melbourne Park, just like most of us Aussie tennis fans will be this summer. (Go Ash!)

Resisting uncertainty, Malaysia is finding itself

Climbing the stairs leading to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple at Batu Caves, Malaysia. Tourism has taken a big hit during the pandemic (Faris Hadziq via Getty Images)
Climbing the stairs leading to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple at Batu Caves, Malaysia. Tourism has taken a big hit during the pandemic (Faris Hadziq via Getty Images)
Published 18 Jan 2021 11:00   0 Comments

Malaysia is in a quandary, desperately trying to figure out how to resolve political and economic questions.

The fragmentation of the Malaysian market for votes is at a point it has never before experienced. In a country where ethnic politics have long dominated, there are the Malays, who are divided at least five ways, and the Chinese, with at least three parties to choose from, and the Indians (who electorally carry much less weight) with three choices. Then there is the increasingly vociferous East Malaysian segment, which is undecided as to whether to seek its fortunes by demanding increasing autonomy or by aligning with the dominant parties that succeed in controlling Peninsular Malaysia.

The divisions are not based on any clear grounds of economic ideology – or if there is, it is well hidden. The one party that has a distinct outlook is, of course, Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), the national Islamic party, with the party that broke off from it being Parti Amanah Nasional, the National Trust Party. The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party claims to be a reform-based part but has failed to elaborate and develop upon the nature of its reforms – PKR has neither articulated nor detailed its reform agenda.

Credit ratings agency Fitch recently downgraded Malaysia to BBB+, only a few notches above that for junk bonds.

The fuzzy characteristics of the parties do little to set them apart along definite lines. This gives a great deal of flexibility to politicians, allowing them to explore innumerable permutations and combinations. In the absence of other separating planes, race and religion occupy a significant space, one that is perhaps given undue importance.

The economic sphere is no less muddy. The Malaysian economy has been grappling with the middle-income trap, the presence of a disproportionately large migrant force and the lack of adequate technological innovation and upgrading. As much as these factors have been consuming policy debate at the macroeconomic level, other issues have been disturbing people, among them the question of affordable and convenient healthcare, affordable housing and high household debt.

Disturbing as these challenges are, the arrival of Covid-19 has only compounded the problems. Alongside the aggressive political jockeying, the pandemic has spelt uncertainty and a lack of direction, economically speaking. This disturbing scenario has not gone unnoticed.

Recently, the credit ratings agency Fitch downgraded Malaysia to BBB+, only a few notches above that for junk bonds. The downgrade was, arguably, a result of the political uncertainties that abound. A disappointed Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul responded by claiming Fitch had not given due recognition to the country’s Covid-19 response efforts.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) addressing the virtual ASEAN summit in November 2020 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

Yet the downgrade was mainly because of the shifting political ground and governance problems. There could not have been a more damning reason for the decision. After all, most countries have been afflicted by the economic damage wrought by the panademic and have needed to resort to expansionary budgets with increased government debt. All that would have been necessary for Malaysia to convince the ratings agencies would have been a sensible roadmap to get the country out of its fiscal deficit and high government debt, along with a commitment to return to a state of fiscal balance. Either Malaysia failed to do this in adequate measure, or the ratings agencies judged the political climate to be an obstacle to achieving fiscal stability.

Even so, the downgrade is a temporary glitch. The Malaysian economy, in all likelihood, will recover in 2021 – provided the pandemic is under control. The World Bank expects that the economy will record a growth rate of about 6%, taking the country out of its fiscally distressing position.

There is concern that some investments have been going to neighbouring countries. Some of the investments that have been diverted away from the country have been viewed with concern, indicating possible investor aversion to Malaysia. Samsung and Apple factories are going to Vietnam, Amazon is building its data centre in Indonesia, an electric car battery factory from China is setting up a factory in Indonesia, and so is Hyundai.

Yet the outlook on foreign direct investment (FDI) may be less negative. All political parties know that FDI is Malaysia’s lifeline, and while the pressures of the times might take a toll on speed of responsiveness – slowing down approvals, for instance, with ministerial change priorities – those investors who have sunk their FDI in Malaysia will not pack up and leave, or at least they will not leave solely because of political uncertainties.

Undeniably, political stability is valuable. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has made clear the need for certainty, saying he wants to hold snap elections once the pandemic is over. Nobody knows when that will be – parliament is suspended under emergency decree until at least August, while there is agitation whether this restriction should be lifted. All of which means that the Malaysian economy will have to put up with economic uncertainty for a while longer.

Finding one’s political self is not without cost.

What does the arrival of Covid vaccines mean for 2021?

It may seem like a miracle (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)
It may seem like a miracle (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)
Published 12 Jan 2021 11:30   0 Comments

On the eve of 2020, the first case of an unexplained SARS-like pneumonia was noticed in Wuhan. 2021 has begun with vaccines against Covid-19 already approved and mass vaccination campaigns rolling out.

But we also begin the year with almost 85 million people confirmed to have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and nearly 2 million people dead. No vaccine has ever been developed in such a short time, and never has so much depended on the result. Will vaccines be the difference between 2020 and 2021?

It may not be so simple.

With more than 10,000 people dying every day from Covid (almost half in Europe and a third in the US), vaccines will not suddenly end the pandemic. Humanity needs a very sober view of 2021 and the limits of what vaccines alone can do, lest our actions today make our future even worse than it needs to be.

To end the pandemic, we need to achieve population immunity. That will take time: potentially as much as 18 months, based on current production forecasts. Population immunity also relies significantly on vaccines being roughly as effective at preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 as they are at preventing people exposed to the virus from developing Covid: the earliest data on how vaccines inhibit transmission is not expected until March. Until we achieve population immunity, we must continue the basic strategies: control borders, identify and isolate virus outbreaks, avoid crowds or confined spaces, wear masks and wash hands.

One of the least contentious issues is who should be prioritised for receiving vaccines. This life-and-death decision may be the least politicised and uncontentious question of the entire pandemic.

In places such as Europe and the US, where the virus is rampant, committing to these basics could potentially save a quarter of a million lives by the end of March. There is no chance that vaccines can provide population immunity earlier than that. Israel may have achieved 20% vaccination already, but it is an outlier, far ahead of larger and richer countries where scalability and coordination pose greater challenges.

Joe Biden will finally bring some helpful leadership to the US when he is inaugurated on 20 January, but current President Donald Trump is masterfully destroying the foundations of social trust. There are reports that many front-line workers in the US are refusing the vaccine. It may not be possible for the US to convince enough people to accept vaccinations for the country to ever achieve population immunity.  

In places such as Australia, where border control is critical, there remains little prospect of fully opening international boarders in 2021 (although quarantine places for vaccinated international students may be available by June, if things go well). The most optimistic vaccine results report 95% efficacy, which even with 100% uptake would still mean statistically that 20 people on every 400-seat plane could be carrying Covid. Vaccinations will soon be required for international arrivals, but that won’t be sufficient to open borders: Australia (and similar countries) will have to achieve population immunity first.

Another major challenge to the post-vaccine stage of the pandemic is political. The World Health Organisation is coordinating efforts to ensure vaccines are available to everyone around the globe, not just to the privileged few. But the politicisation of vaccines began early, with US President Trump leading efforts to monopolise global supplies.

China has capitalised on Trump’s inhumanity and selfishness by contrasting itself as a global actor, declaring that its (nationalistically branded) vaccines will be available to all. This is part of China’s diplomatic strategy for 2021: to demonstrate domestically that the Chinese Communist Party is more competent than Western governments and therefore is legitimate in ruling China, as well as to strengthen China’s “discourse power” by attempting to make itself the preferred partner of many developing countries (and even of Europe, if possible).

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (right) with UN Secretary-General António Guterres during a strategic briefing on Covid-19, Geneva, 24 February 2020 (Jean Marc Ferré/UN Photo)

But to paraphrase WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it’s not vaccine promises but vaccinations that save lives. China’s proclamations about their generosity contrast with their efforts to use vaccines for strategic advancement, (allegations dismissed as “groundless” by Chinese state news agency Xinhua). And “vaccine diplomacy” also poses risks for China. China’s attempts at “mask diplomacy” blew up spectacularly, when threats to withhold PPE from countries that did not allow Huawei full access to their 5G infrastructure catalysed the full rejection of Huawei from the UK. The high rate of defective PPE also damaged global perceptions of China. If China’s vaccines are as shoddy as their PPE, it will be a much bigger problem.

Surprisingly, one of the least contentious issues is who (within countries) should be prioritised for receiving vaccines. This life-and-death decision may be the least politicised and uncontentious question of the entire pandemic – with broad agreement, there are three categories of people we would like to prioritise within countries: people who are vulnerable to death, people who are most likely to transmit the virus, and essential workers who can’t be protected in any other way. The elderly and front-line health workers (including quarantine guards) are broadly supported as first in line. Health workers (about 3% of the world’s population, but 14% of Covid infections) have more than earned whatever support they get.

That vaccines are now available at all seems like a miracle. But it’s actually the result of huge amounts of work, including general vaccine science done before Covid-19 existed. Having vaccines will ensure 2021 is not a repeat of 2020.

But we are in a much worse position now than we were at this time last year, having spent most of 2020 making terrible mistakes. Even vaccines will not solve our problems immediately, and maybe not even by the end of this year. The number of infections is facilitating mutations at a rate that could degrade the efficacy of vaccinations if we don’t act quickly.

As for our political problems, the world will receive a merciful substitution in the White House in just a handful of days, but as with vaccines, the presence of Biden will not solve all our problems immediately. 2020 may have been the year humanity made the biggest blunders since the Second World War. In 2021, we will have to deal with the consequences of that failure.

Main image courtesy of the Province of British Columbia

Covering the Covid shock on The Interpreter in 2020

A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
Published 24 Dec 2020 06:00   0 Comments

From the first days in January this year, the question that dominated the outbreak was how upfront Beijing had been about the novel coronavirus that became known as Covid-19. Richard McGregor:

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 … 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.

Still, the warning signs about the rapid spread of the virus – and what would result in more than 1.7 million deaths so far – did not translate into public trust, particularly in already politically stressed Hong Kong. Vivienne Chow:

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 Organisation, which is supposed to “lead partners in global health responses”.

Australia began to react with travel restrictions, buying time at a cost to the education and tourist industries, but Dominic Meagher warned “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.

But by late February politics and prejudice had complicated the response around the world over. Audrey Jiajia Li:

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.

South KoreaEurope, the United States, India and almost everywhere saw spiking rates of infection. The Tokyo Olympics were soon abandoned, Indonesia struggled and Pacific island nations feared the danger as lockdowns spread. Leaders felt the pressure to rise to the occasion. Michael Fullilove:

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

And by the end of March, it was increasingly clear the virus would hold momentous consequences for the world. Daniel Flitton

The crisis will affect everything in some way, whether budget assumptions, global supply chains, or the trappings of power … drastic change [may be] 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.

So The Interpreter examined the cross-cutting influence of the virus had on existing international challenges, whether the Hong Kong protest movement, poverty in India or the Philippines, migrant workers in Singapore, insurgency in Thailand, fighting the remnants of Islamic State, conflict in Afghanistan or tensions on the Korean peninsula. The crisis had a disproportionate impact on women, while the cost to the global economy was also manifesting. Roland Rajah:

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.

And if a first step to combating a problem is first understanding it, disinformation and conspiracy online was certainly no help. Natasha Kassam:

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.

Austin, Texas (Ampersand72/Flickr)

Bright spots emerged. Enterprising Indonesians mixed their own hand sanitiser, and Bob Kelly – aka BBC Dad – had some helpful advice for those staring at a Zoom meeting working from home:

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.

Nick Bisley wondered at the future power dynamics in Asia. Mark Beeson asked what the crisis might hold for the vaunted international order?

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.

Countries raced to develop vaccines while wrestling with the rights to privacy when tracing the virus spread. The future design of cities was questioned, we wondered about spies and the warning signs, protecting political leaders from the virus or whether they could strike a global bargain to do better next time?

Jennifer Hsu charted the growing power China’s Xi Jinping amid the pandemic, while Erin Hurley watched Donald Trump shrivel before the challenge. Meantime, Stephen Howes urged the world to remember those most vulnerable:

Covid-19 is hitting at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since the end of the Second World War. What if the virus takes hold in a massive refugee camp in Africa, the Middle East or Asia?

Should the world have been better prepared? Shahar Hameiri:

Used to financing and implementing limited interventions far from home, developed states’ governments were suddenly fighting huge contagions on the home front, for which they were often poorly prepared. And since very limited collective capacity had developed previously, their full focus immediately turned inwards, thus producing a fragmented, “zero-sum” response globally.

Or did the world overreact? Ramesh Thakur:

Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.

Perhaps, in the end, planning doesn’t matter. Gordon Peake and Christian Downie:

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 … [looking back] planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future.

Let’s see in 2021 if nature cares that humans can count in years.

Main image via Flickr user 7C0

The strange connections of isolation

Crowds unimagined before 2020 (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
Crowds unimagined before 2020 (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 Dec 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Today, as it has for nine months, the Australian government’s Smartraveller website tells me “do not travel”. Every country on the map is coloured red. To leave the country, I would need an exemption on compassionate grounds. Apparently it’s a high bar.

For the last few years, I averaged 100 flights a year, carbon-offset, commuting from Melbourne to Canberra and internationally. When I moved jobs recently, I was excited to reduce this to 75 and have more time with my family. I never imagined how much.

Working in the field of international relations, I think about what’s happening in the world and how it affects Australia. So when in January I hear of Covid-19, I begin to think about the impact on geopolitics. I imagine that there will be two types of countries: ones that have no hope of containing the virus and where it becomes endemic, as has happened in India, and ones which manage to contain the virus but then have to control their borders to prevent reinfection, as occurred in New Zealand.

Until a vaccine is widely available, the cost of controlling the virus will be closing off to keep danger outside. The risk will be closing off international engagement.

That’s the dual challenge for Australia in 2020: how to deal with the pandemic without cutting itself off from the world. This is my story of a year in isolation spent thinking about connection.

A city changed by pandemic, Melbourne in June (r reeve/Flickr)

In January, everyone’s focus is on China. I give a talk to the Office of National Intelligence focusing on what Covid-19 means for Beijing.

If they’ve been to China recently, teachers at my Chinese language classes go into self-isolation, well ahead of any government advice. One of the students, in his 70s, asks me to tell him my travel history. I’m not offended. I just transited through Hong Kong on my way back from New Delhi. I could have caught the virus. I was lucky.

I go to a City of Melbourne function where the Town Hall facade is floodlit red to show support, with hundreds chanting “Wuhan jiāyóu”. Later I ask my teacher to translate, and she says it’s like barracking – so perhaps “C’arn Wuhan”, making it rhyme.

I hashtag #IWillEatWithYou when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurant.

As I drop my son off in Canberra for his first year at university – with bushfires still smoking, one tragedy bleeding into another – there are signs at the student accommodation telling returning students how to self-isolate. They’re lucky to get back in time.

As the borders close and the air routes shut, it’s bad luck if you aren’t where you want to be.

By February, Australia closes its borders to China. Returnees from Wuhan uncomplainingly quarantine at Christmas Island then Darwin. The Chinese strain of the virus never reaches significant transmission. The first wave silently moving through the Australian community mainly comes from travellers from the United States, Europe and cruise ships.

Australia closes the border to Iran, but not to the US. My father in Mornington would probably know some of the crowd who brought back infections from Aspen in the US. Again, we’re just lucky.

I speak at a function to develop future leaders’ Asia capability. No one knows whether to shake hands, and it makes us sheepish. I talk about the stereotypes of how Asians see Australia: as subservient, selfish, rich, racist, transactional and moralistic. And how we can try to counter these.

In March I start planning to work from home. My graduate colleague tells me his three housemates have already lost their jobs and have moved back with their parents.

People organising conferences don’t want to cancel. But employers and insurers are nervous about travel. I pick up my visa for an Indian defence conference the day the borders slam shut.

My last normal moment: seeing the Women’s T20 World Cup Final. I hesitate, but I go and celebrate amid the 86,000 Australians and Indians crowded in Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Early in the lockdown, I conscientiously do yoga on my balcony every day. Passenger planes have almost disappeared from the sky. Now I only see the tiny props. And the helicopters landing on the hospital roof.

As the borders close and the air routes shut, it’s bad luck if you aren’t where you want to be. I interview diplomats about their work repatriating 16,500 stranded Australians, even using a cargo plane delivering cyclone aid to give Australians a ride home.

Then the virus is loose from Melbourne quarantine. The cap on arrivals is reduced. It’s reported that 25,000 then 27,000 Australians are unable to return from overseas.

A colleague shares that she can’t visit her dying father in the US. She wants to go, but isn’t sure she’ll be allowed back. It’s the right call. Later I see news of a small boy stuck visiting his grandparents in Vietnam. His parents look beside themselves.

Grounded planes in Adelaide (Michael Coghlan/Flickr)


Prime Minister Scott Morrison tells international students and temporary visa holders to return to their home countries. Many can’t. I talk to a graduating student who can’t go back to Mongolia because the border is closed. It takes seven months. Another from Mauritius quickly organises her enrolment so her visa doesn’t run out. She knows of friends stuck sleeping in airports, unable to stay or go.

With no jobs and no federal assistance, a line of international students snakes around Melbourne Town Hall for food relief. I’m thankful someone is doing something. Then a Brazilian student tells me how Australia’s response is being compared to the generosity of Canada and the United Kingdom. On social media, those who feel abandoned are telling future students not to come.

I keep checking on my “hostee”, a scholarship student from Bangladesh. I joined the University of Melbourne’s welcome program when I heard that most international students never go inside an Australian home. I can’t ask her to visit, but I pay a taxi to deliver toys for her daughter.

I write about the war of words between the US and China over Covid-19. Will the US end up being seen as the victim of external forces or its own mismanagement? Will China end up being seen as the country that unleashed the virus or the one that showed the world how to overcome it? Lowy Institute polling shows that Australians are unimpressed with both.

In April, all alone, Australia calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which China views as targeting it. China’s ambassador wonders aloud why Chinese consumers would support a country that is not so friendly, even hostile. Eventually Australia works with other countries to adopt a more neutral proposal, but the damage is done.

Artswest, University of Melbourne (a.canvas.of.light/Flickr)

Asian-Australians report an increase in racial abuse. An Indonesian colleague says he thinks people are standing further away from him, but how would you know? When two international students are attacked at the University of Melbourne, I listen to the Vice-Chancellor’s angry, disgusted condemnation. The Australian National University’s Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership encourages people to call out racism.

I give a webinar on optimism in international relations. I talk about disaster fiction and why the worst-case scenarios won’t eventuate. I survey the audience and find the optimism count has gone up. So that’s my good deed for the month.

In Chinese class, I’m making progress. It’s cheering to be able to do something I couldn’t before. On Twitter, I encourage colleagues who have gone back to learning Japanese and Indonesian. An act of hope that one day we’ll be able to use our halting skills to connect.

I still have nightmares that I’m about to miss a plane, even though they’re almost all grounded.

The collapse of international air travel is unprecedented. Even in the Second World War, a route operated. You’d have to go back to the First Fleet awaiting resupply.

Indigenous Australians were never isolated. They had trade and cultural ties. For National Reconciliation Week in May, I organise a seminar looking at First Nations’ connections with Macassans. Even with no common language, they managed to establish mutually beneficial seasonal trade.

I still have nightmares that I’m about to miss a plane, even though they’re almost all grounded. On a cold night, I dream of my trip to Antarctica with my daughter last year. If we’d travelled 12 months later, we would have been on one of the plague ships going from harbour to harbour, rejected by all. The Greg Mortimer is allowed to dock in Montevideo because today’s leaders remember Australia’s compassion to refugees fleeing Uruguay’s dictatorship in the 1970s. What you give now will be returned to you.

At end of financial year, I donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. It’s estimated that more than 1.1 million temporary visa holders in Australia can’t access any government support. My body isn’t big enough to hold the shame.

My son comes home from university for semester break. As Melbourne’s second wave rolls in – not due to the Black Lives Matter protests, despite the relentless misinformation – he makes it back to Canberra just in time before the border with Victoria is closed. Our neighbours in the North Melbourne government housing towers are shut in, the beginning as the city tips into one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

Melbourne’s government housing towers, some of which were locked down hard following a Covid-19 outbreak (David Jackmanson/Flickr)

Australia releases its new international development policy Partnerships for Recovery. I write on the biggest negative: no new money, just reallocating the funds for volunteers and scholars who can no longer travel. In the last six years, Australia’s overseas development program has been cut by 27%. Australians think we spend 14% of the federal budget on aid. It’s 0.8%.

Australia releases its Defence Strategic Update in July. The headline figure is $270 billion (that’s 67 years of the aid budget). I write on the tendency to view international issues through a security lens and the self-fulfilling prophecy of treating China as an enemy. Former defence secretary Dennis Richardson warns against “national security cowboys” putting the nation’s interests at unnecessary risk. The Lowy Poll reports the five threats that concern Australians most: drought, pandemics, global economic downturn, environmental disasters and climate change. None will be helped by military hardware.

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong calls on Australia to develop greater foreign policy ambition, bringing a similar sense of urgency and purpose as we did to suppressing the virus at home.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cuts jobs.

I’m on a panel with Australian Institute of International Affairs national president Allan Gyngell, who says that in the new Covid-19 world, Australia will be poorer, weaker and more isolated. I write on foreign policy identity politics and the danger of playing with Australia’s security for domestic advantage.

In August, the government announces a foreign relations bill to give Foreign Minister Marise Payne power to veto international arrangements made by local councils, state governments and universities. I write against it. Have we reached the point where these are suspect: a semester abroad, a student home stay, a trade mission, an arts exchange?

When I appear at a Senate inquiry into the legislation, I’m not asked to denounce the Chinese Communist Party, but three Chinese-Australians are.

In a tit-for-tat between Canberra and Beijing that only becomes clear over time, ASIO raids Chinese journalists’ homes in an investigation into a NSW parliamentarian and his staffer. Journalists from the last two Australian media outlets with a presence in China are spirited home.

In September, I sit on the selection panel for New Colombo Plan scholarships for young Australians to study and work across Asia. For three days on Zoom, I hear brilliant, motivated students talking about their great plans for 2021. I check in with one of the previous winners, who never got to travel. She says she’ll go when we’re back to normal, soon. In lockdown, I’ve got used to having no desires for the future. Hope hurts.

A new normal (Jay Phagan/Flickr)

In class, we look at a brochure for Chinese tourists and plan a sightseeing tour of Melbourne. I suggest Puffing Billy railway and Healesville Sanctuary zoo. I think about all the attractions and livelihoods gone. Lavender farms and opal stores and the Great Ocean Road.

More could be done to let tourists visit Australia. Those from places where Covid-19 is endemic might not mind quarantining to live like they did before: a sort of time travel to a pre-Covid era. There’s a deep human need to experience. I’m old enough to remember that before travel was easy and affordable, it was an adventure which could change your life. That’s what I’d choose to use my carbon allotment for: the sights and sounds of new encounters.

I realise that I haven’t left the house in three months, my daughter in six. My husband is immunocompromised. This changes your calculation. Is this outing really worth risking his life?

Australia does best when it’s open to the world, not in times of isolation and economic nationalism.

I speak by video to a friend in Rhode Island. The US case numbers are extraordinary, yet life is mostly going on as normal around him. We’re living in different worlds.

Qantas airline asks if I want to buy a case of the little wine bottles they used to serve in-flight. I buy some. I think it might help me drink less.

The university sector is in crisis. Our third-largest export industry joining tourism, our fourth. For universities, the disaster feels deliberate. Government decisions had consequences: citizens and permanent residents could return, but those with a student visa could not. JobKeeper, the government support package for workers during the pandemic, was amended three times to ensure that universities weren’t covered. Pilot programs for a few hundred international students to return to South Australia and the ACT are announced then postponed. It’s the end of November before a plane with 63 students returns via Darwin. Proposals from student accommodation providers are rebuffed. With no plan for 2021, there’s no hope for first semester enrolments. Education used to contribute $37 billion to the Australian economy.

A lesson from lockdown: 24-hour news doesn’t make you feel connected. But parcels do.

Someone says she works night shift at the supermarket fulfilling online orders, and without even thinking I thank her for her service. I mean it.

Australia was not the only country to see panic buying (dmbosstone/Flickr)

I’m not in Canberra for the federal budget announcement in October. I can’t go five kilometres from my house. Online I check that, yes, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s funding allocation is the lowest percentage in Australia’s history. There’s a tiny piece of good news: $300 million to fight Covid-19 in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.                                

I look at the money being spent in the budget – the biggest in my lifetime – and wonder where Australia’s future prosperity will come from. Not education and tourism.

Young people are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. What plan are they being offered? On climate, 60% of Australians want the economic recovery to be driven by renewables. But gas chooses itself.

Someone posts on LinkedIn that she listened to the budget with tears in her eyes, feeling we’re all in this together. I can only think of who’s been left out.

The third of our exports that go to China are looking shaky. Chinese investment in an Australian dairy company is blocked on national interest grounds. Getting out of a recession while antagonising our largest trading partner will be tough.

Australia does best when it’s open to the world, not in times of isolation and economic nationalism. We’re a country of immigrants, with half of Australians born overseas or with a parent who was.

Without migration, our economy won’t grow. It’s estimated that Australia will be half a million smaller in 2022, with flow-on effects from construction to retail. Migration could restart with user-pays quarantine, but it’s not on the agenda.

I read that a primary school is cancelling its long-standing Vietnamese program to teach Italian instead. Vietnam has been a big winner this year, and its economy is projected to double in the next decade. When we indulge in nostalgia, we hurt ourselves.

I write on how the US election may mean the end of Australia’s American dream.

Are we taking some first steps towards the long-hoped-for travel bubble? New Zealanders travel to Sydney without quarantining. The first chance to see a granddaughter. The first kiss in eight months. When it goes wrong – the Kiwis don’t stay put – it doesn’t build confidence.

After a false start, it’s announced that Darwin will again host returnees. Repatriation flights restart from London. Then Johannesburg and New Delhi. There haven’t been commercial flights from India for seven months. A maths problem: if the Northern Territory takes 500 returnees a fortnight, how many months will it take to get the now 32,000 home?

A group of Australians stuck in the Philippines are trying to charter a boat to return.

Then 26 October is double doughnut day. No new cases, no deaths. An exhausted Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announces an end to Melbourne’s lockdown after 111 days. Only a handful of places – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong – have so successfully defeated a second wave.

A traveller walks past an advertising display screen at Sydney International Airport in March (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

My husband tells me that in July, Victoria had the same infection rate as France. The day Melbourne comes out of lockdown, France records 36,000 new cases. Its economy is among the worst-hit worldwide, along with the UK and Spain. State premiers were right not to see it as economy-versus-health.

In its downward spiral, the relationship with China hits a new low. Economic punishment signals China’s displeasure. Sector after sector is hit: barley, beef, lamb, wine, timber, cotton, coal – even lobsters. Scott Morrison demands an apology for an offensive tweet. I can’t see any sign that Australia has a plan to repair the relationship.

In November Victoria celebrates elimination day. Western Australia lifts its hard border. We deserve to congratulate ourselves. Yes, there will be outbreaks that will need to be contained quickly: in Adelaide, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. But we’ve shown that we can.

I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved within Australia. I’m sad and frustrated about our lack of vision for anything beyond. Can we count on staying lucky as the world gets more contested and harder to navigate?

I speak on a panel with former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. He describes a “fortress Australia” mindset that’s taking hold. A mentality where Australia is retreating inward and views everything outside as a threat.

I watch independent MP Zali Stegall speak in parliament to introduce a Climate Bill. She warns that Australia will be isolated from our trading partners if we remain out of line with international expectations. Putting our head in the sand is not a solution.

I look up at the sky and see a plane. It’s December and there’s a passenger plane landing in Melbourne. Perhaps 2021 will be different. Can Australia face outwards with ambition? Or will we cut ourselves off from the world?

Favourites of 2020: Running for nothing?

(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
Published 21 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Any runner with a shoebox full of medals knows that victory is sweetly remembered through the shiny keepsakes bestowed upon those of us lucky enough to cross the finish line. This year saw the rise of virtual races and perhaps the most epic challenge of all, the quarantine backyard ultra-marathon.

With no starting line-up or electric crowd atmosphere, lone runners took to their neighbourhoods. They covered hundreds of kilometres around suburban streets. A dedicated few racked up the miles back and forth with tiny laps inside the relative safety of their own homes. Covid-19 might have struck seemingly out of the blue, but for the runner who had 2020 goals in mind, the months of training for race preparation was not to go to waste.

Perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on, they will have earned a competitive advantage.

The running community have managed to build themselves a new absurd form of racing, which will likely go on to be a new tradition for the now well-connected global running “club”.

For those of us who felt isolated and left wondering how to fill the hours when the Covid-19 storm hit in March, we could be grateful that in some countries outside exercise was considered essential for physical and mental wellbeing. Although not all have been so lucky. Perhaps a collective thought should go out to the Australian runner in Beijing caught breaching strict quarantine

It goes without saying that a sense of normalcy will be welcomed with open arms in the world of running, and perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on they will have earned a competitive advantage. For them, any virtual race bling might be remembered even sweeter. Here’s mine.

How extremist messaging co-opts emergency events

(Leandro Mazzuquini/Unsplash)
(Leandro Mazzuquini/Unsplash)
Published 21 Dec 2020 11:00   0 Comments

Australia experienced two major emergency events in 2020 – the summer bushfires followed shortly after by the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout these events, social media played a critical role in providing information, facilitating social connection and public discussions.

However, there was also a deluge of mis- and disinformation, often spread through coordinated networks. A worrying and persistent element emerged within such networks – extremist messaging by inauthentic accounts that exploited emergency events to magnify their content and recruit followers.

In early January, I tracked a set of 300 fringe, hyper-partisan Twitter accounts that were pushing the #ArsonEmergency hashtag. I was initially alerted to their activity due to automated bot and troll detection tools, which showed a significantly higher proportion of suspicious activity compared to other hashtags. This hashtag, which parodied the popular hashtag #ClimateEmergency, was the centrepiece of a discredited campaign that arson, and not climate change, was the cause of the bushfires.

False claims of Asian people deliberately lighting bushfire

In this network I observed a worrying amount of problematic content that bumped up against, and in some cases went over, the margins of hate speech, racism and incitement to violence. The example above shows a tweet of an unsubstantiated claim that a “man of Asian descent” was lighting fires – notably, it includes the hashtags #DomesticTerrorism and #ShootToKill. This is an attempt to legitimise the use of violence against particular sub-groups, which fits alongside other baseless claims that other groups such as environmentalists and Muslims were conspiring to light bushfires on purpose.

It is no surprise that Twitter has since suspended one in 20 prominent accounts in this #ArsonEmergency network. The figure below shows the follower network for these accounts, filtered to focus on the most prominent nodes (accounts with more than 20 in-links or “follows” from other accounts). Suspended accounts are shown in red (6% of total), deleted accounts are blue (5% of total), and active accounts are white (89%).

A follower network analysis of prominent #ArsonEmergency accounts (filtered to show accounts that are followed by at least 20 other accounts). Red nodes are suspended, blue are deleted and white are still active (as of 15 December)

Echoes of this #ArsonEmergency and extremist activity were also observed in the United States during the wildfires in Oregon and Washington during September. False rumours circulated on social media that left-wing “antifa” activists were deliberately lighting fires, which led to armed right-wing vigilante groups threatening people in rural communities. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon debunked these rumours and pleaded with citizens to follow official information in order to enable authorities to deal with the fires and minimise loss of life and property damage.

A concerning trend among the #ArsonEmergency account network was the promotion of platforms which are less constrained by content moderation such as Parler and Gab. A number of accounts actively try to recruit people to “free speech” platforms that allow more extremist content, such as far-right and QAnon conspiracy theories (QAnon is now heavily moderated on Twitter). Indeed, QAnon has been labelled as a domestic terror threat in the US, given its advocacy of violence and its anti-Semitic attitudes.

The example below shows the profile of the most active account posting #ArsonEmergency tweets, including a link to Parler and a call-to-action: “Find me on Parler”.

The profile of the most active #ArsonEmergency account

This marketing of alternative platforms aligns with recent concerns that content moderation on major platforms is driving users to self-moderated platforms that are echo chambers of extreme and hateful content. In this way, far-right Twitter networks in Australia are co-opting crisis and emergency events as a staging ground for radicalising individuals into groups such as QAnon. In the process, these accounts weaponise Twitter’s content moderation policies as “evidence” of their conspiracies, using it to drive traffic onto self-moderated platforms where extremist messaging finds safe harbour.

Shortly after the Australian bushfires, the Covid-19 pandemic provided unprecedented opportunities for far-right extremist groups such as QAnon to evolve and spread their messages and networks. In Australia, the pandemic was swiftly politicised and social media activity polarised into a hyper-partisan battleground.

We still have no idea how big and/or active such cross-platform networks are, so mapping these and understanding their dynamics is critical.

The Victorian “second wave” outbreak provides an illustrative case study. Both social and mainstream media were polarised into two camps: those who supported Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ handling of the outbreak (the #IStandWithDan tweeters) and those who opposed it (#DictatorDan and #DanLiedPeopleDied).

During the various stages of Victorian coronavirus restrictions, social media became a vector to foment anti-lockdown sentiment and protests, culminating in violent clashes with Victorian police. At the same time, Sinophobic memes of Dan Andrews circulated on Twitter and Facebook, keying into racist narratives and hashtags that conflate Chinese identity with the virus. Indeed, the #DanLiedPeopleDied hashtag is a memetic play on the problematic hashtag #ChinaLiedPeopleDied, which features alongside Sinophobic hashtags such as #WuhanFlu and #ChinaVirus.

This online activity was contextualised by an increase in racist attacks and slurs against Asian people both in Australia and globally. Extremist messaging was not solely directed at ethnic minorities. Female journalists also received abuse from a small but vocal core of extremist pro-lockdown activists, including abhorrent threats of physical and sexual violence.

More research is needed to understand how emergency events are co-opted by extremists to push problematic content and build their networks. How successful are these cross-platform recruitment strategies from Twitter to platforms such as Parler and Gab? We still have no idea how big and/or active such cross-platform networks are, so mapping these and understanding their dynamics is critical.

Similarly, how can researchers develop better methods to detect when hyper-partisan organic networks are infiltrated and co-opted by extremists? The distinction is often subtle and requires temporal analysis of large-scale data combined with careful qualitative close reading and digital forensics.

Finally, we need renewed efforts to advocate for better data access for researchers and transparency from social media companies. Public health and safety are directly proportional to the health and accountability of our social media ecosystems.

This article is part of a year-long series examining extremism and technology also available at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, of which the Lowy Institute is a core partner.

Learning from an island in a pandemic

Reykjavik, Iceland (L. Toshio Kishiyama/Getty Images)
Reykjavik, Iceland (L. Toshio Kishiyama/Getty Images)
Published 18 Dec 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Through a quirk in circumstances, I presently find myself sheltering from the pandemic in Iceland. I wouldn’t consider myself stranded like other overseas Australians. I am here due to personal necessity and because the country is a relatively safe place. While the recent success of my home city of Melbourne in eliminating Covid-19 has afforded it the ability to open up in time for an almost normal summer, Reykjavík’s long, dark and cold winter is providing a natural incentive to stay indoors and limit the virus’s spread.

For Iceland, the effects of the pandemic have been far more structural than biological. Like Australia, the country has an advantageous geography that has allowed it a certain degree of insulation. Yet unlike other island nations such as New Zealand or Taiwan, Iceland’s government has opted for a strategy of suppression, rather than elimination. This is proving reasonably effective.

The country has recorded 28 deaths from the virus – a comparatively low rate that is partially due to its small population, but also due to a highly competent contact-tracing regime that has worked quickly to isolate cases and minimise transmissions. While in the past month European countries have seen an explosion in cases, Iceland has been hovering between 10 and 20 daily cases. A stubborn but manageable caseload for the country’s healthcare system.

The country is again looking to realign itself, this time as a niche market for those who are able to work remotely, spend enthusiastically and wish to reside in a relatively pandemic-safe environment.

This suppression strategy is born from the country’s complex relationship with Europe. While Iceland has remained outside the European Union, it has nevertheless become intertwined with the European structures that it has deemed valuable. It is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which links Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to the rules of the EU’s single market, and was an early and enthusiastic member of the Council of Europe, the body that seeks to govern the continent’s basic ideals. But crucially in regard to the pandemic, Iceland is a member of the Schengen Area, effectively making it impossible to fully isolate itself from the continent’s current woes.

Instead, the government has required all arrivals into the country to pre-register with their contact details, as well as to submit themselves to a Covid-19 test at the airport, which can be turned around in a matter of hours. Arrivals are then required to isolate for five days, before taking a second test. This approach has so far proved effective.

While Iceland has been unable to close its borders to Europe, the country has implemented stricter measures for countries outside the region. The government has created a small list of eight countries whose residents pose a minimal risk in transmitting the disease and are therefore permitted to enter the country, Australia being one. However, the border remains closed to major sources of tourism such as the United States, Canada and China.

It is in tourism that the effects of the pandemic have been most keenly felt, effects created by Iceland’s unique recent economic history. In 2008, Iceland had a booming and oversized financial services sector, with its three largest banks holding assets that were valued at ten times the size of the country’s overall GDP. As a result, when the global financial crisis struck, it hit Iceland hard. These banks collapsed. The local currency plunged in value, savings were lost and unemployment soared. Unlike the US, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and even imprisoned senior bank executives. What the country also did was pivot its economy.

“Sun voyager” sculpture in Reykjavik (Arian Zwegers/Flickr)

Over the next decade, tourism emerged to become Iceland’s dominant industry, accounting for almost half of the country’s export revenue, and employing around 16% of the population. Its singular and spectacular geography became seen as a far more tangible and reliable asset than the vagaries of high finance. Attracting an endless stream of wide-eyed tourists seemed like a permanent economic advantage. By 2018, the country was host to 2.3 million annual visitors, over six times the country’s resident population of just under 370,000 people.

However, the unforeseeable pandemic has now burst this bubble as well. The array of budget airlines that once funnelled hordes of tourists into Iceland from European and American cities have ceased operations. Currently regular flights are only entering the country from Denmark – where there is a significant Icelandic diaspora – and Poland, whose citizens have come to dominate Iceland’s fish processing and construction industries.

Reykjavík’s main thoroughfare, a street that embodies Iceland’s economic shift, now lies semi-dormant. Its shops selling outdoor essentials and unique Icelandic wares are empty, while its cafés and restaurants that would usually be filled with hungry tourists are sparsely populated.

Yet, the enterprising spirit of the country has also seen an opportunity in the pandemic. Iceland now seeks to capitalise on the world’s shift to remote work. If you are from outside the Schengen Area, and able to enter Iceland without a visa (as Australians are), your visa-free stay can now extend from three months to six. However, there is a catch. In order to qualify you must be earning more than A$10,000 a month (a criteria I very much do not meet).

The country is again looking to realign itself, this time as a niche market for those who are able to work remotely, spend enthusiastically and wish to reside in a relatively pandemic-safe environment.

And if this year holds a lesson, “remote” is a term in need of redefinition.

Avoiding a “lost decade” in the Pacific

Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Published 16 Dec 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The horror year that has been 2020 is thankfully coming to an end with a dose of welcome optimism, now that vaccines are on the way. But the end is still far from within sight for many of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours.

In a new Lowy Institute policy brief, we argue that the Pacific is staring at a potential “lost decade”, owing to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. Many more Pacific islanders will be left unable or struggling to meet their basic needs, and the prospects for a more stable, prosperous and secure region will be greatly reduced.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific.

None of this scenario would be in Australia’s interests and would reflect poorly on the country as a friend in the region. Australia should do all that it reasonably can to avoid it.

Remoteness has helped the Pacific escape the worst of the health implications from the pandemic. Yet the grim reality is that the economic devastation is still set to be among the most severe anywhere in the world. This is owing to the region’s heavy reliance on key income sources badly affected by the crisis, especially international tourism, and the inability of Pacific governments to mount anywhere near the fiscal firepower needed to limit the damage, as richer nations have done. Fiji’s tourism-dependent economy is the worst affected and expected to contract by more than 20%.

The costs of the crisis are also likely to be especially long-lasting. By our projections, average income per person in the Pacific will not recover to its 2019 level until 2028 – a Pacific lost decade. And there remain plenty of downside risks to this outlook.

While overcoming the pandemic is the top priority, fiscal stimulus will be the key to enabling a strong post-pandemic recovery. We estimate that the Pacific will need at least A$5 billion (US$3.5 billion) over the next few years in additional stimulus spending to fully recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Most would need to go towards productive investments that can be quickly scale up in areas such as infrastructure, capital maintenance and climate change adaptation. Some should also go towards social priorities (for which the economic pay-off is more long term) such as health, education and income support for struggling households.

Pacific governments will not be able to finance this themselves – having little access to private capital markets and being reliant on overseas aid. It will therefore fall to the region’s development partners to play the leading role in financing the Pacific’s recovery.

Expanded international debt relief could play a useful role in some Pacific island economies to free up the necessary resources. This mostly relates to large loans from China to Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. Increased financing from the multilateral development banks is also an option via either the adoption of less conservative capital adequacy rules or new financial contributions from donor governments.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific. The Australian government is already doing a lot. It has in particular already increased its international financial assistance via the establishment of a special A$300 million Covid-19 response package for the Pacific and committed half a billion dollars to roll out vaccines in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Unloading Australian-funded Covid-19 response supplies in Honiara, Solomon Islands in April (DFAT/Flickr)

These are significant measures. Nonetheless, it still does not come close to matching the scale of a once-in-a-century crisis nor Australia’s interest in minimising the damage this inflicts to the region.

We argue Australia should establish a $2 billion Covid-19 recovery financing facility for the Pacific. Australia normally provides about 40% of all financial assistance to the region, so this would be in line with Australia’s “fair share” and role as the Pacific’s leading development partner.

The facility should provide funding in the form of outright grants as much as possible. However, as political appetite may be limited, the use of appropriately structured loans is also feasible as a lower cost option in helping reach the full scale of financing required. From a Pacific debt sustainability perspective, the economic returns from recovery spending can offset the cost of increased future debt service payments associated with borrowing to finance the recovery.

The arguments for Australia establishing a recovery financing facility for the Pacific are similar to those justifying the huge increase in domestic Australian government spending that has taken place in response to the pandemic – historically low long-term government borrowing costs and high returns to investing in the recovery now, in order to avoid the far worse alternative of allowing economies, and societies, to be permanently set back.

Having made its own fair share contribution, Australia would then be in a strong position to advocate for others in the international community also to step up in helping the Pacific avoid a lost decade.

Favourites of 2020: A lockdown loaf

Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Published 11 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

A year like no other. From global pandemics to climate change to the US presidential election, there was no shortage of crises this year. We lurched from one to another. As I worked from home, the amount of news I consumed increased exponentially. Anxiety levels increased the more I read. There was a sense of helplessness – the inability to see family and friends within Australia, let alone internationally.

Sure, I can write about my favourite book, podcast, films, TV program … things consumed to take the edge off the year. But surely, the zeitgeist for 2020 has to be the sourdough.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking.

In February, before lockdown happened, I started my own sourdough starter. For those in the know, sourdough starter takes a month or so to cultivate before it is ready to bake bread. When we were ready to start baking in March, we were facing shortages. Whatever flour we could locate went to the sourdough baking/stress-buster project. Ironically, locating flour became a stress in itself.

When The Economist and Financial Times publish articles and “how-to” videos, we know we have reached peak sourdough. Even Barack Obama has his own sourdough starter.

The act of creating something with your own hands and the meditative effect of kneading the dough gives back some of the power that the lockdown took away. In the face of chaos and financial scarcity, bread making and cooking in general provide a sense of achievement and gratification.

Yes, everyone was at it and every post on Instagram was of a sourdough loaf. We might be in isolation, but when it came to baking bread, we were part of a community – sharing in the highs and lows of each loaf.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking. As Sydney eases its way out of the pandemic, we have not discarded the sourdough project – rather it has become a ritual of our household to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly baked bread each week, and it reminds us of the community we have joined.

Sourdough starter: Holger

Women, peace and security are not only wartime issues

The runner-up image in the Freedom from Violence Photo Competition, 2010 (Deeksha Singh via UN Women Asia and the Pacific)
The runner-up image in the Freedom from Violence Photo Competition, 2010 (Deeksha Singh via UN Women Asia and the Pacific)
Published 8 Dec 2020 10:30   0 Comments

Many women fight wars every single day within their homes. This is not the violence of wars that features on the nightly news, but something far more insidious – a hidden conflict that is far more costly. Domestic violence is rampant, within both developed and developing countries, yet is a problem too often ignored. As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Women, Peace and Security Resolution, which recognised internationally the gendered impacts of war, it is a chance to fix this.

Around one in three women worldwide experiences sexual or physical violence, most likely perpetrated by a former or current male partner. Economist Anke Hoeffler has found that violence against women costs the world more than civil wars and terrorism. Instances of intimate partner violence, overwhelmingly against women, cost the global economy around $4.4 trillion – nearly half the total cost of all forms of violence. In Australia, the cost is put at $21.7 billion. These costs come from direct factors such as medical care, but also indirect factors such as loss of potential earnings. Strikingly, this figure is likely an underestimate of the true cost of domestic violence, because most survivors do not seek help.

A narrow understanding of violence has come at the expense of not only who is paid attention to, but also where they live. According to the OECD, more than 35% of women living in countries such as the United States, as well as more progressive nations such as New Zealand, have experienced intimate partner violence. But developed nations do not prioritise preventing domestic violence in the same way as fighting wars in other countries. In the United States, government spending on the Office on Violence Against Women equalled less than 1% of annual expenditure on defence in 2020, and less than 1% of the economic cost of domestic violence. In National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s statement marking the Women, Peace and Security Resolution’s anniversary, the physical insecurity of women living in the United States was not even mentioned.

A narrow understanding of violence is also costing women their lives. Globally, the United Nations predicts that 137 women are killed by a family member every day. Women are even killed by men in nations considered safe by global standards. In Australia, where researchers claim women have “fairly high levels of physical security”, every single week one woman, on average, is killed.

A memorial to victims of domestic violence in Brisbane, Australia (John/Flickr)

Ending wartime violence and ending violence against women are not mutually exclusive. Covid-19 must serve as a reminder of the need to broaden the understanding of violence to include the experiences of all women. Because Covid-19 has made the war women are fighting worse.

For many women, shelter-in-place policies created to limit the spread of Covid-19 limited their freedoms. It forced them to be locked indoors with the very men who abuse them. Many women were unable to seek assistance through traditional means, such as hotlines, due to constant monitoring by abusers. Covid-19 also created new triggers for violence against women to fester – from loss of control to economic stresses. Many service providers have reported an increase in severity of instances of violence.

It’s taken the struggle with Covid-19 for some governments to recognise the violence in the lives of women.

Nearly every single country with data has reported an increase in calls to hotlines. When Covid-19 hit, the UN Population Fund predicted that an additional 31 million instances of domestic violence will take place if lockdowns continued for six months. In the first few weeks of its March lockdown, France saw an increase in reported domestic violence of 30%. Similarly, Spain experienced a 47% increase in calls to hotlines in the first two weeks of April this year. A recent Australian study found that one in ten women experienced emotional violence and one in 20 experienced physical violence during the shutdown. Most of these women had never experienced violence before.

While the United Nations has called on governments globally to make women’s safety a priority during Covid-19, most have not responded adequately to this call. For those that acted, they did the bare minimum by declaring shelters as essential but with reduced capacity or by providing additional funding to hotlines. In the UK, where up to 47 women are suspected to have been killed during the first lockdowns, the government’s response has been inadequate. Service providers have called for more support to housing, legal services and hotlines which have not been “prioritised”.

It’s taken the struggle with Covid-19 for some governments to recognise the violence in the lives of women. France and Spain have adapted to the moment by creatively responding to the unique circumstances of Covid-19. As people were only able to leave their homes for essentials, these governments created pop-up counselling services and asked survivors to seek assistance using code words at essential businesses such as pharmacies. While this is not enough to end violence against women, it’s an important step that should have been taken regardless of a war. These nations should continue these programs post–Covid-19 to help ensure women can seek assistance safely whenever they want.

It is time to rethink what peace and security looks like for women. How can nations be at peace when women continue to fight wars within their homes?

Putting real Australian money on the table to help Indonesia

Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Nov 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Australia is lending A$1.5 billion to Indonesia to help it get through the economic crisis unleashed by Covid-19. This is welcome news and another sign of Australia stepping up to assist key partners in the region during an extraordinary global crisis.

The Australian loan will help the Indonesian government finance its budget deficit. As in all countries, effective response to the pandemic-induced recession requires a massive increase in the government budget deficit. Earlier in the year, Indonesia’s ability to finance this was extremely uncertain. Indonesia experienced violent capital outflows in March and April as investors worldwide reacted to the scale of the unfolding crisis. Foreign investors dumped Indonesia’s government bonds, and the rupiah plummeted. Because foreign investors normally fund a large part of the budget deficit, this threatened a severe problem. Thankfully by mid-year the outflows had subsided. But inflows never really returned in the way needed, especially given the substantially enlarged budget deficit that required financing.

With limited international help available, the Indonesian government turned to Bank Indonesia, the central bank, to directly fund a large part of the budget deficit. At the time, this was a big gambit. Unconventional monetary policy, in various forms, was already the norm in many advanced economies. But the idea that emerging economies could also engage in such practices without triggering an even more negative market reaction and further currency depreciation was not widely accepted.

In the end, the market reaction was muted. Perhaps because investors had already acclimated to the extraordinary policy actions of rich country central banks and accepted this as a relevant emergency response to the pandemic. Or perhaps it simply reflects the search for yield triggered by those enormous injections of liquidity that only assets in emerging markets can satisfy. Regardless, Indonesia had found a financial lifeline, even if this still carried some of its own risks.

A shipment of medical personal protective equipment from Australia to Indonesia in August (Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)

So where does the Australian loan fit in?

I have advocated for some time that Australia should be willing to extend Indonesia a large standby loan facility, prospectively for as much as A$15 billion, in response to the pandemic crisis, which could be drawn upon if Indonesia had difficulty financing its budget deficit. This would have been a scaled-up version of previous A$1 billion standby facilities, ultimately never drawn upon, that Australia had provided Indonesia during past episodes of global market turmoil in 2008–09 and 2013.

The idea of a standby loan was to serve as an insurance policy. It would help to boost market confidence – making it easier for Indonesia to raise funds from the market – while providing an assured source of funding should this be needed. Such a facility would be particularly useful if there were another serious dislocation in global financial markets, especially as this could make relying so heavily on budget financing from Bank Indonesia much more difficult.

The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead mean Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time.

In the end, Australian assistance has taken the form of an outright loan for A$1.5 billion. This is not enough to be a game changer for Indonesia, which needs to raise as much as US$10 billion each month. But it will help. And there are several reasons discussions between Australia and Indonesia could have led to this particular outcome – a moderately larger loan than in the past but provided on an outright, rather than standby, basis.

On the Australian side, there would likely have been some political reluctance to providing a multi-billion dollar facility, given Australia is also battling its own domestic recession. In reality, the facility could be structured to come at little or no cost to the Australian budget. But the “sticker shock” may still have been too much for the government’s domestic political calculus. If this was the main limitation, then a standby loan of only A$1–1.5 billion would have been too small, given the scale of the current crisis. It would have been a minimal gesture on the part of Australia, simply keeping up with what had been done on previous occasions. Whereas an outright loan represents a bigger commitment by putting real Australian money on the table.

Indonesian preferences would also have been very important. President Joko Widodo may have preferred the tangible outcome of an immediate loan rather than the abstract insurance-like benefit of a larger standby loan facility. More generally, Indonesia’s policymakers now seem more focused on containing the government’s rising interest bill – which will reduce the space available for priority development spending such as infrastructure investment – rather than managing the risk of another severe bout of capital outflows. The interest rate on the bilateral loan has not yet been disclosed but will likely be quite cheap compared to Indonesia’s normal borrowing costs. It will also reduce some of the burden on Bank Indonesia in helping to fund the budget deficit.

Australia could arguably do more to assist. The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead means Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time while another bout of severe capital outflows remains a risk, even if this seems to have substantially receded for now.

Overall, however, the announced loan is a sensible and welcome step-up in Australian support.

In post-Covid recovery, hidden costs of going green

There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
Published 12 Nov 2020 07:00   0 Comments

Amid concerted global efforts to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a growing interest in promoting a “green recovery”. Green recovery encourages a closer link between economic restoration and transition towards a more sustainable economic model which includes more ambitious climate policy and renewable energy. While the concept is appealing in theory, the international community needs to pay attention to its potential risks, particularly for developing countries.

The idea for green recovery has strong support from European countries. In June, Germany unveiled a fiscal stimuli package which included US$46 billion of special allocation to support investments in sustainable economic activities. The European Union adopted an environmentally friendly recovery plan, which was widely seen as a continuation of the European Green Deal, which has an aim to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050.  

International financial institutions have also pledged their support for green recovery. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, has announced the availability of $1 trillion in lending capacity, along with its commitment to promote the green recovery. Some countries and international NGOs began to advocate for the adoption of green recovery as a globally accepted path for post-coronavirus economic revival, among others through the 5th Session of the UN Environment Assembly, to be held in Kenya next year.

But how do developing countries, such as Indonesia, see the green recovery concept?

A report titled “Asia’s lamentable green response” by the ING Group criticised Southeast Asian countries for not sufficiently including green stimulus measures in economic recovery packages. Developing countries, many of which have to deal with severe environmental problems, indeed understand that the green recovery is relevant to contemporary development challenges. It will attract more investment in long-term sustainable projects and help reduce their dependence on extractive industries and commodity sectors.

There is plenty of enthusiasm about the potential of a green recovery, to both revive the economy and build resilience. Indonesia, for example, offers tax incentives for investment in renewable energy to help meet a renewable energy target of 23% by 2025, along with $47.6 billion fiscal stimuli.

Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage.

However, there are some concerns about the unintended risks of green recovery. Although green recovery is initially intended as a domestic economic strategy, the implementation of green recovery in one country could have a lasting impact on other countries through trade and investment relations. Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage. Developing countries are lacking financial and technological capabilities to match developed countries in assisting their green sector.

Moreover, specific subsidies and support to the green recovery, such as for research and development, could be inconsistent with World Trade Organisation rules. Together with new standards and regulations in a greening global economy, the extensive subsidies for the green economy will only make developed countries more economically competitive than developing countries. Imposing policies inconsistent with non-discrimination principles for the sake of environmental protection is possible under Article XX (b) and (g) of the WTO. However, the application of such environment-related trade measures will add a further burden to developing countries that are experiencing a drastic decline in export volumes.

Also, there has always been a great debate determining what amounts to an environmental good. Crop-based biofuels, such as from palm oil, for example, are considered environmental goods by developing countries, as they can be used as suitable alternatives to fossil fuels. In contrast, the EU has its own classification on which biofuels are sustainable or not. As a result, there is a potential for irreconcilable views on whether subsidising biofuels can be categorised as one of the green recovery projects.

A harvest of palm oil fruit to be trucked for processing in Indonesia (Stratman²/Flickr)

The international community should take coordinated action to mitigate the unexpected consequences of green recovery, as well as exchange views on how the green recovery concept can be beneficial for all countries, especially by discussing the following three matters.

First, international forums and international organisations should develop widely accepted regulation and guiding principles which will prevent green recovery from creating trade barriers, new environmental standards and unfair subsidies. None must merely use the green recovery as a tool to gain market access using environment pretence.

Second, international support needs to be made available to enhance developing countries’ capacity to harness economic opportunities within the global green economy. Indeed, in recent years some emerging economies have become increasingly prominent producers of environmental goods and renewable energy. In aggregate, however, the green market is still dominated by multinational corporations based in developed countries. Companies from developing countries, especially small businesses, face enormous challenges in meeting complex environmental standards of the green market.

In that context, programs such as “Aid for Trade” need to offer a specific project to help developing countries build trade capacity and resilience in producing and exporting green products. Through Aid for Trade and other similar activities, developing countries can be integrated more into global supply chains of green technologies, particularly by supplying intermediate inputs to high-tech green products produced by developed countries.

Third, the international community needs to develop a multilateral framework to help least-developed countries raise resources for green recovery, including through debt restructuring. These countries have tremendous difficulty in mobilising funds for sustainable economic activities, due to weak fiscal capacity and substantial external debts. One example of debt restructuring is debt-for-environment swaps, in which donors or international financial institutions agree to annul part or all of the outstanding debt in exchange for spending in environmental preservation. 

Most of all, the green recovery strategy should include perspectives of developing countries to anticipate its unintended consequences better. Accommodating concerns of developing countries through constructive dialogue is crucial to ensure broad support for the global implementation of a green recovery.

Main image courtesy of Flickr user Engineering for Change.

Singapore and Sri Lanka: Newfound opportunities amid Covid-19 pandemic

Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Published 27 Oct 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Photos of empty supermarket shelves became commonplace in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutting down of borders and decreasing trade have affected many countries, especially those that heavily rely on imports and exports.

It is understandable that countries may restrict the flow of goods including food to safeguard their own interests during a crisis. For instance, Vietnam temporarily halted rice exportation to ensure that there was sufficient food consumption food domestically.

“Food security” is measured through the accessibility of food and the ability of an individual to have access to it. Singapore is a compelling example. Although it has been ranked as the most food-secure country in Asia Pacific under the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2019 Asia Pacific regional report, Singapore is susceptible to disruptions in the global supply chains since it imports more than 90% of its food. Singapore has witnessed how the uncertainty has triggered panic and resulted in hoarding of household supplies. It took contingency plans by issuing a joint ministerial statement with six Asia-Pacific countries in March 2020 to keep the global supply chains intact to enable the flow of goods during the pandemic.

New area of cooperation for Singapore and Sri Lanka

Covid-19 has opened new opportunities for Singapore and Sri Lanka to collaborate. The Singapore government has donated medical supplies including test kits, thermal scanners, surgical masks, surgical gloves, medical goggles and non-contact infrared thermometers to assist Colombo to keep the pandemic at bay. The two countries have also worked closely together to repatriate Sri Lankans stranded in Singapore. Singapore wants to project itself as a dependable and resourceful partner that taking the initiative to assist others in times of need.

This extends to food security. A webinar organised by officials in Colombo and Singapore in July to discuss agribusiness and digitalisation was an effort by the two countries to strengthen their relations in food management. Their long-standing trade relations have been exemplified by the high total volume of total US$883 million in 2019. Singapore was also Colombo’s fifth biggest investor in the same year.

Singapore in February: Rice, bread, noodles and vegetables, and of course toilet paper, were highly prized items in the early days of the pandemic (cattan2011/Flickr)

Many Singapore organisations have sought opportunities in Colombo’s growth sectors, including food and beverage, tourism, infrastructure and consumer goods. There are approximately 100 Singaporean companies operating in Colombo. Prima group was the first Singapore company to set up operations in Sri Lanka as early as 1977 and has become a household name over the years. It has also made Trincomalee its South Asia hub. In 2018, several local businesses signed MoUs to establish their presence in Colombo. For instance, Art Holdings signed an agreement with Beijing Genome Institute to set up a crab farm in Sri Lanka.

Despite the challenges, Covid-19 has propelled countries to reimagine existing opportunities and leverage new ones. Colombo, a key exporter of rubber, tea and fresh/processed food, has been affected by the disruptions in the global supply chains. The new area of cooperation between Singapore and Colombo is likely to benefit both countries. As Singapore tries to diversify its food imports to remain as food secure as possible, Colombo is seeking to capture new markets, along with regaining the lost ones.

A stepping stone for Sri Lanka’s economy

Following the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s landslide victory in this year’s parliamentary elections, Colombo is likely to adopt an Asia-centric foreign policy. The government’s reorientation also reflects a change in the balance of powers that is moving eastwards. Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage has said that Colombo should focus on its neighbourhood and move away from Western-centric diplomacy.

Asian countries may be better positioned to assist Colombo to reduce its foreign debt and boost economic spending. The current government is of the view that forming strategic partnerships with Asian countries could pose fewer challenges than with its Western counterparts, who are more inclined to raise issues of human rights.

Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.

Historically Sri Lanka has focused heavily garment exports to the West. However, its economy that is highly dependent on tourism, exports of garments and foreign worker remittances, has contracted further since the Covid-19 pandemic. Although senior analysts Hemant Shivakumar has said that the government’s pivot towards its neighbourhood would not happen by jeopardising its relations with Western countries, it cannot wholly rely on the US and European Union as the main export destinations for its garments industry.  

Although the agricultural sector has contributed relatively less to the GDP, it has employed approximately a third of the labour force, especially among the rural population. The new area of collaboration between Singapore and Sri Lanka in food security could be a stepping stone for Colombo to develop its local economy and increase its food exports to other Asian markets that are trying to remain as food secure as possible.

China is another key market, given that it has seen major food shortages in the past. Although Beijing has made substantial improvements to increase its agricultural capacity, it still faces threats to food security. Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.

Diplomacy after Covid: No looking back

Modern diplomacy (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Modern diplomacy (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Published 21 Oct 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The 75th United Nations General Assembly held last month was unique. The media spectacle of leaders’ speeches gave way to resident diplomat introductions, pre-recorded video presentations, and videoconferences. For some, the unspectacular and even boring nature of the General Assembly’s high-level week suggested that videoconference diplomacy will come to an end with Covid-19. But there are strong arguments to suggest the world’s worst Zoom meeting may not be the last of its kind.

Innovation in diplomacy has three criteria: recognised need, technological and/or social transformation and human resources to exploit it, and financial support. The evolution of diplomacy has been marked by these three criteria combining to transform and update diplomatic practice.

The 20th century saw summit diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy and hotline diplomacy become mainstream diplomatic processes. Each change resulted from a recognised need to streamline and increase the speed of diplomacy in face of intensifying of what military jargon dubs as the observe–orient–decide–act cycles in modern warfare. Essentially, technological innovation in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons superseded the time needed for protracted diplomatic communication.

Diplomacy had to change. Changes in transportation and communications technology and the financial support to provide for it, allowed diplomacy to catch up – albeit at a cost. The representative role of the resident ambassador changed to less of an envoy who acts on behalf of the executive (entering into legal agreements and/or committing the state to action) to one who predominantly stands in for the executive (demonstrating the power, prestige and influence of the sending state). The ambassador’s foreign decision-making role decreased, and the public diplomacy/political role increased. Indeed, stemming from these now dated innovations, the ambassador’s role continues to transform.

The United Nations General Assembly in an age of social distancing (Manuel Elías/UN Photo)

We are again in a period of recognised need. Covid-19 has disrupted and distorted diplomacy. In the early stages, it disrupted practices (and the lives of diplomats) and threatened to distort the very fabric of resident representation. The sense of crisis in the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a sense of need in foreign ministries to rapidly adapt to long-standing, yet not exploited communication technologies, such as videoconferencing. But “Zoomplomacy” was never going to be enough. States are now committing financial resources to build infrastructure to sustain videoconference diplomacy with task-specific adaptability, national control and security.

Preparations are also being made for the next step. Several countries recognise that the digital diplomacy revolution is more than communication technologies, and are exploring how 3-D gaming, deep learning, machine thinking, artificial intelligence and robotics will impact diplomacy.

To imagine that the changes underway will disappear with Covid-19 is to imagine that academic travel budgets will return, online shopping will be discarded, and work from home will end.

Concept developers are already working on replacing the much-criticised Zoom diplomacy conference with what the tech world knows as open-world/sandbox gaming, which would allow diplomats to attend conferences and maintain real life/virtual characteristics of trust and reputation, hold secure, private conversations, undertake corridor diplomacy, and schedule media interviews on the conference sidelines. Such gaming technologies promise to integrate and improve on earlier conceptualisations of diplomacy in the digital environment, such as “Diplomacy Island” on Second Life.  As computer processing power and graphics capacities increase, and open-world gaming becomes more accessible, more and more diplomatic applications will emerge.

The criticisms of videoconference diplomacy and whatever follows it are many – but no more than Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, who on receiving the first-ever telegraph message on his desk in the 1840s, is reported to have declared it the end of diplomacy. The criticism of the telegraph’s instant communication and the threatened end to the calm, thoughtful and discreet deliberation that marked 19th-century diplomacy, was soon forgotten as new skills, new practices and new diplomats came to fill the gaps in an ever-evolving profession.

So will diplomacy change again – multilateral diplomacy in particular. Fly-in/fly-out missions such as the UN General Assembly will become less common.

There are several reasons to support this claim. First, multilateral diplomacy has come under increasing criticism regarding waste, imbalance, inefficiency and corruption, leading to an increased unwillingness to apportion budgets to multilateral diplomacy. Second, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign ministry budgets over the next five years will be particularly tight. Finally, the irony of organisations dedicated to addressing the causes of climate change and doing little to change their own inefficient, airplane-contrail-exacerbating practices is not lost on those criticising multilateral diplomacy.

Videoconference diplomacy will not go away. It will at first rest side-by-side with fly-in/fly-out missions. With time, it will replace them. To imagine that the changes underway will disappear with Covid-19 is to imagine that academic travel budgets will return, online shopping will be discarded, and work from home will end. There are already clear signs that we are already in the new normal.

The criteria for innovation in diplomacy is here. Covid-19 has provided a recognised need. The technological and/or social transformation and human resources to exploit it are now in place, and the financial support is coming. A less-than-spectacular UN General Assembly and an overwhelmingly boring week of leaders’ speeches will not stop diplomacy’s evolution.

Protecting political leaders from Covid-19

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump (White House/Flickr)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump (White House/Flickr)
Published 3 Oct 2020 15:30   0 Comments

In light of news Donald Trump has his wife Melania have tested positive for Covid-19, we have re-issued this article first published in The Interpreter on 31 March outlining the challenges of protecting leaders from infection.

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.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin visits coronavirus patients in a hospital outside Moscow (

Of democracy and despots: Protecting political leaders from Covid-19
2020-03-31 12:00:00 +1100

In Bangladesh, Covid adds to a list of maladies

Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Published 1 Oct 2020 07:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 situation has had a devastating effect on the local economy, the brunt being borne by the country’s export-oriented garments industry. It has propelled owners of various businesses – and that includes the media sector – into showing employees the door, and with rising unemployment follows idleness, and broader consequences unimagined.

Official statistics place the number of those affected by the coronavirus, so far, in Bangladesh almost 360,000. More than 5100 people have died from Covid-19, though there are reasons to believe the figures could be much higher. A particular problem in tackling Covid-19 has been the propensity on the part of large sections of the population to ignore instructions, such as wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. The capital Dhaka remains notorious in that little consideration is being given to the regular instructions handed out by the authorities on warding off Covid-19. Crowds are still seen gathering in markets and roadside tea stalls, with little thought to the ramifications of such unhindered movement.

The malady has not spared a number of prominent Bangladeshis. Among the casualties have been academics, writers, journalists, artists, civil servants, policemen and military personnel. On Sunday, the country’s attorney general died of the disease, which is one more hint of the way in which Covid-19 has been ravaging the country. Yet the disease has also intersected with climate change–induced challenges, which also pose a major threat to the densely populated nation. Indeed, this was a point Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made in a recent article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper and also in her virtual address before the 75th session of the UN General Assembly.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (on screens) addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly on 26 September (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

That said, there have been the rather unsavoury truths making the rounds in Bangladesh’s Covid-19 narrative. In recent weeks, corruption related to Covid-19–negative certificates being issued by some hospitals, prominent among which is Regent Hospital, has been exposed to obvious public consternation. The hospital, whose owner is now in prison and who before the scandal broke appeared to be connected to influential people across the spectrum, was caught giving out false certificates to people seeking tests for the disease, without actually doing the tests. The scandal led to bigger questions, specifically on the role of the nation’s health directorate in granting permission to such hospitals, no questions asked and no inquiries undertaken, to handle coronavirus circumstances.

As if Covid-19 weren’t enough, the country has been under intense pressure in other areas. A growing closeness to China has led to a diplomatic strain, displeasing India. Dhaka and Delhi have traditionally had close ties, but recent strains brought on by India’s failure to conclude a water-sharing treaty over the Teesta river and the Indian government’s move for a national register of citizens in its north-eastern region have become pretty pronounced. Fears have persisted in Bangladesh that the citizens’ register introduced by New Delhi could be a move towards pushing into the country people the Indians believe are Bangladeshis who over the years have settled illegally in such Indian states as Assam.

Many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the Belt and Road Initiative are none too favourable.

With China, Bangladesh’s relations have been warming in recent years. Development projects have been undertaken with Chinese assistance, factors which predictably have India worried. Bangladesh is also a recipient of Chinese military equipment, which is another cause for worry in New Delhi. Besides, the Chinese have been keen to draw Bangladesh into its Belt and Road Initiative, which again is disturbing, for many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the BRI are none too favourable.

For Bangladesh, the urgent requirement is keeping a balance in its diplomacy, a good reason being its belief that China, India and even Russia could be instrumental in a resolution of the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar. With as many as 1.1 million Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s south-eastern Cox’s Bazar region and with little sign of a solution to the problem, Bangladesh is in a straitjacket.

Add to those worries the demand by Saudi Arabia that the 54,000 Rohingyas currently in the kingdom be provided with Bangladesh passports. These Rohingyas have in the past two decades made their way to Saudi Arabia through various means and clearly are not part of the Bangladeshi population. But this demand by the Saudis is concerning for Dhaka, which has 2,200,000 of its workers in the kingdom and whose remittances make an important contribution to Bangladesh’s foreign exchange basket. If now the Saudis tie the continued stay of the workers in the kingdom to the question of a grant of passports to the 54,000 Rohingyas, Bangladesh will feel a new pressure that it will find hard to handle.

How much did the spies really know about the virus?

Did the spooks clearly foreshadow the danger as the virus emerged? (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Did the spooks clearly foreshadow the danger as the virus emerged? (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 23 Sep 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Something doesn’t quite line up in Bob Woodward’s latest book – and you have to look at what we know about intelligence assessments in Australia to understand why.

Woodward tells us in Rage, his second look into the current White House, of top-secret warnings delivered to US President Donald Trump in the earliest days of coronavirus. “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Trump’s national security adviser is reported to have said in a briefing on 28 January this year. And Woodward is not the first to point to supposedly ominous early intelligence assessments about the danger posed by the virus – indeed, it’s become something of an established talking point over the course of the pandemic that Trump botched the response to what had been explicit warnings in January and February.

But it’s the characterisation of foresight, to have known back then that Covid-19 posed “the biggest national security threat”, that doesn’t appear to fit with experience in Australia – which, after all, is a key US partner in the Five Eyes alliance for sharing intelligence reports and assessments. The implication of such language is that the spooks clearly foreshadowed the danger as the virus emerged. Yet without being able to read these reports, which remain classified, this relies on the memory of those involved. And the evidence we do have suggests that those who are recalling the early warnings might instead be employing the wisdom of hindsight.

It would be extraordinary that a key spy chief in Australia would have not even mentioned Covid-19 if at the very same time the US intelligence warning system was truly “blinking red”.

Bear with me. This anomaly will take some explaining. Because you have to rewind your brain all the way back to February to see the connection … or rather, to see what’s missing.

It was in Canberra in late February, almost a month after Trump was given his White House warning, that Mike Burgess, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, stood at a podium in Canberra to deliver what was portentously billed as an inaugural “annual threat assessment”.

But remarkable as it might seem now, on 24 February the ASIO chief uttered not a word about Covid-19, pandemics, the risk of disease, the prospect of thousands dead and economic ruin. To be sure, Burgess spoke of “unprecedented” dangers to national security, but the type of foreign interference of most concern in his speech was not a deadly microbe sweeping the globe.

Of course, we know how rapidly events unfolded. Barely three weeks later, on 13 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison banned non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people, required 14-day quarantine for any person travelling from overseas, and urged Australians not to go abroad. That lockdown was only the beginning.

Katoomba, New South Wales, 7 April 2020 (Blue Mountains Library/Flickr)

Now, it should not be expected that ASIO would have been at the forefront of warning about a pandemic. The legislation governing ASIO provides an explicit definition of “security”, to mean protection from espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence, promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia’s defence system, and acts of foreign interference. In the Australian system, the Office of National Intelligence has a broader set of responsibilities which takes in all manner of potential dangers to the country and its interests.

Yet it would be impossible to imagine Burgess delivering a similar speech today on such a broad remit without at least a passing reference to coronavirus. In June, as a guest on a podcast, Burgess said it would “be kind of short-sighted to say there is no impact of Covid on the threat environment”.

And equally, returning to that February speech, it would be extraordinary that a key spy chief in Australia would have delivered a national threat assessment and not even mentioned Covid-19 if at the very same time the US intelligence warning system was truly “blinking red” about the transformational threat from the virus, as some would have it.

If that were the case, it would point to major failings in the intelligence system. Either the Americans didn’t care enough to pass along the warnings. Or there was a problem sharing intelligence between the Australian agencies.

But there could also be simpler explanation, too. That back then, while there had been previous experience with SARS in the early 2000s showing how quickly a coronavirus could spread, the scale of the potential disruption from Covid-19 wasn’t fully appreciated.

This is not to question Woodward’s reporting. There were undoubtedly intelligence assessments about the emergence of this new virus. Those fateful words, “biggest national security threat”, may well have been uttered. But in a White House renowned for bluster and excess, how much does that resonate? How detailed was the warning? And how persistent? Was it report after report after report? These more important questions remain unanswered, and it’s too easy to fall into breezy assumptions about the all-seeing, all-knowing spies.

Transnational threats, including pandemics, would be expected to feature in any sweeping national assessment produced in Australia, in much the same fashion as the equivalent product in the US, where there is a measure of transparency, with the release of unclassified versions. This was the judgement in the US intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” of January 2019, a year before Covid-19 took hold:

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.

That warning, though stark, appeared on page 21. And it carries the kind of tick-the-box, cover-yourself quality of the mention of any number of potential threats.

None of this is to suggest some kind of massive intelligence failure occurred around Covid-19. If anything, the urge to blame someone – anyone – for the emergence of this disease stems from the illusion of control. Too often there is an expectation that invoking national security is an answer. Looking back on those first weeks seemed more a case of a world grappling with surprise, of systems exposed, assumptions of invulnerability upended.

Instead, judge Trump on his actions once the scale of the virus became obvious. His record is bad enough.

Where the US went wrong in the pandemic​​​​​​​

The country rated most prepared for a pandemic has nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
The country rated most prepared for a pandemic has nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Sep 2020 15:00   0 Comments

The facts are undeniable. The United States has completely botched its response to the Covid-19 outbreak. As of 15 September, America has recorded more than 6.6 million cases of the disease and nearly 200,000 deaths. That means that a country with less than 5% of the world’s population – and that the Global Health Security Index rated as the most prepared to deal with a disease pandemic – is home to nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths.

It’s easy to blame President Donald Trump for these failures. He repeatedly told the public that the virus was “going to disappear” (even though Trump told Bob Woodward that he was deliberately playing the threat down). He has repeatedly blamed China for the outbreak and suggested it was a biological weapon that escaped from a lab near Wuhan. He promoted untested drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as cures for the disease when in actuality it provides no benefit and is often dangerous. He has repeatedly sidelined scientific experts and interfered with their assessments.

Instead of recognising how global health is in America’s own self-interest, Trump has thwarted efforts at creating a coherent, unified strategy on Covid-19 – something that we know from experience is absolutely vital to effectively addressing the pandemic.

And yet … when we look at the United States, we can’t lay all of the blame at the feet of Donald Trump and his administration.

This does not mean that we should defend Donald Trump, but rather recognise how public health policy is carried out in the United States – and why it poses such challenges for building a coherent strategy.

Trump has thwarted efforts at creating a coherent, unified strategy on Covid-19 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The biggest public health challenge in the United States is that these policies are largely implemented at the state and local level. The federal government has financial resources and can help set the tone, but it is ultimately up to these subnational governments to decide what makes sense for them.

This is precisely where many of the problems with America’s Covid-19 response emerge – and that is because of how public health has become a partisan issue. Public health is inherently political, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be partisan.

Government policymakers who have aligned themselves with Trump have actively prevented their states from introducing the sorts of policies that have proven effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19.

To illustrate this point, let’s look to the American Midwest. This is the part of the country where I was born and raised (in the state of Iowa) and where I now live (in the state of Minnesota). It has a few large cities, but it’s more rural than the coasts. When outsiders think of the Midwest (and they often don’t, hence its reputation as “flyover country”), the traditional image is one of a region where the cost of living is low, people are nice and life is less stressful.

Despite the seeming homogeneity, the responses by Midwestern state governments to Covid-19 have varied widely – and much of that variation goes back to the interplay between public health and partisanship. If you look at the number of cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days in the United States, Midwestern states – such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa – account for 6 of the 10 highest case loads. This does not mean that all Midwestern states are at the top of the list, though. Illinois ranks 20th, Minnesota ranks 31st and Michigan ranks 36th.

What explains these variations? In the states with high rates of Covid-19 infection, governments have largely avoided introducing mask mandates, have allowed restaurants and other businesses to reopen earlier and have been less inclined to impose restrictions on public gatherings.

South Dakota allowed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to occur in mid-August, bringing nearly half a million bikers to western South Dakota – and then causing Covid-19 cases in at least a dozen other states as people took the virus home with them. Republican governors in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa have resisted mask mandates, instead “tapping into a spirit of independence” that they feel would be harmed by requiring masks in public.

Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on 8 August (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)


The governor of Iowa refused to issue at stay-at-home order – something most states did – and forced schools to hold in-person classes. In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Supreme Court have thwarted Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s efforts to introduce statewide policies, instead arguing that any decisions should be left to local governments.

In each of these cases, government policymakers who have aligned themselves with Trump have actively prevented their states from introducing the sorts of policies that have proved effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19. They have framed their argument in terms of personal freedom, liberty and resisting government overreach – and because so much of public health policy in the United States is devolved to the subnational level, it leads to a confusing patchwork quilt of policies and undermines collective efforts to stop the pandemic’s spread.

This does not mean that Republicans are inherently anti–public health. Some of the states with the most effective responses to Covid-19, such as Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, have Republican governors.

Instead, what the poor policy response by the United States to Covid-19 demonstrates is how the interplay between poor leadership at the federal level and partisanship at the state level undermines an effective and coordinated effort. The problem is the confusing, multilayered nature of the American political system, and it unfortunately has consequences for the entire world.

Pandemic democracy

Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 7 Sep 2020 13:30   0 Comments

How will Covid-19 affect electoral democracy in Australia and around the world?

The pandemic has starkly revealed two fundamental aspects of successful democracy: the extent of a given society’s trust between its citizens and their government, and the capacity of those same governments to deliver and enforce appropriate public health responses. 

Countries whose governments are both trusted and capable have seen them handle the virus relatively well, while those with neither trust nor capacity have seen it spread out of control. On this metric, Australia more resembles Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea in our relatively high levels of social compliance than the more individualistic Anglophone societies with which we tend to feel comity.

As the examples of the United Kingdom and the United States have shown, democracy itself is no guarantee of an effective response to the virus.

However, the pandemic also presents a major challenge to one element of modern democracy – the holding of mass elections. 

Election day – a forum for a mass public gathering of adult citizens across the country, and their congregation within discrete and sometimes crowded polling stations – has become more dangerous in the Covid-19 era. Even when social distancing can be enforced, this kind of activity is now inherently problematic on public health grounds.

Sanitising a voting station in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, United States (Cassandra Mullins/The National Guard/Flickr)

Delay or cancellation of elections is one response to Covid-19, and a growing concern, given the worldwide democratic recession. Local elections in Hong Kong, for example, have recently been delayed for a year using the pretext of coronavirus, but really as a response by Beijing to the growing support for pro-democracy parties.

Even in established democracies, many elections are being postponed. New Zealand’s general elections, originally scheduled for this month, have been delayed till October as a result of the Auckland outbreak. In the United Kingdom, local elections – including the London mayoral vote – have been pushed out by a full year, on advice from medical experts.

For jurisdictions within Australia such as Queensland, whose state election is constitutionally fixed for 31 October, expanded use of pre-poll voting and social distancing at polling places is the response – at least for the time being.

Another option is to hold elections over the internet. Estonia already does this, but due to well-founded security concerns, very few countries have yet taken the step to open up their elections to all voters on-line. 

Paper ballots and a paper trail are still seen as essential to election security and providing a post-election audit capacity to safeguard the integrity of results. In 2017, Finland abandoned plans to move to online voting, concluding that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Even if the virus prompts a rethink, the kinds of investments needed to provide an acceptable level of ballot security and to withstand cyber intrusion are likely to be some time in future.

Postal votes (Ian Britton/Flickr)

A third and most likely option is thus a renewed focus on voting by mail. In Australia, we have already embraced this and other forms of “convenience” voting in large numbers. At the 2019 federal election, 40% of Australians cast their ballot prior to election day, while the recent Northern Territory poll saw, for the first time, more voters casting their ballot in advance than on election day itself.

Australia and other established democracies are increasingly shifting from having a polling day to having a polling period, a change which may turn out to be irreversible.

But there is a potential downside to this shift: the loss of civic engagement and broader opportunities for democratic deliberation.

In Western Australia, postal voting was introduced for most local government elections in 2011, in order to make voting easier, particularly in rural areas. This shift increased turnout but has been criticised for making democratic engagement more superficial, particularly in passionate rural communities.

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

Given that the point of elections is to choose, the lack of widespread exposure to the election campaign and the debates on policies makes a swing towards voting by mail problematic. If voting by mail diminishes the salience of elections and makes it less likely that informed deliberation over policy alternatives takes place, it has the potential to undermine democracy itself. 

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­– which will effectively be a referendum on the Trump presidency and his handling of the pandemic – will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

With decreasing confidence in the ability of the US Postal Service to handle a surge in requests for early ballots now as well as postal votes themselves, it would be prudent to expect at the very least a degree of uncertainty and potential delays in results, akin to the 2000 Bush-Gore election. 

But there is also the potential – lesser but not trivial – for more significant problems than just delayed results. 

Voting by mail has already become an issue of major partisan division, with Democrats seeking greater voting by mail and Republicans opposing it, as part of their ongoing efforts to restrict the franchise. If this continues to November, we may be facing a high-level contest not just to see who wins the election but over the rules of the game itself.

Australia needs the workers, the Pacific needs the jobs

G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
Published 27 Aug 2020 07:00   0 Comments

Finding a consistent stream of agricultural labour in Australia has long proved a challenge. With Australians often unwilling to accept this type of work in the numbers required to get food to market, the government has sought to use visa schemes to remedy the problem, welcoming foreign labour. Yet in doing so, they have pivoted the industry’s labour market towards one specific visa category, and created an unfair competition between different visa holders. This situation now has serious implications for Australia’s foreign policy.

First, a little history. In 2005, the government thought it had struck upon an innovative solution to its agricultural labour shortage problem. Thousands of young and physically capable people entered Australia each year through its Working Holiday Maker scheme (known as the “backpacker visa”). This visa is open to people aged between 18 and 30 from European, North American and East Asian countries, allowing them to work in Australia for a year (citizens of Canada, France and Ireland have an age limit of 35). The scheme proved incredibly popular, and many people used it as an opportunity to advance their careers or find a pathway towards permanent settlement in Australia.

Capitalising on this sentiment, the Australian government decided to offer the chance to gain a second year-long visa if people first spend three months working in the agricultural industry in a rural setting. Subsequently a third year-long visa was made available after a further six months of agricultural labour.

Yet the upshot was to completely skew the agricultural labour market towards a group who weren’t actually committed to the regions they were working in – people who would simply disappear after meeting their minimum requirements. At the same time, it created a captured market for employers. This led to numerous instances of worker exploitation in both wages and conditions.

Fast forward to the present and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the restrictions on movement to Australia have meant the reliance on this visa group has also created a serious labour shortage in the agricultural industry.

In competition with these backpackers is one of the central pillars of Australia’s “Pacific Step-up”, the Seasonal Workers Program (although the scheme itself pre-dates the “Step-up” branding). The seasonal workers program aims to create agricultural job for citizens of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours, as well as those of Timor-Leste.

Tomatoes on the vine, Queensland, Australia (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Providing labour market access to developed economies for the citizens of developing nations has long been understood as the most effective – and least paternalistic – tool to enhance their livelihoods. Pacific Island governments have sought such access for some time. In contrast to backpackers, these seasonal workers return each harvesting season, understand the requirements of the work, and because they are supporting families in their home countries ­– rather than just ticking a box ­­– are regard as more committed and productive

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours.

According to the World Bank, following several months within the seasonal workers program, Pacific Islanders typically send back around $8,000 (US$5,700) to their families in their respective countries. This can be as much as three years worth of wages that they would earn at home. Tongans are the largest group who utilise the seasonal workers program, in per capita terms, and it has been estimated that their net earnings exceed the combination of Australia aid to Tonga and Tonga’s exports to Australia – an indication of why the scheme is so valued through the Pacific.

Yet the seasonal workers program has significant barriers to entry for agricultural businesses. Employers must be pre-approved by the government, and all positions they have must face labour market testing. Employers also must also provide accommodation, and be responsible for worker welfare outside of work hours. This helps mitigate against the chance of exploitation (although not completely), but it also leads some employers to baulk at using the program for their labour needs, seeing the framework around the scheme as too burdensome, especially when hiring backpackers involves none of these provisions.

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours. With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating the region’s tourism industry, the seasonal workers program will be even more vital for Pacific Islanders once borders gradually reopen.

Yet Australia should be looking for more ways to further encourage the agricultural industry to use the program to meet their labour needs. The most obvious solution would be to reconfigure the backpackers visa to reduce its agricultural components. However, the visa should not be completely abolished, as some unions are advocating in a misguided belief that Australians would rush to take these jobs instead. They won’t. The working holiday scheme remains an important instrument to attract young and educated people to Australia.

Reducing the unbalanced competition this visa creates in the agricultural labour market should be a priority for the government. There is currently a strong alignment of needs between Australia and the Pacific in this area. Allowing the seasonal workers program to flourish is in Canberra’s interests just as much as those of Pacific Islanders.

Europe’s big bonds and the prospect of a boon for Australia

(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Published 24 Aug 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Recently concluded negotiations for a new seven-year budget of the European Union, which excluded Britain for the first time in five decades, lasted more than two years and took five arduous days last month to wrap up in Brussels.

But the result fundamentally changes and extends the role of the European Commission in international financial markets. This will have significant consequences for Australia – both as a free trade deal is finalised, and for strategic interests in a post-pandemic world.

The EU’s executive arm has now been authorised to issue bonds (3–30 year maturities) on behalf of the 27 member states, to the value of €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion) for what is to be known as the Recovery and Resilience Fund. This forms part of the EU’s broader response to the economic fallout from Covid-19, the so-called New Generation EU, which aims to “repair and prepare” the EU economies for the political and strategic environment in the post-virus era.

The Recovery and Resilience Fund will utilise AAA-rated bond sales to finance grants and loans to EU member countries. This will not only stabilise sovereign debt issues in France, Italy and Spain, but also deliver markets low-risk medium and long-term investment-grade securities.

On top of other programs to support economies through the crisis, as well as a decision to maintain the seven-year EU budget (2021–27) at €1.1 trillion (A$1.8 trillion), the measures will also reinforce the euro’s role as the world’s second-most important reserve currency. However, in order to repay the debt, the EU will need to introduce new fiscal and taxation measures, invoking the possibility (once again) of a controversial digital tax.

The potential for the EU-Australia FTA

EU efforts to implement a structured post-pandemic recovery strategy are important to Australia in the context of the forthcoming EU-Australia free trade agreement. In 2018–19, Australia exported more than $33 billion in goods and services to the EU, and Europe is Australia’s biggest two-way services trade partner. Even without the UK, the EU will still be the second-largest economic bloc in the world (behind USMCA, as the renegotiated NAFTA is known), comprising more than 440 million consumers.

As the EU-Australia FTA is finalised, the rapid recovery of European consumer, business and financial markets will be critical to realising its full potential.

If the UK’s post-Brexit economic performance remains consistently below average, this is likely to impact Britain’s outward investment position in Australia considerably.

This becomes clear when looking at investment flows. In 2019, the EU’s and UK’s outward investment stocks in Australia were roughly equal and ranked second only to the US – with such foreign capital flows having both direct and indirect effects upon levels of domestic investment. In April this year, UK GDP plummeted a record 20%, a 20-fold increase on any monthly economic contraction the UK experienced throughout the 2008–09 global financial crisis.

If the UK’s post-Brexit economic performance remains consistently below average, this is likely to impact Britain’s outward investment position in Australia considerably. This will be exacerbated by diminished London trade in euro-denominated bonds, derivatives and other commercial paper. The EU may also introduce legislation to restrict euro-clearing outside the Eurozone, as the battle over Europe’s $101 trillion derivatives trade intensifies.

Inside the European Council building (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


On average, London clears over €920 billion (A$1.5 trillion) per day in euro-denominated contracts, including $550 billion daily in euro derivatives trades. The repatriation of these transactions to the Eurozone would cause significant harm to London as a global financial centre. In 2018, combined Australian foreign portfolio investment and foreign direct investment in the EU exceeded $700 billion, although investment hosting was dominated by Britain.

If London loses even partial access to the EU single market in financial services – which appears inevitable – then Australian banks and fund managers are likely to seek EU investment opportunities, particularly as the forthcoming EU-Australia FTA will provide increased market access for Australian firms and investors. Throughout the last two years, Australian banks, including Westpac, CBA and Macquarie, have already sought to manage the financial risks associated with a no-deal or suboptimal Brexit in December 2020 by establishing offices in Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris.

Australia’s “networked FTAs” concept recognises that it is dangerous to become excessively dependent upon an individual state or region to build its trade and investment strategy. Asia remains Canberra’s biggest trade partner, but European and British outflows, accounting for one third of Australian investment, is more than double Asian foreign investment. Consequently, the revitalisation of the EU and UK economies is critical to Australia’s post-Covid economic recovery.

A strategic stake in a digital future

One of the bigger “winners” from the new EU budget and Recovery and Resilience Fund is the digital economy sector. This includes an allocation of €6.7 billion towards programs to fund “high-performance computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity” sector, which had already been given a “huge boost” in the last budget.

The EU’s spending strategy will include investment into large-scale pilot programs in the agricultural sector, broadband networks and 5G, AI, defence and cybersecurity. The ultimate aim is to increase the international competitiveness of the European tech industry, which lags behind its US and Chinese counterparts.

This EU investment into its digital future potentially offers many market opportunities for Australian tech firms that could benefit from joint R&D ventures. All EU members (except the UK, which is still formally part of the EU) will need to produce clear plans over the next two months on national recovery and economic reforms, with RRF funding tied to progress in meeting specific targets. As Politico analyst Zoya Sheftalovich pointedly observed, Australia has already “found cover” under the EU’s wings in one phase of its diplomatic spat with China; consequently, there are many opportunities stemming from the EU’s historic recovery package and budget deal for Australia, including the EU’s flagship Horizon R&D program.

It may have taken a while to settle, but the budget agreement in Brussels is a big deal for Australia.

Declaration of interest: Remy Davison receives funding from the EU Commission.

In Malaysia’s Covid “infodemic”, crime is all too easy

(Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
(Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 20 Aug 2020 07:00   0 Comments

In Malaysia earlier this month, it was reported a woman had been nabbed by the police for spreading false information relating to a supermarket closure in the northern state of Penang. Her alleged crime? A Facebook post which read:

The suspected case at Flat Tuna has been confirmed positive. The patient went shopping at Billion, Bandar Sunway. Billion has been closed until a date to be announced later for sanitisation.

This was one of at least 260 investigations opened since January into Covid-19–related false information by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the country’s content regulator. As of July, 17 people had gone through trial and been found guilty, another 13 were in the midst of trial, with 30 more charged and 12 warning notices issued, while the remaining cases were still under investigation.

Notably, PDRM and MCMC have been issuing public warnings since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic not to spread unverified information. In lieu of the now-repealed Anti-Fake News Act 2018, the authorities are giving teeth to their warnings with legislation such as Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

The former makes the “improper use of network facilities” an offence, while the latter criminalises “statements conducive to public mischief”. Ostensibly, this is meant to impose punitive costs to creators of false information and deter would-be creators, while fostering awareness of how creating and perhaps even sharing false information is an offence under the law.

At face value, this strategy seems to be working. On 11 June, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who heads internal security and non-health-related efforts in Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19, announced that neither the PDRM or MCMC had opened any new investigation related to Covid-19 fake news for the period of 28 May to 11 June. According to Ismail, “this shows that public awareness has increased over the importance of not sharing fake news”.

Beneath the surface, however, issues relating to the apparent success of the Malaysian government in dealing with false information about Covid-19 are evident.

(Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)


The first and most obvious relates to the authorities’ reliance on the vaguely worded, broadly applicable sections of the law. Besides placing the bar ridiculously low for content to be illegal if it causes annoyance to another person, the fact that it was passed in the 20th century, predating the modern typology of false information, means that it does not – by design – distinguish between the challenges as understood today.

For example, the differences between “misinformation”, which is essentially false information spread through an honest mistake, “disinformation”, defined as deliberately created false information to deceive or mislead, and “malinformation”, referring to deliberately created false information to cause harm, are not reflected in the legal provisions.

This means that ostensibly innocent intentions, such as an effort to warn friends to be extra cautious during this pandemic, could lead to a person being found guilty under the law.

The second issue relates to the government’s feeble attempt to address false information about Covid-19 through its public information campaigns. While there have been periodical reminders for the public not to share unverified information, coupled with catchy slogans such as “tak pasti, jangan kongsi” (“not sure, don’t share”) and “pastikan sahih” (“ensure its verified”), these should only be seen as the bare minimum.

Even the government’s more valiant efforts in the form of fact-checking ­– spearheaded by, the government-operated one-stop centre for debunking false information, and the Quick Response Team, established in March to rapidly verify any viral news – will, unfortunately, be hamstrung as merely reactive measures.

While not foolproof, digital literacy skills would better allow people to spot false information, which could then reduce the number of times it is forwarded on to a larger audience.

This points to the third issue – which is arguably at the root of the problem: the lack of efforts to equip the public with the digital literacy skills that are necessary to filter the large amount of information that can be gained on the internet.

These digital literacy skills refer to basic practices such as cross-referencing sources of information to check its veracity, reverse image-searching photos to see if they have appeared elsewhere in a different context, or spotting telltale cues in photos and/or videos that could help identify when and where they were made.

While not foolproof, such skills would better allow people to spot false information, which could then reduce the number of times it is forwarded on to a larger audience. If people are not equipped with these skills, it is hard to imagine how the public could inculcate a habit of fact-checking information.

And without these skills, society is left vulnerable to being misled about the dangers of the virus. Worse still, when coupled with the government’s reliance on vaguely worded, broadly applicable legislation to deal with false information during the pandemic, ordinary people who merely want to share information risk running afoul of the law.

It is only natural that during this time of heightened anxiety people will want to share information that they feel could be beneficial or helpful to others. The Malaysian government ought to rethink why the onus is placed on the public to not spread false information when they could, genuinely, not have known any better.

Diplomacy and global governance after Covid‑19: Prepare for change

UN General Assembly, New York (Cia Pak/UN Photo)
UN General Assembly, New York (Cia Pak/UN Photo)
Published 18 Aug 2020 14:30   0 Comments

Regardless of whether recovery from Covid-19 occurs over a short or medium-term period, it’s clear the experience will have a lasting impact on diplomacy and global governance. Covid-19 has sped up transformations stemming from long-term trends in foreign policy management, multilateral governance administration and digital technology use. With inevitably tighter budgets, foreign ministries will face some tough choices over the coming years.

First, Covid-19 has furthered the long-term trend of increasing executive power over foreign policy decision-making and administration. The trend can be seen across the majority of countries in any number of metrics, from the balance of political appointees versus career professionals in ambassadorial appointments to the size of departmental budgets. Obviously, it has been more intense in certain countries than others – and exacerbated by inappropriate communication strategies and social media.

Covid-19, much like the immediate crisis decision-making responses following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, necessitated greater executive control over foreign policy. But also, like terrorism, the threat from pandemic disease may never fully disappear, meaning decision-making practices passed over to the executive are likely to remain there.

Second, Covid-19 has brought out growing dissatisfaction with multilateral governance. There’s long been recognition that the current system of global governance doesn’t fully reflect strategic realities (G7/8, OECD), is increasingly unable to achieve its aims (WTO, WIPO), is political more than practical (WHO, UNHRC), and has become bloated, inefficient, and corrupt (UN, FIFA, IOC).

The days of diplomatic travel, hotels and restaurants, to attend what most publics see as a pointless political talkfest, will be replaced by late night zoom sessions, document sharing software and food from the local takeaway.

There’ll be no better display of this than the UN General Assembly debate where global leaders speak in September.

Normally, the largest event on the multilateral calendar, attended by massive executive, foreign ministry, and media delegations, the UNGA General Debate leaders’ presentations will this year be replaced by pre-recorded video and/or online presentations with only diplomats already in New York present – the first ever “virtual General Assembly”. After this event, the biggest question asked will be “why haven’t we been doing this for the last 20 years?”. The days of diplomatic travel, hotels and restaurants, to attend what most publics see as a pointless political talkfest, will be replaced by late night zoom sessions, document sharing software and food from the local takeaway.

Third, Covid-19 has forced even resistant foreign ministries to adapt to digital technology. To begin with, the implementation of digital practices proved difficult and frustrating. Digital diplomacy gives fewer opportunities for networking, off-the-record floating of ideas, and using non-verbal signals. Additionally, individual diplomats have faced challenges and disruptions to professional and family life with quarantine and travel restrictions. But over time, these practices are becoming more routine.

Australia’s Marise Payne speaks to a video conference for the Special ASEAN-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Covid-19 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

Preferred techniques are being shared and improved, new skill sets are being developed and personnel training strategies implemented, and new job roles and specialisations are being created. Perhaps most importantly, the use of digital technologies are becoming viewed as more practical, efficient, and time saving.

Wholesale adaptation to an online environment presents cost-savings that would be impossible in an all in-person environment. The more time spent in the digital diplomacy environment, the less likely foreign ministries will return to previous practices. As has been noted by commentators in the education, business, and retail fields, the changes precipitated by Covid-19 are here to stay.

Finally, most foreign ministries will face budget pressures over the next five years. There will be less travel and overseas nationals, meaning a less supportive constituency. With much of their work hidden and/or difficult to assign to performance indicators, foreign ministries have always been targets for budget cuts. Add to this increased executive power over foreign policy, growing dissatisfaction with multilateral governance, and potential cost-savings from continued use of digital technology practices, and the calls for budget cuts to foreign ministries will increase.

Together, these changes suggest policymakers will need to make hard decisions across a range of activities – including on initiatives that have come to be seen as routine. For Australia, MIKTA serves as an example.

Australia joined the informal partnership with Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey with the aim to build a coalition within the G20. Highly optimistic commentators immediately jumped to support the initiative on the hopes of a “middle power revival” to save global governance. Seven years later, the G20’s relevance as a platform for addressing global issues has declined. Hopes for a middle power revival have dissipated, and Australia and South Korea now aim to secure more direct influence by joining an expanded G7/G8.

In exculpatory anticipation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trades’s MIKTA website page answers the question “Why MIKTA?” with public service doublespeak, noting that members  both “share important fundamental values and interests” and “diversity … to build consensus”. For practitioners, having any platform to work with non-traditional partners, and work ever more closely with traditional partners is important and serves a purpose. For those looking to secure cost savings, concrete achievements matter much more. As MIKTA turns to covering issues related to Covid-19, it could also ultimately become a victim.

Even with a rapid return to normality, the trends and the changes already brought out will have an ongoing impact. Post-pandemic planning for foreign ministries has the potential to bring transformational change to diplomacy and global government.

The UN Secretary-General’s conference room, New York (Kim Haughton/UN Photo)

Cambodia: Hard choices

Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 11 Aug 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Cambodia’s foreign policy has been largely driven by the politics of survival, as the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has an ambition to perpetuate its domination of Cambodian politics for at least another 50 years.

Of course, this survival instinct is meshed with other factors to determine the direction Cambodia adopts in the world. One is economic pragmatism, as the country seeks to sustain growth and diversify its export markets – with economic success a vital source of legitimacy for the CPP-led government. Another is multilateralism, as Cambodia continues to try to integrate itself into the region after the truma of the war years.

Yet these economic and multilateral aims have been upended by the Covid-19 crisis.

Cambodia appears to have so far managed the threat from the virus relatively well, despite initially downplaying its potential severity. Up till now, there has been no recorded community transmission, although the number of cases has spiked in recent weeks, with 248 recorded cases and no deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organisation. All of the confirmed cases since May have been imported cases as Cambodians working and studying abroad return home.

But big challenges remain. Prior to the pandemic, Cambodia’s foreign policy has received considerable media and academic attention for its increasing alignment with China, seemingly to the expense of its relations with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other key partners such as the United States. Criticism of Cambodia’s domestic politics had also stained Cambodia’s international image. The US has imposed sanctions on Hun Sen, and the European Union has been critical of what it saw as increasing authoritarianism.

While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards.

An EU decision to strip Cambodia of a tariff exemption has led to a particularly heated debate. Europe is a key export market for Cambodia, but the EU decision to withdraw its “Everything But Arms” trade scheme, set to take effect from 12 August, will carry a heavy price. While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards, given it has signed a free trade agreement with communist states such as Vietnam.

Some analysts have also rightly warned the suspension of the trade scheme, albeit a partial withdrawal, is likely to force Cambodia to further embrace China in order to sustain economic growth. Just last month, Phnom Penh and Beijing finalised a free trade agreement allowing duty-free trade in hundreds of products between the two countries. Although the trade deal appears to benefit China more than Cambodia, given the unbalanced trade volumes and Cambodia’s trade deficit, the agreement nonetheless shores up an export market just as the EU partial ban comes into effect.

Cambodia’s government has a vision to become an upper middle-income country in the next decade. Yet allowing the country to be caught in the middle of great power competition will not advance this ambition. Instead, the Cambodian government needs to convincingly demonstrate the principles of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” as enshrined in its constitution. That means reaching out to many partners, driven by multilateralism. The regime’s survival might just depend on it.

The invisible during the pandemic

A migrant worker stands outside a makeshift dormitory room at a stalled construction site in Singapore in May (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
A migrant worker stands outside a makeshift dormitory room at a stalled construction site in Singapore in May (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Published 5 Aug 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Recently in Singapore, several migrant workers attempted suicide at their dormitories, with at least one death. According to the authorities, some of them did so because they failed to get employers’ permission to leave the city after purchasing flight tickets (in Singapore, a migrant worker’s work permit is tied to the employer, and the employer usually keeps the worker’s passport, and has the authority to cancel the permit and repatriate the worker). Fortunately, most of the suicide attempts were averted by officers on site, and some of the migrants eventually made their journey home. Their ordeal won this group great amount of attention and sympathy in Singapore, where attempted suicide was only decriminalised as recently as January.

For the 323,000 migrant workers who live in shared dormitories in Singapore, earning money before going home has always been their top dream, while making headlines for attempting suicide is certainly not something they would have seen coming. The sudden hardships of 2020 have changed everything.

Migrant workers from countries such as China, Bangladesh and India are a major force powering the Singaporean economy, from building the city-state’s glittering skyscrapers to cleaning its gleaming shopping centres, yet they have been – metaphorically and literally – “the invisible”. They live in high-density dormitories in the island’s far-flung outskirts and commute to and from work packed into the backs of trucks. Even in my own few years being based periodically in Singapore, my exposure to this community is still limited.

This prosperous first-world island nation had been a success story in the global battle against coronavirus, until the outbreak brought attention to the predicament of its vulnerable low-wage foreign labourers.

The first time I encountered their story was back in 2016, when a journalism fellowship program took us to a sprawling dormitory complex. I noticed the warnings posted at the entrance listing all sorts of infringements the labourers could be fined for. We were told the residents there had behaved quite well. The dormitory room we went into accommodated 12 men and was stuffy and frowzy in the summer-all-year tropical city. Island-wide, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lived in this type of dormitory.

I talked to one worker who came from China’s hinterland and had been working there for a few years. He didn’t complain at all about the living or working conditions, and was proud he was earning a better pay that enabled him to support his family, in spite of bearing debts for paying agent fees to secure a job that locals usually considered low-paid and would not take.

A year later, in 2017, I came across another story involving a Singapore-based Chinese migrant worker, when my friend, a Straits Times labour correspondent shared it with me. A then-39-year-old construction worker was severely injured when a slab of prefabricated concrete wall being hoisted by a crane fell on him. He was certified by doctors as completely disabled and unable to work for the rest of his life, and eventually received SG$327,500 (A$330,650) in compensation, the highest amount an injured worker can get. In a way, he was considered a “lucky one”, as for similar cases, “some could end up leaving Singapore empty-handed”, my fellow journalist told me.

Over the first three months since the Covid-19 outbreak started, this prosperous first-world island nation had been a success story in the global battle against coronavirus and was lauded for its gold-standard approach to testing and tracing, until the outbreak brought attention to the predicament of its vulnerable low-wage foreign labourers.

The island nation of 5.7 million has more than 1.42 million foreign workers, over 1 million of them doing “low-skilled” work. Strikingly, migrant workers account for more than 90% of Singapore’s over 50,000 coronavirus infections as of late July.

A migrant worker sits on his bed in a construction site (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Starting in early April, the city-state went through a two-month “circuit breaker” period – when people were ordered to stay home and businesses paused. Then over the recent two months, restrictions have been loosened in a few phrases ­– except in the migrant neighbourhoods.

After the initial shock, four months later, Singaporeans have grown used to the three-digit daily new case figure. The numbers are always updated in two parts – the migrant neighbourhood case number, and a much smaller community case number. For the mainstream Singapore society, memories of lockdown are fading, there are long lines outside of restaurants and parks are back. To the labourers however, it’s a very different picture. For four months, they have had no work and no regular income to make, except a moderate government assistance. Isolated and panicked, going back home has become their priority, even though a flight ticket could cost them several months’ allowance.

Singapore is by no means the only country that relies heavily on guest labourers and bears the responsibility of taking better care of them. There are an estimated 164 million migrant workers worldwide who are similarly vulnerable both to the disease and the economic pain it has brought. And the issue is particularly acute in Asia: 2017 data shows there were about 33 million migrant workers, accounting for 20% of the global total.

It is a common trope that some cultural attributes often seen as characteristically Asian – such as obedience to authority, tolerance to restrictions on personal freedom and acceptance of delayed gratification after perseverance – may have helped in the region’s relative success containing the disease. To some extent, however, this kind of mindset may at the same time have exacerbated the problems the continent’s silent groups are facing.

Nevertheless, many Asian workers are hardworking, optimistic and hopeful. Despite all the hardships, it is reported that a vast majority of migrant labourers choose to continue working in Singapore well beyond their first contract.

The good news is their future here may become brighter. Like the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “It’s never too late to mend”. The Singaporean authorities have announced that temporary structures will be built by the end of the year, accommodating more than 50,000 migrant workers, with other permanent dormitories to house up to 100,000 to be built in the years to come. The new standards will reduce density and improve air circulation in those complexes. The government is also working on providing the migrants easier access to medical care and support. 

I don’t know if those heartbroken suicidal workers who went back to their home countries will ever come back to Singapore to make a living again after the crisis. What I do know is that, regardless, the post-pandemic era should not just be “ours”, but “theirs”, too.

Under the influence: Peddling conspiracy in a pandemic

“QAnon” supporters during Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)
“QAnon” supporters during Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)
Published 3 Aug 2020 13:30   0 Comments

Celebrity sells – it always has. But in the digital age, the boundaries of celebrity have changed. Once it was the prerogative of movie, sports or music stars to front a fashion label or promote perfume. But nowadays the marketplace is saturated with any number of online lifestyle and wellness “influencers”, social media users who by virtue of their taste, niche expertise or marketing savvy develop audiences of thousands – sometimes millions – who seek to emulate their lifestyle.

And promoting products is only the beginning. Such influencers can have a profound effect in imparting attitudes and beliefs, too.

Most of the time, this is harmless, a new thread in the media milieu. Yet at a time of pandemic, where medical advice is heavily contested and conspiracy theories from the dark reaches of the internet have proliferated, some online lifestyle influencers are amplifying misinformation and disinformation.

In a new twist during the Covid-19 crisis, three formerly distinct online ecosystems – those occupied by lifestyle/wellness influencers, “QAnon” conspiracy believers, and violent extremists – have in some instances become intertwined, through shared conspiracy-related hashtags and wild claims about the dangers of vaccines, 5G and the evils of the “deep state”. 

QAnon is not only a conspiracy movement. It has also been deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI.

Numerous recent studies and news reports have shown that extremist groups are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic in an attempt to justify their narratives, recruit followers or incite violence. Extremist narratives have always contained strong conspiratorial elements, and this time is no different. Coronavirus-related conspiracies are deftly interwoven through extremist narratives and mobilisation efforts.

But the connection with online lifestyle and wellness influencers marks a change. This crossover came about after some online lifestyle and wellness influencers became entrepreneurs of conspiracy theories, using them to boost their profiles and to promote and validate their views of wellness. One of the more dangerous conspiracies promoted by  lifestyle/wellness influencers are QAnon conspiracies.

The QAnon movement has its origins in the so-called “pizzagate” conspiracy of 2016. In its current form, QAnon alleges that there is a US government insider with a “Q-level clearance” who is communicating cryptically with his followers online. QAnon followers believe there is a “deep state” within the US government that is controlled by a cabal of Democrats and liberal Hollywood celebrities who are also Satan-worshiping paedophiles. Through Q, President Donald Trump was manifested to expose and shut down these ritualistic paedophile rings. During the Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon conspiracy groups and posts have also promoted the idea that the pandemic was, alternately, another deep-state plot, a hoax, and a Chinese bio-weapon, among other health disinformation.

However, QAnon is not only a conspiracy movement. It has also been deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI. A leaked FBI memo written in May 2019 assessed QAnon believers as “conspiracy-driven domestic extremists” and that QAnon and other crowd sourced conspiracies would “very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity”.

The memo cited two violent incidents linked to QAnon, but there have been at least three other violent incidents since its publication, with researchers also examining its spread beyond the United States. What started as a US-based pro-Trump conspiracy movement has now gone global and includes a number of proponents in Australia, reportedly including a family friend of the Prime Minister with a substantial social media following.

An anti-lockdown protest in Stuttgart, Germany in May (Sebastian Gollnow via Getty Images)


A recent article by Insider magazine highlighted a number of lifestyle influencers who were posting QAnon conspiracies related to the pandemic. Outlets such as Buzzfeed, Mother Jones and Huffington Post have also revealed a string of other popular lifestyle, design and wellness influencers who have become vectors of Covid-19 and QAnon conspiracies. Some have latched onto the discredited “plandemic” film released in May or QAnon memes, variously claiming the coronavirus is fake, or that the deep state is responsible for spreading the virus, or that pandemic lockdown measures are a tool of oppression. Still others have encouraged followers to attend anti-lockdown protests which have included a number of far-right extremists in their midst. 

Ironically, one of the most widely shared erroneous memes about the virus being spread by people in China eating bat soup, which was created and circulated by conspiracy theorists and extremists alike, was itself appropriated from a Chinese online influencer and celebrity vlogger, who said that a video of her eating a local delicacy of bat soup in Palau for her vlog was “hijacked by accounts fanning out malicious panic”.

By promoting conspiracies or “alternative” information in the name of wellness and alternative lifestyles, the online influencers of today can serve, however unwittingly, as a gateway directing users to further, darker corners of the internet.

The intersection between wellness and violent conspiracies seems unexpected, but the wellness movement has its origins in anti-establishment and anti-mainstream medical circles. Scholars such as Charlotte Ward and David Vaos have examined the confluence of new age wellness and conspiracy, which they termed “conspirituality”, an intersection between new age wellness, belief in the dangers of a “new world order” and big pharma, and a shared emphasis on “awakening” and revealing truths.

Until recently, the convergence of wellness and conspiracy in a drive for awakening and societal change emphasised the non-violent and the peaceful. However, the emergence of the QAnon movement has pushed things in a more troubling direction.

The online links between far right, QAnon conspiracy groups and some online wellness and lifestyle influencers have grown during the pandemic, the ensuing lockdown and response to restrictions. Online wellness and lifestyle influencers who peddle QAnon conspiracy theories about the pandemic can potentially drive traffic to online extremist groups through shared QAnon related hashtags such as #QAnon, #TheGreatAwakening, #Plandemic, #GermJihad, #MAGA, #whitegenocide #WWG1WGA or #coronavirushoax. This can also be done when influencers have used memes and iconography also appropriated by right-wing extremists – for example “red pill blue pill”, “falling down the rabbit hole”, or “where we go one we go all”.

More analysis is needed, but there is emerging evidence to suggest that online influencers’ posts related to QAnon are being cross-posted and referenced by extremists groups on online forums. And by promoting conspiracies or “alternative” information in the name of wellness and alternative lifestyles, the online influencers of today can serve, however unwittingly, as a gateway directing users to further, darker corners of the internet.

QAnon posts can be interspersed among others promoting stylised photos of fashion, workouts and recipes (Unsplash)


Social media lifestyle influencers posting about QAnon not only serve to normalise this fringe movement, but can potentially undermine efforts by internet companies to “de-platform” purveyors of disinformation, label misleading posts and weed out prohibited content (as identified in their terms of service). Internet companies such as Reddit have banned QAnon forums for inciting violence. Facebook has banned a number of QAnon pages for inauthentic behaviour ,and Apple has removed a QAnon app from its store. Twitter recently announced it is suspending thousands of QAnon accounts. But QAnon posts still flourish online.

Because lifestyle and wellness influencers generate substantial revenue, have helped build social media businesses, and have not generally intersected with extremist movements before, there is a danger that influencers will escape extremist content reporting and moderation. Furthermore, influencer posts are likely to reach a wider audience than extremist group posts as they are less scrutinised by social media mechanisms monitoring extremist content.

Lifestyle and wellness influencers are particularly challenging because, as numerous surveys have found, influencer marketing has exploded. More and more people are turning to influencers and online personalities for inspiration, recommendations and purchasing advise. Online influencers who’ve latched onto QAnon present conspiracies in an engaging, appealing and relatable manner, often interspersing posts promoting QAnon among stylised photos of fashion, workouts and recipes. The same skills that these influencers use for consumer brand marketing have helped turn an outlandish conspiracy theory into an “acceptable option in the market place of ideas”.

A expanded version of this article is available at Global Network on Extremism and Technology of which the Lowy Institute is a core partner. This article is part of a year long series examining extremism and technology.

Pacific islands: The cost to tomorrow of the crisis today

Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 30 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The global economic recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic will have acute repercussions for the youth of today – both now and for their inheritance. The International Labour Organization recently warned the economic crisis is hitting younger people “harder and faster than any other group”. And it is adding fuel to existing grievances. This year, unemployment and floundering economies, especially in association with corruption, poor governance, entrenched political elites and now the pandemic, have intensified youth-dominated protest movements, for instance, in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria.

And, while there will be few people anywhere left unaffected, the disproportionate brunt will be borne by developing countries, where youth populations are more likely to be dominant. This includes Australia’s immediate region – at least half of all Pacific Islanders are aged under 23 years, constituting a “youth bulge” in numbers alone. 

When I first began delving into the ramifications of the youth bulge in the Pacific for a recently published Lowy Institute report, Covid-19 wasn’t even on the horizon. But, as it turns out, there couldn’t be a more prescient time than now to examine this topic, as the virus intensifies the pressures on people’s lives and their future prospects.

Challenges to development and prosperity in the region, such as climate change, disaster resilience, gender inequality and non-communicable diseases, have been on the media radar. But the scale is growing, with the population of the Pacific Islands forecast to expand from 11.9 million to 19.7 million by 2050. Population growth could have the single greatest effect on every development sector in the region, including progress in health, education, economic development and employment, and the fate of peace and stability, not to mention the capacity of infrastructure and services.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

This is not to push an alarmist view. During long periods spent reporting on the ground in the region over the past decade, especially in the most populous Melanesian island states of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the reality of how youth and their views of the future are being affected, for example, by unemployment, low literacy, rural underdevelopment, persistent poverty and corruption, is more than evident.

At the same time, there are many stories of young men and women who have overcome adversity with life-changing success. When I interviewed Patrick Arathe in 2013 in the islands of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, he was 23 years old and had developed a farming enterprise with a group of young boys. It had grown to be a major supplier of fresh produce to the local hospital, businesses and surrounding communities. The profits of the enterprise were invested in the boys’ welfare and education. Meanwhile in Honiara’s main market, there are many young women displaying creativity and enterprise in their businesses of growing and selling spectacular tropical flowers.

In the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, I encountered a rural village gang in the Kamanabe area who had renounced a notorious career in carjacking, mugging and extortion on the nearby Highlands Highway to form a youth co-operative committed to generating legitimate incomes from producing honey.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, global youth unemployment was 13.6%. In Australia, it was 12%, but across the Pacific Islands region, it was an estimated 23%, rising to an estimated more than 40% in the Solomon Islands. Needless to say, these statistics will rise.

The region’s youth bulge is the result of high fertility rates, low use of family planning and a strong tradition of large families that are a vital social support network in countries where pensions and government-provided social services are limited.

Most Pacific governments are well aware of these issues and acknowledge the challenges. Last year, PNG Prime Minister James Marape publicly stated: “We have a responsibility to ensure that we invest in our future, so that our children, our children’s children and all those that come beyond have a strong foundation.” But there is a huge gap in the region between devising policies and programs, on the one hand, and then securing the funds, resources, expertise and manpower to successfully implement the solutions on the scale needed. This is the real struggle.

The to-do list is long: improving quality education and literacy outcomes, extending the reach of services and economic opportunities to the large cohorts of youth in rural areas, and diversifying the mineral and natural resource–dependent, but job-poor, economies of PNG and Solomon Islands. Then there is preventing the next generation inheriting the disability burden of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Large numbers of young people are not a disadvantage or threat – quite the opposite, if they experience opportunity and fulfilment. But, as the Bougainville civil conflict in the 1990s and civil unrest in Honiara in 2006 and 2019 have shown, weak governance, corruption, inequality and economic crises can push the grievances of the most vulnerable. Today, young Pacific Islanders are increasing their demands to be heard on political issues, and they are impatient and frustrated with corruption and cronyism in structures of power and leadership.

As the youth demographic in the Pacific progresses towards an expected peak by the middle of the century, now is the time for a long-term view of our international development and aid ties with the region and the dividends of supporting efforts towards a region capable of channelling the energy, enterprise and leadership of the younger generation.

Europe, united in recovery – for now

LIBER Europe/Flickr
LIBER Europe/Flickr
Published 29 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

It took four days and a “historical” summit for the heads of states and governments of Europe to finally agree on the recovery plan that should help the European Union face the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Celebrated by a recovery in local stocks, the agreement last week marks an important step forward for European solidarity. But the length and the many concessions made to reach this accord also reflect the need to reform the current model of the Union.

The recovery plan – ambitiously called “Next Generation EU” – will put €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion) on the table, split between €390 billion in grants and €360 billion in low-interest loans, funded by Brussels-issued bonds, backed by all 27 members, and repayable over the 30 years from 2028.

The agreement is historical both for its size and the financial mechanisms behind it.  

While this is not the first time that Brussels has borrowed on the markets on behalf of member states, it has never done so in such magnitude. Funds for the plan will come from bonds issued directly by the EU in its own name and guaranteed by its own revenues (instead of using funds raised by national governments). The money will be distributed by the European Commission to industries and regions most affected by the crisis. Budgetary allocations will then have to be reimbursed, via an allocation key similar to the contribution of member states to the EU, and not according to what each state has received.

The length, the compromises and the difficulties in which negotiations took place demonstrate the inadequacy of the EU institutional system in times of urgency.

For the first time in its history, Europe will borrow money to distribute it among its member states, according to the needs and priorities of each. In itself, this represents a form of so-called mutualised borrowing.

But this “historical” moment almost never materialised. Indeed, negotiations stumbled in the face of different, sometimes opposite, vision of Europe.

On one side were the so-called “Southern” countries, most affected by Covid-19 but also the most indebted (Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France), who support a federalist system of common debt, and joined since May by Germany, a champion of budgetary rigour and the draconian criteria of Maastricht.

On the other sat Austria and its partners, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden (AKA the “Frugal Four”), recently joined by Finland. True to their role as strict guardians of financial orthodoxy, these members constantly opposed any creation of a common debt and were ready to grant loans rather than European aid to the European Union states in difficulty.

Despite the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis, reaching an agreement for stronger fiscal coordination was difficult and time-consuming. To reach unanimity, the plan had to dramatically downscale its ambition and increase concessions.

While Next Generation EU can be seen as a decisive step forward in the European integration process, it falls short of institutionalising a more federal system in two distinct ways.

First, the plan doesn’t clearly secure Europe’s own resources. To repay such gigantic loans, member states have several options: either they raise their national contribution (increasing pressure on citizens), or they reduce their European spending. Another solution would be for the EU to allocate its “own resources” to Europe. In essence, the Commission would levy taxes – it already does so in a few rare cases, and for very small amounts – making part of the Community budget no longer dependent on national treasuries.

This would allow the European Parliament to direct common investments (for instance, towards defence, research and health systems) while allowing members states to better devote themselves to domestic public policies.

While the principle was acted upon at the summit, the 27 refrained from going too far on this subject, knowing the repayment deadline is still in the far distant future.

Secondly, this four-day European Council meeting confirmed the need to reform the European decision-making process and its institutions. The length, the compromises, and the difficulties in which negotiations took place demonstrate the inadequacy of the EU institutional system in times of urgency, and in particular the need to put an end to the rule of unanimity.

It is no longer acceptable to suspend the action of the whole Union by this rule, giving any member a right of veto to block decision-making. The Union must prefer the principle of qualified majority to its current model and reform itself in order to establish a genuine European federal democracy.

With Next Generation EU, Europe has taken a giant leap for the Union, but only a small, temporary step towards federalism. The plan now needs ratification by the European Parliament, which is not a given.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. As the grim milestone of 650,000 deaths from Covid-19 has been crossed worldwide, many European countries have decided to enhance health measures, once again costing their economies.

What’s the secret to Southeast Asia’s Covid success stories?

First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 28 Jul 2020 06:00   0 Comments

After almost seven months, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge the world, but some places seem to have managed surprisingly well. Thailand has not reported any local transmission for over 60 days. The countries of the Mekong region have reported so few cases that many people are asking whether their success is real – and if it is, how are they doing it? The New York Times went as far as to report that “no one knows what Thailand is doing right”.

The reality is that there’s no mystery. The strategy behind these successes is based on the same basic factors: prioritising health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, enforcing early border controls, and mandating behaviour change – a strict lockdown, widespread use of masks and physical barriers, and avoiding indoor or confined spaces. These things work.

We can be fairly confident that the situation claimed in these countries is real because Covid-19 is not subtle. Exponential growth of a disease that leaves highly infectious people in hospital for weeks inevitably means the end of your health system within two months and widespread panic leading to economic collapse.

If Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos had been running an ineffective strategy for six months, they would be overrun by disease. If they were trying to cover that up, social media would be full of fearful rumours, evidence of mass graves, dead hospital staff – the signs of a coverup seen in Wuhan in January and February are not making themselves known in these countries today. There are no signs of a cover up, therefore there is no mass outbreak, therefore whatever they’re doing is working. Laos is a slight exception here, having confirmed just 19 cases and lacking the transparency to alleviate rumours. But even there, evidence of a runaway hidden epidemic is not forthcoming.

Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents.

How can it possibly be working with so few tests (with almost 15 times New Zealand’s population, Thailand has performed just 40% more tests)?

High levels of testing are critical if your strategy is to identify infected people then isolate them and their close contacts individually. But testing isn’t a requirement for a strategy based on universal compliance – mandatory quarantine for new arrivals, nationwide lockdown, and nationwide use of masks and barriers don’t rely on identifying who is infected. All that’s required is good leadership and effective communication.

The sum of their actions is a comprehensive strategy that has been working. So long as their borders remain well controlled and they continue using physical barriers and masks, these countries likely to continue to see relative success.

Why have they mostly done the right thing when others seem incapable, despite the simplicity?

Weather and architecture may have made it easier for the public to avoid enclosed spaces. But the big difference has been attitude – both of leaders and of the public.

The Mekong countries never thought they were immune from a problem in the People’s Republic of China. And they have vivid memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic. They took the threat seriously from early on and responded with a SARS strategy, not a seasonal flu strategy.

Thailand began screening all airport arrivals for fever on 3 January (two days before the PRC confirmed to the World Health Organisation that they had identified a “pneumonia of unknown cause”). Ten days later, Thailand confirmed its first case: the first known case outside the PRC. After confirming just 800 cases, Thailand announced a state of emergency and began a strict lockdown on 26 March. They only began easing the lockdown in May.

Healthcare workers at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute, in Nonthaburi, Thailand, 2 April 2020 (UN Women Asia and the Pacific)

Most importantly, the government strongly encouraged people from the start to avoid crowds and confined spaces, and to always wear cloth masks when they left home. Masks are a familiar accessory in the region, often worn to reduce pollution inhalation, and people remember SARS and other coronavirus epidemics, so the public was quick to respond.

Like Thailand, Vietnam went early and hard, prioritising health over other concerns. It began strict border controls in January, cancelled public events and schools, strictly enforced wearing masks, shut all non-essential services and imposed a three-week lockdown in April. Also like Thailand, Vietnam employed extensive contact tracing, but only targeted testing.

Laos had some advantage from fewer international arrivals than Thailand or Vietnam, but the first case was confirmed on 24 March. Just five days later, the government announced a strict lockdown and closed all borders. The lockdown lasted nearly seven weeks, while international arrivals continued to be restricted until June. Social distancing rules were implemented, and non-essential businesses were closed.

While the successful parts of their strategies are shared across the region, there have also been some responses that do not help in the least, but do cause serious harm. Cambodia, in particular, has adopted many of the worst elements of the PRC strategy: a completely unnecessary crackdown on human rights, restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. These things are not relevant to stopping Covid. Even mass protests (if done outdoors, with some distancing and widespread use of masks) do not seem to increase spread of the virus. Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents. Unwarranted surveillance is not part of a good Covid-19 response. Independent investigations can occur without risking a new Covid outbreak. Cambodia can successfully control Covid without these abuses.

The right measures for stopping Covid-19 are no secret, but implementing them takes commitment. The virus spreads physically (mainly over short distances) and the more virus someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to get infected. Distance, barriers and good ventilation are the only ways to interrupt transmission. If you know exactly who has the virus, you can target your responses to reduce the cost on everyone else. But if your surveillance breaks down for any reason, you need a general strategy. In that case lockdowns and universal masking are the only options.

The world can still prosper from free trade

Trucks queue to cross the border into the US at the Otay commercial crossing point in Tijuana, Mexico, 7 July 2020 (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Trucks queue to cross the border into the US at the Otay commercial crossing point in Tijuana, Mexico, 7 July 2020 (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 24 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Did anyone notice that the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the revised NAFTA, entered into force on 1 July? If not, do not be too concerned, as the Covid-19 crisis has probably affected that as well.

Still, this deal is (without getting too much into the weeds of whether it is more or less liberal than NAFTA) one of the few examples we have of negotiated trade liberalisation in 2020.

We are now far enough into the Covid crisis to realise that not only has the world changed, but also some of the concepts and structures which have underpinned global stability since the end of the Second World War are seriously weakened.

Look at global trade. In the period after 1945, led by the US, the international community made a commitment to expand global trade and to try to stop protectionism – which has wracked the 1930s – from becoming predominant again. Nearly 50 years later, the conclusion of the Uruguay Round brought us to a point where it seemed as if global trade was a given in the way the world operated.

In this obvious deadlock at the global level, regional and bilateral free trade agreements, even if a lesser substitute, are all we have.

Now, 25 years later, things look very different. This has not been caused by Covid-19. Much of the fraying of the trade rules has been happening for other reasons. But the coronavirus situation has highlighted what has happened and also made the way out of this mess much harder to see.

Covid-19 has contributed to a climate in international relations where the first reaction is to think national. What’s the phrase? All issues are global, but all politics is local.

We have seen nationalism interfere with global trade in the very things needed internationally to combat the virus. We have seen the partial dismantling of global supply chains. We have seen the move towards domestic protectionism, described as “ensuring supply”, across a range of industries.

What we have not seen is much leadership in the international community about how to get trade rules back up and running. The World Trade Organization might be flawed in some ways, but it is the only organisation with an international mandate. Work on reforms is underway, but without serious engagement from the US and China, things will limp along. The WTO currently is searching for a new director general. In these times of crisis, one would have hoped for a speedy identification of a suitable candidate who could bring some leadership to the issues. But it looks unlikely.

In this obvious deadlock at the global level, regional and bilateral free trade agreements, even if a lesser substitute, are all we have. That’s why the entry into force of the USMCA should be seen positively.

In Australia and New Zealand, we have to be thankful that the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is up and running. Trying to negotiate that now would be well nigh impossible. Had the US had not pulled out of it as the TPP, it would undoubtedly be stronger than it is. But it functions and delivers results. This explains interest from the United Kingdom in doing free trade agreements with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. If the UK wants to join the CPTTP, as it says it does, it cannot get there without getting bilaterals with three of CPTTP’s members.

We do know that in the Covid-affected world, the Asia-Pacific will be a significant player in the regrowth of global trade flows. In the WTO’s most recent projection, global trade in the 2019–20 year (first quarter) will drop about 18.5%. Beyond first quarter 2021, the recovery should be better in the Asia-Pacific than in the rest of the world. IMF modelling suggests that the development of further trade liberalisation and regional economic integration could lead over time to a 10% growth in Asian GDP. China looks on present indications to recover from its lowest annual growth rate in over 40 years.

China is not, of course, a member of the CTTP. It is leading the negotiation of its own version of a regional economic integration model, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.  Participating countries are due to ratify this agreement at the end of this year, but the withdrawal of India from the process late last year has reduced the scope of RCEP significantly. In the current tense climate between Delhi and Beijing, Indian reintegration looks very unlikely.

Still, if ratification and entry into force go ahead, the region will have two similar trade agreements, neither of which the US plays a role in. This is, quite frankly, a tragedy – not only strategically, but also because the US economy is a major participant in Asia-Pacific economic development. China gains from this absence.

In the meantime, the European Union and the UK, which would be interested in developing their trade relations with the region, are struggling with the damage caused by Covid-19 and post-Brexit relations. So not much to expect there.

Trade negotiators must think that theirs is an unhappy lot. But they keep trying. The latest effort, which may get somewhere – including with the US –  is the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement launched by Singapore, Chile and New Zealand. Trying to establish a framework in the digital era, the agreement touches on such things as artificial intelligence, data sharing and protection, and digital innovation. It deserves success.

Philippines government driving jeepneys off the road

A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

After almost four months of lockdown measures due to Covid-19, the Philippines government in June eased restrictions for the majority of the country. But even as public transport systems slowly got back to running, something was missing: the distinctive jeepneys, still banned from plying their trade.

On June 24, Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chief Martin Delgra announced that “traditional jeepneys” would be allowed on the road the following week in Metro Manila, where the majority of jeepneys are used. Two days later, however, the office of President Rodrigo Duterte backpedalled, stating that only “roadworthy” jeepneys – the qualifier unclear – would be accepted.

So far, only 49 jeepney routes out of more than 900 existing ones have been allowed to reopen in Metro Manila. That’s roughly 8% of 74,000 jeepneys back on the streets. And without any reliable source of income for months, packs of jeepney drivers can still be seen begging on the streets and voicing their calls to bring back their livelihoods.

The jeepney is an icon of Philippine roads, breaking the sameness of cars and buses with over-the-top decals and a long, open-air passenger area. More importantly, it serves as the cheapest and most accessible form of transportation for the commuting public. Each vehicle carries up to 20 passengers, charging just 16 US cents for a 5-kilometre trip. But these mechanical mammoths – dubbed the “Hari ng Kalsada”, or King of the Road – have been targeted by the government’s “modernisation program” since 2017.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road tells a different story.

Headed by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), the plan is premised on replacing many jeepneys running on old and rundown engines with new, greener models. Since the inception of the plan, Philippine officials have encountered regular criticism from transport and commuter groups calling the move “anti-poor” and a “corporate capture”. 

One of the country’s biggest transport groups, Piston, is a vocal opponent of the program. While not against the modernisation plan per se, they remain critical of the provisions that insist jeepney drivers and owners cover the costs of the program’s requirements – including engine replacement. According to the group, prices of replacement units start at more than US$30,000 (A$43,000). That’s a tall order. A single unit owner or driver’s capital stands at around $3,800 to $7,690, going by industry standards. Piston estimates that some 650,000 drivers and 250,000 operators are at risk of losing their jobs permanently to “profit-driven modernisation.”

Is the government using the pandemic as a springboard to fully exact their modernisation scheme?

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque attempted to allay such fears, saying that now, amid the crisis, is not the time for modernisation. In spite of those words, however, there were telltale signs of a jeepney phase-out. Most modes of transportation were operational by the end of June, to some degree. On the same day the DOTr initially announced a road reappearance of jeepneys, they also made it clear what their priorities were. Jeepneys were pegged at the bottom of the public transport ladder, due to passenger proximity and health precautions. Trains and buses were at the top, followed by coaster vans, the state-promoted “modern jeepneys” (fitted with air conditioning, new engines and Wi-Fi), motorised tricycles (in some cities) and then the “traditional” jeepneys. On the agency’s Facebook page, disparaging remarks and videos against common jeepneys have been routinely posted, while touting the modern jeepney as a vehicle for the future.

Jeepneys on the road in Manila, January 2019 (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Independent think tank Ibon Foundation disputed the notion of jeepneys being more vulnerable to transmission of the virus as a basis for the prohibition, pointing out that jeepneys are actually at an advantage because open-air vehicles offer better ventilation.

The most blatant sign of the government preventing the comeback of jeepneys has been its treatment of the drivers themselves. Most come from low-income backgrounds and earn about US$6 to $8 per day. Drivers strapped for cash have increasingly been seen on roadsides carrying signs for spare change. Invoking physical distancing rules, the police responded with arrests. In June, six members of Piston were jailed after protesting the government’s forced jeepney phase-out and demanding aid. They were charged with holding a mass gathering in violation of quarantine. Ironically, upon their release, tests revealed that two of the detained had contracted the disease while incarcerated.

With reports of ailing and starving families of jeepney drivers rampant, support through food and cash donations poured in from various corners of civil society and the general public. Towards the end of June, however, some groups engaged in the relief effort alleged harassment and threats of arrest by the police. On 27 June, a solidarity day for jeepney drivers was held, even while maintaining distancing. Food packages were collected at various sites in the city, and others used the occasion to protest the criminalisation of drivers. Police were deployed around the city and were reportedly intimidating participants.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road – through both policy and police harassment – tells a different story. The fight for survival amid the pandemic is not over. But while everyone reels from the global repercussions, the administration of Rodrigo Duterte looks eager to use it as an opportunity to drive the last nail into the jeepney’s coffin.

The cost of conspiracy in muddling public health messages

A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Published 6 Jul 2020 13:30   0 Comments

A spike in coronavirus cases across Melbourne has seen local hotspot suburbs largely locked down and some 3000 people in public housing towers prevented from leaving home at all. But the sharp reminder that “This is not over” which now flashes on freeway signs across Australia’s second largest city has been accompanied by evidence of another disturbing problem during the pandemic – the cost of conspiracy theories in muddling public health messages.

The Victorian government has been on a testing blitz in a bid to contain the virus, with almost 200,000 tests conducted in the past week. Yet some 10,000 people refused a test. Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said some had declined believing that coronavirus was a conspiracy, with the effects overstated, or simply with a misguided faith that it would not affect them.

Some misunderstanding should be expected. After all, this is still a new virus scientists are grappling to understand, and symptoms range from barely noticeable to deadly. That local medical systems have coped better than had been feared in the early stages of the pandemic might also foster some complacency.

An unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts.

But misinformation and disinformation is proving a challenge, even for Australia, with a trusted public broadcaster and a robust democracy. None of this is helped by world leaders whose countries have endured the highest rates of infection and deaths have written off the virus as a minor illness or even a hoax. And news sources are varied. More Americans, for example, now get their news from social media than from print newspapers, and ongoing closures of newsrooms may drive individuals to online sources without similar editorial standards which allow for the greater sharing of unchecked messaging.

This challenge is linked to a change in Australia’s extremist threat environment, which has been dominated by Islamist violent extremism in recent years. ASIO’s annual threat assessment released in February outlined the threat of right-wing extremism as “real and growing”. A June update revealed that right-wing extremist investigations now make up a third of ASIO’s domestic caseload, with a warning that far-right groups are using Covid-19 as a cover to push ideologies and recruit. The potency of this mix of beliefs was manifested in rallies around Australia in May, with protesters calling Covid-19 a scam and protesting against vaccines, pharmaceutical companies, fluoride and 5G, which has been falsely claimed as a cause of Covid-19 with tenacity on social media.

This unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts. Numbers remain small, but not inconsequential. Data demonstrates that the virus can only be controlled when 8 out of 10 people adhere to social distancing measures, yet a small, concentrated number of people who do not could have a significant effect on this virus’ R (reproduction) number. The lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne over the weekend was justified by health authorities on grounds that even a small number of infections unchecked poses an unacceptable risk.

Public housing towers in Melbourne: Nine such towers have been put into hard lockdown during a spike in Covid-19 cases (David Jackmanson/Flickr)

This indirect, seemingly non-deliberate threat to public health varies considerably from the traditional threats faced from extremist groups. However, disinformation as a threat to democracy remains a concern. There was one case of an attempt to use Covid-19 disinformation to influence this weekend’s federal by-election in Eden-Monaro, with the Australian Federal Police charging one Sydney man who orchestrated spam emails falsely linking Labor candidate Kirsty McBain to the coronavirus pandemic.

Activities to counter disinformation are taking place at the federal level. A new taskforce has been established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to counter disinformation, with a focus on authoritarian states using disinformation to sow fear and division in democracies. This threat was reiterated in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which highlighted better preparation to respond to “grey zone” activities in the Indo-Pacific, including disinformation. The Australian government has been working with the tech sector to counter the prevalence of hate speech, extremist content and misinformation online.

But even with this public-private sector commitment solidified in the Christchurch Call, this strategy has been acknowledged as a game of whack-a-mole with more material ready to appear and influence as soon as it can be taken down. To further complicate matters, the Eden-Monaro case demonstrates the risk of misinformation being spread by local individuals instead of authoritarian states.

The debate as to where responsibility for online disinformation lies is an ongoing one. However, a new development may force the hands of social media companies, whose platforms allow for the greatest dissemination and amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation in an increasingly social media-connected world. Stop Hate For Profit is an American private sector–led campaign to cancel advertising on Facebook in response to allegations of allowing incitement to violence amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Organisers’ demands include human rather than automated responses to hateful material, including creating an internal mechanism to automatically flag hateful content for human review and enabling individuals facing hate and harassment to connect with live employees. Facebook receives 98% of revenue – nearly $70 billion in 2019 – from advertising. If this campaign succeeds in forcing social media companies to better prevent disinformation on racial inequality, there may be potential to also counter disinformation on Covid-19, given this pandemic’s devastating social and economic impacts.

Southeast Asian democracies in declining health amid Covid-19

Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Published 3 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting democracies in the Asia-Pacific region in ways that demand Australian attention.

The ability to weather a crisis of this magnitude depends upon partnerships and collaboration – economic, social and political – with key countries in the region. These partnerships are more difficult when democracy hangs in the balance.

Before the pandemic, many observers discussed and debated the illiberal turn in Southeast Asia. So while it is not the primary cause of illiberalism and the expansion of arbitrary power, Covid-19 will exacerbate this trend.

The shift was already evident in the crackdowns on political opposition in Cambodia, the use of constitutional reform to consolidate military influence in the civilian government in Thailand, and the increasing violence and illiberalism of President Duterte’s government.

The brightest example of democracy in the region, Indonesia, has in recent years begun to lose its democratic credibility. There were growing concerns that despite President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) winning a second term, the government was compromising on the hard-won progress of democracy and accountability.

Government critics were targeted with charges of treason. The powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission were compromised. And Prabowo Subianto, the Jokowi's presidential rival, was welcomed into the cabinet. There was no doubt that pre–Covid-19, democracy was under threat.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. But Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the health of democracy in the region.

In January 2020, Thailand identified the first case of Covid-19 outside China. Singapore, despite acting fast, now has the highest number of cases, exposing the vulnerabilities of its low-paid 1.5 million migrant workers.

Indonesia has the highest number of deaths, with government denial and confusion leading to an alarmingly high number of deaths of doctors and nurses. There have been some successes, with Vietnam the first country in the region to open up again after restrictive measures.

There are four trends we can see in the ways governments in Southeast Asia have responded to Covid-19.

First, as in many other parts of the world, government power has been used at the expense of human rights. More than just lockdowns and curfews, citizens have been targeted with criminal charges for criticising the government’s handling of the crisis.

Civil and political rights have become victims of Covid-19. Journalists have been arrested for criticising government responses to the pandemic in Indonesia. In Myanmar, journalists interviewing the Arakan Army, now branded a terrorist organisation, have been targets of criminal sanctions.

The second trend is the increasing role of the military and police, with Covid-19 creating opportunities for the expansion of military power and security measures. In Myanmar, a Covid-19 committee with both civilian and military representatives has been formed to address the health crisis, which blurs the line between civilian and military authority.

The role of the military is also evident in other parts of the region. In Indonesia, many the civilian authorities in high-level positions in the health sector who are leading the pandemic response are former military officers.

The third trend is that, unlike other parts of the world, the courts are less active – or absent altogether – as a check and balance on executive power. There are some exceptions; the challenge to the president’s decree on economic stimulus in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court is one example. Activists fear that that decree is unconstitutional because it grants immunity to government officials involved, raising corruption fears.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives for nomination day ahead of the 10 July Singapore general election, 30 June 2020 (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Across Southeast Asia, the courts have more often been used to enforce government power in arbitrary ways that exacerbate social inequalities, such as the debate in Myanmar over different penalties given to Buddhists as opposed to minority Christians or Muslims found to be in breach of Covid-19 restrictions.

The final trend is that armed conflict has continued, for the most part. Conflict persists in the southern Philippines and in southern Thailand, and across Myanmar’s border regions, particularly in Rakhine and Chin states.

The call by the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, urging all parties to conflict to focus instead on combating Covid-19, has largely gone unheeded in Southeast Asia. In May, the military in Myanmar finally declared a partial ceasefire, but conveniently created an exception for areas where the fighting is worst.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. The expansion of government power is a concern, but the declining health of democracy in the region was not caused by Covid-19, although it will exacerbate this illiberal turn.

Australia’s ability to pull through in economic and social terms depends upon maintaining strong connections with the region. This crisis of democracy presents a serious challenge, and Australia must support those in the region working to reverse the decline.

COVIDcast: Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Taiwan’s place in the world

Published 19 Jun 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Natasha Kassam, Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, sat down with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Joseph Wu. Wu was appointed Foreign Minister by President Tsai Ing-wen on 26 February 2018. He was previously the head of the National Security Council, and the Chief Representative in the United States as the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington DC.

Taiwan, a thriving democracy of 24 million people, is often seen as a proxy for both the United States and China’s ambitions for the Asia-Pacific region. But lately, Taiwan has been making headlines for its success in the Covid-19 pandemic. In normal times, there are 500 direct flights and around 180,000 trips between Taiwan and China each week. Despite this proximity, Taiwan has contained the virus to around 400 cases, only seven fatalities and no community transmission for more than two months.

Wu says China has increased military pressure on Taiwan during the pandemic. With many other countries preoccupied in dealing with the pandemic, China may feel it has a freer hand in dealing with Taiwan. The military pressure also serves to divert domestic attention in China onto Taiwan, at a time where the economic slowdown in China may be driving social discontent.


In addition to longstanding economic and military pressure, Wu says, China has been increasing influence operations against Taiwan in the last two years. Whether we refer to these operations as “sharp power” or influence operations, China is pressuring businesses, thinktanks and universities to treat Taiwan as a part of China.

Wu says Hong Kong and Taiwan are two outposts of democracy. If the Chinese government can whittle away Hong Kong’s freedoms and human rights, then Taiwan will be next.

China has also been seeking to pressure Taiwan in other ways, excluding it from the World Health Organisation, and poaching diplomatic partners such as Solomon Islands and Kiribati in the Pacific. By making donations to other countries and sharing Taiwan’s experience in fighting Covid-19, Taiwan hoped to win more international friendship. Many countries that had never expressed public support for Taiwan had spoken up at the World Health Assembly in May.

Wu says Hong Kong and Taiwan are two outposts of democracy. If the Chinese government can whittle away Hong Kong’s freedoms and human rights, then Taiwan will be next.


COVIDcast is a podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. To stay up to date with the latest episodes of COVIDcast, subscribe to Lowy Institute Audio on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or SoundCloud.

Economic diplomacy: Positive globalism and American exceptionalism

Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham at the National Press Club, 17 June 2020 in Canberra (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham at the National Press Club, 17 June 2020 in Canberra (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Published 18 Jun 2020 13:30   0 Comments


There was one phrase that would have neatly rounded out the interesting complementary speeches delivered by Australia’s two key international affairs ministers this week: positive globalism.

Here’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Wednesday:

I know the WTO and its processes can seem arcane, but having an effective rule book is the cornerstone of a functional, rules-based system. It couldn’t be more essential for a country like Australia.

And here’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday:

Australia’s interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us. Isolationism would also cut us off from the world on which we are so dependent for our own security and prosperity in the world's most dynamic region.

These are welcome but essentially unremarkable comments from ministers running a middle-power, export-oriented, foreign investment–dependent country with a proud track record of international engagement and citizens serving in numerous global jobs.

Except for the way their upbeat attitude to global engagement is quite a change of pace from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Trumpian swipe at “negative globalism” in his Lowy Lecture last October. That was before the bushfires, Covid-19 and China’s growing intransigence all in different ways underlined the value of Australia participating in a wide range of international institutions, despite the diplomatic trade-offs sometimes required.

While Morrison suggested some of these bodies were running out of control and threatening democratic nations, Payne is now saying that the negative globalism audit ordered by her boss has found that multilateral organisations are “vital” to Australia’s interests. So, it is perhaps not surprising that she sugar-coated the not-unexpected shift back to middle-power reality by remarkably suggesting that Morrison’s speech was trying to prepare Australia for an unforeseen pandemic. 

Economic distancing

Asia is converging into a more coherent economic entity, rather than taking sides in the US-China power struggle, according to new modelling of the region’s new trade zones – the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP).

Indeed, the Peterson Institute for International Economics modelling highlights how the two zones are creating a more traditional East Asian economic sphere at odds with the newer Indo-Pacific security framework, mainly because the US and India have absented themselves.

Trade deal modellers Michael Plummer and Peter Petri characterise the US and India’s stance on agreements which will raise the annual output of their members by US$147 billion (CPTPP) and $US186 billion (RCEP) by 2030 as “economic distancing”. India, in particular, is projected to lose US$6 billion from not joining RCEP, compared with gaining US$60 billion if it had joined:

Despite a history of political tensions in East Asia, these trends will deepen economic integration among China, Japan, and Korea, building on their already substantial production networks. The losers will be the United States and India, in economics as well as strategic influence in the region.

At odds with much of the post-Covid strategic debate, they further state, “By lowering East Asian trade costs, RCEP will accelerate the decoupling of the East Asian and US economies, arguably the most productive regional partnership in economic history.”

The modelling also finds that the two Asian trade agreements will broadly offset the US$301 billion in annual lost global income by 2030 from the US-China trade war, but not the losses to the US and China themselves.

Birmingham is due to join an online meeting of trade ministers to maintain the momentum towards the signing of RCEP in November.

But while the pan-Asian agreement is now a standard feature of the government’s growth and diversity rhetoric, the Plummer/Petri modelling does not offer much joy to Australia, due to the fact it already has trade agreements with all other 14 participants, now that India is out.

The modelling suggests it will only increase Australian real national income by a negligible US$1 billion a year by 2030, compared with US$85 billion for China and US$48 billion for Japan.

Currency reserve

When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its Asian regional outlook in April, Asia-Pacific director Changyong Rhee surprisingly emphasised the role of the US dollar in the region, pointing out it had actually risen in significance since the last financial crisis in 2008.

It was a nod to the way the currency’s global reserve status remains one of the most significant hard- and soft-power assets the US has – especially at a time when even the military has lost some stature by being drawn into the domestic debate around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

But what is more striking since April has been the roll call of high-profile US commentators worrying about the future of the currency amid the Trump administration’s assault on globalisation.

In Foreign Affairs, former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson says the enduring dominance of the dollar is remarkable, given the US economy’s relative decline over the past 50 years. But while he says the currency may retain its role, he warns:

The dollar’s status will be tested by Washington’s ability to weather the Covid-19 storm and emerge with economic policies that allow the country, over time, to manage its national debt and curb its structural fiscal deficit.

Currencies set the equilibrium between domestic economic fundamentals and foreign perceptions of a nation's strength or weakness, according to former Morgan Stanley Asia chairman Stephen Roach on Bloomberg, who predicts a US dollar slump driven by Trump’s international economic policies and a savings decline due to the pandemic recession. He says:

Like Covid-19 and racial turmoil, the fall of the almighty dollar will cast global economic leadership of a savings-short US economy in a very harsh light. Exorbitant privilege needs to be earned, not taken for granted.

But this week at Project Syndicate, former IMF economist Kenneth Rogoff took the argument further, suggesting that an underappreciated aspect of Trump’s reshoring and deglobalisation campaign would be a decline in demand for US-dollar assets just when the country has a rising budget deficit to finance. He says:

Even if the US turns a blind eye to deglobalisation’s effects on the rest of the world, it should be remembered that the abundant demand for dollar assets depends heavily on the vast trade and financial system that some American politicians aim to shrink.

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration has dithered domestically and meddled globally over Covid-19, the single most significant US pandemic mitigation action was the Federal Reserve’s swift extension of currency swap lines to more than a dozen other central banks to calm financial markets in March.

So the future of the dollar is going to rely on continued global trust in American exceptionalism, amid growing global distrust of the politicians who manage the country.

Cambodia: Caught in the middle

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Jun 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Even as it grapples with the economic fallout of Covid-19, Cambodia has a China problem. The perception of Prime Minister Hun Sen as a stooge for Beijing became entrenched long before the coronavirus outbreak – but it was left unexplained. However, as the virus is gradually brought under control, this idea of Cambodia circling ever more tightly in China’s orbit and descending into dictatorship threatens the country’s economic recovery.

The supposed China connection has been elevated since The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that Cambodia was helping China realise its “string of pearls” strategy by allowing Beijing military access to a naval base in Sihanoukville. It has kept resurfacing, including with speculation that other nearby ports are under construction.

The allegations that Cambodia is likely allowing China to build dual-use ports capable of accommodating Beijing’s military aircraft and warships are not a welcome sign. Such speculations lack concrete evidence and have been vehemently denied by the Cambodian government, but they have serious repercussions for Cambodia.

They not only further undermine Cambodia's image on the regional and international stage, but they also potentially place the country in the centre of strategic competition for dominance in the Asia-Pacific between China and the US.

Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

In recent years, Cambodia and the US have experienced growing mutual strategic mistrust. While the US is suspicious of Cambodia’s increasing friendliness towards China, Cambodia is wary of the US push for regime change in Phnom Penh. However, Hun Sen was assured last year in a letter from US President Trump that “the United States respects the sovereign will of Cambodian people and we do not seek regime change”.

The cost of this strategic mistrust is measurable. Despite relative success in controlling the spread of Covid-19, Cambodia needs effective post-pandemic recovery strategies and policy responses to build back better economically. The World Bank has predicted a sharp decline in Cambodia's 2020 GDP growth, potentially registering a negative growth rate of between -1 and -2.9% – the slowest growth since 1994.

The situation is dire. Cambodia’s main GDP growth drivers such as the garment, tourism and construction industries are faltering. Almost 200 garment factories in the country have suspended operations, and around 170 companies in the tourism industry have been shut down.

Cambodia will need broad international ties to support its recovery. While the pandemic is still severely impairing global supply chains, and the tourism industry still hobbled by international travel bans and other restrictions, such links will need to be re-established.

Thus, Cambodia cannot afford to be branded a China lackey. To address the strategic mistrust between Phnom Penh and Washington, the US needs to engage Cambodia in ways that are neither confrontational nor undermining towards the Kingdom. Although efforts have been made and positive developments have emerged in recent months, relations are still strained.

While Cambodia continues to conduct foreign policy guided by economic pragmatism, it needs to strike a fine balance in its relations with the superpowers. Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

Garment workers in a clothing factory in 2016. The garment industry accounts for nearly 16% of Cambodia’s annual GDP and over 80% of exports (Marcel Crozet/ILO/Flickr)

Engaging all partners, the US and its allies in particular, is therefore vital to Cambodia’s foreign policy and sustainable development. Its inclusive foreign policy motto, “Reforming at home and making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence,” is a great strategic vision, but realising it is not so easy.

Meanwhile, Cambodia needs to address domestic challenges such as corruption, human rights violations, social injustice and environmental issues in order to sustain bilateral aid.

One of its post-pandemic priorities will be to resolve its differences with the European Union – Cambodia’s largest export market – over concerns surrounding the partial withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001. Although Cambodia can still export to Europe even without the EBA scheme, the loss of trade privileges would have a negative impact on the garment industry, which accounts for over 80% of Cambodia’s exports.

Cambodia also has to recalibrate the trajectory of its political development, widely perceived as edging towards authoritarianism. Although it favours political elites, staunch government supporters and particularly Prime Minister Hun Sen (who has been in power for more than three decades), it may not reflect the interests of around 3 million Cambodians who voted for the opposition party in the commune elections in 2017.

The country’s perceived descent into authoritarianism clearly does not align with international efforts invested since the 1990s to assist Cambodia in upholding democratic values and practices. A reconsideration of the country's overall political trend and increasing repression of dissent are therefore urgently needed.

At the same time, as it works to deal with the many social and economic challenges caused by Covid-19, the country’s strategies for economic recovery need a vision that goes beyond the economic sphere.

The geopolitical consequences of a pandemic

Pro-democracy activists at a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, 12 June 2020 (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-democracy activists at a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, 12 June 2020 (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Jun 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The global system is in a state of flux. China’s renewed territorial assertions and growing military power continue to pose challenges to regional peace and stability. US-Russia relations have plummeted into a downward spiral. We have passed through a crisis on the Korean Peninsula that has had a deep impact on the security situation in Northeast Asia, and which has only recently moved from a phase of brinkmanship to intermittent dialogue. Tensions are brewing around Iran’s nuclear program.

And virtually every country is confronting the Covid-19 pandemic.

The world economy had barely strengthened, as lingering fragilities related to the global financial crisis subsided. In 2019, global GDP growth was a modest 2.9%.  Rising unemployment, plummeting GDPs and growing inequalities within countries and intra-country disparities in growth are increasing the potential for social instability across the globe. The demonstrations against racial discrimination and police brutality in the US have been fuelled in part by the underlying economic pain of thousands of jobs lost to the pandemic. The specter of the US-China trade war, rising protectionism and a pushback against globalisation was already a real danger before the pandemic, but it has now been exacerbated by the downward spiral in Sino-US relations, as the US blames China for a lack of transparency in the origins and handling of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a body blow to the global economy.

After the Global Financial Crisis (2007–08), there was a relative decline in US power, and China made the most of a period of strategic opportunity by occupying the space vacated by a US preoccupied with the domestic economic crisis and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. China has made a similar judgment in the midst of the current pandemic – that major powers are distracted and now is the time to advance its territorial agenda. This explains its recent assertions in the South and East China seas and along the Sino-Indian border. As on previous occasions, this has been accompanied by attempts at soft coercion through statements made by Chinese spokespersons and official media.

Global connections are fraying (SoulRider.222/Flickr)


A once-in-a-century pandemic has the potential to unleash an epochal geopolitical churn. There are major risks from potential conflict triggered by tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran or from a conflict of interests between the US and Russia in the Middle East. Iran might exacerbate existing tensions by moving perceptibly closer towards a nuclear weapons capability or by activating its proxies as a response to extreme stress from the sanctions and the pandemic. Such a conflict might draw in the US and Israel, leading to a wider conflagration.

As the demonstrations in the US are echoed other countries, there will likely be different outcomes, depending upon the nature of the political system in place. Democracies are less likely to use force and more likely to introduce changes to address underlying causes. Authoritarian regimes, which suffer from a crisis of legitimacy, are more likely to use excessive force and less likely to address underlying issues, out of a fear of unleashing a chain of events they would be unable to control.

The US, its allies and its partners need to seriously examine economic, political and security options to deal with an opaque, assertive and territorially unsatiated China, with the understanding that China is the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

The pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are a case in point. China has armed itself with a new national security law, and should the popular movement gain renewed momentum, it is likely to use force to suppress the movement. In the present polarised climate, that will inevitably lead to new US and Western sanctions, including stricter export controls targeting sensitive technology exports to China. This, in turn, would trigger another round of exodus of value chains out of China, accelerating the decoupling of the US and Chinese economies.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong could spread to other regions of China – particularly those inhabited by minorities oppressed by the Chinese government. The gut instinct of Beijing would be to come down hard on these protests. It is tempting to speculate whether, in the face of China’s increasing isolation, a reformer could emerge from the ranks to guide the country towards a more democratic future. A democratic China would be less likely to threaten the territorial integrity of other countries, and could evolve towards a genuinely federal structure with greater autonomy for minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. It may be less likely to pursue a collusive agenda with Pakistan and North Korea. In fact, bereft of economic support from China, those countries may actually be socialised into the mainstream of the international community.

An alternative geopolitical future for China and the world could be repression at home, increasing isolation in the global community and the pursuit of territorial assertions and proxy wars in order to establish itself as the Asian hegemon in a bipolar US-China contest.

The persisent inconsistencies and a lack of an overarching strategic framework in the Trump administration policy towards Asia undermines the prospects for stability and security in the region. The US, its allies and its partners need to seriously examine economic, political and security options to deal with an opaque, assertive and territorially unsatiated China, with the understanding that China is the problem and cannot be part of the solution. The US must reverse the downward spiral in US-Russia relations and desist from pushing Russia further into the Chinese embrace.

In the Middle East, the focus must be on diplomacy and negotiation; this is not the opportune moment to stoke the flames of conflict when the focus should be on containing the Chinese threat. The US has to lift itself out of its current isolationist mood and show leadership on global issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and the world economy.

Restoring faith in multilateralism will require reinventing global governance institutions. And restoring public trust in leadership will mean urgently addressing the pressing social and economic issues driving popular protests.

Kashmir Covid response sparks fear and suspicion

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard in central Srinagar, 10 June 2020 (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard in central Srinagar, 10 June 2020 (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 Jun 2020 11:30   0 Comments

India’s high-handedness in Kashmir amid a global pandemic has further exacerbated a tense situation in the restive valley. The latest causality of harsh policies has been people, mostly students, locked up in quarantine centres across Kashmir.

In March, when Kashmiri students studying outside India started landing back in Kashmir because of Covid-19 shutdowns, many of them tried to avoid admission to compulsory quarantine facilities for a 15-day stay. The thought of being held under the strict watch of state officials had students bordering on panic, and led parents and guardians, waiting outside the airport building, to stage a chain of protests against the ruling.

This fear had obvious roots. India’s handling of Kashmir has long been questioned, particularly since 1987, when it rigged a local election, paving the way for a secessionist movement in Kashmir. Today, India rules Kashmir through the presence of nearly a million armed troops, by some estimates. Conflict in Kashmir has cost at least 40,000 lives since a separatist insurgency ignited in the 1980s, with thousands of disappearances associated with Indian security forces. There are also the less visible but debilitating costs of psychological trauma and other lifelong disabilities.

Going public has become a necessary way to pressure local officials, who would otherwise almost always turn a blind to the daily tribulations.

India’s response to dissent in Kashmir has instilled trenchant suspicion in the local population. This helps explain why people worry about the treatment of their children at the hands of the administration, even in a public health crisis. Such suspicions evoked memories of last August, when India tortured and incarcerated thousands of Kashmiri children after revoking Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority state. It also imposed an indefinite civilian curfew and telecommunications and internet blockade which lasted for months. High-speed internet services still remain curtailed.

Yet in the controversy over quarantine, mobile screens buzzed with news from students and their relatives who voiced their concerns on various social media platforms. Going public has become a necessary way to pressure local officials, who would otherwise almost always turn a blind to the daily tribulations.

In one such post, a girl reported state security taking a group of students to a camp operated Border Security Force – the border guard organisation of India – where the students were allegedly beaten up by the police for refusing to go inside.

“Who takes students especially girls there?” she asked on Twitter, alluding to past instances when Indian soldiers were charged with rape allegations and other hostile misconduct against Kashmiri women. The students were later shifted to a nearby hotel.

In another incident, a relative of a female medical student who had returned from Bangladesh criticised the administration for carrying students to a makeshift quarantine center in a military van instead of an ambulance. “My sister-in-law was in there and she begged me to drive by its side,” he wrote on Twitter.

Such exposés kept popping up.

Recently, a news report revealed an incident in which a teenage girl was allegedly attacked by a police constable in a quarantine facility in Kashmir’s Chadoora district. Prior to that, a state official was seen threatening a female student for protesting the uncleanliness of quarantine centres.

Others allege that police officials would visit quarantine centres and angrily bang on the doors in the Rajbagh area of Srinagar, annoyed at the repeated complaints by students about the unhealthy conditions they were forced to stay in.

J&K police have also started intimidating doctors and other health workers and stopping them from visiting hospitals to treat Covid-19 and other ailing patients. A doctor was even detained for resisting aggressive police officials. “Let your patients and the hospital go to hell,” were the words used by a senior police officer to a doctor when he had begged to be able to get to his hospital where he was on call.

While the world fights a deadly pandemic, Kashmir fears for the worst as India’s military occupation persists in its violence against the local population. 

North Korea may have benefited from the pandemic after all

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seen on televisions in South Korea on 2 May (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seen on televisions in South Korea on 2 May (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Published 11 Jun 2020 16:30   0 Comments

Recent news reports about North Korea reopening its schools and easing its restrictions on border trade with China after more than four months of coronavirus-related closure indicate that normalcy is returning to the Hermit Kingdom.

While it would be far-fetched to fairly evaluate Pyongyang’s response to the pandemic due to a lack of credible statistics on the number of infections, experts generally agree that North Korea has succeeded in controlling the virus thanks to its police-state institutions and early coping mechanisms. North Korea is a poor country, but when it comes to pandemic control, time may be more important than resources. Cheap measures such as heavy-handed contact tracing and quarantine can prevent community spread and ease the burden on the decrepit healthcare infrastructure.

As the dust settles, it is important to assess whether North Korea gains or loses from the pandemic. Did the pandemic put North Korea in a more advantageous position compared to the negotiation deadlock in the latter half of 2019? And can Pyongyang exploit the pandemic to further its ends?

North Korea may have economically suffered, but its time-buying strategy has received a boost thanks to the pandemic. China and South Korea’s support for North Korea during times of hardship, and the neglect of the North Korea issue by the United States are what Pyongyang needs to consolidate its gains after two years of charm offensive.

Students attend a mass gathering denouncing “defectors from the north” at the Pyongyang Youth Park Open-Air Theatre on 6 June  (Kim Won-jin/AFP via Getty Images)


The pandemic indeed has made life much harder not only for ordinary North Koreans but also for the central government. The country’s decision to close the border with China has done more damage to its economy than international sanctions. North Korea’s exports to China in March fell 96% compared to March 2019 to just $616,000, according to one report. Pyongyang residents experienced a shortage of foreign consumer goods and a huge increase in prices of food and household appliances. Moreover, the country’s infant tourism industry faced delay and an uncertain future, as North Korea cannot count on foreign tourists to revive its economy when a Covid-19 vaccine is still unavailable. The economy is so dire that Pyongyang has issued government bonds and resorted to coercion to shore up state finances.

However, North Korea’s temporary economic fall can be offset by luring financial support from China and South Korea.

On the military front, North Korea did not let the pandemic slow its missile progress and used the time to develop its nuclear capability.

China’s dilemma in international sanctions on North Korea is a fear that strict enforcement could lead North Korea to collapse. The pandemic allowed Beijing to cooperate with Pyongyang to help fight Covid-19 and “provide assistance” to the country without the negativity associated with breaking sanctions. China has been vocal about lifting sanctions on North Korea on the grounds that such measures hurt ordinary North Koreans. North Korea and China have also been preparing to expand cross-border exchange as pandemic border control eases.

South Korea is also interested in sanctions relief for the North and North-South healthcare cooperation. As South Korea President Moon Jae-in no longer faces any electoral battles until the end of his term, Moon may strongly push for inter-Korean exchanges independently of the United States and lay the groundwork for his successor to continue the détente. For instance, Seoul can call for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex to produce facemasks and personal protection equipment. Cross-border railway reconnection projects can also be an area of cooperation, for Seoul can send humanitarian assistance to the North via ground transportation and make a stronger case to bypass the United Nations Command, which controls the inter-Korean border and has dictated the pace of Moon’s peace initiatives.

On the military front, North Korea did not let the pandemic slow its missile progress and used the time to develop its nuclear capability. In March, North Korea conducted four short-range missile tests, one more than the first quarter of 2017 before an improvement in inter-Korean and North Korea-United States relations. A report of the country’s Worker’s Party Plenary meeting in January 2020 hinted at a “new strategic weapon”, which could denote solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). North Korea chairman Kim Jong-un’s recent vow to increase the “nuclear war deterrence” at a Central Military Commission meeting affirms North Korea’s determination to hold on to and expand its nuclear arsenal despite economic hardship.

In the months after the second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, North Korea intentionally avoided talking to the United States in order to extract concessions from Washington. North Korea’s hardline strategy was based on its time advantage, in which a delay in nuclear negotiation and an arms control agreement only increases the country’s quantity and quality of its nuclear and missile programs. Despite the strong rhetoric in 2019, Pyongyang left the negotiation track open in 2020.

Unfortunately, the poor handling of the pandemic in the US distracts Washington from nuclear negotiations, and so long as Pyongyang refrains from breaking the moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, it is not likely that a breakthrough will be made in the second half of 2020.

The pandemic may have delayed North Korea’s economic objectives and posed financial hardship for the government, but the pandemic gives more weight to sanctions relief and buys it more time to advance its strategic weapons. Pyongyang’s charm offensive has regained China’s support, energised Moon’s push for joint economic exchanges, and stifled the US maximum pressure campaign. Pyongyang has found a silver lining in the pandemic.

China toys with a new propaganda technique: Irony

Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Published 11 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

As the world struggles with the Covid-19 crisis, the US and China have been locked in a heated propaganda warfare over the handling of the virus. Hitting back at President Donald Trump’s claim that “China let it spread”, Chinese official media angrily accused the US of “groundless accusation” and “nefarious plotting”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s twitter post incited an equally unsubstantiated claim that the virus was a bioweapon of the US military.

Amid this public condemnation, conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, an unconventional animation video released by the state news agency Xinhua stood out in China’s propaganda arsenal.

Featured in Lego figures taking part in a play act, the one-and-a-half-minute video suggestively entitled “Once upon a virus” presents a series of interactions over Covid-19 between China and the US, represented by a group of terracotta warriors and the Statue of Liberty. The video opens with a mask-wearing warrior informing World Health Organisation (WHO) of a “strange pneumonia case”. The ensuing conversation takes place between the warriors, all equipped adequately with masks and hazmat suits, and the “bare” Statue of Liberty.

“We discovered a new virus”, the warriors say. “So what? It’s only a flu”, the Statue of Liberty replies. “Wear a mask”, “don’t wear a mask”, “stay at home”, “it’s violating human rights”, “build temporary hospitals”, “it’s a concentration camp” are the back and forth lines along which the debate develops.

The Statue of Liberty constantly defies whatever the warriors say and hence is portrayed as undermining the efforts of fighting the virus, while China’s advice and “achievements” are underlined. As the Statue of Liberty is too busy engaging in this war of words, her condition worsens. The video ends with her eventually wearing a mask and being attached to an intravenous drip, still blaming China and insisting that “even when we contradict ourselves, we are always correct”, to which the warriors ironically retort “That’s what I love about you Americans, your consistency”.

Three aspects of this video are important to highlight: communication strategy, symbolism of content and targeted audience. China’s sarcastic and light-hearted effort of fixing its already-damaged reputation stands in sharp contrast to the party-state’s previous approaches in conducting foreign propaganda, defined generally by charm offensive on the one hand and “fire and fury” on the other. Solemnity, dignity and formality are hailed as the rule of thumb of conducting politics in Chinese culture and are in turn reflected in propaganda materials.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations.

The party-state tends to distance itself from such political satire, reflected in one of the Global Times editorials response to South Park’s innuendo of Xinjiang’s detention of Uighurs as “knowing too little about China”. This time, however, China seems to be at ease to use some stereotyped charges against it, such as “violation of human rights” and “concentration camp”, as an irony to vindicate itself. While China presents the charges the US put forward, it does so in a way that portrays them linked to the Covid-19 policy in the US, making it easier to highlight the flaws and contradictions within both.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations of its own positions which generally paid little attention to what the interlocutor had said. The Xinhua video instead of bluntly reiterating the official position or all of governments’ arduous efforts so far, sarcastically ridiculed the US for engaging in a “blaming for blaming’s sake” game.

Markedly, China did not use more internationally renowned images such as a panda or dragon to represent itself. The choice of terracotta warriors symbolises the eternal power of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China endorsing legalism as the official state doctrine. In his lifetime, he used his military might to brutally conquer neighbouring territories; in his afterlife, the 8,000-warrior terracotta army was meant to protect his emperorship into perpetuity. Adopting this symbol, China might imply that its draconian measures of effectively containing the virus are the manifestation of the disciplined Qin’s rule under legalism; parallels with President Xi Jinping’s rule, with lifted restrictions on his mandate and characterised by a harsh clampdown on critics and an aggressive foreign policy inevitably come to mind.

The Statue of Liberty is equally symbolic. Its “liberty enlightening the world” is mocked for its reverse effect in times of crisis, implying that human lives are traded for “liberty”, and as a consequence the freest country in the world is now the worst hit by the virus. Moreover, all characters are made from Lego parts which is ironic given the company’s controversial decision back in 2016 of not fulfilling Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s order due to concern that the bricks will be used to make a political statement; in line with its apolitical stance, the company denied any involvement in the production of this video.

The video, produced in English, was not disseminated by domestic media but targeted a foreign audience. Nonetheless, it was picked up by Chinese social media, recording over 11 million views since 2 May.

We can only suspect that the state is cautiously sounding out the public’s reactions on such undertakings. This would be in line with Xi’s administration interest in combining information technology with propaganda. In 2013, a video called “How Leaders Are Made”, similar to “Once upon a virus” in style, though far less sarcastic in tone, showcased how high-profiled politicians raise to power in China and the West. The production studio “Fuxing Road” (复兴路上) remained a mystery, though some lined it back to CCP’s International Department.

For now, it remains to be seen whether China is truly turning a new creative page in its propaganda manual.

In Yemen, a deadly concoction of arms sales, conflict and Covid-19

Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 10 Jun 2020 16:30   0 Comments

In April, the UN Security Council issued a statement endorsing the UN Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen to better enable a response to Covid-19. The Council recognised that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen made the country “exceptionally vulnerable”, and that any further military escalation would “hinder the access of humanitarian and healthcare workers and the availability of healthcare facilities”. 

The Council is right to be concerned. Thus far, Yemen has confirmed just 469 Covid-19 infections. But testing rates are among the lowest in the world, and the fatality rate – at 24% – is one of the highest, suggesting that the real caseload is much higher. The UN Secretary General said last week that there was “every reason to believe that community transmission is already underway across the country”.

Even without Covid-19, after more than five years of war, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The conflict has devastated the economy, destroyed civilian infrastructure and brought the provision of basic services to the brink of collapse. The health system has been particularly hard hit. Hospitals have been bombed, only half the country’s health facilities are fully functioning, power cuts are common, and items such as personal protective equipment and ventilators are in short supply. 

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued.

The conflict in Yemen has been fuelled by arms supplied by foreign states to the Saudi Arabian–led international coalition (or SLC), which since 2015 has been engaged in a military campaign to oust the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer. Most of its arms come from the US, followed by the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Canada. Other SLC members Egypt and the UAE are also among the world’s leading arms importers, receiving most of their weapons from the US and France.

Since 2015, arms exports to the SLC have continued despite overwhelming evidence that the SLC has been violating human rights and international humanitarian law in Yemen. Most of the civilians killed in the conflict have been killed in SLC airstrikes, many of which have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure – schools, houses, markets, farms, factories. Some of these attacks were carried out with weapons supplied by Western states. A report released by human rights organisations last year documented 27 “apparently unlawful Saudi/UAE-led Coalition attacks” on civilian homes, educational and health facilities, businesses and gatherings that appeared to have used weapons made in the US or UK.

The supply of arms to the SLC has prompted efforts to block arms sales through legislative and judicial processes. Last year the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the UK Government had acted illegally by exporting arms to Saudi Arabia without assessing whether the SLC had been violating international humanitarian law. In the US, Congress has repeatedly tried to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but every time has been overruled by presidential veto. The European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock (onscreen) briefs members of the Security Council during a video teleconference on the situation in Yemen, 16 April 2020 (UN Photo)

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued. In April, Canada lifted a moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and in May, the US approved a possible sale of thousands of armoured vehicles to the UAE. Germany has approved US$341 million in arms sales to Egypt and $8.5 million to the UAE this year alone.

In other words, members of the Security Council have called for a ceasefire while simultaneously providing arms to enable the fighting in Yemen to continue.

This is not the only irony in the Security Council’s response to the conflict. The other is that in 2014 the Council established a sanctions regime for those found to be violating international human rights and humanitarian law. It established a Panel of Experts to review the evidence and help it decide whom to impose sanctions on. Every year since 2016, the Panel of Experts has reported to the Council that all parties to the conflict in Yemen have violated human rights and international humanitarian law, and it has recommended that sanctions be imposed against individuals from all parties. The Security Council has responded by imposing sanctions and an arms embargo against Houthi-aligned individuals, while studiously ignoring the evidence regarding the SLC’s airstrikes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – that is to say: the evidence from its own Panel of Experts, which it established for the specific purpose of assisting it to designate individuals and entities to be subject to sanctions.

To be clear: states such as the US, the UK, France, Canada, Germany and others who have supplied arms to the SLC have contributed to the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure. In doing so, they have aided in the collapse of Yemen’s healthcare system, and thus increased the country’s vulnerability to Covid-19. These countries should now hold themselves responsible for enabling a response to the outbreak. This means immediately ceasing arms sales to members of the SLC, funding the humanitarian response to enable aid agencies to respond to Covid-19, and supporting a Security Council resolution that extends the existing sanctions regime to include individuals engaged in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, from all sides of the conflict.

Climate change makes Covid-19 politics look easy

The Big Smoke: Sydney in December 2019 (Getty Images)
The Big Smoke: Sydney in December 2019 (Getty Images)
Published 10 Jun 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Covid-19 has been an extremely difficult challenge for national policymakers. If policy and politics are about managing competing interests and prioritising different constituencies, the varied national Covid-19 responses point to the acute challenges of getting this balance right.

How do we balance the economic implications of movement restrictions against the public health risks of increased infections? How do we weigh individual freedoms against community protection? And if we shut down elements of our economy, do we protect affected people and businesses? All of them? How much support should we give them? And for how long?

What the Covid-19 experience tells us is that the public and policymakers have a capacity to listen to and follow the guidance of experts.

Almost every country has answered these questions differently, with measures ranging from total lockdown to contact tracing, widespread testing to business as usual. These have seen varying degrees of success, of course, and varying degrees of public support for those measures.  Within Australia, we’ve seen consistent and robust debate about the policies enacted, including movement restrictions and the closure of schools, borders and businesses. Who would want to be a policymaker trying to get this balance right, and trying to sell it politically?

Climate change, however, makes the policy and political challenge of responding to Covid-19 – at least in Australia – look like a picnic, by comparison. In at least five ways, climate change is much tougher:

  1. With Covid-19, the public has a sense of what a worst-case scenario looks like. It makes justifying extraordinary measures a lot easier for politicians if they can, for example, point to dramatic scenes from a country hit hard by the pandemic to say, “These are people and societies much like ours, and that’s our future if we do nothing.”
    The same is more difficult to say of climate change – or at least with any degree of certainty. We can point to the devastating effects of disasters like the 2019–20 bushfires or the drought that preceded it. We know that climate change means an increase in the frequency and severity of such events. But we can’t definitively say that climate change caused these disasters – and plenty of voices in Australia contest any attempt to link them. The threat of climate change in this sense is a different one, and emergency measures are just a bit harder to sell.
  2. With Covid-19, we have a clearer idea about the effectiveness of different responses. We can see from other states – and from sophisticated modelling – what measures will lead towards what range of outcomes, and in what timeframe. The same does not apply to climate change. Ecosystem functions are far more complex, and the suite of possible measures – from mitigation to adaptation to geoengineering – make this a much more complicated policy challenge.
  3. With Covid-19, unilateral national action can work. Quickly closing off borders is actually possible, and if New Zealand’s experience is anything to go by, can be effective. With climate change, the nature of the atmosphere as a global commons obviously makes such actions impossible. We can focus on adaptative measures to try to insulate ourselves from the effects of climate change, but we can’t prevent disasters from happening in the first place. So we need mitigation, but one country can’t achieve necessary goals on its own. We need sustained international cooperation, with many states doing their part – which has proved to be elusive in practice. And if we think – or we’re led to think – that others aren’t doing their part for international response, major domestic mitigation efforts are that much harder to sell domestically.
  4. With Covid-19, we’re protecting ourselves and those closest to us. Covid-19 can immediately and directly affect us, family members and fellow citizens, which is how extraordinary policy measures can be justified and sold. Those most immediately and directly vulnerable to climate change, though, are seen as something other – they’re people in the developing world, other living creatures, or future human generations. We’re seldom encouraged to orient our moral – or political – concerns to these constituencies. Again, this makes mobilising and sustaining extraordinary measures harder than with Covid-19.
  5. A return to something approaching life as normal beyond Covid-19 seems possible. Sacrifices are politically easier to sell if it looks like a “for now” scenario, with effective measures in place and the chance of a vaccine on the horizon. That won’t be the case with climate, where we’ll likely be facing a world that has changed irrevocably.

In all these ways, climate change poses more profound challenges for policy and politics than Covid-19. That’s even assuming that policymakers have the political will to try to address climate change, which hasn’t been self-evident in the Australian context.

More positively, what the Covid-19 experience tells us is that the public and policymakers have a capacity to listen to and follow the guidance of experts. We seem to recognise that prevention is much better than cure. And when we recognise an issue as a crisis, we appear capable of enacting and accepting extraordinary measures.

Whether the Australian public – and in particular its leaders – can accept that climate change is a crisis is, of course, another thing altogether.

COVIDcast: World economy in flux

Published 5 Jun 2020 10:00   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Lowy Institute lead economist Roland Rajah sat down with Adam Tooze to discuss how the Covid-19 economic crisis is evolving and reshaping the world economy. Tooze is Professor of History at Columbia University and the Director of its European Institute. He is also the author of the 2018 book Crashed which is widely acclaimed as one of the best books about the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Rajah and Tooze discussed how the story of Covid-19 has rapidly evolved as the crisis has unfolded. Tooze noted how China had gone from facing what many serious people thought could be its Chernobyl moment to getting control of the virus. Similarly, Europe was initially badly hit but has more recently the outlook has improved. Meanwhile, the United States has been on a rollercoaster, with initial fumbles on its health response followed by a massive fiscal and monetary response that has since begun to unravel in partisanship even as social unrest has exploded onto its cities’ streets.


The pair also discussed the importance of a proposed €750 billion European Union Covid recovery fund. Rajah noted that the level of fiscal support is perhaps not as large as the headline figure might suggest but that it was still substantial and could be scaled up in future. Tooze agreed, arguing that it was certainly big enough to qualify as a really serious political step, particularly on the part of Germany. However he also noted that serious blockages remained and the new proposal was far from a done deal.

The conversation then returned to China, focused on the contrast between China currently being a pillar of relative strength in the global economy but with relations with the West souring on nearly every front. Tooze noted that China had clearly chosen this time to “push” and that the West is going to face difficult choices. But cooperation with China also remained essential, especially on climate change. He noted that Europe has the most constructive policy of moving towards a green transition and see China as a potential partner. Tooze concluded by arguing there was enough there for cooperation, even though there is little sympathy between the two at a political level.


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

Aiding the Pacific during Covid – a stock-take and further steps

Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Published 4 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 crisis is now widely seen as the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression. In the Pacific, as in the rest of the world, economic activity has collapsed as a result of lockdowns to contain the virus. As an aid dependent region, a critical question is whether enough outside support will be made available to help Pacific governments keep their economies and societies afloat through the pandemic.

By our estimate, the Pacific’s development partners have so far announced around $825 million (US $570 million) in Covid-19 related financial support, including the debt standstill announced by the G20 in April. That’s equal to about 1.7% of the region’s collective output, not insubstantial. It is also rising as more announcements are made. Nonetheless, it’s still well below the 10% of GDP and upwards being deployed in many advanced economies, including Australia.

Not all the announced amounts are additional. Australia has announced a Covid-19 package for the Pacific worth $100 million but with all of this coming from the existing aid budget. Some reprioritisation of existing support undoubtedly will have made sense. There may also have been some additional funds freed from projects put on hold or delayed due to the virus. The World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for their part have so far announced $143 million in combined Covid-19 response measures, coming from a mix of reprioritisations and stretching their balance sheets.

At the global level, the headline grabbing news has been the debt servicing standstill announced by the G20 for the poorest countries (including most of the Pacific Islands countries). The standstill only applies to debt owed to bilateral creditors and lasts until the end of the year. By our estimate, this year’s bilateral debt relief (including a hold on this year’s PNG’s repayment of Australia’s $440 million) accounts for around 60% of total debt servicing costs in the Pacific or about 1% of regional GDP. Most of this reflects the standstill on Australia’s one-off exceptional loan to PNG. Without this, the standstill would only be worth about 0.2% of regional GDP (and 28% of total debt servicing). The bulk of this smaller amount reflects bilateral Chinese loans. Notably, though China has doled out many large loans in the Pacific over the past decade or so, these are still operating in their interest-only phases – meaning debt servicing to China is still quite small.

More important than the debt standstill could be the decision by the G20 to endorse an expansion of the rapid financing windows of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ordinarily, countries can access up to half their IMF quota in a year and 100% on a cumulative basis (quotas being in reference to each country’s IMF voting rights). This has now been expanded to 100% and 150% respectively. The amounts on offer come with limited IMF conditionality and, at least for the Pacific, are very sizeable – equal to 3.5% of GDP for the average Pacific economy and over 8% of GDP for Kiribati and Tuvalu. So far, the IMF has only announced a rapid financing package for Samoa and Solomon Islands but approvals for other Pacific countries might also be in the works, noting the IMF says more than 100 countries have requested emergency help.

What more could be done in the near term?

Extending the debt standstill could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant.

One simple step would be to extend the duration of the G20 measures already announced. Currently the debt standstill will expire by the end of the year and enhanced access to the IMF rapid financing windows will revert back to normal levels from 5 October. Yet, financing needs in response to Covid-19 will likely persist well beyond these arbitrary dates, in the Pacific and elsewhere. Continued support will be needed. Extending these existing measures to the end of 2021 would be a relatively uncomplicated further step.

Another obvious step would be to broaden the bilateral debt standstill to multilateral and private sector creditors, as the G20 has already called for. Extending the debt standstill in this way could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant. According to our estimates, this could free up an additional 0.8% of GDP for the average Pacific economy or around $400 million across the region.

The IMF could also expand the total amounts available under its rapid financing windows. The IMF has a trillion-dollar total lending capacity. Many have argued this may not be enough for the current crisis. Yet, as Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, the current risk for the IMF looks more like it could end up lending too little to too few.

A relatively straightforward way for the IMF to get more money out the door would be to simply substantially expand the maximum amounts available under its rapid financing windows. Another option would be for the IMF to issue a new round of Special Drawing Rights, though this has already been raised by many leading figures while the United States has remained opposed at least for now.

Finally, bilateral development partners like Australia could of course do more. Ideally by providing more grants but also via additional loans, if need be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, the US has not offered any alternate.

Going local: Lessons from Covid response in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are African nations putting policing over public health?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 29 March, in the South African township of Vosloorus, 40-year-old Sibusiso Amos was