Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Good government, bad government: The politics of public health

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Popular Tokyo governor eyes a second term, and maybe more

Governor Yuriko Koike on a video screen in Tokyo’s Shibuya district requesting residents to follow Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, 11 April 2020 (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Governor Yuriko Koike on a video screen in Tokyo’s Shibuya district requesting residents to follow Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, 11 April 2020 (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Published 3 Jul 2020 16:04   0 Comments

On Sunday 5 July, Tokyo goes to the quadrennial polls to elect its governor, the position occupied since 2016 by Yuriko Koike, the city’s first female chief executive. Koike is seeking another term and is the leading candidate among 21 others.

The international media typically doesn't pay much attention to local elections in Japan. But Tokyo is no ordinary city. And Koike is no ordinary politician.

The city consistently ranks among the top three in global surveys that measure power, innovation and competitiveness. According to one survey, it is the world’s largest metro economy, with US$1.6 trillion in GDP, just slightly less than all of South Korea.

As Japan’s capital and its financial and business hub, Tokyo is home to some 14 million people, with 11 million eligible voters. If Tokyo were a nation, it would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world. Its low crime, super-efficient transportation system and attraction as a tourist destination make it the envy of many global cities.

Koike was first known as a television news anchor. She joined national politics in the early 1990s, and she later served as Japan’s defence and environment minister in governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), now headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She ran for governor four years ago as an independent and won a landslide victory, defeating her nearest rival from the LDP.

As governor, Koike has led the national government in stopping the spread of Covid-19 and to support residents and businesses, which has won her huge kudos.

Despite the crowded field, all public opinion polls show Koike with a wide lead over her nearest rivals, even though some 20% of voters remain uncommitted.

Unlike in 2016, however, the national ruling coalition has not endorsed any candidate in the race, likely fearing defeat again. Instead, it has tacitly supported Koike, with LDP heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai even publicly appealing to the Tokyo chapter of the party to support Koike.

Japan’s opposition parties have endorsed their own joint candidate, but given their limited political appeal nationally, it is hard to see their candidate offering serious competition to Koike.

One candidate who attracts some attention is Taro Yamamoto, an actor-turned politician and leader of the Reiwa Shinsengumi Party, formed at the time of the 2019 upper house election, in which two of the party’s severely disabled candidates won parliamentary seats. Yamamoto is considered a new force in Japanese politics and is known as “Japan’s Bernie Sanders”. Although some political analysts think he could do well in the election given Koike’s lack of a clear policy plan, his political appeal remains limited.

Taro Yamamoto (right), leader of Reiwa Shinsengumi, celebrates party candidate Eiko Kimura’s win in the upper house election, 22 July 2019 in Tokyo (Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images)

Two issues dominate the election: the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 Olympics, now postponed to 2021.

Tokyo has recorded one-third of the roughly 18,000 coronavirus cases in Japan, and new cases still appear almost daily – although compared to major world cities, the numbers are relatively low. As governor, Koike has led the national government to stop the spread of Covid-19 and to support residents and businesses, which has won her huge kudos.

On the Olympics, some candidates have suggested postponing the games until 2024, or at least until a vaccine or drug is available, while others have even raised the prospect of abandoning the games altogether. Koike, however, remains firm on holding the Olympics in 2021, in a simplified form, given the effort and money that have already been pumped into the event.

While Koike’s re-election is almost certain, the road ahead will not be smooth. She has been criticised for failing to fulfill electoral pledges made in 2016 – whether about Tokyo’s congested transportation, better child-care facilities or eliminating overtime work for Tokyo government employees. It has even been alleged that she acquired a fake degree from Cairo University.

But Koike is a feisty and ambitious political leader, and her eyes are set on national leadership. Prime Minister Abe and his government are not travelling well in public opinion polls, largely due to their slow and confusing response to the pandemic and often clumsy policy implementation, such as in distributing masks or providing financial assistance to households. Corruption and unethical practices within the party have also badly tarnished the Abe administration, most recently with the arrest of a former justice minister and his wife on charges of vote buying.

So while many will be watching closely to see how Koike performs in her expected second term as Tokyo’s governor – particularly in dealing with the pandemic and related matters such as the Olympics – their gaze should also be firmly placed on her political ambitions at a time when the national government is weak and no clear replacement is in sight.

Is Japan ready to replace its longest-serving prime minister with its first female prime minister?

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.

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.

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.

Are African nations putting policing over public health?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The middle power alignment in public attitudes about Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rohingya in Malaysia, doubly trapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are wider factors at play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Caledonia: coronavirus deepens the divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accusations of spying and cyber tricks are already flying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitutional questions over Solomon Islands’ coronavirus crackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 exposes the need for a European constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muddled messages as Britain seeks to stay alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-19 and the acceleration of state surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australians doubt either US or China will emerge stronger after Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published 13 May 2020 14:30   0 Comments

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

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

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

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

Vancouver International Airport (GoToVan/Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s rudderless Covid response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam defies the odds on Covid-19

A woman carries flowers at the Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, 11 May (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman carries flowers at the Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, 11 May (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also noted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

That fear is not a new feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A calculated leak?  – Ben Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is doubt the point? – Natasha Kassam

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus: The end of sexist economics?

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

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

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

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

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

This means:

Focusing on the vulnerability of women

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

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

Focusing on the long-term impact of gendered labour division

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

Focusing on the economic impact of the care burden.

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

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

Addressing the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usually packed trains run empty (Hideya HAMANO/Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foresight and pragmatism missing in Australia’s relations with China

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

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

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

Australian foreign policy should be as pragmatic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For its part, China will fear losing face both domestically and internationally if it backs down. Beijing will likely continue to buy our iron ore and coal out of commercial pragmatism, but it could well issue “travel advisories” to the PRC’s consumers against tourism and study in Australia – there are plenty of other markets they can direct them to. And China’s consumers could easily shun Australian beef, wine and other products, or customs authorities could just delay or reject them when products arrive at the country’s ports. Such actions would do immense and widespread damage to the Australian economy.

To think, all this was avoidable. Logic should have dictated against angering our biggest trading partner when we most need its support to rebuild our economy as we emerge from the coronavirus.

If Beijing previously had Australian relations on ice, expect it to now move us into the diplomatic freezer, at least for a time.

Hopefully, the world will thank us for our sacrifice.

The Taliban makes the most of Covid-19 crisis in Afghanistan

Kabul on lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, 12 April (Abdul Hamid Nasimi/UNAMA/Flickr)
Kabul on lockdown to fight the spread of Covid-19, 12 April (Abdul Hamid Nasimi/UNAMA/Flickr)
Published 27 Apr 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Across the world, non-state entities from terrorist groups to drug cartels are taking steps to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been no exception to the trend. The insurgent group has launched a public-health awareness campaign that both the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and the US State Department have publicly appreciated and welcomed. The Taliban’s response to Covid-19 has been a stark contrast from other terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, who have called Covid-19 a “divine retribution” and have used the opportunity to mount attacks and recruit new followers.

The Taliban has made moves to assist both domestic and international efforts to limit the spread of the virus in areas under its control. First, it declared a ceasefire in its controlled areas if they have been hit the virus outbreak. Second, it is conducting awareness workshops to educate people on how to use gloves and masks, wash hands with soap, and practice social distancing. Third, it has distributed medical equipment, including surgical masks and protective gloves, and also brochures listing health precautions. Fourth, it has set up quarantine centres to isolate those suspected of carrying the virus and testing residents coming from other provinces. Fifth, it has cancelled public events and instructed people to pray at home instead of visiting mosques. Sixth, the Taliban has tapped into technology by sharing images on WhatsApp groups of government health officials in white gowns and masks distributing soap and surgical masks to local residents. Seventh, it has also lifted a ban on the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Red Cross from operating in its territories and guaranteed the security of aid and health workers providing assistance in areas under their control.

With international legitimacy seemingly within the group’s reach, the pandemic could be the moment, bizarrely, where the Taliban transforms itself into a credible political force.

“The Islamic Emirate via its Health Commission assures all international health organizations and WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating the coronavirus,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. The insurgent group has historically targeted healthcare workers, claiming they are agents of the West, so the decision to cooperate with them is a major departure.

Despite the political squabble between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claims to be president of Afghanistan after a disputed election process, the Ghani-led government has implemented some measures, including a lockdown imposed in Kabul and other main cities. It is also building a 100-bed hospital in Herat, along with a few new clinics at district and provincial levels. The administration is running its own awareness campaigns, but there is an insufficient supply of ventilators and protective gear across the country, and on top of that, not all Afghans are able to practice social distancing or work from home, especially daily wage earners.

Remarkably, the pandemic may end up giving the Taliban a moment of glory, both within Afghanistan and internationally. The group has been running a shadow government, parallel to the existing constitutional apparatuses, for almost two decades since its 2001 ouster by the US-led coalition following the 9/11 terror attacks. This “parallel underworld” of public-health policy and strategic messaging – complete with institutional paraphernalia such the General Commission for Public Health responsible for handling Covid-19–related awareness campaigns – is, for the first time, being used in conjunction with national and international efforts. Although the service they offer is pretty basic, and in some cases may amount to nothing more than a few spoken words, it feeds into a patchwork of medical institutions scattered across the country. It also has a propaganda element which, on the one hand, is being used to put down the Kabul government, and, on the other, is reinforcing Taliban control in the 75 districts where it is already in charge.

At its peak, coronavirus may kill 110,000 Afghans, which is more than the number of civilian deaths the 19-year-long conflict has caused. There are concerns about infection among returning Afghans crossing over into the country, as voluntary repatriates and otherwise, through the porous border with Iran, one of the worst-affected countries in the crisis. Covid-19 could easily overwhelm Afghanistan’s fragile healthcare system. Aware of this vulnerability, the Taliban has conveyed its intention to declare a ceasefire in districts under its control where the pandemic hits. The jihad, however, continues in the form of attacks against Afghan forces, with the Taliban spokesperson even suggesting the group is being “compelled” to continue the fight. Such double-dealing is nothing new – if anything, it proves that cooperation with the Afghan government and the international agencies is parenthetical and temporary, and it may make no difference to the intra-Afghan dialogue, which is floundering on the other side of this pandemic.

Nevertheless, the scale of the crisis and the singular attention it is receiving across the world have given the Taliban an opportunity to project itself as a responsible and credible actor. With international legitimacy seemingly within the group’s reach, the pandemic could be the moment, bizarrely, where the Taliban transforms itself into a credible political force. To do that, however, it must go the extra mile and declare a comprehensive ceasefire, as urged by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he called for for an immediate international ceasefire in war-ravaged countries to help civilians receive life-saving aid. Such a move might cause the hardliners and foot-soldiers to defect to the Islamic State-Khorasan, which continues to attack civilians in Afghanistan. But for the Taliban to reverse its political fortunes, and with few compromises to be made in return, this may be the right time to take that first step. That the Taliban has not yet announced its yearly spring offensive might offer some hope. But then again, decisions are undone quickly in Afghanistan.

COVIDcast Episode 8: Covid-19 and the World Health Organisation

Published 24 Apr 2020 11:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Natasha Kassam, Lowy Institute Research Fellow, sat down with Joel Negin to discuss the current controversy surrounding the World Health Organization and its handling of the pandemic. Negin is Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

“We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.”

In the light of the decision by President Donald Trump to freeze funding of the WHO, and calls from some Australian politicians for a review into the organisation, Natasha and Joel discussed the fundamental purpose of the WHO.

Negin noted the WHO’s main role was to help low and middle-income countries to manage a range of health issues. He said that in the context of Covid-19, freezing funding would mean, “the WHO will be less able to ensure testing, to support governments with their own isolation and quarantining, to support health workers in low and middle-income countries in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19”. And he commented, “if the countries in our region have strong health systems, and are able to respond to this outbreak, that will benefit Australia”.

Kassam noted the politicised nature of the organisation and questioned whether China held undue influence. Negin said, “We can lament the fact that the WHO is a political animal but it’s been a political animal from its founding and for most of its history it has been … aligned with Western interests, including Australia’s.” He observed that the United States and Australia have steadily reduced funding of, and engagement with, the organisation over the past decade and that China has filled a power vacuum. He also argued that the WHO had avoided criticising China in the hope of ensuring the country co-operated fully in reporting the outbreak, but this had placed the organisation in an impossible position. Poor decisions such as the exclusion of Taiwan as an observer from the WHO reveal the geopolitical struggles taking place within the body’s membership.

Negin concluded by noting, “every country in the world, every entity in the world, every jurisdiction … has to be involved in the World Health Assembly, in the WHO” and that despite its imperfections, “if we did abolish the WHO we’d need to recreate something that looked remarkably similar”.

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

Europe hasn’t fallen for China – if anything, it’s the opposite

The embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Berlin (bilderkombinat berlin/Flickr)
The embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Berlin (bilderkombinat berlin/Flickr)
Published 23 Apr 2020 07:00   0 Comments

Gains for China’s reputation in Europe from Beijing’s spectacular PR-actions in the fight against the coronavirus will be short-lived. Covid-19 has not shifted the geopolitical landscape between the old European and the new Chinese world.

Serbia’s President Vucic kowtow to Xi Jinping, hailing him as his “brother” afar a shipment of medical goods from China arrived in Belgrade, was rightly dismissed as a bizarre footnote by an European outsider grasping for any lever to force Brussels to deal with him in his quest for European Union membership.

But what about a Chinese plane landing in Rome with much needed help at the height of the medical emergency, at a time many Italians thought “Europe” was abandoning one of EU’s founding members? Or not to be outdone by his autocratic partner and strategic rival in Beijing, the decision by Vladimir Putin to also send Russian military personnel to Italy at about the same time, to help in the decontamination of hospitals in the worst affected province of Lombardy. The intended message? China and Russia helped, but not the EU. No wonder some pointed to alarming decrease in “Europaness” within the Italian population.

But this was no more than a blip, and the perception was wrong. Germany and France together donated, as opposed to sold, more medical equipment to Italy than China. If anybody will, Europe will save Italy medically, let alone economically.  

In the real world, the EU had sent medical support to help the Chinese government in the containment of the virus, when in February Beijing finally owned up to the seriousness of the crisis and its international consequences. And without making a geopolitical spectacle out of it. This was contrary to the Chinese attempt to depict Beijing as benevolent donor, disbursing assistance anywhere in the world, and, of course, especially in the proud European nation from where Marco Polo once started Western interest and following subjugation of China.

Over the top Chinese playacting as global leader in pandemic times, disbursing local advice and highlighting the failure of others, has backfired elsewhere in Europe, too. An example was an alarmist Twitter message by the Chinese Embassy in Paris claiming abandonment of the elderly in French old age homes.

Officials from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control with Italian counterparts in February (European Union/Flickr)

One line of assessment from the crisis claims the outbreak has shown the weakness of decentralised structures in China and thus cemented the authority of Xi’s role as the embodiment of a strong party. European countries, by and large, are decentralised. Italy is no exception. But the lessons of the crisis, with regard to China and Europe, are read differently in Europe.

From a European vantage point, China’s decentralisation is regarded as insincere, insofar as locals are mere underlings with no sense of civic responsibility other than reverence to the centre. The opposite is the case in decentralised Western democracies. Local structures in Europe, for example, respond quicker and better to local demands than the national centre. They are also supposed to feed local needs and evaluations to the central government so the latter can shape its national policy accordingly. The strikingly different performance of the two neighbouring Italian provinces of Lombardy – Europe’s initial Covid-19 disaster zone – and Veneto – which had an early and successful fight against the virus – was caused by erroneous initial decisions from the provincial government in Milan, led by the far-right party Lega. The Italian justice system has already been activated to determine whether such decisions should be subject to prosecution.

The real test globally will be who does what to fight off the global economic recession caused by the virus.

The cause of real concern in Europe, however, is the prospect of takeover of companies weakened by the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19. Internally, companies given equity injections by EU member states will not be able to buy up others while repaying the state. But the real worry is foreign, especially Chinese takeover of financially embattled companies in Europe. Of the 27 EU members, 14 already FDI screening mechanism in place, and all members have received guidelines from Brussels to step up controls of FDI and large portfolio investments.

But of course, the real test globally will be who does what to fight off the global economic recession caused by the virus. Countries and continents will be the judged by the effect of respective financial and fiscal measures for producers and consumers alike.

China, who has provided a gigantic stimulus to keep the global economy humming after the 2008 financial crisis, will not be able to repeat the same performance, so says the unanimous opinion of experts. Beijing has therefore bet on early resumption of its enormous producing capacities.

The EU institutions and the European states on their side have thrown overboard all their previous rules of fiscal prudence in a concentrated effort to prop up demand and supply. The aim is to cement the place of the European internal market as one of the three largest economies of the world.

Such efforts will be decided by size and effect. But it’s nothing so simple as to declare the geopolitical landscape has shifted in favour of China by the pandemic, however spectacular its PR antics.

Safety of life at sea: Covid‑19 and naval operations

T flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while at port in Guam as crew are treated for Covid-19 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
T flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while at port in Guam as crew are treated for Covid-19 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 20 Apr 2020 17:00   0 Comments

The potential impact of Covid-19 on naval operations has been highlighted by reports that over half of the 2,000-plus sailors aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle have tested positive for COVID-19. The ship left a NATO exercise ten days early and returned to port in Toulon to allow disembarkation of sick crew members and sanitising. 

The US Navy has experienced similar challenges with outbreaks of varying size on four carriers – the USS Ronald Reagan (at Yokosuka), USS Nimitz (at Bremerton), USS Carl Vinson (at Bremerton), and USS Theodore Roosevelt in port at Guam. The outbreak of Covid-19 onboard the Theodore Roosevelt with more than 600 confirmed cases and one sailor dying had major repercussions throughout the upper echelons of the US Navy. The ships’ captain was sacked by the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, after he had written an open letter querying the Navy’s handling of the situation onboard his ship. This was despite the Chief of Naval Operations arguing against the captain’s sacking.

Subsequently Modly resigned himself after a recording of his clumsy and tactless speech to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt was made public. In another instance of his lack of credibility within the US Navy, senior naval officials also reversed other decisions made by him before his resignation. All this deepened upheaval in leadership of the US Navy – Modly’s predecessor had been fired over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct after the SEAL had been supported by President Donald Trump.

USS Theodore Roosevelt at anchor in Guam as crew recover from Covid-19 and the ship is disinfected (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

While the US Navy has denied that Covid-19 is having any major impact on its ability to conduct operations, this ability is coming at the expense of limitations on crew liberty and associated morale problems. It has taken the extraordinary step of keeping the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group at sea in the Atlantic rather than making a planned return to base in Newport in a move to keep the crews of the carrier, its escorts and air wing healthy and ready for any surge in the need for military operations. The last liberty for these crews was in Oman in late February. Meanwhile in the Pacific, the crews of carrier USS Nimitz, its escorts and air wing are nearing the end of a 14-day isolation period before heading to sea for pre-deployment training. In order to control the spread of the virus, the ships may not subsequently come back into port before leaving for their planned deployment.

Cruise liners have attracted most attention recently with their propensity for disease to spread rapidly onboard. However, the crews of warships are even more vulnerable than people on a cruise liner. They mostly live in cramped mess decks and work closely together in operations rooms, bridges, and the other confined spaces of a warship. Submarines are particularly vulnerable. A Dutch navy submarine recently broke off a mission in the North Sea and returned to base after several members of its crew were diagnosed with coronavirus.

The crews of warships are even more vulnerable than people on a cruise liner. They mostly live in cramped mess decks and work closely together in operations rooms, bridges, and the other confined spaces.

Naval exercises are being heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indian military is postponing all joint exercises it was scheduled to hold with foreign militaries this year because of the crisis. The Indian Navy had previously cancelled this year’s Exercise MILAN, which had been scheduled for late March and would have brought together ships and representatives from most regional navies with the notable exceptions of its potential adversaries, China, and Pakistan.

Similarly, Australia has cancelled its biggest Army exercise for the year, the biennial Exercise Hamel, and will not send troops to this year’s US Indo Pacific Command’s flagship biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. In any case it’s increasingly likely that this large exercise, which was scheduled to bring together 25 regional nations and 25,000 personnel in July, will not proceed.

Naval exercises are an integral part of any navy’s annual program but the benefits are easily overstated, particularly in the case of large scale international exercises such as MILAN and RIMPAC. These exercises are also non-essential in the sense that any diplomatic fall-out as a result of their cancellation is unlikely – all potential participants have a common interest in their cancellation.

The main benefits of exercises, such as MILAN and RIMPAC, are largely rhetorical, lying in their contribution to maritime confidence-building and cooperation in basic naval activities, such as underway replenishment, other fundamental seamanship exercises, and officer-of-the watch manoeuvres, rather than in any purposeful advanced tactical operations. Security restrictions prevent these operations being carried out in exercises other than those between closely allied navies, such as the Royal Australian Navy and US Navy.

Arguably there are only a limited number of essential naval operations that should now proceed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. These might include operational requirements, such as support for border protection or those currently underway in the Middle East, and vital exercises, mainly at a national level, to maintain operational readiness. But ultimately there must be trade-offs between operational readiness and the risks of sickness and death among ships’ crews, and between essential and non-essential activities. As the sacked Captain of the Theodore Roosevelt observed, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”

The vanishing hegemon

The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 20 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Has the corona crisis already changed the world? Many people certainly seem to think so. From doomsday prognoses of a collapse into a bio-authoritarian dystopia to cheerful visions of a rejuvenated benevolent state, commentators the world over have already identified 2020 as the date on which a new world was born.

Needless to say, the midst of a crisis is hardly the optimal vantage point from which to enjoy a synoptic historical view over the events that rage outside. Even as restrictions are being cautiously loosened, we seem to stand only at the end of the beginning of this story. Coronavirus has already left mountains of economic wreckage in its wake, even while vast swathes of the globe still await the full force of the virus’ first wave.

What is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit.

But the verdicts are already being written. In recent weeks, Western critics have penned multiple obituaries for the world we have known since 1945. Globalisation, some have argued, has passed its tipping point. Liberalism is a spent force, democracy all the more so. The sheer impotence of international institutions has been exposed. China has fully arrived. And the United States – now the epicentre of virus outbreaks – has proved itself unwilling and incapable of coordinating any kind of global response: a confirmation of its deteriorating capacities both at home and abroad. The corona crisis, so runs this view, has accelerated the advent of a world that is at once terrifyingly novel and uncannily familiar: novel because it is multipolar and uncertain, but familiar because it seems to play on old motifs of nations, big states, borders, self-sufficiency and paranoia about outsiders.

And nothing demonstrates this state of affairs more forcefully than Washington’s response. One does not have to search far in this crisis to find pronouncements of a “post-American world”. Few, I suspect, would dispute that the pandemic has – whether to a greater or lesser extent – exposed the diminishing global influence of the United States.

Donald Trump’s proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only” (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)


To be sure, this is evidently not a concern for Donald Trump himself, whose proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only”. But it does reveal the weakening grip that Trump’s America holds on the global imagination. After all, what is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit. In this respect, at least, the crisis has not changed the world: it has simply revealed some sobering truths.

Not all have been so hasty to write off the United States. For all of Trump’s apparent indifference to his country’s global image, the United States retains unparalleled reserves of global power. The numbers alone tell a remarkable story: American unemployment figures are rivalled in their unfathomable vastness by the sums of the government’s relief package and the Federal Reserve’s “booster shot” loan guarantee program. As Adam Tooze recently put it in the London Review of Books:

What we are witnessing in the American response to the crisis … is the gulf between the competence of the American government machine in managing global finance and the Punch and Judy show of its politics.

Be that as it may, this gulf between politics and power is nevertheless of vital importance to how the world will look in the coming years. America’s pretence (if not the reality) of moral leadership was always vital to its hegemonic position in the old world order. But, with Trump, the age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past, and it is exceptionally difficult to see how it might ever be reconstituted.

This shift did not begin with Trump, but he is every bit its embodiment. One’s mind is drawn back to a particular moment during the 2016 US presidential election, when Trump, questioned about his apparent ambivalence to the “killer”, Vladimir Putin, shot back with a case of whataboutery unprecedented for an American political leader: “There are a lot of killers”, Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?” In two sentences, Trump unapologetically renounced that uniquely American sense of moral purpose in the world that had defined the rhetoric of every president since the Second World War. Four years on, the United States might still be the world’s dominant power – but it has become increasingly evident that this is altogether different from being its “leader”.

Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

Shifts that have been taking place for some years are being exposed and accelerated as the pandemic spreads. For now, at least, the corona crisis is a public health crisis combined with an economic one and bound to generate transformative consequences in the political sphere as well. But it is not simply an event or an emergency. It is an unfolding process that is exposing in ever-starker ways the deep stress fractures in our global systems. It has told us much more about the recent past than it has about the future.

The reason for this is that the pandemic has not offered us a single narrative to tell. One can perhaps best visualise this global moment as the intersecting point between two temporal arcs: one showing the recursive, even cyclical time of politics, defined by the triumphant resurgence of nations and borders, the resuscitation of the muscular state, and the flexing of old-fashioned geopolitical rivalries; the other marked by the radical acceleration of global connectivity in science, in digital and surveillance technologies and – not least – in disease transmission itself. Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

A pandemic was always a likely trigger for a “crisis of globalisation”. But is this really what we are witnessing? “Globalisation” was always a difficult – if not impossible – idea to pin down. It has been rethought and reconceptualised many times over. We would be making a fundamental error to assume that a hyper-connected world must necessarily be an American one. When we emerge from this phase in however many months’ time, the world we enter will be no less global and no less connected: but it may well be less American.

New Zealand: Life under lockdown and the view of outside

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to make further announcements around restrictions on Monday (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to make further announcements around restrictions on Monday (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Published 17 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Where are we in the fourth week of lockdown in New Zealand?

The borders are sealed. As I was writing this, the Flight Radar 24 app had only two domestic flights taking place across the entire country. There were no outbound international flights, and only three aircraft heading in.

The government has released further details of its economic support package. Another NZ$4 billion added to the ledger: $24 billion in total, and more to come.

And the chances of easing the lockout to permit a return to a minimum level of economic activity – outside the essential industries – is still being weighed up. A decision will come on Monday, 20 April.

But, so far, morale remains good, and the occasions of civil disobedience remain few and far between.

More important, however, is the question, what have we learnt this far?

Ardern has made it clear that New Zealand’s external borders will be very tightly managed for the next year at least.

First, every country is facing a choice between managing the health risk and managing the economic risk. It is clear that there is no simple nor speedy trade-off. “Putting the economy into hibernation” or “getting the place ready to go” are variations on the same theme. There seems to be no one answer. In New Zealand the emphasis is on getting the country healthy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in her press conference on Thursday: “Get the health right first.”

International trade is critical to economic stability, and it is not clear how long markets will hold up, so getting export industries operating smoothly will be a priority.

Second, state intervention is back in vogue. The economy might be global, but health is local. Citizens expect a response from governments. Nowhere is there an example of handing the management of this crisis to the private sector. This is a big change, particularly in liberal Western democracies. It has consequences.

Already over the last five years or so, we have seen a rise in nationalism. Now it is accentuated. This will lead to xenophobia if governments and leaders are not careful. And that pressure will rise if governments do not manage the Covid-19 crisis in a way that meets their citizens’ expectations.

An empty street in Christchurch, New Zealand (Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


Third, we are heading into a global recession. The data are there for all to see. Production down in many sectors of the economy. Unemployment up. Consumption slumping. Companies failing. Investment across borders looking shakier (and running into the nationalist factor mentioned above). Protectionism in both trade and investment are increasing around the globe.

Everyone is looking to see how Chinas economy picks up, and how that flows through the global economy. A glimmer of light there would be helpful, as the World Trade Organisation predicts a drop of 13–32% in global trade in 2020. But it’s not a panacea.

One example is particularly clear. International travel as we knew it in 2019 is dead. The World Travel Organisation, an agency of the UN, says that in 2019 there were across the globe 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals. We are not going to see that number again for the next few years. The industry globally is on life support. And until there is a vaccine which is universally available and administered, governments are going to be very cautious about who crosses their borders. Arden has made it clear that New Zealand’s external borders will be very tightly managed for the next year at least.

International cooperation is a big challenge. One case for hope is that the response in the medical sector – among those who will find the vaccine to control this virus, is a developing international effort. That at least should give us some comfort.

But in other areas, there is not that much on offer. Even the European Union, which prides itself on its ability to operate over 27 member countries, is finding it really hard to keep that sense of union.

And we have hardly started to respond to the needs of the developing world where risks of the virus spreading and taking hold are greater. For Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific will be the first area of concern.

The immediate need is for coalitions of the willing. Those countries which can identify initiatives which bring some positives to the international situation should be working with others that think the same.

There are signs that this is happening. Australia and New Zealand came to a workable solution to allow the transit on evacuation flights of their respective nationals from third countries. Canada, Australia, Brunei, Myanmar, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore have committed to keeping supply chains open and removing restrictions on the supply of essential goods, especially medical supplies. New Zealand and Singapore have pushed that further inviting other countries to join this initiative with a particular focus on Covid-19 related medical supply chains.

These are limited glimmers of light in a dark landscape. At this stage in the global response to Covid-19 it is good they are visible. Encouraging this sort of initiative in other jurisdictions and across other trade agreements is obviously a message that New Zealand and Australia will continue to push.

But we have a long way to go.

A decisive month for Covid-19 in Myanmar – and region beyond

Checking the temperatures of Myanmar fisherman on the Thai border (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Checking the temperatures of Myanmar fisherman on the Thai border (Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 16 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As Thailand shut down its border last month, a wave of migrant workers jostled shoulder-to-shoulder back through the Myawaddy crossing to Myanmar. Some 45,498 Myawaddy migrant workers have reportedly been placed in quarantine – a total of 50,731 people were in isolation as of this week. But the effectiveness of the measures has been questioned. Concern grows that this may be Myanmar’s cruise-ship moment, but it is only one of a growing number.

According to the latest figures, the country had 62 confirmed Covid-19 patients and four deaths, the results compiled from more than 2100 tests. Recent cases suggest that some undetected community spread may also be occurring. The donation last week of a testing machine increases Myanmar’s testing capacity from 80 per day to 1400 – reliant still on obtaining enough reagents to conduct the tests. Doubt remains around these case counts and the real number of current cases won’t be known for at least two weeks.  

The Ministry of Health and Sport’s capacity for a pandemic has significantly improved in recent years. Myanmar was ranked seven (out of 11) Southeast Asian states in a recent pandemic preparedness index. In 2017, Naypyidaw invited the World Health Organization to conduct a joint external evaluation, a voluntary multi-sectoral process assessing public health emergency preparedness. Much of the capacity built since is around readiness to tackle seasonal vector borne disease outbreaks, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. This knowledge and architecture for communicable disease response will be useful during the current response.

There is already a high prevalence in the country of cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Preliminary research suggests these are associated with more severe forms of Covid-19.

Despite these improvements, Myanmar has the odds stacked against it in this pandemic.

The presence of several risk factors for severe disease or death from Covid-19 are not encouraging. There is already a high prevalence of cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Preliminary research suggests these are associated with more severe forms of Covid-19. The high rate of current smokers in the country – 43.8% among men aged 25-64 years old – is also cause for concern with similar associations with more severe forms of the disease indicated.

High rates of poverty and vulnerability are also concerning. Inequality is rife, not the least for the hundreds of thousands of precariously placed internally displaced persons and the 58% of the population living below or near the poverty line. Even before health system weakness or other factors are considered, these alone could make the case fatality rate higher in Myanmar. (One saving grace may be that Myanmar’s average age is 28 – older age is a strong risk factor for severe disease.)

Other worries abound. The health system remains weak and ill-prepared for this crisis. Bed capacity is limited. There are an estimated 600 critical care beds and 330 ICU beds (1.1/100,000 population) – the real operational number may be less. Other indicators may weaken an efficient response. Out of pocket expenditure on healthcare remains high at 76% of payments made at point of care, the highest in the region. This high cost of health care may mean people don’t seek healthcare and remain infectious in the community for longer, or wait too late to seek care and have more severe disease. These are but a few examples, but weakness in the health system will be exacerbated during the crisis.

The timing of the disease could also multiply its impact. The disease outbreak came just ahead of the Thingyan New Year celebration which runs through much of April. This is a period of increased mobility when people travel back to family and friends gather. Attempts have been made to curb such movements. Whether they are effective won’t be known until the end of the month. Following these celebrations, is monsoon season, when flooding and disasters are common, and vector borne disease, such as dengue increase.

Members of a Chinese medical expert team set out to Myanmar on 8 April from Kunming, China (Liu Ranyang/China News Service via Getty Images)

Complicating Naypyidaw’s response is that health governance is fractured in contested areas, with several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) running their own health services. These are supported by external actors, such as in Wa state, by Chinese state and non-state actors. They differ greatly in their capacity but are often poorly equipped. The immediate impacts aside, this crisis may see them become further decentralised through the support of external aid – the geopolitical impacts of which would be significant. For example, Chinese state actors may broaden their support in disenfranchised border communities in Myanmar in an attempt to build a second line of health security defence, this would rile Naypyidaw and have significant implications on ongoing conflict.

The reality is that areas controlled by EAOs will struggle to respond to the disease. Many of these communities and other vulnerable areas across the country could be hardest hit – particularly where healthcare is provided by humanitarian actors now running reduced programs. That will worry Naypyidaw and could draw muscular rather than cooperative response. 

Acknowledging the ongoing debate in the country, there is a chance that Myanmar may avoid the experience of Wuhan, Italy, or the United States. Thus far, reported case numbers remain comparatively low across Southeast Asia. This may be for one or several reasons including poor testing regimes or lower Covid-19 transmissibility in tropical climates.

Indeed, the response needs to fit the context. An extended European-style lockdown could be more damaging for the country than a more tailored response. In the short-term, however, particularly given the movement normally seen during this month’s New Year celebrations, measures that apply an abundance of caution are warranted and may mean a much shorter period of lockdown. 

Even if that most fortunate of cases is true, it may only be short-lived. The country needs to continue to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Myanmar is a crucial battleground to get ahead of Covid-19. Nestled between India, China and Bangladesh, or half the world’s population, and with porous borders, its ability to control an outbreak could have wider regional ramifications. Its success will be the regions.

Covid-19: Why did global health governance fail?

World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva (United States Mission Geneva/Flickr)
World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva (United States Mission Geneva/Flickr)
Published 15 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

The system that has been developed to provide a global response to epidemics and pandemics has failed miserably. Covid-19 has spread all over the world, shutting down entire countries. Governments, and even subnational governments, are now competing fiercely for scarce medical stocks, while critical supply chains have been disrupted due to governmental export restrictions. The World Health Organization, global health governance’s centrepiece, has been sidelined, with US President Donald Trump now moving to withdraw all American funding to the WHO on 14 April 2020. How did we get here?

To explain global health governance’s failure today, it is important to first describe what it looked like before Covid-19.

Some form of international health governance has existed since at least the cholera outbreaks in mid-19th century Europe. But it was only after the Serious Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002–03 that global governance mechanisms for addressing epidemics emerged.

Hitherto, international regulations were fairly limited. They focused on managing international borders – airports, ports, and border checkpoints – and only required governments to monitor the spread of a small number of infectious diseases.

Rather than China somehow infiltrating the WHO, its behaviour was typical for this weak and subservient organisation, long accustomed to kowtowing to its main funders.

During the SARS crisis, which caused 774 deaths and an estimated US$40 billion hit to the global economy, pre-existing governance mechanisms were deemed inadequate given the rapid global spread of the virus. Ad hoc changes were made during the crisis in 2003. The WHO was authorised to issue travel warnings without first receiving approval from the relevant government. It was also allowed to seek information from non-official sources to augment its disease surveillance capacities.

In 2005, the revised International Health Regulations were born. The WHO’s independent disease surveillance capacities were formalised and it was authorised to issue Public Health Emergency of International Concern alerts, based on both official and non-official information. Another major focus of the IHRs was transforming domestic health systems and networking them across borders in the fight against infectious disease. The WHO was given an important role in this area, too. It was given the job of issuing “best practice” guidelines to national and subnational authorities, and monitoring national health systems’ pandemic preparedness.

Global health governance therefore operated, not through supranationalism, but the transformation and networking of domestic administrations across borders.   

Two main elements of this global health governance system combined to lead to its subsequent failure during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Decontamination of public places in Bamako, Mali, in response to the Covid-19 outbreak (Harandane Dicko/UN Photo)

The first is the WHO’s central role in disease surveillance and response coordination. The WHO was simply not fit for this purpose. This stems from its subservience to major funding states, which dates back to the 1970s.

Like many international organisations in the United Nations system, the WHO was born before the great wave of decolonisation that swept the globe in the 1950s and 1960s. Decolonisation greatly swelled the number of developing countries among its ranks. And as in other UN bodies, in the 1970s postcolonial states began to see the WHO as an avenue for pursuing their claims for a more just New International Economic Order.

In September 1978, in Alma Ata (now Almaty), then in Soviet Kazakhstan, “third world” and communist member-states pushed through a World Health Assembly declaration calling for a “health for all” agenda. The Alma Ata Declaration described health as a human right and a socio-economic issue and drew attention to the deep health inequalities that existed between developed and developing countries.

Although developed countries signed the Declaration, they were deeply concerned about potential redistributive demands. Consequently, the WHO was largely defunded by its main funders, the Unites States and Western European countries. The majority of health aid for developing countries was rerouted via the World Bank, where it became part of the Bank’s growing structural adjustment agenda. The WHO’s operational budget was cut to skimpy levels, and contributing states instead shifted to voluntary and project-based funding to ensure the WHO pursued their preferred objectives. By the 2000s, donors directly controlled around 80% of the WHO’s budget. Today, the WHO’s total annual budget is around $5.6 billion. By comparison, the Australian federal health budget for 2019–20 was $120 billion, and even bigger if the states’ budget is included.  

Unsurprisingly, this has had the effect of limiting the WHO’s capacity, as well as making it highly responsive to its main funding states, thus jeopardising its independence. The composition of the WHO’s main donors has changed, however, since 1978. China, which was then only beginning its extraordinary economic rise, is currently the third-biggest provider of compulsory, “assessed”, contributions to the WHO, though it will become the second-biggest after the withdrawal of the US’s contribution. Although it is not a major contributor of voluntary funding at the moment, China is an increasingly important player within the wider UN system, with huge potential to contribute more down the track.

Liberia’s last Ebola patient receives a certificate in 2015 confirming she survived the virus at the Chinese Ebola treatment unit in Monrovia as part of a UN response supported by the WHO (UNMEER/Flickr)

A second important aspect of global health governance pre-Covid-19 was its operation through domestic state institutions. The underlying assumption was that infectious diseases are likely to emerge in developing countries, due to their poor sanitation and governance capacities, then spread to other parts of the world. Although very limited financial support was available to help developing countries build up their domestic health systems, they were subjected to ongoing surveillance by the WHO and developed countries.

When disease outbreaks occurred, developed countries provided funding and intervened temporarily to address the immediate problem. This funding would eventually dry out as the outbreak was deemed to have been brought under control. Other than such intermittent interventions, which did little to build up primary health capacity in their recipient states, countries were largely supposed to use their own resources towards pandemic preparedness. Thus, very limited collective capacities had emerged, even within the European Union.

These factors combined to create a spectacular global health governance failure after the emergence of Covid-19.

Instead of emerging in an impoverished developing country, which could be easily subjected to international surveillance and response, the coronavirus appeared in China. China’s cover up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan and the WHO’s full endorsement of the Chinese government’s statements have been widely commented upon. Most notorious were the WHO’s uncritical reiteration of China’s claims in mid-January 2020 that no human-to-human transmission had occurred in Wuhan, and the organisation’s support for Chinese efforts to prevent states from hitting China with travel restrictions. But contrary to some commentators, and Trump, rather than China somehow infiltrating the WHO, this behaviour was typical for this weak and subservient organisation, long accustomed to kowtowing to its main funders.

A USAID Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance funded Ebola treatment unit in Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, 2015 as part of a UN response supported by the WHO (UNMEER/Flickr)

From China the disease spread to developed countries. 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.

The global system for addressing infectious disease outbreaks that emerged before Covid-19 was clearly not fit for purpose. Despite the turn away from global governance in recent years, there is no escaping the need to develop more durable, equitable and better funded forms of cross-border cooperation to address the ever-present threat of pandemics. A good place to start would be to revisit the “health for all” agenda of the 1970s.

Why 15 countries still haven’t reported any cases of Covid-19

The virus warnings are everywhere, yet in some places it is apparently nowhere (Tim Dennell/Flickr)
The virus warnings are everywhere, yet in some places it is apparently nowhere (Tim Dennell/Flickr)
Published 14 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

From its origins in Wuhan mere months ago, Covid-19 has literally travelled as far around the world as possible. On the other side of the globe, Wuhan’s antipodal point sits in Córdoba Province, Argentina, which recorded three deaths from the virus in early April. The number of countries with coronavirus cases easily outweighs the number without.

As epidemiologists’ world maps become increasingly blotched with the growing number of infections, those rare unblemished areas stand out all the more. How can there be 15 UN member states without confirmed coronavirus cases?

Screenshot of the Covid-19 dashboard displaying the global spread of the virus from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

For some, geographic isolation and pre-emptive border controls have helped. Others are victims of repressive domestic leadership – downplaying the extent of the crisis to project success – or political deadlocks that distract from testing.

With so few states recording no positive cases, examining some of the local politics and policies helps to explain what is either limited transmission or creating dangerous uncertainty around actual case numbers.

Southern Africa

The Comoros is a small, seldom-visited Indian Ocean archipelago. The World Health Organization is active in the country, assisting the government to check for symptoms in Chinese visitors since January. On 17 March, President Azali Assoumani introduced restrictions on event sizes and quarantine measures. Nine days later, he added the closure of all mosques, no mean feat in the Muslim-majority nation. By early April, around 250 Comorians had been quarantined, and only people displaying symptoms were being tested. One Comorian doctor suggested widespread use of anti-malarial drugs contributed to the country’s resilience.

Also reporting zero cases is Lesotho, home to two million people enclaved within South Africa, despite hundreds of cases in neighbouring South African provinces. The country’s parliament has been in turmoil since February, when Prime Minister Tom Thabane was charged for murdering his first wife. Lesotho’s embattled government barely addressed Covid-19 until 10 March, announcing the cessation of foreign trade, with closure of non-essential services following a week later. By late March, the government announced several suspected cases – one of whom reportedly died before test results were known - although the latest figures still indicate zero positive cases. Despite Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 test kits, Lesotho may lack compatible equipment to operate them.

Pacific Islands

The small island developing states of the South Pacific are among the world’s most isolated countries, yet given their lack of health infrastructure and intensive care units, an outbreak of Covid-19 could place them under enormous strain. Fortunately, 10 such countries are still yet to report any cases.

Kiribati and the Freely Associated States (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau) announced restrictions on immigration and travel from China in the early stages of the spread of the virus. By March and April, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu implemented stringent measures on air and water travel from “high-risk countries”.

In spite of the immediate reaction of the Pacific Islands, the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Harold has led to the easing of rules of social distancing and isolation.

North Korea

Easily the most populous country on this list, and the closest to Wuhan, North Korea claims to be completely free of Covid-19 cases. While the country’s pariah status may strengthen this claim, China provides a well-documented lifeline for trade and tourism, prompting an early response as North Korean tour operators banned foreign tourists on 22 January. A state emergency was declared one week later, including a one-month quarantine period for anyone entering from China. Thousands were “forcibly” quarantined in subsequent weeks.

Several of these countries have high levels of corruption, and would rather withhold data than be perceived as incapable of handling the outbreak within their sovereign borders.

Even as Kim Jong-un called for further testing and travel restrictions, he continued to report zero positive cases. Kim’s authoritarian regime affords him much control over the narrative, letting him conceal the extent of any outbreak from international audiences. Despite unconfirmed reports that hundreds of North Korean soldiers died from Covid-19, Kim attempts to assert invulnerability.

In March he sent well wishes to virus-plagued South Korea and resumed launching missiles into the Sea of Japan. As recently as 7 April, North Korea reported to the WHO that Covid-19 testing in the country is ongoing, with 500 people in quarantine, and over 700 negative test results. Experts doubt this purported immunity, fearing the pandemic may exacerbate North Korea’s extreme poverty.

Central Asia

Ranking at 153 and 165 for levels of corruption, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have hardly been frank with their respective populations on the matter of Covid-19. The severity of the virus has been diluted in official Tajik and Turkmen government statements and media outlets. This is evident in Tajikistan’s refusal to halt the Tajikistan Football League, despite major football leagues, such as the English Football League, Premier League, and UEFA being cancelled.

In Turkmenistan, individuals have been arrested for openly talking about the virus and it is illegal to wear masks in public. The government has gone a step further in removing any reference to coronavirus from health pamphlets, schools, universities, offices, and hospitals. In spite of all the efforts of the Turkmen government denying any cases of Covid-19, it is clear that there have been some restrictions put in place at the local level. These include checkpoints along highways and mandatory checks of temperatures of people taking public transportation. This could be an indication that two individuals who were put in quarantine in March potentially contracted Covid-19. However, the Turkmen government continues to deny any reports indicating otherwise.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan (leiris202/Flickr)

Despite these 15 UN member states reporting no outbreak of COVID-19, this statistic likely downplays the true extent of the pandemic.

Several of these countries have high levels of corruption, and would rather withhold data than be perceived as incapable of handling the outbreak within their sovereign borders.

Small islands that implemented strict travel restrictions have a stronger claim to being coronavirus-free. However, these countries are more susceptible to community spread of the virus as a result of poor health infrastructures – their difficulties with accessing and operating testing equipment remain a cause for concern.

Coronavirus will not dominate elections in South Korea this week

Early voting at a polling station in Seoul on 10 April ahead of next week's parliamentary elections (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)
Early voting at a polling station in Seoul on 10 April ahead of next week's parliamentary elections (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 13 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

On Wednesday 15 April, South Korea will hold legislative elections. South Korea’s parliament, the National Assembly, is elected every four* years. Composed of 300 members, it has 253 single-member district seats and 47 proportional representation seats.

The Landscape

The left currently holds a slim majority, but the distribution of power is fluid. South Korea’s political party landscape is fragmented. Fifty-one parties are running for office in this election. Most of them are minor, of course, but the proportional representation seats are a constant temptation for the formation of off-shoot and splinter parties. There are enough proportional representation seats to inhibit the “natural” outcome of Duverger’s Law: South Korea has a rough two-party system, but it has never durably congealed. Small parties continue to crop up and get elected.

Further, those parties in the legislature do not cooperate especially well. South Korea’s leftist president, Moon Jae-in, has not been able to rely on a firm center-left coalition. As in typical in presidential systems, where the legislature is elected independently of the executive, legislators are loath to simply line up behind the executive as in a parliamentary system. The South Korean left is traditionally fractious.

Moon Jae-in’s party is riding high in responding to coronavirus but that tells little of policy plans for the coming term (KoreaNet/Flickr) 

A splintering of the South Korean right has added yet more alignment problems. Normally more disciplined, the right-wing bloc shattered over the impeachment of South Korea’s previous president, Park Geun-Hye. Park, a conservative, remains a divisive topic. Dead-enders refuse to accept her removal as constitutionally proper – a common theme in far-right discourse here is that she was pushed out in a semi-coup. The main right-wing party has changed its name for the fourth time in 10 years in an effort to move on from Park.

The upshot is that both right and left are fractured. Each side has one large-ish party aspiring, and failing, to be a big-tent party – the Democratic Party on the left, and United Future Party on the right. Scattered around them are splinter parties who refuse to formally adjoin to the aspiring big tent leader. These dynamics do not appear to be changing in this election. Moon will likely not emerge with a clear, coherent bloc at his back, but will also likely not face a united opposition.

The “corona election”

The big issue of the election is obviously coronavirus, but not as much as you would think, thankfully. And here is a lesson for other democracies as they struggle to reconcile Covid-19 with elections: if you can get your outbreak under control – South Korea has been a world leader in this – it need not take over the entire political agenda, nor need it make the physical act of voting treacherous.

Here the world’s oldest democracy particularly has a lot to learn. This is a presidential election year in the US. There are both primary elections in the spring and a general election in the autumn months. There is a wide-ranging debate in the US now about how to conduct those elections. Should they be postposed? Is that even legal? Should citizens vote by mail to avoid standing in line and contaminating each other? Because the US has responded so poorly to the virus, Covid-19 is now overwhelming the voting process itself.

It is also clear in the US that coronavirus will be the dominant issue of the campaign. US President Donald Trump will be measured by how this unfolds, particularly by the state of economy in the latter months of the year, the duration of the lock-downs, and continuing fatalities. The sluggish US response elevated Covid-19, and the response to it, to the foremost political issue of the election.

South Korea – quite impressively, it must be said – forestalled both of these outcomes. There is nothing at all here like the debacle in the US state Wisconsin, where the US Supreme Court refused to permit overdue mail-in ballots, forcing voters to wait in line to vote and violate social distancing rules. And while it will obviously be the “corona election” in South Korea too, other issues have received attention, too. Normal concerns, such as the economy or North Korea, have not been completely driven from the media debate.

A “walk-through” screening center at Namyangju City Hall, Namyangju-si, Gyeonggi-do (Kim sun joo/KoreaNet/Flickr)

The outcome

The polls have given Moon’s Democrats a pretty solid lead. This is almost certainly because of the superb response to the virus. South Korea’s daily new case load is now below 50. One can already see widespread signs of de-constriction. My son’s kindergarten has re-opened. High schools are scheduled to re-open this week and universities by the end of the month. Compared to the rest of the world, especially the US, this is simply remarkable. Moon deserves enormous credit for this, and it will likely power a leftist victory.

There is a political or ideological problem here though. A vigorous response to coronavirus is not a policy proposal in the traditional sense, so the Democrats’ likely win will tell us little about what they will do. The answer is almost certainly a continuation of Moon’s previous policies – an expansion of the welfare state, more social spending, and most importantly, continued outreach to North Korea. But this is not really what the voters are voting for in affirming Moon’s excellent handling of the outbreak.

Another missing referendum on North Korea detente

North Korea policy strikes me as particularly troublesome in this regard. This will be second election involving Moon where North Korea is scarcely an issue, even though it has come to dominate Moon’s presidency. Moon has also balked at sending his various joint statements with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the National Assembly for any kind of vote. (Moon’s administration has argued that these are not treaties and therefore are exempt.)

My own hope had been that his election would be a referendum on North Korea détente. 2017 was not that, as Moon scarcely mentioned it, nor has the National Assembly been given a chance to vote on anything regarding the policy. And now coronavirus will again change the subject.

This is slippery. Moon won election in 2017 on the back of popular disgust with the right over the Park impeachment. Unsurprisingly, Moon campaigned back then on transparency, accountability, inequality, strengthening democracy, and so on. And while he has pursued a fairly standard social democratic economic line at home, he also initiated a wide-ranging détente with North Korea, far deeper than anything tried by his predecessors. Moon did not campaign on this, and this outreach has been, unsurprisingly, hugely controversial. Worse, Moon has not solicited South Korean right about this in any serious way, and the result has been sharp polarisation. Conspiracy theories are rampant on the right here that Moon is a Marxist in league with Kim Jong-un.

My own hope had been that his election would be a referendum on North Korea détente. 2017 was not that, as Moon scarcely mentioned it, nor has the National Assembly been given a chance to vote on anything regarding the policy. And now coronavirus will again change the subject.

There will still be no definitive vote on whether the country really wants this controversial course. This was entirely unpredictable of course. But it remains an obvious disjuncture that the most important and controversial Moon policy project has never been exposed to a proper vote.

* An earlier version mistakenly said five year terms, rather than four for the legislature.

Vietnam, North Korea, politics and Covid-19: The numbers tell a story

Hanoi, Vietnam, 8 April (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
Hanoi, Vietnam, 8 April (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 10 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

As Covid-19 continues its relentless spread to almost every country, Vietnam and North Korea stand out in Asia for reporting low numbers of infections and zero deaths, despite neither country possessing the resources of many of their neighbours.

So far, Vietnam has reported roughly 250 infections, with no deaths. North Korea has denied it has had any cases of Covid-19 at all.

Although Vietnam shares a long border with China, its official figures are much lower than the rate of cases in other Southeast Asian nations of similar size. Thailand, for example, reports almost 2400 cases, the Philippines more than 3700. Even Singapore, which is much smaller than Vietnam and also responded early to the virus, has nearly 1500 cases of infection and six deaths.

The situation in North Korea is even more puzzling. The country is sandwiched between Asia’s two most infected nations (China and South Korea) but still reported zero infections, despite foreign media counting 23 deaths in early March.

In Vietnam, only the Ministry of Health can declare the number of positive cases. Hospitals and clinics cannot independently publish numbers … North Korea’s opaque institutions can easily censor reports of infections.

While community spread makes it all but impossible to accurately track the number of cases, there is another explanation for Vietnam and North Korea’s outlying numbers. As the ability to “flatten the curve” is used to judge a country’s overall success in responding to the virus, the process of gathering and publishing official data can be deployed to achieve different political goals.

In the case of Vietnam, only the Ministry of Health can declare the number of positive cases. Hospitals and clinics cannot independently publish numbers, while any unofficial counts can be subjected to a penalty. North Korea’s opaque institutions can easily censor reports of infections, just as China did in January. In this context, it is important to understand the narrative being shaped around Vietnam and North Korea’s numbers, which offers an insight into each country’s domestic priorities.

Vietnam’s reporting of a low number of infections and zero deaths helps the Communist Party (CPV) overcome domestic distrust in light of recent legitimacy crises. Before the outbreak, the CPV was under intense pressure from dissidents at home and aboard. A deadly clash between the government and villagers over a longstanding land dispute took place in early January. The subsequent criticism reflected the country’s chronic problem of politicians colluding with investors to grab land from local residents at a cheap price. The clash triggered an outcry on social media and resulted in large-scale censorship.

However, the Covid-19 outbreak gave the CPV an opportunity to burnish its image after the land grab and other charges of corruption. The Party has deployed the state apparatus at all levels to mobilize security forces and healthcare workers to quickly quarantine and trace tens of thousands of people. At the same time, Vietnam sought to show off a low cost but effective model, and compared its small number of infections and zero deaths with those of Western countries on social media to illustrate just how determined the Party was to fight the virus.

The CPV approach has won praise from the majority of its population for being more efficient and transparent than China’s. Despite reports of a death in a quarantine camp, and much scepticism over the CPV counts, the official numbers allow the Party to demonstrate that it has successfully put the wellbeing of the people first despite charges of widespread corruption over the years. Vietnam even won praise from US President Donald Trump.



North Korea’s claim of zero Covid-19 cases help the country carry on with a sense of normalcy. The Worker’s Party of Korea in its report earlier this year emphasised the need to prioritise economic self-sufficiency as the United States refused to lift sanctions. The Party also implied resuming nuclear and missile testing and unveiling a “new strategic weapon” to deter US aggression in 2020.

In response to the virus, Pyongyang assured the local population of its seriousness by implementing social distancing measures. However, North Korea does not want the pandemic to disrupt its socio-economic plans at a moment the country is contemplating whether or not to continue negotiating with Washington. While the border lockdown with China has hurt the country more than sanctions, keeping the numbers at zero allows the option to soon reopen the border and keep its 2020 objectives on track. North Korea’s decisions to test missiles and hold the Supreme People’s Assembly in March and April respectively are examples of North Korea’s prioritising normalcy.

Maybe, Vietnam and North Korea have succeeded in containing the virus much earlier than other Asian countries, thanks to police-state institutions. But it’s a puzzle, and when assembled, the numbers have to tell a story. With Vietnam, it is one of legitimacy. With North Korea, it is normalcy.

Covid-19: A war of words

A message from the National Health Service on a billboard in Stamford Hill, London, 8 April (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
A message from the National Health Service on a billboard in Stamford Hill, London, 8 April (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Published 9 Apr 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Once upon a time in a United Nations press office, in a country where the routine threat of violence made armchair pursuits something of a sport, a group of colleagues started a collection of all the bureaucratic jargon and mumbo-jumbo we encountered in our daily dealings with official information.

We called it “Words we hate”, and soon a formerly neglected whiteboard hanging on the wall became the locus of some of our most treasured work: skewering the airbags of meaningless pomposity and lifeless drivel we were professionally obliged to indulge.

Capacity building. Stakeholder engagement. Beneficiaries. “Much has been done, but much remains to be done” – when was that ever not true?   

The list went on. Perhaps my favourite was, “The conditions were not right for conditionality” – just the sort of concoction that overflows with meaning to the initiated, while meaning precisely nothing to the rest of the world. A shibboleth for the technocratic in-crowd. The man who said those words is today the president of his country.

Despite the lies, the obfuscation, the blame-shifting, and the denial that have run rampant since Covid-19 came onto the radar, the only weapon of any use in this war is brutal honesty.

Now political leaders everywhere, at least those not selling miracles and macho fantasies, have no choice but to cut to the chase. The urgency and scale of the coronavirus pandemic make it murderous to condition public-health measures on political calculations and the conjuring of bureaucratic flimflam.

Bureaucratic machinery, of course, is adept at producing vocabulary that at first (and, for some, always) appears impressively profound and precise, but on close inspection reveals itself as bloated and evasive, sleight of hand to mask flesh and blood with tepid euphemism or academic chill – whether to spare the audience or the perpetrators themselves.   

Inevitably at some point, a few of these laboratory-bred creatures make it into the wild, released in a controlled fashion through a carefully pitched statement, or escaping like prisoners from the mouth of an intemperate political functionary. The greatest hits become markers of an age, after the moment is gone and the argument has moved elsewhere. 

The “known unknowns” of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unveiled a square Pentagon thought matrix that would help catapult the US into the 2003 Iraq invasion with dubious claims of terrorist connections and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs, in the lingo of the day, naturally).

The “unknown unknowns” of that scenario turned out to be more than most of the cheerleaders apparently reckoned with. Who knew that an Iraqi journalist was going to risk his life to throw his shoes at the President of the United States? Or that suicide rates among US veterans would skyrocket, exceeding the number of American lives lost on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unknown unknowns, indeed.

PTSD became a household acronym in the US sometime in the 2000s, a clinical description of emotional pain and disconnect rendered in four letters of the alphabet. Suddenly everyone had this handy lingo in their kit, a way to make sense of the people who couldn’t make sense of their own experience, cast into the reality of war in a strange land and coming home to what used to be normal.

In a sense, it was progress. As a kid, I lived next door to a house that was mostly dark day and night, while the family inside cared for their grown son who had served in the Vietnam War. He had “shell shock”, which was all we were supposed to know. There is no cure for shell shock. PTSD is a step forward. There’s treatment.

Now, it seems, we are at war again. To go along with it, we’ve got a whole new vocabulary that would have made no sense to anyone just a few months ago. Except something is different. There are no bureaucratic euphemisms to soften the blow of death and destruction, no clever constructs to scrub the agency from acts of violence.

The new battlefield is everywhere (Gilbert Mercier/Flickr)

The Vietnam War gave use “collateral damage” and “hearts and minds”, neither of which described what they really meant. By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, the engineers had come up with “smart bombs”, which presumably only blew up the right people, so there was no more collateral damage. Now it’s known as “civilian casualties”, a good deal more honest, although surely there is nothing casual about getting killed in somebody else’s battle.

The so-called Global War on Terror that the US launched after 9/11 again gave people a new lexicon of insider expertise, even if going to war against a tactic seemed a bit confused. Asymmetrical warfare jumped out of the situation room and into bars and living rooms across America. There were “enemy combatants” subject to “enhanced interrogation”, bureaucratic terms of art meant not just to disguise the fact that prisoners of war were being tortured, but to declare, with a few imaginative strokes of legalese, that the Geneva Conventions – the laws of war devised to guard against such crimes – did not apply in this case, because everything was different. The rule of law, that thing that binds together the “international community” by shared agreement to a raft of conventions, has never quite recovered from the abuse.

Now everything really is different. The enemy is an unseeable organism which has found our greatest weakness in the need for human contact. The usual weapons of war are of no use in this one. The implements of the battlefield are face masks and test kits and ventilators. No one is going off to fight except for doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers, and the millions of workers whose everyday jobs now put them on the front lines. The rest of us can only jump into the foxholes of our own homes, if we’re lucky enough to have one, while peering out at the rest of the world through the periscope of the television, the radio, an internet connection. For the countless many who have no such privileges, the daily struggle to survive is now amplified by the fear that there is nowhere to hide.

No fancy terminology can shield us from this reality. Despite the lies, the obfuscation, the blame-shifting, and the denial that have run rampant since Covid-19 came onto the radar, the only weapon of any use in this war is brutal honesty. Wash your hands, self-isolate, flatten the curve. Testing, contact-tracing, quarantine. Those are the terms by which this time will be remembered. The difference is that they give people agency, rather than pulling the wool over their eyes. And they put science above sentiment. Bureaucratic BS is dead – collateral damage in the war against the coronavirus.

That might be something to celebrate, except by the time this war is over, we might all have PTSD from being locked down for so long.

COVIDcast Episode 6: Geopolitics and the pandemic

Published 9 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

In episode 6 of COVIDcast, the Director of Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program, Ben Bland, sat down with Hervé Lemahieu to discuss geopolitics and the coronavirus pandemic. Hervé is the Director of our Asian Power and Diplomacy Program where he leads the research for the annual Asia Power Index – launched by the Institute in 2018 – which is a data-driven assessment, developed to map the changing distribution of power in the region.

In this episode, the two discuss how the pandemic is affecting multilateral institutions and the global balance of power. In addition to the public health emergency and economic crisis, Lemahieu argued that coronavirus has created a “man-made pandemic of mistrust and chaos, which is testing social cohesion and globalisation to its core.”

If we’re not careful … then globalisation will start to teeter a little bit, like a contemporary Tower of Babel under the weight of its own achievements, interdependence and vulnerabilities.

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

Lemahieu explained this crisis will also force a reassessment of the way in which we think of an Asian Century. There is no doubt we are entering a century defined by Asia, but it will not be benign. Geopolitics and the nation state will be dominant.

Bland and Lemahieu debated the merits of middle-power diplomacy and discussed whether coronavirus has transformed the world as we know it, or simply exposed the dangers that were already lurking within the international system.

For Bland, coronavirus “highlights just how much we are missing the US at the helm of international crisis response”. However, he questioned whether middle power coalitions can “fill the very large shoes of the US” in tackling this, and other, global problems.

When it comes to US leadership, there really is no other country that brings the same ballast to the table…the same military, political and economic heft and that sense of ambition to be able to tackle these sorts of problems.

Beyond the US-China superpower rivalry, Bland and Lemahieu spoke about the European Union’s disappointing record in coming to terms with the scale of this crisis and acting on it jointly. However, Lemahieu quoted Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the European project, to explain why he thought Europe would muddle through incrementally: “Europe is forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

This optimism stands in stark contrast to the ability of other regional organisations, notably ASEAN, to grow through this pandemic. Both agreed that because of its inherent weaknesses, ASEAN does not tend to emerge stronger from crises.

Australia’s foreign policy also featured, whether Canberra’s regional focus on the Indo-Pacific limits its ability to respond to a global crisis.  As Lemahieu explained:

The Indo-Pacific concept has become the primary means by which we understand our fractured region and it’s essentially – if you want to reduce it to something – a form of regional balance of power politics. I think [this] is an important game to play, but it’s clearly not the answer to all our problems.

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

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

WHO and China: Compounding politics and policy

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019 (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019 (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 9 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

This should be the greatest hour for the World Health Organisation, the UN’s Geneva-based body dedicated to fighting just such a global threat as Covid-19.

Instead, WHO is struggling to defend its own credibility – while the impact of the contortions into which it has forced itself by adhering to the People’s Republic of China’s strict shunning of Taiwan has also dragged those questioning it into the firing line.

National governments and health experts around the world are determining the strategies for combatting the pandemic, with polite nods as needed to WHO, but without crucial input from the global body.

To an extent, this is inevitable, given the speed of the spread of the virus, and the urgent requirement to act locally superseding the perceived value of thinking globally.

The PRC has succeeded in leveraging its capacity to influence the WHO – and other such organisations – considerably in excess of its financial contribution, a testimony to its more concerted and focused approach to multilateral affairs under Xi.

But WHO has also diminished its own potential role as a result of its politicisation.

The General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, told the 2017 national party congress that “reforming and developing the global governance system” is a major foreign-policy priority, in accord with Xi’s hallmark phrase about “building a community with a shared future for mankind”. China has accordingly especially relished and highlighted the applause its governance receives from international multilateral agencies, including the WHO.

The WHO’s Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, formerly Ethiopia’s Health Minister and Foreign Minister, who trained as an epidemiologist but is not a medical doctor, thanked the PRC for its “transparency” over the spread of Covid-19 (despite the month-long delay in responding, and the coverup that included the punishment of whistle-blower doctors) and heaped particular praise on Xi after their meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on 28 January, including for his “detailed knowledge of the outbreak”.

Tedros said that the PRC was “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and commended it for its “openness to sharing information” about the virus. China’s harsh measures in the epicentre, Wuhan, provided a “window of opportunity” for the world to counter the virus, he said.

Indicatively, the organisation last year endorsed traditional Chinese medicines that are unproven scientifically, including them on its official list of remedies, following extensive lobbying from Beijing.

Washington Post columnist Frida Ghitis wrote in 2017 of Tedros’s campaign to become director-general – which succeeded in May that year – that PRC diplomats had “worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help Tedros defeat the UK candidate, David Nabarro”. The article lamented Tedros’s subsequent move to appoint Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador for the WHO – a plan that was rescinded following an international outcry.

After Australia and other countries blocked travel from China as Covid-19 exploded there, Tedros said on 3 February: “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”                        

The WHO’s politicisation has become especially manifest in its treatment of Taiwan – whose population is about the same as Australia’s – as a Chinese province, as the PRC demands, refusing to communicate directly with its government even over such a serious challenge as Covid-19, and banning it from attending meetings even as an observer.

When Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, was president in Taiwan, he succeeded in persuading the People’s Republic of China to withdraw its opposition to Taiwan gaining observer status in the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the WHO, under the name “Chinese Taipei”. Xi eventually met Ma at a historic summit in Singapore in 2015.

But after Taiwan had been for six years an observer of the WHA – which elects the WHO director-general every five years – the PRC changed its attitude in 2016 following the landslide election of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen as president, and engineered its ousting from the assembly.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visits a factory making face masks in Taipei, 9 March (Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr)

The subsequent WHO rejection of any contact with Taiwan was highlighted when its Assistant Director-General, Bruce Aylward, now Senior Advisor to the Director-General, declined to answer questions about Taiwan during a recent interview with Radio Television Hong Kong. Criticism of the organisation soared in Hong Kong, and in East Asia more widely.

The Canadian, who was co-leader of the joint WHO–People’s Republic of China team that analysed the pandemic in China and the response of Beijing, was asked by RTHK producer Yvonne Tong, “Will WHO reconsider Taiwan’s membership?” Aylward said he could not hear the question, and suggested moving to another. When Tong persisted, he appeared to hang up the call.

When RTHK called back, and Tong asked Aylward about how well Taiwan has done so far in containing the virus – 373 cases and five deaths by 7 April, despite the intensity of its relationships with the PRC, only 130 kilometres away – he said, “Well, we’ve already talked about China.”

He added, “When you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve all done quite an effective job…”

WHO’s categorisation of Taiwan – which is widely viewed as offering a valuable model of best practice in virus response – has shifted in recent months, from “Taiwan, China” to “Taipei” to “Taipei and its environs”.

Nathan Law, the 26-year-old Hong Kong democratic politician, tweeted, “Why don’t they call themselves the Chinese Health Organisation, CHO?”

But Edward Yau, the Commerce Minister of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, responded by accusing RTHK of breaching not only Beijing’s “One China” policy, but also “the purposes and mission of RTHK as a public service broadcaster as specified in its Charter”.

Yau said, “It is common knowledge that the WHO membership is based on sovereign states. RTHK, as a government department and a public service broadcaster, should have a proper understanding of the above without any deviation. As the Editor-in-chief of RTHK, the Director of Broadcasting [Leung Ka-wing] should be responsible for this.”

WHO’s categorisation of Taiwan – which is widely viewed as offering a valuable model of best practice in virus response – has shifted in recent months, from “Taiwan, China” to “Taipei” to “Taipei and its environs”.

Although Taiwan health officials had informed the WHO about human-to-human viral contamination on 31 December, the organisation declined to recognise this as a reality until 23 January, after the PRC had conceded this was happening. The WHO finally declared a pandemic on 11 March.

On 14 January, the WHO had officially tweeted: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel Covid-19 virus identified in Wuhan, China”. It appears that although the WHO had acknowledged receipt of the 31 December letter from Taiwan informing it about human-to-human contamination, it did not otherwise respond or share the information with WHO member states.

Taiwan, however, acted swiftly on that information from its experts and immediately started conducting health inspections on air passengers from Wuhan, and sent two virologists to the Chinese city to assess the situation for themselves. On the basis of their concerned report, tough measures were introduced on a national basis, well before most other parts of the world.

Francois Godement, former director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia and China Program, wrote for the Paris-based Institut Montaigne that “Taiwan’s status as a ‘Chinese province’ means its own information was officially ignored”. He also noted that “China’s initiatives in international crisis response of recent years generally do not go through the WHO”, but that such material aid tends to be delivered bilaterally instead.

Godement said that “during the current crisis, [Tedros] has defended his praise of Beijing by the need to obtain cooperation. Yet it took the WHO a month and a half – following China’s first report to the organisation of an ‘unknown illness’ and February 13 – to send a full expert mission on the ground in China, and with very limited access to Wuhan”.

Although WHO has come under fire, as have many multilateral organisations, from the Trump administration, overall American contributions to the organisation’s $6.3 billion annual budget – when those from US charities and individuals are included – have recently amounted to about 75% of the total.

The PRC has thus succeeded in leveraging its capacity to influence the WHO – and other such organisations – considerably in excess of its financial contribution, a testimony to its more concerted and focused approach to multilateral affairs under Xi, and in contrast with the fragmentation and fractiousness of the Trump-era American approach.

The WHO has been approached to respond concerning its position on Taiwan, and to criticisms of politicisation, but has not yet done so.

International organisations are governed by a bewildering variety of voting rules, but at the core of most, the majority decides – albeit with the caveat in some of a potential veto by founders, or powers with unchallengeable strength.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (right) and Peter Thomson (left), President of the 71st session of the General Assembly, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his visit to the UN Office at Geneva, January 2017 (Jean-Marc Ferré/United Nations Photo/Flickr)

In much of the 20th century, imperial Britain then the US were able to use their diplomatic domination to translate their bilateral supremacy – as the greatest source of aid, or arms, or trade, or other core voting determinants – into multilateral influence. In the 21st century, it is the PRC that is proving most capable of translating its intense bilateral efforts into international impregnability.

Thus for instance, Amnesty International in its current country report summarises the PRC’s human rights record as “marked by a systematic crackdown on dissent”, its justice system “plagued by unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment in detention, information on its extensive use of the death penalty still a state secret, and “particularly severe” repression “under the guise of ‘anti-separatism’ or ‘counter-terrorism’” in Xinjiang and Tibet. And Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth has said in a recent essay on “China’s Global Threat to Human Rights” that “China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide.”

In contrast, the UN Human Rights Council praised China last year for the progress it had made on human rights over the past five years and the positive role it has played in advancing the human rights cause.

Wilfred Chan concluded, for the American publication The Nation, that  “the WHO has never operated free from state interests”.

Like other international agencies founded under the UN in the wake of the Second World War, he wrote, the agency originated as a tool of the 20th century US-led world order, and he cited a 1954 speech made by Republican Representative Frances P. Bolton on the anniversary of the agency’s founding: “In our global struggle against communism, one of our principal endeavours is to keep the free world strong. Disease breeds poverty and poverty breeds further disease. International communism thrives on both.”

Health was thus perceived in the 20th century, Chan commented, as a means to a geopolitical end. The 21st century appears little different. Same means, just different geopolitical ends.

Asia after the pandemic

Asia was already experiencing the increasingly dominant force of geopolitical competition between the great powers – and that competition will continue (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Asia was already experiencing the increasingly dominant force of geopolitical competition between the great powers – and that competition will continue (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 8 Apr 2020 15:00   0 Comments

Prognostication about the world after the crisis while still very much in the midst of the chaos is a fraught business. But just as planning for the post-war world began in 1942, think we must about what will come when the coronavirus recedes.

Prior to the global shutdown, Asia was already experiencing the increasingly dominant force of geopolitical competition between the great powers. An ambitious China clearly wanted to take its place as the most important power in the region, while the US accepted the challenge and declared that this competition was to be at the centre of its strategic policy.

It has long been a trope, both scholarly and political, that acute human catastrophe should accelerate international cooperation. In 2003 we saw an example of this following the SARS outbreak, which led to greater pan-regional cooperation in six weeks than had occurred in the decades prior. But as President Donald Trump denounces the “Wuhan Virus”, and the People’s Republic of China loudly trumpets its donations of face masks and ventilators across the world, we can safely say that when faced with the greatest epidemiological and financial catastrophe in seven decades, Asia’s great powers have not worked together to drive better outcomes for the region and the world.

Sadly, even though the crisis is a long way from over, we can rule out a future in which the virus wrested the region from its contested future.

So competition we will have. But how will it be changed by the pandemic? Much will turn on how states respond to the geoeconomics of the virus. We have long known that globalisation makes societies more vulnerable. But to date the trade-off between security and the prosperity that is brought by openness and global supply chains had been a risk with which most were comfortable. Yet when all this is over, will countries return to where they were before, or will they seek to mitigate that risk to some degree and pay a price for less vulnerability?

US Customs and Border Protection/Flickr

How governments choose to restart their economies and how they interact will have a significant bearing on the trajectory of the region precisely because of the role that economic interdependence will have moderating geopolitical competition.

Prior to the pandemic the pressure was building, in the US and elsewhere, for a decoupling of the US economy from its links to the People’s Republic of China. While the trade war had prompted some shifts in supply chains – accelerating moves already afoot to shift production out of the PRC and into lower cost countries such as Vietnam – and the Huawei ban had drawn a line in the telecommunications sector, the sheer complexity and cost of unravelling the world’s two largest economies meant that little had really changed and a major severance appeared unlikely.

If the pandemic led to a region in which the US and China inhabited very different economic and technological spheres, then the geopolitical logic of competition, already ascendant, would likely become all consuming.

The shock of the virus, seizing the global economy to halt its spread, may be just the kind of trauma that could catalyse a proper separation of the US and the PRC. And if, in response to the economic carnage, states return to earlier approaches to economic management, of the type before the neo-liberal fashion of recent decades took hold, then a highly politicised restructuring of the global economy may occur.

For decades those who argued that states should retain the capacity to produce key goods, such as automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment, were speaking to the policy void. Covid-19, and the significant stake that governments are taking in their economies to manage the downturn, have given these arguments a newfound salience. This would provide decoupling the kind of political momentum it needs to make it real.

And it is important to remember that it is not just the United States that is interested in de-linking. Within the PRC some elites have felt that the country was too dependent on the US, both for export markets and for industrial know-how and that it needed to become more self-reliant and resilient. 

If the pandemic led to a region in which the US and China inhabited very different economic and technological spheres, then the geopolitical logic of competition, already ascendant, would likely become all consuming. Lacking the stabilising force of shared economic interests, the region would enter a period of unrestrained military contestation. This environment would also be more conducive to China’s efforts to remake the norms and institutions of regional order as the forces of economic decoupling would have wiped out the status quo bias of the existing arrangements, which give the US and its allies a distinct advantage.

A second path involves not decoupling but an effort to rebuild the economic infrastructure of the recent past. Instead of seeking to rapidly transform Asia’s production chains this scenario sees the region scrambling to restart growth by reconnecting the existing systems. But this would occur in the shadow of a pandemic that the great powers will each use to advance their political positions. Under this scenario there would remain some economic ties to restrain each side, but it would be weaker than before.

At this point we have yet to see how badly the virus will damage India and Indonesia. There is a strong chance that it will scupper their economic growth for many years and thereby further strengthen the grip that US-China relations has on the region as a whole.

After the pandemic Asia will be a more dangerous place. Geopolitics will be ascendant, mistrust and rivalry accentuated. At this point China looks as though it will have had a better crisis than the US – both in economic and political terms – but it is early days yet. When this is all over, the US and its allies will need to dig in for a long-term contest with an emboldened Beijing.

Coronavirus in conflict: The fight has hardly begun

Medical personnel outside a field hospital tent on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 5 April (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Medical personnel outside a field hospital tent on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 5 April (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 8 Apr 2020 14:00   0 Comments

The War on Covid-19

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mobilising language of war is being used by leaders from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to France’s President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (now in intensive care ten days after being diagnosed with the coronavirus). While relatively stable and wealthy countries struggle to respond effectively to this threat, how will the world’s actual war zones cope?

Guterres calls for “the world to come together”, urging global ceasefires because the “only war we should be waging is the war against Covid-19”. But can Covid-19 bring solidarity and peace? Or will it bring further insecurity and violence to places already afflicted by conflict and, in turn, threaten international peace and security as these countries struggle to fight on another front?

Conflict-affected environments are especially vulnerable to the outbreak of infectious diseases, are less likely to be able to identify and respond to outbreaks, and are less equipped to stop their spread within and beyond their often porous borders.

This new “war” is becoming entangled with conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Colombia, and threatening to break out in the camps of millions who have fled these and other wars. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the fear among the Rohingya in the refugee camps is amplified by lack of information and separation from support networks, and intensified by the month-long effective ban on mobile-phone and internet usage imposed by the government of Bangladesh (the same has happened in Ethiopia, amid reports of government crackdowns on the Oromo Liberation Front). In Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece, asylum seekers cannot socially distance when 20,000 people are squeezed into a camp meant to accommodate 3000, and where they must queue for hours each day for basic food supplies. In overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps in Somalia, people feel as if they are “waiting for death to come”.

Elsewhere, it is hunger, not the virus, that is feared – a serious concern in places such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo if people can’t go out to work or sell to get money to feed families. In parts of Syria, it is “bombs falling from the sky and kids being blown to pieces” that remains the main worry.

In Colombia, the virus is bringing with it deadly prison riots and the threat of escalating femicide. In Lebanon, a sense of dread prevails, as it does in Syria’s rebel-held north-west, among people already ill and frail, with little shelter, limited access to running water and healthcare, with little information and even less trust and confidence in authorities. And Iraq is already struggling to find enough hospital beds and to bury its dead, amid fears about how the virus is spread.

In many of these places, social distancing is difficult, water and soap are scarce, and most healthcare needs are already unable to be met. As the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) President has described, the concept of self-solation, and also self-care, in these contexts is a “luxury”. Hospitals have been destroyed or lack capacity and resources, including medicine, staff, and equipment. Governance structures are often weak or corrupt, economies shattered, and infrastructure destroyed or inadequate. Many people are unable to access basic services and essentials, including food, and have minimal confidence or trust in political leaders. In Iraq, for instance, a depleted healthcare system that enjoys little public trust will not be able to respond effectively if there is a serious outbreak.

For these reasons, conflict-affected environments are especially vulnerable to the outbreak of infectious diseases, are less likely to be able to identify and respond to outbreaks, and are less equipped to stop their spread within and beyond their often porous borders.

Covid-19 and ceasefires

There are murmurings that Covid-19 could contribute to bringing peace to places afflicted by conflict, as people agree to divert all necessary attention and efforts to fighting a common enemy. Indeed, that is what Guterres has called for to enable the world to focus on “the true fight of our lives”, and ceasefires were, at least initially, welcomed in Philippines, Cameroon, Yemen and elsewhere. While bigger threats can lead to cessation of hostilities, such as occurred in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami, such crises of this scale tend to further undermine resilience, increase insecurity, and exacerbate the likelihood and intensity of conflict. Already, commitments to ceasefires have been broken within days and hostilities have escalated in Libya, and Yemen. Even if some ceasefires hold, the causes and effects of conflict continue and compound the risks these environments face from Covid-19.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres holds a virtual press conference on the call for a global ceasefire during the Covid-19 pandemic, 3 April (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

And with global attention almost exclusively on Covid-19, armed groups might seize the opportunity, as occurred when ISIS prisoners attempted to escape in Syria on 30 March, or exploit widespread fear and instability for their own advantage, as communicated by ISIS to its members in its weekly newsletter. In Afghanistan, sectarian attacks resumed, demonstrating opportunist attacks against minorities by non-state armed groups can occur when the world’s attention is elsewhere. Likewise, parties to the conflict can make political and economic gains by utilising the opportune moment presented by crises, as occurred during the Ebola outbreak resulting in heightened political tension in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. States can also use the guise of crisis response to repress the population. There have been fears that Covid-19 responses could legitimise actions which further persecute groups, in Yemen for instance, by imposing lockdowns which prevent access to food.

Reponses to Covid-19 can also further compromise security and undermine prospects for peace, even before Covid-19 gets a firm foothold in these places, with relief efforts hampered by lockdowns and widespread travel restrictions. In Iraq, while humanitarian agencies are finding ways to respond to people’s needs remotely, many of those in need cannot be reached by phone and must travel to community centres, amid reports of arrests of those who violate the lockdown. The curtailment of humanitarian services in Iraq has also has coincided with heavy flooding in Ninewa, Diyala and Salah al-Din, which has affected vulnerable groups, including those in camp settings and compounded the humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian, peacebuilding, and broader development organisations are drawing back their work to direct resources to only what is essential and to accommodate “social distancing”. Staff are grounded staff or scaled back, and organisations face unprecedented coordination, logistical, and financial challenges.

Covid-19 as a conflict driver

Covid-19 response will undermine the ability to respond to other healthcare and humanitarian needs in conflict- and crisis-affected environments. Already depleted resources, medical staff, hospital beds, financial support, and most aid efforts will likely be directed towards Covid-19 and away from the other dire needs of people in such environments – addressing a measles epidemic in Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, which has killed over 6000 people since the start of 2019, most of whom were children. As occurred during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, more people will die from other diseases as a result of resources and attention being redirected to Covid-19. While Guterres has urged not to sacrifice humanitarian needs unrelated to Covid-19, when calling for a unified response to the pandemic, many humanitarian actors worry that this could happen.

A Syrian civil defence member sprays disinfectant inside a hospital in the city of Idlib after the emergence of suspected Covid-19 cases in the province (Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As attention and resources are directed towards Covid-19, and donors focus on the threat facing their own countries, funding is likely to be diverted or curtailed and pledging conferences rescheduled. International funding to address humanitarian and other needs will be hard to find, not just because of resources directed to fighting Covid-19, but also in the face of anticipated global recession. This will further compromise resilience and deplete resources, leaving countries less able to respond to other threats, including conflict.

Compounding these risks is the impact on conflict resolution and peacekeeping already being felt as a result of Covid-19, with unit rotations suspended, potentially compromising the effectiveness of troops on extended tours of duty. Likewise, peace talks and diplomacy efforts are also at risk as people’s attention is diverted and their ability to travel is curtailed. And as national armed forces are increasingly brought in to assist in Covid-19 response activities, nations may be less inclined to commit troops to peacekeeping missions or humanitarian response efforts.

The increasing securitisation of responses to Covid-19, including police brutality against civilians and violence against journalists reporting on lockdowns, and the severe economic shocks, including widespread unemployment and heightened food insecurity, are also increasing tensions, insecurity and violence and the potential for outbreaks or escalation of conflict or unrest.

Unless attention and resources are directed towards the needs of people in conflict-affected environments, there will be greater humanitarian catastrophes, alongside increased threats to international peace and security in the form of recurrent or protracted conflict. At the same time, it will be even harder to contain the further spread of Covid-19.

Indonesia: A health and economic crisis also threatens national unity

There are early signs of political support for the police and military to take control of provincial government responsibilities if they become a threat to the central government’s response (Mimi Saputra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
There are early signs of political support for the police and military to take control of provincial government responsibilities if they become a threat to the central government’s response (Mimi Saputra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Published 8 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The spread of Covid-19 throughout Indonesia is more than a health and economic crisis but a direct challenge to national unity. What began as a problem of resources and hospital capacity has developed into one of policy, driven not by expertise but instead by political considerations about how to maintain control.

Since Indonesia announced its first cases of Covid-19 in early March, the virus has been detected in 32 out of the 34 provinces. Widespread local transmission is now evident in Java, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. Indonesia’s death toll is roughly 8%, making it the highest in Southeast Asia, and it continues to rise at a rate higher than the world average of 5%.

Even more alarming is that Indonesia’s death toll is already high despite its limited testing capacity. Indonesia has reported more than 2000 positive cases and more than 200 deaths from a total of just over 13,000 tests. Indonesia’s polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing currently has a maximum capacity of approximately 1700 tests per day.

Low testing has resulted in a growing backlog of samples, including potentially thousands collected from those recently deceased due to suspected Covid-19 infections. Low official numbers are perhaps buying the government time, creating the perception that, as there are apparently only marginal increases in infections and deaths, it has the crisis under control.

The administration of President Joko Widodo has struggled to develop clear and coordinated policy aimed at tackling a pandemic.

But this lack of accurate data is also having an impact on policy advice. Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency (BIN) has been praised for accurately predicting the number of positive cases for the month of March, which conveniently correlated with official numbers. BIN estimates that Indonesia’s Covid-19 cases will peak at around 95,000 cases by the end of May. It remains unclear, however, what data BIN’s predictive model is based on.

Western intelligence agencies have warned that data from China is unreliable and that many of its initial models which relied on this data have been wrong. Indonesia’s current testing rate also suggests that total PCR testing may not reach BIN’s estimated peak in time unless Indonesia increases testing capacity. If it does not, it is more likely that it will be long after May before Indonesia can determine whether it has reached its peak, if then.

The administration of President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) has struggled to develop clear and coordinated policy aimed at tackling a pandemic. There have been widespread calls for a lockdown and a domestic travel ban to prevent thousands spreading the virus as they return to their villages for the post-Ramadan Idul Fitri holiday period over the coming weeks. 

Provincial governments have been quicker, however, to respond to these calls. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has proposed a regional quarantine for greater Jakarta. West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil has revealed that his government has been preparing for a lockdown. Some local governments such as that of Tegal in Central Java have gone further and implemented their own lockdown policy.

Confronted with a potential situation of provincial and local governments defying the central government’s authority, Jokowi has declared a state of emergency, directing local and provincial leaders to follow the central government’s regulations. But his administration has thus far refused to implement large-scale lockdowns at the local or national level and decided against a nation-wide domestic travel ban. Instead, he has taken the middle ground emphasising large-scale social distancing measures and used the highest Islamic authority in Indonesia – the Indonesian Ulema Council – to forbid travel for Idul Fitri, or Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Ramadan fast, on 23 May this year.

The Jokowi administration has argued that it wants to avoid a lockdown and a domestic travel ban because those measures would bring Indonesia’s economy to a standstill and this policy is “the best amongst a number of flawed options”. Indonesia wants to avoid taking a similar approach to India, which has applied a nationwide lockdown. This has inadvertently shut down supply chains, closed state borders, and left millions of India’s poorest migrant workers starving under heavily restricted conditions.

It seems that Jokowi has prioritised preserving the economy over preventing the spread of the virus because he fears his legitimacy and hold on power may be at risk. In a national lockdown scenario, the central government is required by law to provide all the basic necessities to citizens. This would be a substantial burden for the national budget already struggling to deal with the crisis. Indonesia also relies on food imports and the risk of food shortages will increase due to potential domestic and global shortages which could result in widespread protests that would stretch security forces to their limits, and potentially beyond, if many of their personnel fall victim to Covid-19.

But the government’s order of priorities has handed responsibility for the health disaster to the provincial governments. In response, they have begun taking measures that are undermining the central government’s national response. West Java, for example, has purchased testing equipment from South Korea and is conducting its own testing out of frustration with the slow national testing process. Provincial governments have also released more detailed information about their Covid-19 cases, undermining the government’s control over official information. 

So far, provincial leaders have not gone further than accusing the central government of stonewalling their efforts to contain the virus. But if the Jokowi administration continues to be paralysed by indecision that is driven by a fear of losing control, it won’t be long before provincial governments begin locking down their provinces as the crisis worsens.

The central government could also end up competing with the provinces for scarce medical supplies on the international market hindering the national response. There are early signs of political support for the police and military to take control of provincial government responsibilities if they become a threat to the central government’s response. 

The “best amongst a number of flawed options” may prove to be the most flawed, leading to provincial governments taking the very measures the central government wants to avoid, and risking a direct threat to Jokowi’s legitimacy that may require intervention by the security apparatus to resolve.

Covid forces Singapore to confront conditions for its migrant workers

Migrant workers at a construction site by a highway in Singapore (Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Migrant workers at a construction site by a highway in Singapore (Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Published 8 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In 2015, a small group of migrant workers gave me a tour of their home, a former factory building that had been retrofitted to house construction workers from Bangladesh. About 130 men lived in the building, with up to 18 or 19 men in a large room. They slept in bunks, using clothes and towels to create screens for their beds for privacy.

“This is a nice dormitory,” they told me repeatedly. They were very satisfied with their accommodation, which even had air-conditioning. Many other migrant workers in Singapore, they reminded me, were not as lucky as them.

It is this experience that keeps coming to mind these days, as Singapore grapples with the fact that Covid-19 clusters have developed in large migrant worker dormitories. Despite the men’s praise, I’d still privately thought that their living quarters were a little too close for comfort. Even though the room was big, having to reduce a life and one’s personal space to the confines of a single bunk was something that I, and I suspect most Singaporeans, indeed many people in similarly affluent nations, would find difficult to accept.

And if this was “the nice dormitory”, what about the “not nice” ones?

A look inside the “nice” dormitary for migrant workers in 2015 (Kirsten Han)

Long before the first coronavirus cluster emerged in a dormitory, migrant rights groups in Singapore like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) were already highlighting issues with overcrowded, unsanitary, and otherwise substandard living conditions. As HOME’s operations manager Luke Tan told me: “In terms of social humanitarian reasons, we already mentioned something like this [a virus outbreak] is like a disaster waiting to happen.”

The disaster is now here. On 5 April, the Singapore government announced that it had gazetted two dormitories as “isolation areas” after large clusters had been identified (98 confirmed cases at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, and 34 at the Westlite Toh Guan dormitory). A third dormitory nearby with 18 cases has since also been gazetted as an isolation area. What this means is that at least 20,000 or so men – 13,000 at S11 and 6,800 at Westlite, plus an unknown number at the third site, Toh Guan Dormitory – are now confined to their rooms for 14 days. The figures appear staggering.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force dealing with the virus outbreak, has also said that all migrant workers will have to remain within their dormitories as Singapore begins its “circuit breaker” measures – a semi-lockdown period during which all schools and non-essential workplaces will be closed until early May. All in all, about 200,000 migrant men, spread across 43 dormitories, will be affected by these restrictions.

This turn of events has directed the public’s attention to the state of migrant worker accommodation in Singapore. The morning after the gazetting of the two dorms, local broadsheet The Straits Times ran a story in which residents of the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol complained of horrifying conditions, including cockroach infestations and overflowing toilets, with 12 beds in each room. While a resident at Westlite Toh Guan told me that their living quarters were in far better condition, the men are still living in housing units of 10 each. Unable to spend much time outside their rooms, for these men, their dormitories have become prisons.

Particularly in a country as tiny as Singapore, no one is safe until everyone is.

This is a dreadful situation that should prompt Singapore to rethink its attitude towards and treatment of migrant workers. These men, coming mainly from countries such as Bangladesh, India, and China, work in local construction sites, shipyards, and petrochemical refineries. They’ve built homes, schools, malls … even hospitals that are now crucial in the fight against a pandemic.

For years Singapore has treated these workers as separate from the local community. Seen as “transient workers” with no right to permanent residency no matter how long they live and work in this country, they are segregated from the rest of Singapore’s resident population: housed separately, paid less, and policed as potential threats to public order. This doesn’t just come from the government, either, but from Singaporeans who have complained against dormitories built too close to their neighbourhoods, or perpetuated racist stereotypes that characterise migrant men as untrustworthy predators.

With no respect for nationality, class, or residency status, Covid-19 has shone a light on the hollowness of this segregation. Everyone can be at risk of being infected, but marginalised communities like the low-wage migrant worker population are now the ones being made to pay the heaviest price. Yet their well-being is tied in with the rest of the population – particularly in a country as tiny as Singapore, no one is safe until everyone is.

In a response to public criticism of living conditions for migrant workers, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo on Monday night promised that more would be done to address living standards in dormitories. Pointing out the enormity of the task ahead of her ministry in dealing with the situation, she made a commitment that things would be different:

Let us cross this important hurdle during this “circuit breaker”, and then we can deal with this issue in a dedicated way. You have my word.

Migrant rights groups and Singaporeans will have to hold her to that promise. If everyone had listened to activists’ warnings about overcrowding and sanitation over the past few years, thousands of workers might not have been placed in such vulnerable situations. This is a mistake that must be learned from, lest it be repeated again.

Japan and coronavirus: Abe needs to make bold decisions

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe removes his face mask as he speaks to media reporters prior to the coronavirus task force meeting on 6 April to announce he will declare a state of emergency (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe removes his face mask as he speaks to media reporters prior to the coronavirus task force meeting on 6 April to announce he will declare a state of emergency (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Published 7 Apr 2020 14:30   0 Comments

The last ten days in Japan have been extraordinary. First, the global Covid-19 pandemic forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics until July 2021. And now, after a slow response, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has announced a state of emergency for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka until 6 May 2020. The state of emergency brings powers of enforcement to close theatres and restaurants, and postpone or cancel public events as part of measures to reduce person to person contact. Notably, workers will be encouraged to stay at home, but Abe has stated that a lockdown is not necessary.

The need for stringent measures gained political momentum after the death of the hugely popular comedian Ken Shimura (aged 70) on 30 March. Shimura was the first Japanese celebrity to die of Covid-19 related symptoms and his death shocked many Japanese, many of whom naively assumed the virus was somehow a foreign problem.

It is highly likely that the rate of infection is much higher and that asymptomatic cases have not yet been detected.

The Japanese viewpoint on Coid-19 has also been skewed by the remarkably low rate of infection within the country and the belief that most cases were from the cruise ship Diamond Princess. As of the most recent figures, there are 3,880 cases detected in Japan and 106 people have died, mainly in Tokyo. Notably, only 11 of those who died were former passengers on the Diamond Princess or other cruise ships.

Explanations for the low rate of infection include high levels of hygiene, regular use of masks when suffering from a cold or flu, and a tradition of limited touching (Japanese do not shake hands and rarely hold hands or hug in public). Another important factor is the low level of testing (current rate of testing is one test per 7,600 people) and a policy of focusing on clusters.

It is highly likely that the rate of infection is much higher and that asymptomatic cases have not yet been detected. Indeed, the US Embassy in Tokyo recently encouraged its citizens to return to the United States as soon as possible due to the low rate of testing and inability to access polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. There are now worrying signs that the virus may increase exponentially in Japan. There are already signs of this in Tokyo where, for the first time, over a hundred new cases were detected in a single day.

Abe’s response to Covid-19 has been mixed. He acted decisively to close schools in early March, but has not communicated effectively the importance of social distancing and staying home as preventive measures. On the plus side, on 28 March Abe announced a 56 trillion yen (US$518 billion) economic stimulus package to help reinvigorate the weakening Japanese economy.

Less straight forward and confusing to many was the decision on 1 April to distribute two reusable cloth masks per household. The initiative was met with ridicule due the 20 billion yen bill linked to the initiative and the lack of financial handouts to support struggling households already equipped with masks. Two days later and perhaps as a result of the derision over supplying masks, Abe announced a one-off payment of 300,000 yen to support households suffering hardship who meet the relevant criteria. The support is estimated to reach just 20% of Japanese households, leaving many households still waiting for support.

Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko on the other hand has offered strong, clear and decisive leadership. Over the past week she has stepped up her public engagements to encourage Tokyoites to avoid a New York type emergency by working from home, avoiding crowded spaces, and practising social distancing. Koike has also called for the hiring and retraining of former medical workers in order to support the city’s medical system. Main department stores and chain stores have followed her lead and are voluntarily closing on the weekends.

Over the past few days Koike has acknowledged that while it is legally difficult to place Tokyo in a complete lockdown, the Japanese government should use their powers to declare a “state of emergency”. Her stance has won strong approval in Tokyo where locals are concerned that Tokyo needs to be prepared before Covid-19 cases spiral out of control.

Perhaps partly as a measure to dilute Koike’s role and high public profile, Abe has taken steps to combat the virus and further support the economy. He now has the emergency law in place and also announced on the same evening an additional 108 trillion yen to help the Japanese economy damaged by Covid-19. Japan has an excellent healthcare system and has the most hospital beds per capita among OECD countries. Nevertheless, with 18.48 million Japanese people aged 75 or over (14.7% of the population) the spread of Covid-19 could have a devastating impact. It is imperative that Abe takes bolder action now to prevent a disaster from unfolding in Japan.

The state of emergency, although welcomed, is late and brings limited powers. A follow-up lockdown or partial lockdown of Tokyo and Osaka and associated tighter controls are required as soon as possible.

A post-Covid world and the limits of “America first”

US President Donald Trump arriving in the White House press briefing room, 4 April (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump arriving in the White House press briefing room, 4 April (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Published 6 Apr 2020 12:30   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic is a great leveller – a fearsome test of governments and governing philosophies the world over. Democracies and autocracies alike have been exposed and found ill-prepared, under-equipped, and too slow to respond.

The United States, for all its power, wealth, and technological might, has proved to be as vulnerable as any other country.

With America deep in the grim struggle against the coronavirus, China is seeking to rewrite the history of its own initial coverup and mishandling of the outbreak in Wuhan, and to promote a positive story of its “responsible” and “resolute” handling of the pandemic.

Unpredictability and unilateralism weaken America’s authority and its ability to shape events through the power of ideas and example. Competitors are emboldened to act in similar ways.

The subtext is clear – you may not like us and our authoritarianism, but we are succeeding where others are failing. Some commentators worry Beijing is gaining traction with this narrative and that China will emerge from the pandemic with its global influence enhanced, while America’s will be diminished.

Perhaps. But the relative standing of China and the US in a post-pandemic world will be determined less by what China does and more by decisions taken in Washington. Tactics used successfully by the Communist Party inside China don’t necessarily work as well abroad.

Beijing’s bizarre promotion of conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, heavy-handed propaganda, and calculated use of medical aid for political ends is alienating and angering as many partners as it is winning friends.

The President of Serbia might be happy, but the democratic heart of Western Europe is not buying the spin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a case in point, neatly sidestepping the propaganda by welcoming China’s aid to Europe as appropriate “reciprocity” for the European Union’s own earlier support of China.

China’s “face-mask diplomacy” might gain more traction in parts of Asia, especially in those countries already susceptible to its influence. China is providing desperately needed medical supplies in Southeast Asia, for example.

But even in Asia, America’s destiny is largely in its own hands.

The biggest risk to US global standing will come if the pandemic leads to a doubling down on the self-defeating, zero-sum approaches that too often define “America First” foreign policy. The absence of US global leadership in response to the pandemic, and the instinctive grasp for unilateral advantage even in midst of the crisis, demonstrate just how much “America First” has distorted conceptions of US national interests.

Strong US global leadership to contain the pandemic, accelerate the development of a vaccine, and prop up the world’s economy and financial system would be strongly in Washington’s public-health and economic interests. Such efforts would also be a positive counter to China’s geopolitical front-footedness.

The epidemiologists providing advice to governments on containment strategies know this. The scientists working across the increasingly deep fault lines of the US-China relationship to fast-track a vaccine know this. Central banks coordinating to ensure financial stability know it, too.

This is not fuzzy globalism for the sake of it, but clear-eyed international cooperation to advance and protect important US national interests.

While the pandemic exposes “America First” like no other issue has done, the limitations of this stance have been evident for some time as a framework for sustaining US global influence in a more competitive and contested era. Unpredictability and unilateralism weaken America’s authority, and its ability to shape events through the power of ideas and example. Competitors are emboldened to act in similar ways. This cannot be in US long-term interests as its share of global power declines.

By withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreements, the US has weakened its ability to push China and India to act more aggressively on climate change, which they simply must do if global emission reduction targets are to be met.

The Trump administration elevated competition with China to the centre of US national security strategy. This was an overdue correction in response to a more ideological, authoritarian, and assertive China.

Yet the “America First” narrative, devaluing of allies, and coercive trade policies undercut US strategic objectives, alienating friends and feeding doubt about the durability of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific.

Aid packages donated by the People’s Republic of China are unloaded at the Villamor Air Base in Manila, Philippines, 21 March (Toto Lozano/Prachatai/Flickr)

It is often argued that an “America First” approach to the world is the inevitable consequence of the weariness of the American public with costly foreign wars and the job losses and cultural “homogenisation” that have come with globalisation.

There is some truth to this. Americans clearly want their government to focus on domestic problems. Most no longer want to pay the price that comes with upholding a global order that reflects America’s values and political and economic system. The task now is too hard and the cost too high.

“Principled realism”, as the administration has come to call its foreign policy, might have been a reasonable response to these new realities if it wasn’t so contradictory, and if its comprehension of American national interests not so narrow and short-term.

There are alternatives. We will be picking up the pieces of the post-pandemic world for a long time to come, but it remains entirely possible for US foreign policy to find a productive path between narrow nationalism and costly imperial overreach. Nothing in such an approach would be incompatible with strong state sovereignty and a healthy dose of realism and self-interest.

The future shape of a post-pandemic world is not yet clear – we do not know what will change and what will endure.

One possible future is a “poorer, meaner, smaller” world, as former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon speculated recently. This would be a fragmented world of stronger nationalism, of higher walls, of spheres of influence and zero-sum approaches, of hostile US-China relations. Australia would be less secure and prosperous in such a world.

More than any other factor, what America does and how it engages globally from this point on will determine what kind of post-pandemic world we inherit. We will need more than “America First”.

Xi Jinping emerges stronger from Covid-19 outbreak

Published 6 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

The tardy response by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) to the Covid-19 outbreak triggered widespread community outrage. But Beijing’s draconian crackdown, paired with intense scrutiny and intrusion into the daily lives of ordinary citizens, has further consolidated power in the hands of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Covid-19 has reinforced perceptions of the weaknesses in the PRC’s political system. The self-interest of local-level authorities to cover up the true extent of the pandemic to prevent punishment meted out by the central level reflects the contradictions within. Meanwhile, lives are lost in this tug of war.

Observers have been quick to conclude the pandemic has undermined the standing of Xi and the CCP, both domestically and globally. In fact, it has done the opposite. The Hubei-wide lockdown and other extreme measures enforced by the CCP were designed, at least in part, to secure the people’s confidence in the strength of the CCP’s capacity to govern. But paralysis and a lack of transparency at all levels of government – particularly during the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak – reveals a damaging gap between official rhetoric and reality on the ground.

Given the PRC’s previous experience with SARS in 2003, transparent information sharing should be expected to be part of the crucial response infrastructure to mitigate transmissions and save lives. Sadly, the PRC’s response to Covid-19 offers little to suggest that such lessons have been learned. The pattern of response has been disturbingly familiar, and transparency has been conspicuously absent.

There are striking similarities in the PRC’s responses to Covid-19 in 2020 and the SARS outbreak almost 18 years ago. In mid-December 2002, PRC health experts in Guangdong were alerted to the outbreak of a mystery virus that subsequently became known as SARS. Further testing was conducted in early January 2003 with results sent to the Ministry of Health in late-January. But it wasn’t until mid-February that officials in Guangdong finally sounded the alarm on SARS.

Self-interest, self-preservation, and a preoccupation with stability and economic growth conspire against the transparency needed to inform timely responses. As a result, lives are lost.

The parallels with Covid-19 are clear. First, local officials tried to hide the full extent of the issue from the central government and the public. Between late December 2019 and January 2020, the China National Health Commission sent three teams to Wuhan to collect evidence of Covid-19. But they were stymied by local officials seeking to project calm in advance of an annual meeting of local officials from Hubei Province.

Provincial authorities in Guangdong also sought to conceal the true nature of SARS in 2003. The Guangdong Province aimed to stem community panic and ensure no disruption to the critical flow of foreign direct investment into the province. Economic growth fuelled by foreign investors was deemed a higher priority than dealing with the risk to public health posed by SARS.

In both SARS and Covid-19, officials tried to silence those seeking to alert the public. In April 2003, journalists and newspaper editors were arrested for spreading “rumours” and for publishing official documents related to SARS. Similarly, in late December 2019, Ai Fen, director of the emergency ward at Wuhan Central hospital, shared the SARS-like results of her tests with hospital authorities in person and other medical professionals on a WeChat group. The results were distributed more widely by Li Wenliang via social media. Both doctors, Ai and Li were subsequently accused of “spreading rumours and causing trouble … and causing social panic.” The citizen journalist, Li Zehua, has not been seen since he posted a video report and footage of him being pursued by security forces in Wuhan.

The obstruction of expert investigators by local officials delayed a timely response to what has become a pandemic.

There are three lessons to be drawn from SARS and Covid-19 regarding the durability of authoritarian regimes. First, self-interest, self-preservation, and a preoccupation with stability and economic growth conspire against the transparency needed to inform timely responses. As a result, lives are lost. The frontline cadres of the party-state system are both a tool and a hindrance to the regime’s durability.

Second, crises such as SARS, Covid-19, and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake allow the CCP to expose the limitations of local officials, and demonstrate the power and control invested in the party. Brief periods of benevolence are followed by the further consolidation of power in Beijing.

Finally, the party-state actively controls the narrative. With Covid-19, the party-state is already sowing seeds of doubt about the origins of the virus to consolidate the power of the CCP.

Xi’s recent tour of the economically vibrant province of Zhejiang marks a declaration of the CCP’s victory over Covid-19. Critics of the draconian measures in Wuhan have been cast aside. Factories have reopened, and community life is returning to normal. The message is clear – with Xi at the helm, the virus has been defeated. Covid-19 has not diminished Xi’s position. On the contrary, he is more powerful, and the authoritarian regime is stronger than ever.

A global call to arms

Dhaka, Bangladesh (Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Dhaka, Bangladesh (Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 6 Apr 2020 07:30   0 Comments

With confirmed Covid-19 cases now well past the million mark, most of the world is looking inward. Many countries feel overwhelmed by their local fight against the virus. But while some countries are just coping, others face a choice between stopping the pandemic or a famine. Most likely they will experience both. Any of us who can help, must.

Australia has joined the ranks of countries with their heads above water, led by Singapore (now under stricter lockdown), Taiwan, and South Korea, with Japan, and New Zealand. Canada and some European nations are also doing well. These countries have managed to respond just about early and strongly enough (for now) on both health and economic fronts. They all still have difficult months ahead, but other countries are in much worse positions. This is especially true for the developing world.

Imran Khan has warned that Pakistan cannot enact essential distancing measures without causing starvation. He says India, Iran, and others are facing similar or worse situations. Indonesia is fighting blind, without adequate testing. In South Africa, the government is unable to convey the urgency of health measures to the public. Zimbabwe is warning “we will starve”. Much of Africa is struggling, their health system already strained by ongoing epidemics. There are now fears that polio may re-emerge, compounding the crisis.

The US and People’s Republic of China cannot be relied upon to help: both are preoccupied blaming each other, while the US is struggling to cope with either health or economic crisis, and the PRC is focused on propaganda and opportunism.

In what can only be characterised as a “G-0” world, leadership falls to those who are willing.

Australia and New Zealand have special responsibilities toward their Pacific “family”. The announcement last week “Responding to the Covid-19 challenge in the Pacific” from Foreign Minister Marise Payne and International Development Minister Alex Hawke was welcome, but it must be the first step of many. Australian aid and development experts are asking if Covid-19 may divert resources from an already diminished development assistance budget. It must instead be a call to arms. Urgent action is required.

This is a virus that threatens the long-term interests and security of people everywhere, so it is not a challenge to leave for others to deal with alone.

The International Monetary Fund has called for wartime policy measures: first to save lives and stop the pandemic, then to ensure the post-war recovery. This should begin by ensuring the IMF is not collecting loan repayments from countries in urgent need of fiscal resources as the battle continues against the virus. The World Bank launched its first Covid-19 emergency support last week. It amounts to less than $2 billion, with a plan to provide $160 billion over 15 months. Over 15 days would be better.

The core principles of the strategy for fighting Covid-19 are now well established: slow the spread of the disease with distance and hygiene, so that cases can be found and isolated. But the rest of the world needs to survive through the social distancing measures, which means food and health services must continue. And as much as possible, work cultures must be switched to a distributed model, where connections are not physical. It is essential the world emerges from this crisis stronger, and more caring than we entered it.

Human solidarity is the best way to counter the opportunists seeking to use the crisis to further personal or geopolitical agendas. This is a virus that threatens the long-term interests and security of people everywhere, so it is not a challenge to leave for others to deal with alone. It is disappointing that existing mechanisms such as the UN Security Council have not risen to meet the challenge, but this only means that others must rise in their place.

The Covid-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge thanks to the connectivity of the modern world, yet with the usual leaders missing amid a retreat behind borders, it is incumbent on countries such as Australia to help spur a global response. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that “if you have a job, that’s an essential job”, many laughed. But he is not wrong. Morrison was talking about the domestic economy, but internationally, Australia has a job, too, and it is an essential one. To offer leadership, not for glory, but to empower and unite with those countries that are also stepping forward. If the G20 is the vehicle of choice, Australia should ensure that each of those countries that have led in this fight are represented there. This should include Taiwan and Singapore: their hard-won expertise is needed.

The fight against coronavirus will not be a short one. At times countries will do well, while others will not, and each will be in need of help at some times more than in other moments. Those hurting least must take the chance to help those hurting most. In a pandemic, helping your neighbour is helping yourself, because the best way to stay safe from a virus is to not be surrounded by it.

Timor-Leste: The consequences of Covid-19

Government Palace in Dili (Getty Images)
Government Palace in Dili (Getty Images)
Published 3 Apr 2020 10:00   0 Comments

As of today, Timor-Leste has one confirmed case of Covid-19. Nonetheless, the feeling of panic among the public has been mounting. There is a valid reason for this: Timor-Leste’s public health system is under-resourced to respond to an outbreak of this scale.

Over the last one month, the government has taken several measures to prevent the spread of the virus, mobilising resources amid political uncertainty, budget constraints, and limited technical capacity. Despite the political divisions among power holders, the parliament unanimously voted in favor of President Francisco Guterres’s motion to declare a state of emergency, which came into force on 28 March. It enables the government to impose restrictions on movement, including enforcement of physical distancing. It suspends all public transport, and prohibits large gatherings and performing cultural ceremonies.

The government also requested parliamentary approval for the Petroleum Fund withdrawal of $400 million, for general spending as well as public spending to stimulate the economy. Yesterday, on 2 April, parliament approved $250 million of that request.

Media outlets are broadcasting messages to communities on prevention measures and bringing public-health practitioners to inform people about the coronavirus. In Dili, shops everywhere can be seen providing water and disinfected soaps. The Catholic Church has suspended celebration of mass across the country.

The effectiveness of prevention measures is yet to be proven at this point, but they show that despite the internal struggles concerning the legitimacy of the government, the political powers are still able to unite for the cause.

International development partners are also playing an active role. The Australian government, through the Menzies School of Health Research, is  partnering with the National Laboratory to validate tests for Covid-19. The government is also requesting assistance from China and Cuba. Cuba has long been a strategic partner for Timor-Leste in the health sector. Many international agencies in the country have adopted working-from-home practices.

The effectiveness of prevention measures is yet to be proven at this point, but they show that despite the internal struggles concerning the legitimacy of the government, the political powers are still able to unite for the cause. Covid-19 has overtaken the heated political debate among the elites, although it does not erase it. But the main concern is that when the virus becomes widespread, it will overwhelm already limited capacity.

The impact of Covid-19 will not be limited to the public health sector. As certain restrictions are imposed, worldwide and at the domestic level, it affects the cycle of economic activity of the country, adding another layer to the social and economic problems that Timor already has. The country’s domestic economy depends largely on government spending of petroleum revenues. There are limited jobs available in the formal sector to absorb a growing young population.

Timor-Leste’s economy has already experienced recession since 2017, due to internal political divisions. In 2017 and 2018, the GDP declined by 3.8% and 0.8%, respectively. Value added in important sectors such as retail and wholesale, accommodations and restaurants, as well as the transport sector declined significantly, according to the 2018 National Account report. The Business Activities Report also highlights that the the income of the business sector and private sector employment have been in decline since 2016. The economy began to show signs of recovery for 2020, which the World Bank estimated at 3.9%. However, the economy already slowed when parliament voted down the 2020 budget proposal in January this year. With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the world economy, Timor-Leste will return to recession. The most recent World Bank East Asia and Pacific Economic Update forecasted a growth rate of minus 2.8% in 2020.

This will inevitably affect employment, income, individual consumption, and the overall well-being of people. The severity of the impact of Covid-19 will depend, of course, on how long the pandemic lasts and the government’s response.

Even before the first case was confirmed and the state of emergency declared, the country’s economy was affected by the pandemic. The Petroleum Fund lost $1.8 billion due to financial market shocks, according to the Central Bank, which will affect government revenues. Tourism has been the hardest-hit sector, given the travel restrictions imposed worldwide. Although the country’s service export is small ($19.2 million in 2018), it has a direct effect on the domestic economy and people’s incomes. The retail and wholesale industry inevitably also suffer the consequences as the domestic demand for non-food items declines.

These factors will have tremendous impacts on employment in the formal and informal sectors. There are around 60,000 jobs in the private sector, which the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response have already put at risk. The informal sector is also not safe – it is the biggest source of income for Timorese, making up around 60% of employment. It faces a tough situation as domestic demand declines and the state of emergency continues. Around 250,000 people face losing their source of income. Given the high dependency rate, this would heavily affect household consumption. The most obvious example is in public transport service, which is privately owned. The state of emergency and the temporary suspension of school activities around the country mean that that they are losing their source of income.

No one is certain of how long this situation last, but the impacts are obvious and undisputable. It will deepen the severity of poverty in the country – not only in economic terms, but in social dimensions as well.

Covid-19 is not only a health crisis, it’s a migration crisis

A shopping centre in Sydney, 29 March. Australia’s agriculture sector is heavily reliant on migrant labour (Izhar Khan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A shopping centre in Sydney, 29 March. Australia’s agriculture sector is heavily reliant on migrant labour (Izhar Khan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 2 Apr 2020 15:00   0 Comments

As Covid-19 spreads around the globe, it is precipitating a series of other shocks, one of which is a crisis in human movement. Australia, as one of the key migrant-receiving nations globally, is particularly affected.

The migration crisis currently unfolding in Australia is primarily one of temporary migration. Permanent residents have been granted most of the same protections as Australian citizens as the coronavirus outbreak unfolds, including access to welfare, removal of waiting periods for entitlements, and access to Medicare. Saying that it is a temporary migration crisis does not, however, diminish the importance of this issue, because the vast bulk of migrants in Australia are temporary and Australia has one of the highest rates of temporary migration of any democracy. This crisis will affect Australia’s economic, labour, and welfare settings around migration.

The Covid-19 crisis is a mirror of our underlying economic and social fabric. It is refracting back to us all the forms of economic and social inequality that we have always had.

An underappreciated aspect of the 2019 federal budget was how important immigration was to the projections of a future surplus – projections that are now impossible in light of the Covid-19 crisis. The budget papers reveal that the surplus was predicated upon high levels of Net Overseas Migration (NOM), estimated to rise to 263,000 in 2022, ahead of other estimates for NOM. These forward estimates were also generated at the same time as permanent entry was capped in 2019 at 160,000. As these cuts have occured, the bulk of this NOM can now be expected to come from temporary migrants, who are also lucrative to the state of the budget as net contributors to Australia. Most temporary migrants are workers who pay tax. Fewer are of schooling or retirement age, so they place less pressure on social services, from which they are often excluded in any case through a general requirement to take out health insurance.

In short, temporary migration is an integral component of Australia’s economic success story. 

The Covid-19 travel ban now places a ban on entry on all but some exceptional cases of temporary migrants (non-residents) to Australia. With health concerns taking precedence over human movement, the pause on entry of new temporary migrants into Australia could go on for many months. Of course, many temporary migrants who would have exited are now stuck, which could bolster the existing NOM, but we cannot predict the long-term rate of departures of these migrants once travel bans are lifted.

A particularly important group here is international students, both in terms of their part-time work contribution, but also the considerable revenue they contribute to the tertiary education system and their importance to Australia’s economy growth more broadly. While some of these students are onshore, others, particularly from mainland China, are stranded overseas. How will Covid-19 affect their future education decisions and thereby, their engagement with Australia’s education system?

Migrant workers comprise a relatively high 8–10% of all workers in the Australian labour market, based on best estimates. Key industries that rely upon temporary migrant workers will now suffer shortages – including in areas now at the forefront of Australians’ minds, such as logistics, delivery, horticulture and agriculture. Some temporary migrants who lose jobs in declining sectors such as hospitality and tourism might be redeployed to these industries, and acting Home Affairs Minister Alan Tudge has indicated that there will be more flexibility for such movement. Border Force has been granted the power to make exceptions for temporary entry of workers in certain health areas, no doubt in recognition of the fact that 5% of doctors and 10% of nurses and aged-care support staff are temporary migrants.

Covid-19 has led to a rapid change in the working rights of temporary migrants. With no real policy debate, rules have been changed for certain categories of temporary migrants such as international nursing, where students are now allowed to work the same number of hours as domestic nurses. International students have also had their working rights extended to 40 hours a week (previously 40 hours a fortnight) if they are already employed in supermarkets or aged-care facilities. While this immediate inflow of workers is no doubt welcome to business owners, the exact interaction of these changes with domestic labour dynamics at a time of growing unemployment is an important question.

One argument is that these new relaxations are in areas where Australians are unprepared to work and so are justified. However, with domestic unemployment growing so rapidly, this may no longer be the case – Australians may now be prepared to take on jobs or even move for work where they previously were not. If so, new forms of labour market displacement could be occurring by extending new working rights to temporary migrants.

A food delivery worker in Melbourne, 29 March (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

An alternate perspective, as was revealed through the 7-Eleven scandal, is that many international students were already in breach of their working conditions of 40 hours per fortnight and that this recent change is simply in line with the existing reality. It is also pragmatic because if international students are working, they are less likely to call for support from our already overburdened welfare system.

In recent weeks, we have also seen historic increases to Newstart Allowance and other basic welfare payments, and the establishment of a JobKeeper Payment to assist employers in retaining employees who might otherwise lose their jobs. Yet, with the exception of New Zealanders on the temporary 444 visa, temporary migrants have no access to these payments. An estimated 1.1 million temporary migrants would therefore potentially be without any form of welfare assistance. In some cases, this includes those on visas that are not entitled to change employers or occupation under present rules. 

The risks for these migrants are considerable. Without family and friend networks and government support, they are more likely to become homeless than Australian citizens or permanent residents. Alternately, they may rely on already over-stretched charity organisations. Without a broad moratorium on lapsed visa status during this crisis period, those on short-term visas are also likely to become undocumented.

The Covid-19 crisis is not only a health crisis. It is a mirror of our underlying economic and social fabric. It is refracting back to us all the forms of economic and social inequality that we have always had. And now those inequalities are becoming amplified. To the extent that migration is crucial to our economy and our labour market, the current migration pandemic crisis is also a broader challenge for Australian society, for which pragmatic, human, and community-minded responses are urgently needed.

Covid-19: Jokowi must win back his people’s trust after early missteps

Sounding the alarm – an official broadcasts social distancing regulations in Jakarta (Afriadi Hikmal/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Sounding the alarm – an official broadcasts social distancing regulations in Jakarta (Afriadi Hikmal/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 2 Apr 2020 12:30   0 Comments

Indonesia troubles are mounting fast. The country continues to see an increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases since discovering its first two on 2 March. In the weeks since, the number has risen to 1,677 cases, including 157 deaths, and 103 recoveries. Predictions suggest there may be as many as 71,000 cases by the end of April.

With hospitals becoming quickly overwhelmed and medical professionals lacking vital protective gear, it is easy to be pessimistic. Compounding the challenge, already at least 61 medical professionals in Jakarta have contracted the virus. Countries such as neighbouring Australia have urged their citizens to leave, warning critical care services in Indonesian are “significantly below” what is available at home.

The Jokowi administration has scrambled to mitigate the pandemic. Yet only after weeks of delay. It has allocated IDR 405 trillion ($39.6 billion) for the expansion of health infrastructure and equipment, allocated social welfare for up to 10 million households, plus food assistance and electricity tariff discounts. Finally, on Tuesday, the regulation for large scale social distancing was announced, putting into effect more stringent guidelines to limit movement across regions and physical interaction.  

Official updates should be made fast, as delay in informing the public will imply a lack of responsiveness – or worse, efforts to keep information from the public.

While the government insists that it is considering more mechanisms to mitigate the spread of the virus, especially with the month of Ramadan approaching, it is critical to look beyond ad hoc and short-term measures. The economic shock caused by the coronavirus is forecasted to be more severe than the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis, with both China and the US struggling to contain the spread of the virus and limit the economic fallout. Global economic growth may go as low as 1.5% this year. Indonesia’s currency has already fallen to IDR 16,495 against the US dollar ­– a measure closely watched with memories of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s – while a slump in economic growth is anticipated. Manufacturing appears most in line to be affected, with more than 18 million Indonesians working in the sector.

The outlook is grim. With such forecasts in hand, anticipating – and mitigating – public distrust is critical. But the early signs have not been encouraging. There has been plenty of criticism of the government’s initial response to the pandemic, with people taking to Indonesia’s popular social media channels to express their disappointment about officials’ comments downplaying the severity of the virus, the government’s refusal to purchase test kits from Singapore in mid-March, as well as the US$725 million budget allocated to boost tourism as opposed to early measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Public trust has been further dented by the central government’s deliberate decision to withhold information about infection rates in the name of social stability, and its lack of coordination with the administration in local provinces. Several regions, such as Tegal and Papua, decided for themselves to enforce local isolation, while others, like Prabumulih, have chosen to wait until cases were confirmed in their areas before applying mitigation policies.

People have slowly begun to follow the government’s calls for physical distancing, indicating an improvement over previous disobedience, but with the dawning public awareness about the severity of the pandemic follows the risk of self-defeating alarm. Panic buying has already created scarcity for certain goods. Again, this comes back to how much faith people put in authorities.

While there also have been predictions that the spread of the virus itself may subside in early June, the effects of the outbreak will be long term. Restoring trust in the government will be yet another complication for recovery in the aftermath. That effort must start now, while the crisis is unfolding.

Communication is key. The government should be transparent not only about its strategies to combat the outbreak, but also about current conditions. Official updates should be made fast, as delay in informing the public will imply a lack of responsiveness – or worse, efforts to keep information from the public – especially when people are able to access other sources of information.

This task is urgent because the infection rates look likely to surge in the days ahead. In the past week alone, at least 14,000 people travelled by bus from greater Jakarta to other provinces in Java – not accounting for all the other modes of transport. Yet Jakarta reportedly has at least 808 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The outbreak is spreading. Without the government taking active measures to strengthen public trust, it risks turning what is already a complex outbreak into something worse.

China-US geopolitics in the age of corona

Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images
Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images
Published 2 Apr 2020 09:30   0 Comments

The coronavirus pandemic is a “black swan” moment: a rare and unpredictable event that could have momentous, system-wide, and unforeseen consequences. China deserves credit for having mobilised quickly, efficiently, and effectively after initial missteps to defeat the Covid-19 disease. Domestically, the early coverups and punishment of whistle-blowers have been displaced by the narrative of a heroic patriotic victory led by President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing is now retooling to capitalise by claiming global leadership on turning the tide. While many Western countries dithered, China successfully contained the epidemic with brutal efficiency as a strong authoritarian state. Meanwhile democratic India is using equally brutal tactics to enforce the world’s harshest lockdown, for example by spraying desperate migrant workers with chemical disinfectant. The privileged jet-setters who imported the virus can utilise the private hospitals but the poor they infect have little access to decent healthcare and will be disproportionately devastated.

The pandemic highlighted the world’s dependence on China for critical supplies as a risk with a concreteness that no amount of abstract discussions could capture.

One roadblock to Beijing’s global lustre is aggressive questioning of why greater China has been the source of many serial flu outbreaks. Even the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic may have started with Chinese labourers. China must implement tough measures to clean up the wet markets that are breeding grounds for species-hopping viruses. “National sovereignty” is a meaningless juridical fiction against the empirical reality of diseases that cross borders at lightning speed.

The four-decade rise of China has greatly enhanced its weight in regional and global institutions, and also cemented its place as the hub of global supply chains across a broad array of manufacturing sectors. The pandemic highlighted the world’s dependence on China for critical supplies as a risk with a concreteness that no amount of abstract discussions could capture. Policies will henceforth pivot, on strategic grounds, to self-reliance and diversification of suppliers. However, this must be supplemented with building international functional redundancy in food supplies, health and value chains in a deliberate strategy of “risk reduction through diversification”.

The 2008–09 financial crisis marked the end of the “unipolar” moment of unchallengeable US primacy. China skilfully exploited the collapse of US and European reputation for economic competence and moral and financial rectitude to expand its worldwide soft power. The coronavirus panic could potentially mark the moment of Chinese ascendancy in the “psychological balance of power”.

China’s Xi Jinping at the 2018 BRICS summit (GovernmentZA/Flickr)

Will voters reward President Donald Trump for his intuition that US trade policies had facilitated the rise of China as a potentially hostile great power and given it the tools to disrupt the supplies of essential goods in a global emergency?

Trump seems uninterested in exercising US diplomatic and economic leadership. The European Union has failed the test in its responses to Italy, an original member, and Serbia, a candidate country. Serbia was encouraged to switch imports from China to Europe but was refused medical goods to cope with Covid-19 because the equipment is needed for EU health-care systems; Italy issued urgent requests for ventilators and masks, but none were forthcoming from EU partners. China stepped into the breach in both cases, complete with photo-ops.

China’s diplomatic march through developing countries, where the biggest killer is poverty, will be even more decisive. The world’s bottom billion subsist in a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish and short”. The human and economic costs of coronavirus will be far more devastating with low state capacity, weak health systems, teeming slums, unclean water and sanitation systems, congested mass transit, and inadequate safety nets. The killer ailments are water-borne infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies and neonatal and maternal complications. The biggest death toll even from the 1918 pandemic – between one-sixth to one-third of the total – was in India.

US President Donald Trump salutes USNS Comfort en route to New York City for Covid-19 relief efforts (White House/Flickr)

Coronavirus threatens to overwhelm the health and economies of many developing countries dependent on tourism and commodity exports and vulnerable to capital flight. In addition to lending a helping hand to Italy and Serbia, China, Jack Ma and the Alibaba Foundation have also shipped supplies to countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Exploiting the open lack of Euro–Atlantic solidarity, China has waged a surprisingly successful coronavirus propaganda war as the world’s white knight. The US and European governments have focussed inwardly on domestic concerns; China has kept its eye on the prize of discrediting and displacing the US as the go-to major power in global crises. Most recipient countries of China’s largesse to help cope with the pandemic will soften criticisms of its domestic and regional misdemeanours.

With US disengagement from the UN, China has put its nationals at the head of four of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies, compared to other Security Council permanent members with just one each. In a compelling demonstration of the consequences of the crumbling architecture of world order, Trump’s disruption of the global trading order made it correspondingly more difficult to organise a coordinated response to the pandemic or to provide the requisite world leadership. Amidst the potential wreckage of the major Western economies under protracted lockdowns, China’s capital markets remain strong and far from fearing a decoupled world, China may set the terms on which it’s implemented.

In fresh proof that history does irony, the coronavirus epidemic that was “Made in China” and multiplied out of control because of initial obfuscation and denialism, may end up expanding China’s global reach and influence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and the threat to South Asian democracy

Customers queue outside a pharmacy on the first day of a 21-day national lockdown, Allahabad, India, 25 March
Customers queue outside a pharmacy on the first day of a 21-day national lockdown, Allahabad, India, 25 March
Published 27 Mar 2020 16:30   0 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman is sprayed with disinfectant on Monday before entering a local government office as a precautionary move against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, Indonesia (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman is sprayed with disinfectant on Monday before entering a local government office as a precautionary move against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, Indonesia (Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 17:30   0 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippines: Covid-19 will devastate the poor

Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Manila, Philippines (Pavel Sinitcyn/Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2020 16:00   0 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many prescriptions for isolation

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesia: Covid-19 crisis reveals cracks in Jokowi’s ad hoc politics

Indonesian medical officers spray disinfectant at Adisucipto International Airport on 16 March in Yogyakarta (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Indonesian medical officers spray disinfectant at Adisucipto International Airport on 16 March in Yogyakarta (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Published 17 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As he rose rapidly from furniture businessman to mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta to president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo stuck to the same approach to politics: build things, cut some red tape, improve access to basic services (though not necessarily their quality), and lean on civil servants to be more efficient.

It has proved to be a remarkably successful electoral formula, partly because of his natural talent as a political salesman, and partly because other leading politicians have performed so badly that these incremental improvements appear more revolutionary than they should.

But the Covid-19 crisis is revealing the weaknesses in his tactical approach to politics, his ad hoc leadership style, and the lack of strategic thinking in his government.

Across the world, this pandemic is shining the most unflattering of lights on the weaknesses of our political systems, societies, and economies. But the problem is particularly acute for Indonesia.

The initial response has been worryingly blasé, with controversial health minister Terawan Agus Putranto suggesting that prayers would help keep Indonesians safe from the virus and generally failing to get on top of the problem. As of Monday, Indonesia had only tested just over 1200 people for Covid-19, a worryingly small number, and reported 134 cases. No wonder that many scientists (and ordinary citizens) fear that the spread in Indonesia, with a population of more than 260 million people, is much more widespread. And no wonder that wealthy Indonesians had been decamping to Singapore, before it put restrictions on their entry (and others’) on Monday.

The lack of testing also points to a broader lack of transparency. Last week, Jokowi himself said that the government was holding back information about the spread of the disease from the public because it “did not want to stir panic”. An economy-first president, he is clearly worried about the impact of response measures on jobs and business. He has, rightly, tried to reassure people and to encourage them to take the appropriate basic precautions, such as vigorous hand-washing and minimising non-essential social contact. But the government needs to be far more open when managing a public health crisis of this scale in a sprawling democracy.

In the last few days, there has been something of a course correction, with Jokowi setting up a “fast response” team to tackle the crisis and asserting that the central government will take control. But there is a still a lack of cross-government coordination, and no clear and transparent plan for how to combat Covid-19. Jokowi’s political instincts – to build things, “go to the ground”, and carry out spot checks – are not sufficient for a crisis of this scale and velocity. One of the reasons that local governments started to implement their own measures was because they were losing faith in Jokowi’s ability to manage the outbreak.

On Monday, the smiling health minister Terawan held a public ceremony to give commemorative packets of jamu, a traditional herbal concoction, from Jokowi to three patients who had recovered from Covid-19. While Terawan presumably intended to boost morale, it was clearly the wrong message, at the wrong time, in the wrong manner. And it suggests that Jokowi and his government have a long way to go to get a grip on this crisis.

The challenge, of course, is not unique to Indonesia. Across the world, this pandemic is shining the most unflattering of lights on the weaknesses of our political systems, societies, and economies. But the problem is particularly acute for Indonesia. Not only is it the world’s fourth most-populous country, but it includes one of the world’s most densely populated islands, Java, suffers from still-high levels of poverty and basic health problems, and has a weak and chronically underfunded hospital system.

Indonesia has long been held back by a lack of coordination across ministries and between the central and local governments. Jokowi could not hope to fix this in two five-year terms in office, even if he had taken a more radical approach to reform. But now, more than ever, his government needs to move beyond its disparate, reactive stance and develop a coherent and clear strategy for tackling a health crisis that is testing us all, but could hit Indonesia particularly hard.

Covid-19 in China, the US, India: Comparative crisis management 101

The spread of the virus is putting very divergent political systems to the test (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
The spread of the virus is putting very divergent political systems to the test (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Published 12 Mar 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Whatever else the rapidly evolving and increasingly global health crisis may or may not do, it’s shining an unforgiving light on the relative capacities of national health systems. Even more importantly in the longer-term, perhaps, it’s providing a searching examination of political leaders, and the ability of very different political systems to deal with unexpected crises.

When the novel coronavirus Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan there was a rather predictable pile on, as commentators from the US in particular pointed to the possible failings of the Chinese system. Too much secrecy, self-protection, and poor regulation of dodgy cultural practices were held up as examples of all that could go wrong in non-transparent authoritarian regimes governed by strongman leaders.

There was initially something to such criticisms, no doubt, as protecting the reputation and authority of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party seemed to take precedence over protecting the people. But once the scale of the problem became clear, China’s leaders moved rapidly to assert control and imposed draconian controls over the movement and behaviour of the population.

Whatever you may think of the CCP and the way it runs the country, it knows how to do social control. China’s population may not like it much – unless it’s happening in Xinxiang, of course – but they are used to living with authoritarianism, and are seemingly more willing to make the implicit trade-off between social order and social control.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese government responded to the virus outbreak at first with secrecy, then with draconian control (UN Geneva)

Even those people who consider that an unacceptable bargain would have to concede that – when it comes to controlling pandemics, at least – it seems to be working. From being the epicentre of the global crisis, China has now become something of a role model for effective policy implementation, something confirmed by its rapidly falling infection rate. Certainly China also appears determined to shift the narrative in its favour.

In the United States, on the other hand, an altogether more chaotic story is emerging. Not only has Donald Trump admitted that he didn’t realise that flu of any sort actually killed people, but he has appointed his deputy, Mike Pence, to oversee America’s response. Pence has no medical qualifications, and his handling of a 2015 HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor of the state has come under renewed scrutiny. A former US Centers for Control director reportedly said of Pence that his inaction as governor gave Austin, Indiana, with a population of around 4200, a higher HIV prevalence than “any country in sub-Saharan Africa”. Yet Pence has now been put in charge of overseeing response to a public health crisis in a country of 327 million people.

Trump announced on Thursday a ban for non-essential travel to the US from Europe – exempting the United Kingdom.

Ironically, many of the working poor who propelled Trump into office do not have healthcare cover, have poorly paid jobs, and simply cannot afford to take time off work to “self-isolate”. The idea that a nation of supposedly rugged individualists would actually embrace such an infringement on their liberties is another question, of course.

US Vice President Mike Pence (second from left) in a briefing on coronavirus with health insurance executives on 10 March (White House/Flickr)

More than half the American population is incapable of dealing with an unexpected $500 financial emergency. Health and human services secretary, Alex Azar told Congress that the government couldn’t control the price of test kits for Covid-19, something that may explain the fact that the US has performed five coronavirus tests per million people, compared with South Korea’s 3,692 tests per million.

It is not unreasonable to infer that true infection rates may be much higher than reported in the US, and that treatment will not be easy to access for the swelling ranks of impoverished Americans.

Crises proved an especially searching test for strongmen leaders who like to project an aura of competence if not invincibility. At least the infrastructure and capacity for such a response may be available in the US, if it can be mobilised and made available to those that need. The challenge is even more daunting in India.

India’s national health minister has announced a suite of measures to deal with the outbreak, including a ban on the export of pharmaceutical drugs and ingredients, screening international passengers, the formation of rapid response health teams, public awareness campaigns, the precautionary shutting of schools, and collaboration with private hospitals and laboratories. The government has also suspended most visas and visa-free travel until 15 April, and the national carrier Air India has cancelled flights to Korea and Italy. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Rumours and misinformation about coronavirus have added to the growing sense of alarm in the country (Wikimedia Commons)

However, health experts have raised concerns about the India’s ability to deal with a spreading epidemic, given the extremely uneven nature of its public healthcare system, its generally poor record of dealing with communicable diseases.

The first cases of Covid-19 in India were detected in the state of Kerala, where a well-functioning health system and responsive government has so far been able to detect, treat, and contain the virus. Other more populous states with dysfunctional healthcare systems, such as Uttar Pradesh, are unlikely to fare so well.

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, a Hindu monk, claimed that overcoming mental stress by practicing yoga could prevent people contracting coronavirus. Adding to the growing sense of alarm is the spread of rumours and misinformation via social media, particularly Whatsapp and YouTube which are widely used in India.

Even in Australia, where expectations about competent and timely leadership are currently much lower, the corona crisis will provide yet another test for a government with a reputation for bungling and obfuscation. This really is an issue where the safety of the nation is at stake. One more stuff up could prove terminal, and not just for the government.

Does Australian travel policy to Covid-19 countries make sense?

(Tobias Titz/Getty Images)
(Tobias Titz/Getty Images)
Published 4 Mar 2020 15:30   0 Comments

The Australian government has enacted its Emergency Response Plan for Covid-19. However, the decision to impose travel restrictions on China and then Iran, but not on Korea or Italy, has raised suspicions that the policy may be more motivated by politics than health. The reality is that there are medically important differences that explain the divergent responses.

First, decisions have been made on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPCC). The government initially restricted travel with only Hubei Province, requiring people who had been there to self-isolate for 14 days. Then, on 1 February, a level 4 travel advisory (“do not travel”) was applied to the whole of the Chinese mainland. The situation was highly uncertain and imminently irretrievable: 100,000 students were about to fly to Australia from various parts of the People’s Republic, including Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first identified. A decision was needed with not much more information to go on than “it’s highly contagious, and it kills people”. Early moves by the Chinese government to conceal the nature and scale of the situation, coupled with their strident domestic restrictions, cast widespread doubt on the reliability of epidemiological surveillance. A history of official dishonesty and a chronic lack of transparency added to the problem.

Restricting travel to and from Iran is now at least as important as restricting travel with China ever was, and for purely public health reasons.

The AHPPC made the best decision possible at the time. Since then, with more information and good evidence that the virus has been significantly restricted outside of Hubei, restrictions have been gradually reduced. Throughout the ordeal, Australia has supported Chinese people, demonstrated solidarity, and been at the forefront of global efforts to deal with Covid-19. Undoubtedly, more could and should be done, but official accusations that travel restrictions are extreme and an overreaction are unbecoming.

The Japanese and South Korean situations are different. The vast majority of cases in each country are accounted for. There are a handful of clusters of the virus, with almost every case being known: who has it, how they got it, and who they've been in contact with since. Health authorities have good awareness of the risk in Japan and South Korea. The risk is clearly higher than usual, which accounts for the government having imposed level 2 travel warnings on each country, but it is a known, manageable risk.

Likewise with Italy: surveillance of the virus in Italy is highly transparent, engendering a strong degree of trust. Even so, there is a level 2 travel warning (“exercise caution”) on travel to Italy, and a level 3 warning (“reconsider”) on ten towns in the north that Italian authorities have put under isolation. The chief health officer explicitly commented that it won’t be possible to completely restrict travel to every country where the virus is present, and with 74 countries having reported cases to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no doubt that is correct.

Iran is an entirely different situation. Knowledge of transmission in Iran is driven by deaths. Iran has recorded more than twice as many Covid-19 deaths as South Korea. That implies at least 10,000 cases unaccounted for. Restricting travel to and from Iran is now at least as important as restricting travel with China ever was, and for purely public health reasons. Iran is likely to experience a human tragedy, and Australia and other countries should do everything possible to support the Iranian people. But we should do that while also making every possible effort to contain the virus where it is.

WHO has been emphatic that the evidence shows Covid-19 can be contained through targeted, evidence-based measures. That does not mean every country should impose the restrictions seen in China. Singapore offers a better example of how to contain this virus: basic personal hygiene, sensible social distancing, targeted restrictions on movement in and out of epidemic zones, support for people most vulnerable or affected, and proportionate preparations for the unexpected are all part of a sensible response. Healthy people wearing equipment that gives them no benefit, but which is urgently needed by frontline medical workers, is not. Australia has been well served by our health professionals – they have planned for almost this precise situation and they've demonstrated their readiness every day since whistle-blowers first alerted the world to this threat.