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Zooming out of digital diplomacy

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

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

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

Stuck with an inadequate platform, diplomacy needs to innovate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blockchain solution to Covid-19 vaccine scams

Vials of Covishield, the local name for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, on the production line at the Serum Institute of India, Pune, Maharashtra (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Vials of Covishield, the local name for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, on the production line at the Serum Institute of India, Pune, Maharashtra (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Published 7 Sep 2021 14:30    0 Comments

High global demand and a shortfall in supply for some Covid-19 vaccines have contributed to booming trade in counterfeits. Interpol has called out the risk of fake Covid-19 medicines and products including vaccines, tests and protective clothing. In August, the World Health Organisation issued an alert for false versions of India’s Covishield vaccines in Uganda, India and Myanmar, while a few months earlier pharmaceutical giant Pfizer confirmed anti-wrinkle treatment and other substances had been falsely labelled as vaccines and sold for up to US$2,500 in Poland and Mexico. Earlier this year a man was arrested in China for leading a US$2.8 million racket which sold 58,000 Covid-19 vaccines faked with saline solution and mineral water.

This worrying phenomenon is contributing to the already enormous global trade in fake medicines, said to be the most profitable illegal market in the world and worth between US$100­–$431 billion yearly. WHO has estimated that at least one-in-ten medical products in low and middle-income countries in Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia are low quality or falsified, killing countless numbers of people every year.

The danger goes beyond medicines. There have been reports of fake Covid-19 vaccination certificates being sold online in Australia for up to $120, with some sites claiming that they could arrange for doctors to enter false vaccination records into the Australian Immunization Registry.

The risk of counterfeit vaccines is far higher in poorer countries where there is low supply of vaccines and high rates of Covid-19.

The risk of fake vaccines and vaccination certificates is so grave that the Commonwealth Fraud Prevention Centre, which sits inside the Attorney-General’s department, has been working with the federal Department of Health over the past year to track vaccine fraud threats around the world. Australia’s Joint Committee on Law Enforcement conducted an inquiry into vaccine fraud risks specific to Covid-19 vaccines, such as online scams. The committee heard that changing health advice around the recommended age limit for the AstraZeneca vaccine could fuel demand for alternative vaccines, while Australia’s particularly high concentration of “darknet drug vendors per capita”, according to the Cyber Security Centre, could easily create a black market in fake or illegally procured vaccines.

The risk of counterfeit vaccines is far higher in poorer countries, including those in Africa, where there is low supply of vaccines and high rates of Covid-19. Africa is already the world’s largest market for fake medicines, and in May and June, when Covid-19 case rates were soaring to up to 1700 per day, 800 people in Uganda paid between $34 to $163 for fake Covid-19 shots. According to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, one of the partners to efforts to provide equitable access to vaccines known as COVAX:

The highest risks will likely be in those countries where governments have not secured enough vaccines to meet demand, or where stock mismanagement has created shortages and where people turn to the private sector to protect themselves.

Mass vaccination tent at Treichville Stadium, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire (Erick Kaglan/World Bank via Flickr)

For several years UNICEF has been investigating the potential of blockchain for documenting the conditions of vaccines as they move through the supply chain and for proving their authenticity. Some consultants in Australia have begun to advocate for a vaccine registry using blockchain technology, which is essentially a decentralised digital ledger, to authenticate vaccines and vaccine certificates. This measure could also help maintain the quality of vaccines as they are distributed around the world. Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, WHO reported that 50–60 per cent of vaccines that require refrigeration lose their efficiency during storage or transport. Since some Covid-19 mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer, need to be stored at around minus 70 degrees Celsius, they could be affected by a breach in conditions during production, storage or distribution.

Because it is decentralised and encrypted, blockchain is relatively transparent and tamper proof.

Scanning serial numbers on packaging and storing them in a blockchain produces a digital ledger of all transactions as goods move through a supply chain. This can be used as proof that a vaccine has originated from an authentic manufacturer and that suitable conditions have been maintained throughout its journey to a pharmacy, clinic or vaccination centre. Because it is decentralised and encrypted, blockchain is relatively transparent and tamper proof and is already being used by some shipping companies to improve quality control and share data between organisations responsible for moving resources through supply chains.

According to the UNICEF Vaccine Market Dashboard, COVAX has delivered 406 million doses to 139 countries. Of these 82 countries have received donations of more than 134 million doses. This effort could be undermined if a market in fake vaccines competes with COVAX supplies, effectively leaving vast portions of the world’s population unvaccinated.

Alert to the danger, UNICEF recently closed a tender for the development of a blockchain-based solution to authenticate vaccines. The Global Trust Repository will allow Covid-19 vaccines to be scanned and verified so their serial number can be compared with a blockchain-secured list of product codes generated by the manufacturers. While this sounds promising, earlier the year medical journal The Lancet published results of a trial using blockchain to store immunisation records in India, concluding that while results of a pilot were positive, it would not necessarily prevent errors being made at the level of data collection and data entry.

In any case better documentation of vaccines as they move around the world in such high volumes will likely have a positive impact on quality and reduce the opportunities for counterfeiters, providing a benefit to every Covid-19 vaccine recipient.

Cruising into stormy weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun, surf and a sandbox escape from a pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiding the Pacific during Covid: An update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patent waiver for vaccines is a plus, but no panacea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main image via Flickr user throgers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the measure of prejudice in a pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.