As published in Pearls & Irritations on 16 April 2020
‘With the world in the grip of the Covid19 virus there are lessons to be learnt and changes to consider. The pandemic has brought nations together who were eschewing the value of international co-operation. It has highlighted the need for reform. There is no International Agreement covering pandemics, one needs to be negotiated. The pandemic underlines the need for reform of the Australian economy and the way we practice politics’.
Methods for dealing with the Covid19 virus vary little from the methods adopted to deal with the Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world from January 1918 until December 1920, causing the death of 50 million people. There was no vaccine to deal with that pandemic, just as there is currently no vaccine to deal with Covid19.
There have been two subsequent pandemics. SARS, from November 2002 until July 2003, spread to twenty countries killing 774 people. The Swine Flu pandemic ran from April 2009 until August 2010 causing 570,000 fatalities amongst the 1.4 million affected.
The Spanish Flu has been referred to as the forgotten pandemic, the same might be said for SARS and the Swine Flu. It seems that once a pandemic is past the collective inclination is to sweep the memory of it away. We know of the social changes brought about by the First World War but we know little or nothing to changes wrought by the Spanish Flu. Perhaps many of the social changes ascribed to WWI were in fact brought about by the Spanish Flu. Maybe historians of the time had an axe to grind or a narrative to embellish about war and the Flu did not fit that narrative. The Australian war historian, C.E.W Bean hardly mentions the Flu, yet many Australian soldiers were stricken with it, including my grandfather, and a number died, some in the North Head Quarantine station within sight of Sydney after an absence of four years.
Neither the Swine Flu nor SARS saw substantial change in the international or domestic organisational approach to managing pandemics. Expunging past pandemics from public memory did not assist in developing policy to deal with the next viral outbreak. The World Health Organisation (WHO) prepared an interim protocol, updated in 2007, for the management of pandemics. However, there is no compulsion to adhere to it and some countries including initially Australia and more recently the United States ignored the recommendations. Donald Trump, who is as mad as George III, is threatening to withhold funding to the WHO because he claims it has given incorrect advice.
There is a need for reform. Protocols should be negotiated and implemented in a binding International Agreement with provision for strategic stockpiling, Inspectors, compulsory intervention by trained medical teams, ongoing research, lock down procedures and airline responses.
Neocon xenophobes such as Trump, Morrison and Johnson, despite denigrating the UN and other international agencies, have been forced to deal with them in seeking a means of control, containment and supplies of vital equipment. Covid19 has brought the international community closer together in cooperating over an urgent and common problem. It should serve as a blueprint for cooperation over climate change.
Covid19 underlines the need for strong and focused aid programs to reduce the gap between haves and have not. In the current circumstances aid repayments should be waived from the poorest countries. The haves have nothing if the have nots drag them backwards as they will with respect to this pandemic. India and Africa illustrate this. Perhaps long after Australia, Europe and even America are on top of the virus, international trade and relations will be patchy and constrained until the virus has been extinguished in every part of the world.
Just as the pandemic has highlighted the need for reform in the international community so it has in Australia. Initially Morrison reacted slowly stupidly and with self-interest. A Hillsong get together appeared to govern his declaration of a gathering of 500 as acceptable. It was quickly changed to 100, 10 and then 2, following the intervention of the States. Morrison in a show of macho bravado said he would attend a football match only to be forced to back down by the weight of public opinion.
Under pressure he initiated a National Cabinet consisting of State Premiers, but in a predictable act of partisan pettiness, not the leader of the Opposition. The National Cabinet unofficially led by Victorian State Premier, Daniel Andrews, soon moved to pin back Morrisons ears, leading to a national sigh of relief by all but the IPA. Long queues at Centrelink panicked the government into the realisation that many were LNP voters who would change to Labor if something was not done to alleviate their distress.
The National Cabinet decided to implement regular Jobkeeper payments to workers who had lost jobs. They increased the Newstart allowance and took over funding childcare centres. They refused to extend Jobkeeper to casuals in employment for less than 12 months, backpackers and temporary visa holders, despite all three categories paying tax. How they are meant to house and feed themselves did not worry Morrison or other responsible ministers. Presumably beg, borrow or steal and if caught to be transported to Christmas Island. Dutton, came out of Ruby Princess isolation, to announce measures would be put in place to deal with the inevitable rorting of the Jobseeker allowance. He understands how the criminal mind works.
Morrison has been talking of ‘snap back’ after the virus has been beaten. It seems to mean a rapid return to the status quo pre Covid19. It demonstrates the limitations of his imagination. His enforced adoption of Keynesian solutions to the crisis highlighted the lack of social justice in Australian politics for the last twenty years.
On becoming prime Minister in 1996 Howard embraced the privatisation agenda of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It fitted the political philosophy of LNP backers such as the IPA. The benefit to the people of Australia not been apparent. Costs have risen.
Howard ushered in an era where mediocrity, meanness, greed, cruelty and selfishness became part of the political fabric. He encouraged corporate Australia to plunder the country for profit which continued under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison. The State should exist for the benefit of the people.
There was a time Commonwealth and State enterprises underpinned and supported the private sector. It was a productive arrangement, it worked.
It will be difficult for Morrison to back track on measures already put in place, to renege will give the Labor Party a platform.
The crises has focused attention on Australia’s dependence on goods manufactured overseas. Using cheap renewable energy now coming on stream Australia should look to import replacement particularly in manufacturing.
Writing in The Guardian on 1 April, the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, set out a blue print for change, arguing a case for social justice through reformed economic policy involving greater state intervention.
The Commonwealth and States have ceased to function for people. Change is overdue.
Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.