11 March 2020
The coronavirus has now been detected on all continents except Antarctica, and is expected to spread to all countries (it has already reached more than 100). It will have a lasting impact on international affairs, much as the global financial crisis did. The 2008 financial crisis undermined confidence in democracy and capitalism, prompted the first G20 leaders’ summit, and advanced the international stature of China, whose economy proved crucial to global recovery.
So far, the outbreak is affecting different countries in different ways, revealing much about their strengths and weaknesses. Here is an account of how the coronavirus is playing out in China, the United States, South Korea and Australia.
China was slow to respond to the outbreak because local authorities had tried to cover it up. Eventually, Beijing took control and was able to impose strict quarantine measures, including a lockdown that restricted the movements of more than 50 million people. In Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, it famously built an emergency hospital in ten days.
The extent of the outbreak remains unclear. China initially allowed relatively free coverage of the crisis, but this resulted in fierce criticism of the government. The Communist Party has since reimposed strict censorship. It has destroyed early records and samples of the virus and silenced – and detained – critics of the government’s response.
China wants to present a narrative in which its tight controls allowed it to efficiently respond to the outbreak, part of a broader attempt to demonstrate the benefits of its centralised, authoritarian government. Late last month, China’s publicity department released a book, A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020, which praises Xi Jinping’s “outstanding leadership” in handling the crisis. The book will be translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic.
So far, the spread of the virus in the United States has been limited. Health authorities have been increasingly proactive. Schools in affected areas have closed, universities are transitioning to online teaching, and workplaces across the west coast have told staff to stay home.
But the virus has exposed the dangers of Donald Trump’s willingness to spread false information and to downplay or ignore the views of scientists and experts. Trump dismissed the risks of the virus. Just as the outbreak was spreading, he said it was “very much under control”. And just as doctors warned of a shortage of medical supplies, including coronavirus test kits, Trump claimed that “anybody that needs a test gets a test”.
In recent years, Trump has proposed cutting funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government’s public health institute. He proposed a 19 per cent cut this year that would have withdrawn US$100 million for managing diseases transmitted by animals to humans. Congress has blocked most of his proposed cuts, but in 2018 he successfully shut down the National Security Council’s global health security unit, which was set up by Barack Obama following the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
A poll of registered voters this week found that 56 per cent thought Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, would do a better job of handling a crisis than Trump. The election is in November.
South Korea has suffered one of the largest outbreaks of the coronavirus. President Moon Jae-in is facing heavy criticism over his failure to quickly bar entry to travellers arriving from China. He appeared to be reluctant to adopt measures that would damage the economy. China buys about 25 per cent of South Korean exports and supplies 21 per cent of imports.
But South Korea has one of the world’s best health systems and appears to be better equipped to respond than other countries experiencing mass outbreaks. By the end of last week, it had tested more than 140,000 people and set up McDonalds-style drive-through clinics that can test people within ten minutes. This has helped to provide a better picture of the virus and how it spreads. The fatality rate in South Korea is less than 1 per cent, compared with 4 per cent in China and 5 per cent in Italy. This is probably because South Korea has detected a higher proportion of people who are infected but display few or no symptoms.
The outbreak is affirming the value of South Korea’s investment in public health, but may prove damaging to Moon’s Democratic Party at midterm elections next month.
Australia is more reliant on trade with China than any other developed nation and its economy is expected to be heavily affected by the outbreak. International education and tourism are Australia’s fourth and fifth largest exports, respectively; China is its largest source of foreign students and international visitors.
For years, the Coalition criticised Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package during the global financial crisis. But Australia emerged from that crisis as the only major economy to avoid a recession. Its trade with China grew, and it advanced to become the world’s twelfth-largest economy (it is now the thirteenth).
Most economists believe a large-scale stimulus program is now needed to assist affected businesses and restore economic confidence. Scott Morrison this week flagged his preference for a temporary, limited scheme, criticising Rudd’s package as “pear-shaped”. Morrison’s success in steering Australia through the current crisis will depend on his ability to adopt policies shaped by evidence rather than ideology or partisanship.