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1 April 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

COVID-19 – neighbourhood watch

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, has reported 136 deaths from COVID-19 but just 1528 cases, giving it one of the world’s highest fatality rates. President Joko Widodo has been resisting a nationwide shutdown, but schools and entertainment venues have been closed in Jakarta. Indonesian health experts say the fatality rate is due to inadequate medical facilities and a lack of testing, and the country is now facing a disaster.

Indonesia is Australia’s largest neighbour, but it is not the only nearby country facing a grave threat from COVID-19. Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nations are all highly vulnerable and poorly equipped to respond to an outbreak. The federal government’s recent Pacific “step-up” strategy, designed to curb China’s influence in the region, must now be replaced by an urgent effort to ensure that Australia’s northern neighbours have basic food and medical supplies.

As Australia fends off its own domestic crisis, it may need to embark on a large-scale aid scheme similar to that delivered in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. John Howard pledged A$1 billion – equivalent to A$1.4 billion today – to support Indonesia’s reconstruction.

Australia’s yearly health spending amounts to more than US$5000 per person, the eighth highest in the world. Indonesia spends US$112 per person, Timor-Leste spends US$80, and Papua New Guinea spends US$55. These countries have relatively few intensive care beds, and many are already in use. In rural areas, many health clinics do not have access to running water, let alone ventilators or testing kits. A serious coronavirus outbreak would be catastrophic. 

The Spanish flu had its most devastating impact in poorer countries, including several in Australia’s neighbourhood. In Indonesia, at least 3 per cent of the population died – about 1.5 million people – a fatality rate more than ten times higher than that suffered in Australia. In Western Samoa, about 22 per cent of the population died, representing the pandemic’s highest fatality rate.

Pacific authorities, aware of the current risks, were quick to adopt some of the world’s strictest travel bans. But this virus is proving difficult to keep out. Papua New Guinea has recorded one case, but several cases have been recorded in West Papua, which shares a porous land border with Papua New Guinea. Elsewhere, Fiji has recorded five cases, New Caledonia and French Polynesia have together recorded forty-five cases, and Timor-Leste has recorded one case.

These countries will need support. Their lucrative tourism sectors have collapsed, international trade has been restricted, and remittances are drying up as unemployment increases in Australia and New Zealand. Business shutdowns and internal travel restrictions will cause further economic damage.

As Scott Morrison released Australia’s A$130 billion wage subsidy package on Monday, he said Australians “could see countries themselves fall into chaos”. He did not identify which countries are at most risk, but last Friday he specifically warned that Pacific countries face disaster. “We should brace ourselves for some very devastating images around the world and we are all going to have to do our part as a global community … Here, that means our Pacific family.”

Australia has slashed its aid budget in recent years, including a 25 per cent cut to aid health spending since 2013–14, according to development economist Stephen Howes. Assistance for Indonesia has also been cut, as funds were diverted to the Pacific step-up. But the step-up has largely been aimed at competing with China’s freewheeling loans and infrastructure projects. Its objectives will now need to change. In the so-called “arc of instability” to Australia’s north – the stretch of small states whose fragility has long been deemed a strategic threat in Canberra – the focus will now need to be on ensuring basic health and sustenance. 

Morrison appears to understand this, and Canberra has been boosting supplies to the Pacific. At a virtual summit of G20 leaders last week, Morrison urged the international community to support Pacific states and Timor-Leste. Unfortunately, he may also need to consider extending aid to Indonesia, a country that Canberra stopped including in its arc of instability more than a decade ago. In the event of a humanitarian crisis, such aid will be an end in itself; for those who worry about arcs and instability, it will also support Indonesia’s trajectory as a rising democracy and reduce the risk of a dangerous regression.


Australia in a post-COVID-19 world

“Australia is likely to find itself in a weaker overall position in the post-coronavirus world … Due to Chinese demand falling and Australian desire to diversify, the high point of easy integration might have passed. We will have to work harder.” Allan Gyngell, East Asia Forum

The biggest cost of the COVID-19 virus in China could be freedom

“The heightened war-like social control mechanism has succeeded in mobilising the population against a common enemy … It, however, also turns Wuhan and other areas in the nation into a pressure cooker, where anger and agony are suppressed. Once the health crisis subsides and the lockdown is lifted, how will the CCP deal with the following complex social and economic catastrophes such as unemployment, food shortage, salary shortage and psychological trauma?” Delia Lin, Melbourne Asia Review

After coronavirus – where the world economy will stand

“Coming out of this slump the level of output will be down and government debt vastly up … The Asian regional economy, with China at its core, is coming out of the crisis faster and stronger than Europe or the Americas. Decoupling from China will seem even more of a fantasy.” John Edwards, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)


The power of narratives and the risk of surveillance creep in the response to COVID-19

“Anywhere you look, government is back, in a big way. Most national governments, both democratic and autocratic, have concluded they need to fight the virus by throttling the freedoms underpinning market economies.” Kelsey Munro, The Strategist (ASPI)

Not wearing masks to protect against coronavirus is a “big mistake”, top Chinese scientist says

Science has tried to interview George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for two months. Last week he responded.” Jon Cohen, Science

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Secret, book review by Jacinta Carroll

“In June 2019, the Australian Federal Police executed search warrants on the Sydney office of the ABC and the Canberra home of a NewsCorp journalist, creating headlines across Australia and around the world. The ensuing coverage has created a national debate about security and the media, including press freedom ... In the midst of this intense focus on the nature of security in Australia and the role of the press comes veteran journalist Brian Toohey’s Secret.” Jacinta Carroll, HERE



I’ll sign the single biggest economic relief package in American history.

Donald Trump, President (United States)

This is serious — take it seriously.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor (Germany)

No little flu is going to take me down.

Jair Bolsonaro, President (Brazil)

Sources: Reuters, ABC News, MSN  

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