What's interesting is that the severity of the pandemic is inversely proportional to a country's distance from China. The closer a country is to China, the less severe the pandemic. Australia in some sense fits in that category. Taiwan certainly does, South Korea, Japan, a lot of the Southeast Asian countries do.
Why is this the case? The answer is they're used to how China behaves. They saw how China reacted to SARS and this resulted in them moving much more quickly and much more decisively than countries that were further away, like the US and Europe. This has not changed the trajectory of security in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, it's basically just changed the slope rather than direction.
Countries were already becoming warier of China; they were already trying to move their supply chains out of China; they were already concerned about Chinese economic coercion and misinformation, and this has just accelerated that trend. Europe and the US were maybe taken by surprise, but Asia wasn't.
There is a war of words going on. The use of the 'Wuhan virus', for example, is more for US electoral purposes than anything else. Mike Pompeo has claimed there is evidence that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute for Virology. We've got to ask ourselves, what has been the aim of these attacks on China and where will it lead? Largely it is to deflect attacks and attention from the negligent way that the Trump administration has handled the virus. But these attacks are also about domestic electoral politics. China will be a play thing for the rest of the year for Trump and I think one of the challenges for China in this period will be to ignore a great deal of it as posturing.
The most concerning thing about Trump is his militarism. We saw the claws of the American military state come out earlier in the year with Iran, which had many people on the edges their seats. If an event occurs this year where Trump feels backed into a corner, this is when we can start to get very worried because there's been very heavy military spending on hardware throughout the Trump administration and a severe underfunding and devaluing of the State Department and of diplomacy.
Times like these are a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and there are a few key reasons for this. One is lack of trust in governments; another is lack of transparency regarding the pandemic (which is unlikely to change given China's unwillingness to succumb to international pressure to be more transparent); and third, is that people are looking for explanations for things where they feel existing explanations do not suffice.
There are two key strands of conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19: the severity of the virus and its origin. Australia has highly mobilized networks of anti-vaccination groups who have been prominent in spreading and promoting the belief that this is some kind of government conspiracy to control citizens and force them to take a vaccine. This is not inconsistent with other conspiracy theories around the world, but it's probably the strongest in Australia because of the existing support base for the anti-vaccination movement here.
Other prevalent conspiracies are that the virus is a biological weapon used by China, or the conspiracy theory regarding 5G. Given this virus is so global, it's actually strengthening the transnational networks between conspiracy theorists: they are becoming more connected. Social media companies are trying to combat this by changing their algorithms to push down content that is related to conspiracy theories, and push up content that is produced by mainstream media or organisations like the WHO. However, if we cannot get more clarity or information about the source and severity of the virus, it will be virtually impossible to reduce the spread of conspiracy theories in Australia and beyond.
The world has a long experience of epidemics. Thucydides made his mark on history by recording the experience of Athens during the plague in the 5th century. The issues raised by COVID-19 are not new, they've been with us for centuries. Similar questions were raised during the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, which caused almost 15,000 deaths in Australia.
Our response to CoVid has varied, thanks to our greater understanding of disease, but in many ways our response to the ‘curve’ has retained a similar shape. The circumstances that contributed (along with failures in testing and border control) to the tragedy that the UK has faced, was predicated very much on the country’s long experience of smallpox and tuberculosis, which have beleaguered mankind throughout history. The early attempt to establish herd immunity, in the hope that infection could be contained (if not eradicated), failed before the fact that one needs about 70 per cent acquired immunity before it works. This has had many consequences. Among other things, the most vulnerable, the elderly, the ill, are put at risk.
In contrast, Australia has explored other models, loosely grouped in three categories – elimination (as in NZ), suppression, and containment, all of which ultimately have to do as much with community cooperation as economic need. So far, the UK mortality rate is about 140 times ours. The implications are likely to be far reaching.This was among the lessons of 1918-19, which impelled the organisation of international health agencies. This experience should guide us in responding to COVID-19.
What we have learned from the climate emergency that we can apply here is it doesn't matter what the scientists say. They've been completely sidelined. And while we're dealing with the global pandemic, we're not addressing the climate emergency.
We can point to the fact that there's been a drop in industrial activity and therefore a drop in CO2 emissions, and we can see these wonderful pictures on social media of animals taking over civic places again, but that doesn't take into account the cumulative stock of CO2 emissions in the world. It's not going away, it's actually getting worse. We're seeing ice melts, sea level rises, heatwaves, droughts, record intensity wildfires. We had 200 bushfires in Australia that led to 33 people losing their lives and over a billion animals perishing. Over 12 million hectares burned. And what does that do? It increases CO2 emissions, which feed back into that cumulative stock of emissions in the atmosphere.
We see exactly the same dynamics of climate politics playing out in this pandemic. We see great distrust and deflection by China and the United States in terms of addressing the problem. The climate talks which were meant to be held in November 2020 have been postponed to next year. It was hoped that this year’s conference would reach an agreement as to how to address the climate emergency and the pandemic has really pushed that to the sideline.