After COVID-19, a change is overdue

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100 years after the Spanish flu pandemic and the world is suffering a nearly identical crisis (Image by Dan Jensen)

Emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, it would be wise to learn from history and implement economic changes, writes Bruce Haigh.

WITH THE WORLD in the grip of the COVID-19 virus, there are already lessons to be learnt and changes to consider.

Methods of dealing with the COVID-19 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 COVID-19.

There have been two subsequent pandemics. SARS, from November 2002 until July 2003, spread to 20 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 has passed, 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. 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 (W.H.O.) 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 is threatening to withhold funding to the W.H.O. 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, lockdown procedures and airline responses.

Neocon xenophobes such as Trump, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson, despite denigrating the U.N. and other international agencies, have been forced to deal with them in seeking a means of control, containment and supplies of vital equipment. COVID-19 has brought the international community closer together in co-operating over an urgent and common problem. It should serve as a blueprint for co-operation over climate change.

COVID-19 underlines the need for strong and focused aid programs to reduce the gap between haves and have-nots. 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.

As Michael Bartos, Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the ANU, said in an article, Not so lucky this time:

New epidemics inevitably carry the burden of fear, prejudice, conspiracy theories and misinformation. But the brute reality of virus spread can be salutary. It creates an evolutionary pressure towards pragmatically effective responses, and heightens the stakes for the sifting of good information from bad.


To the extent that the virus is brought under control it will be because of global cooperation, open and accurate communication, and development of widely accessible “public goods”, in this case vaccines and treatments. It seems like we might still need the “global community” after all.

Just as the pandemic has highlighted the need for reform in the international community, so it has in Australia. Initially, Prime Minister 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, ten and then two, 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 Morrison's ears, leading to a national sigh of relief by all but the Institute of Public Affairs (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. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton came out of 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 “snapback” after the virus has been beaten. It seems to mean a rapid return to the status quo pre-COVID-19. It demonstrates the limitations of his imagination which governs his lack of understanding of the crisis. Snapback has the imagery of being dumped by a wave, thrown to the surface and riding it to shore. It will not be like that. Most people will either be washed or stagger to shore and some will not make it. It will take time to recover breath. Assistance will be needed.

Morrison’s enforced adoption of Keynesian solutions to the crisis highlighted the lack of social justice in Australian politics for the last 20 years. However, for many, including the army of youngsters advising LNP ministers, they know nothing different. Intervention and assistance by the State in the means of production is quite foreign to them.

Not for my generation. Not only are we familiar with State intervention, we appreciated the role it played in underpinning productivity, particularly in a country of vast distance and sparse population. Cities now contain a greater percentage of the population than they did at Federation. The tyranny of distance has been exacerbated by the privatisation of regional communication. But before looking to the future, let’s look at where we have come from.

Politically, socially and economically, prior to the COVID-19 virus, Australia was in a bad place without the leadership to turn itself around. It is debatable where the decline began. As a student of history, I could pick a number of points and argue a case; let me settle on the former Treasurer Paul Keating’s sale of public assets in the 1980s and ’90s. He did this because he believed it would be in the nation’s best interests.

The prevailing belief was that government-owned assets would be more efficiently run if privatised. Passing public assets into private hands made many of the expanding middle class and the top end of town rich but increased costs and charges for the rest of the population, including workers, who the Labor Party claimed to represent and champion.

Keating became Prime Minister. At the time of his departure from politics in 1996, following his electoral defeat by John Howard, the negative effects of his reforms were not apparent.

Howard grasped Keating’s privatisation agenda with both hands. It fitted the political philosophy of LNP backers such as the H.R. Nicholls Society, the IPA, The Sydney Institute, the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Stock Exchange. The benefits to the people of Australia have not been apparent. Costs have risen to the average home as a result. Higher energy costs being an example. Privatised water has been badly managed, with LNP supporting cotton croppers rewarded by what can only be described as a rort.

Howard ushered in an era where mediocrity, meanness, greed, cruelty and selfishness became part of the political fabric. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were unable to break away from the Howard framework and suffered as a result. The Howard political philosophy encouraged corporate Australia to plunder the country for profit. Together with the LNP, they stole generations of social investment. They killed TAFE, they undermined Medicare and Centrelink with a view to sale. Being anti-science, they defunded the CSIRO and research at universities. They ran down state-funded institutions with the exception of defence, intelligence and their own parliamentary privileges. They increased funding to private schools and sporting institutions in their electorates.

Howard demonised refugees for political purposes. Deterrence was achieved by payment to overseas politicians, officials, police and defence officers; locking refugees in detention centres was a smokescreen. The Murdoch-dominated MSM believed Howard and the Labor Party didn’t have the courage to oppose him. Australia was in a place of kitchen renovations and cruises. It still is, but reality is beginning to dawn. The COVID-19 virus is causing a rethink of past political practice.

The LNP/IPA governing elite have displayed no notion of the common good. As an approach to governance, it can’t be allowed to continue. The State must exist for the benefit of the people.

Let me remind. The Commonwealth once:

The states once:

  • owned and operated insurance companies and rural banks;
  • produced and distributed electricity and water;
  • built and operated trams, trains and buses; and
  • built roads, bridges and railway lines.

No doubt there was more; the foregoing is what I remember. There was a vigorous private sector engaged in manufacturing, agriculture and retail. Commonwealth and state enterprises underpinned and supported the private sector. It was a productive arrangement that worked.

It will be difficult for Morrison to backtrack on measures already put in place to cope with the economic effects of the virus and more government financial assistance can be expected before we are out the other side. The fragility of the economy will require nurturing by the State for some time to come. The funding of childcare, universities and the increased funding of Newstart will not be easy to reverse even when the economy is stronger given likely voter resistance. It will give the Labor Party a platform.

The crisis has focused attention on Australia’s dependence on goods manufactured overseas. Using cheap renewable energy, Australia should look to import replacements, particularly in manufacturing.

Writing in The Guardian on 1 April, Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers set out what I thought was an excellent blueprint for change. He eloquently argues the 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 Australian diplomat and political commentatorYou can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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