Coronavirus: Australia can lead the way for a global response

  • Articles and op-ed
22 April 2020

Published in ‘The Australian’

The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the world. The death toll is heading towards 200,000 and beyond, and trillions of dollars have been stripped from the global economy. The impacts will grow.

Governments owe it to their people to work with the rest of the world to find answers, learn ­lessons and avoid repeats of this catastrophe. This week, Australia raised the importance of an independent international review to consider the genesis and spread of the pandemic, evaluate the different ­approaches to dealing with it, examine how information has been shared, and assess the engagement of the World Health Organisation in the response.

This is not a time for mistrust. The pandemic should not become one more lens through which existing rivalries are projected. We need facts that restore confidence and equip us to better address ­future challenges. No one country need feel singled out by the proposition of an international review. It is in the nature of a new infectious disease that it has to start somewhere. In this case, that place was Wuhan in China. However, by becoming a pandemic, COVID-19 is now a ­global problem. It is right that the world should seek answers and learn lessons.

That disinformation has spread shows the importance of collectively pursuing transparency. Liberal democracies are built on transparency and accountability. For a nation with a generations-long experience of democracy, these principles are instinctive. What Australia stands for at home will inform the agenda we pursue for the recovery internationally.

Australia is well-placed to call for a transparent international ­review into COVID-19 because we are a liberal democracy with a proud history of shaping constructive global co-operation. A global crisis such as this one, with its ramifications for health, economies, human rights and social cohesion, underscores the importance of countries with our values of openness and transparency being active in international forums.

To call for answers is to protect our national interests, values and sovereignty. The Prime Minister and I will carry this forward in our international engagements in the coming weeks.

The role of the WHO and its handling of the crisis should be part of this review. We want the WHO to emerge with an enhanced ability to respond to pandemics, wherever they begin. This is about building a more secure future in an interdependent world.

We need effective global institutions. They provide agreed standards, rules and norms by which sovereign states can engage and exchange information and goods, free from undue politicisation.

Australia will continue to advocate our values of openness and the rule of law to these institutions. It is not in Australia’s interests that countries retreat into themselves. Our prosperity depends on minimising disruption to supply chains and maintaining open trade and investment. It is also vital that liberal democracies such as Australia make their voices heard when it is clear countries are taking advantage of the pandemic to undermine human rights and subvert political and judicial processes.

We do not want to see authoritarian states make permanent, for instance, surveillance technology put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. As a liberal democracy, our phone app to help contact tracing is single-purpose, proportionate and temporary.

Australia will work with partners with whom we have shared values and aligned interests as we shape the post-COVID-19 period. In the Indo-Pacific, our strengths lie in the foundations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In our immediate neighbour­hood, they lie in the coming together of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Australia will also work with all nations. The task for all of us must be to ensure we minimise the lives lost and the jobs destroyed, and maximise the lessons learnt.

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