02 Mar How we defied the WHO on Coronavirus
Peter Hartcher – The Sydney Morning Herald – Saturday 29 February 2020
Was Australia about to put the cash flow of its universities ahead of the peoples’ health in the middle of a pandemic? Was the Morrison government about to bungle the coronavirus response as badly as it did the bushfires?
As MPs and senators returned to Canberra this week for a parliamentary sitting, it was a topic of lively concern. Government members knew that the universities had been agitating behind the scenes for the China travel ban to be relaxed as soon as possible. Some 100,000 of their Chinese students are caught by the ban and the unis want them back in Australia. Paying fees.
The Chinese government had been complaining about the ban for weeks, too. Australia had been “discriminatory”, according to the Chinese embassy in Canberra. In multiple meetings across the government, every week with the politicians who have let them in, China’s officials have been pressing their case hard.
Was the government about to cave in to the pressure? Quite a few government MPs and senators were anxious. They knew there was rising fear among their communities. They’d just seen their government announce a partial relaxation already, with about 760 high school students allowed to return from China to Australia.
They’d heard the federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, tell the media last week that “it is incredibly important that we get some normality back into the international student market”.
“At this stage,” Tehan had said, “we are looking at year 11 and 12 students but the medical advice has said in a week we could look at what would happen with tertiary education students.”
So the moment that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had finished their routine opening remarks to the Coalition party room on Tuesday morning, the smooth-faced Liberal senator from Victoria, James Paterson, took the floor to speak.
“With the ongoing China travel ban, I’m very sympathetic about the impact on tourism and farmers, but I’m much less so with the universities,” he began. “Because they have been warned for years that they are over-reliant on the Chinese market, and for years they’ve reassured us that it was all fine, and that if anything happened they’d be able to withstand it. They rode the cycle up, now they can ride the cycle down.”
The universities receive $17 billion a year in federal cash already. Paterson said they should be given this opportunity to show they could indeed withstand the lost income. Addressing Scott Morrison, Paterson concluded: “We shouldn’t relax the travel ban, and there should be no financial bail-out for the universities.”
Another Victorian Liberal, Tim Wilson, reinforced the point. Australia’s former Human Rights Commissioner urged Morrison to exercise “an abundance of caution” in any decision on the travel ban, an expression he repeated for emphasis. And he suggested the government prepare the public for a discussion of the consequences of the epidemic.
Another Liberal, Queensland’s Andrew Wallace, wanted to know why the school students who were to be allowed to return to Australia from China were treated differently to university students?
The Prime Minister’s reply was to observe that the essential difference was that there were 700 school students and 100,000 uni ones.
In response to Paterson, Morrison assured that there would be no taxpayer bailout of the universities, according to multiple people who were in the room. And that the government would adhere strictly to the medical advice on any further relaxation of the travel ban. The MPs were satisfied to hear such a clear-cut undertaking.
But it lasted less than 24 hours. On Wednesday morning, a copy of a speech by Tehan circulated among alarmed government members. The Education Minister was speaking to the Universities Australia national conference on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin that morning. The passage that riveted attention: “One day, and I hope that day comes very soon, our higher education sector will resume normal operations; the travel ban on China will be lifted and the remaining China-based students will arrive to begin studies for the year.”
MPs and senators, almost a dozen of them all told, contacted the the Prime Minister’s office and other ministers to make sure that “very soon” was not any time soon. Some ministers argued back; the decision seemed to be in the balance.
It was the next day, on Thursday morning, that the chief medical officers of all the states, with their Commonwealth counterpart, Brendan Murphy, advised the government unanimously that a global pandemic was already under way. They had observed the accelerating spread of notified cases around the world, the growing number of countries affected, and that the outbreaks were now self-sustaining within some communities far from China.
They hadn’t been alarmist. Forty-two countries reported they had confirmed infections on Thursday. By the time the Australian government’s daily 6.30am incident report was delivered on Friday, that number had grown to 49.
Countries have shut down some of the institutions they hold dearest. Japan has closed all schools. Saudi Arabia has halted pilgrimages to Mecca. And the Chinese government has postponed indefinitely its two big annual political assemblies.
Australia’s group of state and federal medical officers, convening daily, usually by phone hook-up, is the peak point of the pure medical advice, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). No politicians sit in on their meetings.
From there, the medical advice goes to the policymakers in the National Security Committee of the federal cabinet, and this is where the politicians get involved. The NSC is chaired by the Prime Minister. This is where decisions are made and action taken. Or not.
The medical officers’ “pandemic” call was a big moment. For a start, they were way ahead of the UN body that is supposedly the lead global agency on international health emergencies, the Geneva-based World Health Organisation.
Why were the Australians ahead of the world? For a very simple reason. They don’t trust the WHO. The information from multiple international sources is that the WHO is under intense pressure from the Chinese government, and succumbing to it.
The Australian Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, told the NSC that it was medically inexplicable that the WHO hadn’t already declared a global pandemic. It’s politics, in other words.
That’s why Australia had earlier forged ahead of the WHO in declaring the China travel ban, on February 1. It was, again, on the unanimous advice of the AHPPC.
The travel ban was decided immediately after the US made the same call. Beijing instantly lashed both the US and Australia on that occasion – the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, calling it “racist”.
But, of course, that decision now looks very wise, more so with each passing day. The WHO followed suit 10 days later. When Morrison announced the China travel ban four weeks ago, there were about 7000 infections disclosed by Beijing.
By Thursday this week that number had ballooned to 78,000. The number of countries announcing travel bans has grown proportionately, and mostly they have acted too late.
In any case, the political manipulation of the WHO is nothing novel. It was slow to declare HIV-AIDS to be a pandemic in the 1980s because of intense political pressure. Then it was pressure from the US. Now it’s from China. Either way, the politics trumps the medical advice.
So this week the AHPPC didn’t hesitate to act ahead of the Geneva-based outfit. And when the medical officers’ advice went to federal health minister, Greg Hunt, and to Morrison, they didn’t hesitate, either. Morrison convened a three-hour meeting of the National Security Committee of cabinet on Thursday morning. They discussed the unfolding evidence, reviewed the state of medical preparations, and made three key decisions.
One, Morrison would call a press conference and announce the conclusion that “the world will soon enter a pandemic phase of the coronavirus”. Two, Australia’s emergency response plan would be activated. Three, the ban on people travelling from or through China would be extended for another week.
The ban is reviewed week to week. The meeting also discussed options for financial aid to suffering sectors of the economy. Morrison made all these announcements after question time. There has been no mention of any more special measures for universities.
The political capture of the WHO means, in effect, that it’s every country for itself. It also underlines the central importance of keeping politics and other extraneous pressures out of the decision-making processes on a medical matter. Likewise, China’s early political cover-ups and bungling wasted precious weeks in containing the virus.
The Australian system for dealing with communicable diseases is less prone to politics. Morrison hid from the bushfires; he had no such option on the coronavirus. The Chief Medical Officer, Murphy, does not need the government’s permission to invoke the Biosecurity Act. He informed Health Minister Greg Hunt on January 20 that he was triggering the act, automatically setting in train a pre-ordained process of monitoring and advice.
Hunt encouraged Murphy and the AHPPC to give the government the full, frank and unvarnished medical advice without any view to politics. And so far, Morrison and his NSC have respected the medical advice. The Prime Minister is anxious to make sure he doesn’t abrogate leadership and hide from responsibility in a national crisis once again.
If he handles it well and faithfully, putting the people’s health first, he might get credit. Or maybe not. But he can be sure that, if he fails again, the people’s wrath will be savage. As Henry IV said, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Or, in the Spanish, a corona.