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Political lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

By Peter Bowden - posted Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The New York Times recently carried a story on how Australia and New Zealand were showing the way to combat the Corona virus. It stated that “The two countries, led by ideological opposites, are converging on an extraordinary goal: eliminating the virus. Their non-political approach is restoring trust in democracy.”  The Times adds that they are converging toward an extraordinary goal: completely eliminating the virus from their island nations. This article details the massive learnings that we can take away from Australia and New Zealand.

Whether they get to zero or not, what Australia and New Zealand have already accomplished is a remarkable cause for hope, the Times goes on to say. Scott Morrison of Australia, a conservative Christian, and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s darling of the left, are both succeeding with  a vision of how democracy should work — in which partisanship recedes, experts lead, and quiet coordination matters more than political confrontation .

The Times then compared the two countries to the United States, where testing shortages and a delayed response by Mr. Trump have led to surges of contagion and death. Australia reported its first case on Jan. 25, New Zealand on Feb. 28. But compared to Mr. Trump and leaders in Europe, Mr. Morrison and Ms. Ardern responded with more alacrity and with starker warnings. Mr Morrison has used conservative radio to broadcast his messages, while Ms Ardern prefers Facebook, but they’ve both received praise from scientists for listening and adapting to the evidence.


Australia, a nation of 25 million people that had been on track for 153,000 cases by Easter, has recorded a total of 6,670 infections and 78 deaths.  It has a daily growth rate of less than 1 percent, with per capita testing among the highest in the world. New Zealand’s daily growth rate, after soaring in March is also below 1 percent, with 1,456 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.  It has, as of the date of the New York Times article, 361 active cases in a country of 5 million.  Their responses started with the scientists.  In Australia, as soon as China released the genetic code for the coronavirus in early January, pathologists in public health laboratories started sharing plans for tests.  In every state and territory, they jumped ahead of the politicians.  “It meant we could have a test up and running quickly that was reasonably comparable everywhere”, Australian National University's Professor Peter Collignon said.

These figures put the two countries closer to Taiwan and South Korea, which have controlled the virus’s spread for now, than to the United States and Europe — even places seen as success stories, like Germany.

Australia’s newly formed national cabinethas avoided, or at least minimised, the different approaches seen in the United States. To wear or not wear masks? Schools open or closed? Should lockdown end? Lockdown is infringing on our rights as free citizens. These are the questions every country is debating. The national cabinet has delivered a surprising level of consensus for a country with a loose federal system subject to high levels of discord among state premiers, whose roles and powers resemble those of American governors.

In New Zealand, public health experts pushed for even greater involvement. Dr. Michael Baker, a physician and professor at the University of Otago in Wellington, became a prominent voice outside the government.

There has also been international cooperation. Dr. Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, told a New Zealand parliamentary committee last week that elimination would be a “nirvana” scenario — an achievement that would be tough to maintain without indefinite bans on international travel or 14-day quarantines until a vaccine arrives. Murphy has been a constant presence on Australian TV since the beginning of the crisis.

Dr. Murphy and his counterpart in New Zealand, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, would be receiving accolades. Like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the American scientific response, they are known for extensive public health pedigrees, calm demeanours and no-nonsense adherence to facts.


They and others like them at the local level are key factors in a revival of trust in government that has appeared in poll after poll. Even as the two countries’ economies have crashed and people have been told not only that they have no work, but to severely restrict their social activities.

Three lessons come out of the success with which Australia and New Zealand have tackled the Corona Virus pandemic.  The first is in the statement “It does feel like we’re pulling together and pulling in the same direction at the moment. Maybe we’ll see the return of science,” by Dr. Ian Mackay, immunologist at the University of Queensland. “I hope we can maintain that.”

We have come to distrust science, particularly so with the climate sceptics. Yet scientists almost universally tell us that global warming is a fact. "Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver”. The American Association for the Advancement of Science tells us. The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Yet some people are sceptical.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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