Australians can be thankful that their country has to date experienced one of the lowest numbers of coronavirus deaths per capita in the developed world.
Yet the economic costs associated with flattening the coronavirus curve have been high. Domestic travel restrictions and lockdowns of varying severity in different states have crippled businesses, eviscerated jobs and incomes, and helped drive an already-anaemic economy into a significant recession (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian economy was only growing bigger because more people were being frenetically added into it via massive immigration).
As large chunks of the economy shut down due to restrictions, the Morrison government initiated a gigantean spending program to salvage businesses and jobs. The sharp increase in government spending combined with a drop in revenue is expected to push total state and federal debt beyond $1.2 trillion by 2022. Consequently, a larger proportion of the country’s future income will be directed toward servicing debt rather than productive investment needed to boost living standards.
Was such a large economic hit avoidable? While politicians in Australia have been patting themselves on the back for their handling of the pandemic, a new report from the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) argues that the Commonwealth government inflicted unnecessary economic pain on the country by failing to stem the initial introduction of the virus into Australia.
According to the report’s author, globalisation expert Salvatore Babones, Australia had the opportunity during the early stages of the pandemic to quarantine a limited number of passengers arriving from China and other overseas virus hotspots. This, Babones asserts, could have insulated the rest of the country from the worst effects of the virus.
Unfortunately, Canberra initially decided not to use the border controls at its disposal and instead treated the spread of the virus into Australia from overseas as unstoppable. Rather than adopt a Fortress Australia approach early on, we kept our borders wide open for too long and ended up having to shut ourselves in our own homes to prevent local community transmission. Babones states: “By treating the coronavirus as a public health threat instead of as a border security threat, Australia needlessly imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in financial losses on its own population.”
The report sketches out a timeline of the pandemic and compares the decisions made by Australian officials with those of the best-performing jurisdictions: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Babones argues that had Australia exercised a similar level of caution to these jurisdictions, we may have been able to prevent community transmission altogether.
Passengers arriving from China - the virus ground zero - in late January were greeted at Australian airports with nothing more than a pamphlet kindly asking them to give local authorities a ring should they at any point become unwell. Pamphlet in hand, overseas arrivals were allowed out into the wider community to potentially spread a highly-infectious novel pathogen. In stark contrast, the aforementioned Asian jurisdictions had already started introducing temperature screening of passengers and post-arrival monitoring as early as December 2019.
The CIS report concludes that Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee he chaired made a number of blunders, including placing inordinate faith in the information being shared by the Chinese Community Party and the highly-politicised World Health Organisation (WHO). Murphy rhapsodised in January: "I think it’s a wonderful transparency and openness that we’re now seeing with China."
Australian officials also erred in uncritically accepting the WHO’s advice to rely on China - and, later, other countries - to contain the outflow of coronavirus cases instead of taking independent action to control the importation of cases. As the severity of the coronavirus risk became more apparent in late January, the so-called “evidence based, proportionate additional border measures” (handing out pamphlets) recommended by Murphy and his colleagues turned out to be almost comically inadequate.
In February, the Morrison government belatedly swung into action, implementing a ban on incoming passengers from China, with the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family and air crews. However, the ban did not prevent people from entering Australia via third countries. Although now scrubbed from the internet, the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment advised on its website in early February that Chinese students could in principle enter Australia via third countries, subject to a 14-day waiting period.
According to Babones:
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