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The Changing Geopolitics of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Anna Whitlam People had the pleasure of hosting a virtual discussion with Oriel Morrison, former anchor at CNBC International and one of Asia’s most well-known business journalists.

For the past 12 years, she anchored top rating CNBC shows Squawk Box and Street Signs. Oriel also provided on the ground coverage of breaking news and reported from premier business events. She hosts global conferences and events and speaks on topics including geopolitics, finance, markets and news. Before joining CNBC, Oriel was a reporter and host for Bloomberg Television and Bloomberg Radio. Prior to that, she was with the Nine Network, as a presenter on the Today Show and Business Sunday, and regularly anchored Qantas National Nine News and National Nine News updates.

Oriel joined us from Brisbane to lead an extremely interesting discussion on the changing geopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A self-confessed “geopolitical junkie”, Oriel believes the landscape has changed quite dramatically in the past few months, with the pandemic disrupting global economics, politics and societal function.

Today, we face an extreme health crisis, which Oriel suggests is likely to trigger the beginning of the worst economic crises of our lifetime. However, unfortunately, this crisis is occurring in a relatively unstable global political environment.

Oriel believes the crisis has accelerated issues and trends that previously existed. For example, the ongoing confrontation between the US and China, particularly around trade.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has now reached more than 4.2 million known cases, spread to over 185 countries and cause more than 280,000 deaths. Oriel spoke about the absence of any global coordinated response to COVID-19, which she admits is unlikely to emerge.

Importantly, how are countries individually responding to the crisis and what can we learn from those countries leading in the fight against COVID-19?

Oriel highlighted the efforts of Singapore, Hong Kong, Greece, Taiwan and South Korea. Singapore reported its first case of coronavirus on January 24, just one day before Australia’s first case. However, like many Asian countries, it had learnt important lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003. Key to its response was how well it executed the strategies of quarantining and tracing people who had come into contact with the virus.

However the country also shows how quickly an outbreak can spread despite early success. Just as other countries were looking to Singapore for answers, cases begun to grow in the country’s migrant labour community.

Like Singapore and another success story, Taiwan, South Korea’s response was informed by shortcomings in fighting a previous disease, MERS in 2015. Even before the country had any confirmed cases, quarantine and screening measures were in place for arrivals from Wuhan as of January 3. The first case was reported on January 20. Lots of testing was a critical part of the countries response. South Korea began testing nearly 20,000 people a day. That testing regime may account for the steep initial rise in cases. But combined with aggressive contact tracing, it also means the country has been able to actively chase down cases of infection.

This indicates that the measures South Korea has implemented can work to significantly change the trajectory of the spread even once coronavirus establishes a major presence in the population.

In the developing world, Oriel noted that the response from Thailand was largely uncoordinated, but Vietnam’s response was early and effective.

While Asia worked to slow the spread of the virus, the epicentre of the outbreak shifted to Europe. In the early stages of the outbreak, Italy and South Korea were on a similar trajectory, however the impact on each country has been drastically different.

A number of reasons have been cited as to why cases spread uncontrolled in Italy, one being that the virus was circulating unnoticed, possibly from the middle of January, because many infected people had no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

The US offers another insight into what happens when the COVID-19 response is handled poorly. The US began screening travellers from Wuhan on January 17, and the first case was reported on January 23.

While the government was issuing public health notices about large gatherings, hand washing and other advice, no action was taken to enforce any social distancing. President Donald Trump, after initially downplaying the threat of the virus, abruptly changed tack, and a massive effort is now underway to increase the amount of testing. However, Trump has failed remarkably to provide consistent and credible responses as the crisis has unfolded.

After mismanaging the initial outbreak in Hubei, China enacted a lockdown across much of the country, and turned the mechanism of its surveillance state to trace the movements of everyone who may have been infected and enforce the strict lockdowns. In particular, the practice of quarantining patients with minor symptoms away from their homes helped drastically reduce the spread of the virus in the community.

Closer to home, Oriel pointed to the incredible response from New Zealand, admitting the countries efforts to eliminate the virus have benefited greatly from a strong, empathetic and transparent leader, Jacinta Ardern.

Globally, there appears to be three strategies that seem to be successful – acting early, extensive testing and contact tracing and social distancing. While Australia’s trajectory initially sat above countries like Singapore, there is evidence that some early decisions the Government made, like restricting arrivals from China, helped to delay the spread of the virus.

Economic modelling has estimated the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy. Preliminary assessments predict that most major economies will lose at least 2.4 per cent of the value of their GDP over 2020. Further, we can expect to see global unemployment rise, with up 25 million job losses.

A further serious geopolitical issue in the context of the pandemic, is the fact that inequality around the world will be exacerbated. It’s highly likely that neighbouring countries, critically important to us strategically, will suffer severe structural damage to their societies and economies. Take Bali for example, a country completely reliant on tourism. Given it is unlikely that any lift of travel restrictions will be beyond business travel, the country will undoubtably suffer for quite some time.

The health systems of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are likely to be overwhelmed and education in these countries also presents another challenge, in terms of understanding and responding to the crisis.

Looking ahead on the geopolitical front, until a vaccine or treatment is identified there won’t be a complete end to the crisis, which will continue to amplify political tensions. Interestingly as Oriel questioned, where will a vaccine, if found, be produced?

As Oriel acknowledged, we are witnessing China assert itself on the global stage and how this and tensions with the US will impact directly on Australia, remains uncertain. Like many commentators, Oriel believes Australia must have a sophisticated and well-rounded view both domestically and internationally. A major lesson for Australia’s leaders is that they must not forget to look after neighbouring countries, as they look after their own people.

Here in Australia and across the world, the challenge for leaders will be to manage this crisis while building the future.

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