National borders offer no protection against global problems

Posted on 29 Dec 2021

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

There’s a David Low cartoon from the Great Depression in the 1930s showing a lifeboat struggling in mountainous seas. At one end are four or five runts frantically bailing out water, and up the front are Britain, France and the US – the rich nations, then – with John Bull saying, “Phew! That’s a nasty leak. Thank goodness it’s not at our end of the boat.”

Low Nasty Leak
'Phew! That's a Nasty Leak.', published by Evening Standard, 24 March 1932. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s an attitude that was responsible for untold harm then and hasn’t lost much of its poisonous charge in the years since, as has most recently been shown by the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID.

As long as there are large unvaccinated populations, the COVID virus will have hundreds of millions of bodies to practise on. As long as there are billions of virus particles reproducing out there, the most efficient varieties will evolve and the most efficient variants will break through the pack, infect ever more poor people, and almost as an afterthought circle round and try to climb the defences of the rich nations.

We found out the hard way that the only way for Australia to be safe from the Delta variant was to vaccinate everybody we could reach. We found that all the subgroups whose health we’d felt safe neglecting previously – Indigenous groups, old people, the homeless, public housing tenants – needed immediate attention to stop them providing hostages to the virus, maintaining a threat in the face of whatever precautions the rest of us took.

Surprise surprise, the same thing applies at the next level up. Over three billion people worldwide have yet to get their first shot. South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, has a current vaccination rate of 29%, which while pretty terrible in absolute terms is still the best rate on the African continent. The rate in Burundi, the worst, is under 0.1%.

Burundi is quite a way away from Australia. Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, is next door, and can cough on us, and it’s at 2.9%. It’s having difficulty reaching its people because its entire health system has been systematically run down. Cuts in Australia’s foreign aid budget haven’t helped.

COVID has been, among other things, a stress test on national values and assumptions. Now that we’re enjoying a brief break in the rainclouds there seems almost no interest in fixing the holes in the roof – analysing where the system failed and what needs to be reconstructed.
DenisMoriarty_CIC2021_PennyS
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

The wisdom of hindsight is much undervalued. The first steps, surely, are to do now what we should have done at the start: install more hospital beds, build more quarantine facilities, and ramp up our vaccine factories. Instead, we’re shutting them down. CSL is stopping the manufacture of AstraZeneca vaccine because the government has terminated its contract.

Every dose of vaccine produced is a public good. It beggars belief that Australia should be relying on the invisible hand of the market to serve the world, particularly as that invisible hand carries the brass knuckledusters of patent protection against any attempt to save lives on the cheap.

Joel Negin, head of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, suggests that Australia could collaborate with Indonesia and Vietnam on new vaccine facilities, but Bali not being a marginal electorate, this seems a non-starter.

It’s not just COVID, obviously. Carbon dioxide, like the virus, doesn’t respect gated communities. We get to save the world if, and only if, every country does things that we now regard as inconceivable. The warmer ocean caused by Japan’s burning of Australian natural gas is just as bad for the Barrier Reef as if it was burned in Queensland.

The worst of it, perhaps, is that our politicians believe that selfishness is a positive selling point – that Australians resent spending money on losers like the poor and the sick and the people thoughtless enough not to have had Australian parents.

We have to make the rational argument for generosity. If Labor can’t make the case today that diverting money from aid to defence is torpedoing ourselves in the foot, it’ll have a hard time coping with a necessarily interdependent world if it wins government.

It makes no sense whatsoever to behave as if our responsibilities are abruptly terminated at our national boundaries – or, at a smaller scale, our electoral boundaries or our own property lines, or our own households. There are no individual solutions. This is why communities matter.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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