An epidemic of assistance: Australia and our near region must help each other

In this pandemic, every nation’s leaders and institutions are rightly focused on ensuring the wellbeing of their own populations. Despite this introspection, Australia cannot achieve that result without cooperation with its regional and broader international partners.

So Australia’s leaders and institutions must make room now to work with and support our near region—notably Indonesia and South Pacific states.

Mutual assistance must be the principle for our approach. This is about helping our South Pacific and Southeast Asian partners, and, just as importantly, helping our own population too. Acting now will bring lasting mutual benefit to Australian and the region. It’s likely to produce some of the most positive outcomes from this tragic and dangerous time.

The virus itself provides the conditions for this cooperation.

One big driver of cooperation is the fact that Covid-19 is spreading at different rates in different countries. While data is patchy, it seems that Papua New Guinea and much of the South Pacific are experiencing the pandemic later than Australia, while Indonesia is rapidly going up the infections curve (though that picture can change fast, because, as a colleague said recently, ‘A day is a month when it comes to Covid-19’).

This combines with another thing about the pandemic’s course in different parts of the world. Countries that begin comprehensive social distancing and high levels of testing and contact-tracing early, and that have advanced health systems to deal with identified cases of infection, are likely to be able to flatten and spread the curve. That means the pandemic won’t cause as many deaths as it would have in an uncontrolled environment. But it also means that such countries—perhaps including Australia and New Zealand—will be in the midst of the epidemic for quite some time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is talking now about six months. That might be partly preparing us all for it to be longer still.

In contrast, countries that have limited means to suppress infections are likely to experience a much more rapid spread of the virus, with larger proportions of their populations getting sick faster. Despite the action we’re seeing in PNG, other South Pacific nations and Indonesia—and even with Australia, the WHO and other international partners’ help—it’s very likely that our regional partners’ health systems will be overwhelmed and death rates will be high.

Knowing this, Australia and New Zealand must do all we can to improve this bleak outlook, because every life saved through our assistance is invaluable. Leadership engagement, from the prime minister down through cabinet and senior officials like our chief medical officer, is essential. The Pacific family means nothing if this doesn’t happen creatively and repeatedly.

Providing advice and assistance virtually—through electronic means—to regional governments that are dealing with their own domestic crises will also be valuable. And it will be remembered and valued as a symbol of our common humanity. Think of the effect of Australian assistance to Japan during the Fukushima disaster—the closeness it brought between our peoples and governments was out of all proportion to the material help we provided.

Even at this time of domestic crisis, we must make room to provide individuals with key skills—health specialists, planners, logisticians or other areas of critical value—to the governments of particular small Pacific islands, PNG and Indonesia. This expertise, even in very small numbers, could have a strategic effect on the course of the pandemic there. The good news is that it seems Foreign Minister Marise Payne may have begun to organise this, as well as help with laboratory diagnosis and medical supplies. Supplying the Solomon Islands government with a Covid-19 testing machine is a great, if small, step.

HMAS Adelaide, one of the navy’s two big amphibious ships, moving to Townsville on its way to the South Pacific is another positive measure, although there are obvious risks to ship operations if infection control isn’t well managed, as we see with the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

We can also provide other material help. We know that outer islands and remote communities that start to experience an outbreak or take steps to prevent one will be very difficult for their limited government and medical assistance to reach. Australia can provide surge transport capability for regional partners to get their own leaders, officials, medical teams and essential supplies to these communities by allocating some of the Royal Australian Air Force’s C-27 Spartan or C-130 Hercules transport aircraft for our regional partners to use.

The Australian government can provide assistance, but, as we know from the Pacific leaders themselves, it must listen to the needs of our partner nations and their peoples. And, as with the Pacific step-up, it must convene a broader set of Australian groups that can contribute.

Government-to-government engagement alone is not enough. There are some areas where other parts of our community and economy are better placed to connect directly with South Pacific and broader regional partners. Australian churches partnering with particular islander and remote village communities is likely to be practically focused, welcome help, as are grassroots connections like those Rotary has already built. And Australian universities could echo our newly minted free trade agreement’s focus on Australia–Indonesia educational cooperation to partner with specific Indonesian universities working through this crisis.

There’s another aspect to this mutual help. Unless a highly effective and widely available vaccine is developed that radically alters the global situation, South Pacific nations and Indonesia are likely to come out the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic faster than Australia and New Zealand. The more rapid spread of infection in their populations will be hugely damaging in its human cost. At the same time, it will bring these countries down the other side of the infection curve and out of this tragic and destructive pandemic more quickly.

So, in a few months from now, there will be large numbers of recovered coronavirus sufferers across the South Pacific and in Indonesia. That provides a foundation for our regional partners to begin to recover fast and put their economies and industries back together. They’ll need help doing so, but if we listen to what they want and help them rebuild, we can all benefit both during this health crisis and in the longer term.

This will probably require new money and not just redirection of the existing aid budget. Given the enormous national stimulus programs the government has unveiled over the past weeks, this additional spend will be comparatively small, but important. And it’ll be an investment, not a debt.

In the short term, we will be able to provide a ready market for regional partners’ recovering economies, buying inputs to our crisis response. Personal protective equipment and medical supplies are obvious examples, but so will be many other items and supplies that our own restricted economy will be struggling to produce or obtain. We may also benefit from our Pacific family and Indonesian partner offering us assistance in critical areas where they have workers who can help; reinforcing exhausted personnel in critical sectors of our economy and even our health system may be examples.

While we need to acknowledge the likely tragedy and work rapidly to minimise it, taking the cooperative path can set Australia, our Pacific family and the region on course for a closer, more trusting future. In these dark times, it’s good to begin to see how thoughtful actions now can build our regional community.