Did Australia get it right?

This article, from the Sydney Morning Herald, argues that the Australian government’s reaction to the COVID-19 global pandemic was right and the World Health Organization‘s response has been weak. “Why,” the article asks, “were the Australians ahead of the world? For a very simple reason. They don’t trust the WHO. The information from multiple international sources is that the WHO is under intense pressure from the Chinese government, and succumbing to it.

The article explains the process used in Australia: “the chief medical officers of all the states, with their Commonwealth [federal] counterpart, Brendan Murphy, advised the government unanimously that a global pandemic was already under way. They had observed the accelerating spread of notified cases around the world, the growing number of countries affected, and that the outbreaks were now self-sustaining within some communities far from China … [and, the article opines] … They hadn’t been alarmist. Forty-two countries reported they had confirmed infections on Thursday. By the time the Australian government’s daily 6.30am incident report was delivered on Friday, that number had grown to 49 … [indeed] … Countries have shut down some of the institutions they hold dearest. Japan has closed all schools. Saudi Arabia has halted pilgrimages to Mecca. And the Chinese government has postponed indefinitely its two big annual political assemblies … [and, this the key bit (highlighted)] … Australia’s group of state and federal medical officers, convening daily, usually by phone hook-up, is the peak point of the pure medical advice, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). No politicians sit in on their meetings.

The Australian politicians get in the act at what I consider to be exactly the right time. As the article explains: “From there, the medical advice goes to the policymakers in the National Security Committee of the federal cabinet, and this is where the politicians get involved. The NSC is chaired by the Prime Minister. This is where decisions are made and action taken. Or not.

The Sydney Morning Herald makes another key point: “The Australian system for dealing with communicable diseases is less prone to politics … [than are those in China, the USA and I suspect, in Canada, too, and while Prime Minister Scott] Morrison hid from the bushfires; he had no such option on the coronavirus … [because] … The Chief Medical Officer, Murphy, does not need the government’s permission to invoke the Biosecurity Act.* He informed Health Minister Greg Hunt on January 20 that he was triggering the act, automatically setting in train a pre-ordained process of monitoring and advice … [and] … Hunt encouraged Murphy and the AHPPC to give the government the full, frank and unvarnished medical advice without any view to politics. And so far, Morrison and his NSC have respected the medical advice. The Prime Minister is anxious to make sure he doesn’t abrogate leadership and hide from responsibility in a national crisis once again … [but] … If he handles it well and faithfully, putting the people’s health first, he might get credit. Or maybe not. But he can be sure that, if he fails again, the people’s wrath will be savage. As Henry IV said, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Or, in the Spanish, a corona.” Now, I, personally, have some doubts about the wisdom of allowing civil servants to trigger government responses. The biosecurity issue has been prominent in Australia for over a century because the Australians learned, too well, that Mother Nature has her own ways of dealing with things, and human interference, including introducing foreign species, can have very serious consequences. Sometimes, the Australians believe, politicians, even the best, are unable to grasp the consequences of some decisions and experts, medical scientists, for example, must take the lead.

What we saw, just recently, in Australia is a good example of a government listening to its scientists and making policy choices based on evidence. During the lead-up to the 2015 selection we, in Canada, were bombarded with media reports which said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper muzzled scientists. It actually started innocently enough. In 2007, the new Harper government reminded scientists (amongst others) that their research belonged to the government and it, the government, had the final say in how it was to be used. A specific direction was repeated ~ it was there when I was involved, peripherally, in the 1990s and 2000s ~ saying, roughly, that scientists were welcome to speak about their research at e.g. scientific symposia but they had to limit their conclusions to purely scientific issues. Policy choices, the scientists were reminded, belonged to ministers. But some scientists refused to accept what had been a long-standing policy. They wanted to push the government on issues that they felt were getting too little attention. The Harper government pushed back. In late 2015, shortly after being elected, the Trudeau Liberals said that they were unmuzzling scientists. But some people doubt they really did as much as they promised. There is, I think, always going to be some tension ~ it’s probably healthy ~ between scientists, who usually have a narrow focus, and policy-makers who, we must hope, have a broad one. Government ministers are the ultimate policy-makers and some scientists don’t like that.

In this specific case, in Australia, the balance between science and policy seems, to me, to have worked as it should. Despite my concerns about officials being able to trigger government actions, the system worked. Canadians should take note because I’m not sure our system is working quite as well.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Did Australia get it right?

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