The view from Billinudgel

COVID-19’s long shadow
The virus exposes the increasing difficulty of Australia’s balancing act between China and the US

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt. Source: Twitter

Thankfully, the coronavirus has had little direct impact on Australia – to date, there have been relatively few cases and no deaths.

The response has been swift and effective – diagnosis, treatment, quarantine and isolation have all been implemented to prevent the infection from spreading into the community.

There have been complaints of overreaction, but when dealing with a potentially lethal epidemic, a belt-and-braces approach is not just an acceptable policy – it is the only sensible one. Our much-criticised bureaucracy deserves considerable credit.

While the direct impact may be minimal, however, the indirect effects have been far more serious, with the threat of worse to come. The Australian economy has taken a clobbering.

Education and travel, two of our biggest earners, have been smashed. What’s more, the entire trading sector, which underpins our general standard of living, is now in danger of the kind of bust that can easily lead to recession.

And here I’m not referring to the odd niche market, such as a drop in the demand for rock lobsters; a whole range of imports and exports have been thrown into doubt as orders for products and services are postponed or cancelled. Business and consumer confidence may take a long time to recover.

And then there’s the resurgence of anti-Chinese sentiment, with the craziest conspiracy theories alleging that the virus was unleashed deliberately as a form of germ warfare – bigoted nonsense, of course, but enough of a worry to require rebuttal from both Beijing and Canberra. COVID-19, as we are now told to call it, is casting a long shadow over both the economy and our society.

And it is now one that we must confront, as there is no denying that Australia is largely dependent on our giant northern neighbour’s physical and economic health, and, crucially, its goodwill.

In the past we have been able to take the relationship for granted, because the relationship, at least as far as trade goes, has been mutually beneficial – the hiccups, when they have come up, have been quickly remedied. But what if there is a serious rift between China and our other powerful ally, the US, and we are, finally and reluctantly, compelled to choose between the two mega-powers?

The prospect is not fanciful, and is becoming less so as American bases in Darwin show signs of ramping up to a more active military posture. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is relying on the assertion that, under his watch, the economy is strong and will remain so. But he also regards our defence pacts with Washington as non-negotiable.

He is desperate to maintain the balancing act, but it is becoming more precarious by the week. And now a microscopic organism has revealed a preview of the dire consequences of being forced to make a choice – or, more probably, having one thrust upon him.

And of all the unintended consequences of the coronavirus, this could easily become the most dangerous: the knowledge that despite all the bluster about how we will make the decisions about who runs Australia, it is just more empty rhetoric. We are not entirely impotent. But we are certainly vulnerable.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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