Published 24th April 2020

Coronavirus Australia: We need G20 swat team

We need G20 swat team in fight against flashdemics: Joe Hockey, Jack Chow

The Australian | April 24, 2020

Australia knows how to handle disasters. The bushfire season showed the world that Australia can get its rapid response right. It also has done really well handling the coronavirus pandemic. It has the credibility on the global stage to shape the international response to future pandemics.

Meanwhile, the rampant spread of COVID-19 is revealing structural weaknesses in health systems across the globe, from China’s authoritarian command-and-control systems to the haphazardness of the response in much of the developing world. This is a virus that does not care for national borders.

The power of the state to close down its society and the level of resources that can be applied to the battle will have the biggest impact on every government’s response. However, this virus is indiscriminate and complicated. It’s hard to define. Its operating rules are complex. There is no rule book. We need to get used to it.

Coronavirus’s destructive dynamic adds to the tragic legacy of recent killer epidemics such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, H1N1 influenza and Ebola. We now have accelerating caseloads and escalating anxiety. Welcome to the new world of “flashdemics”.

A flashdemic is an explosive outbreak that quickly overwhelms healthcare capabilities and becomes a destructive, destabilising force. As it blossoms across borders a flashdemic creates international tensions, from travel restrictions to financial market tur­moil. It will disable the strong, such as US and French aircraft carriers, and no one — from prime ministers to ayatollahs — will be immune.

A flashdemic has three characteristics that make it particularly fearsome: it moves fast, its high intensity rapidly consumes medical resources and it is highly lethal. A flashdemic is overwhelming.

As coronavirus reaches all corners of the Earth, fragile countries lacking the health personnel and facilities needed to confront the invasion may become permanent homes for the virus. Those vulnerable areas could spawn even deadlier variants in the future.

As Scott Morrison has identified, governments should work together to determine how to live in a world with the ever-present threat of coronavirus pandemics.

During the Ebola crisis, a UN special envoy was appointed to prepare for the worst. Should this pandemic worsen, world leaders should consider the appointment of a global coronavirus action “tsar”.

The G20 would be the logical facilitator of that co-ordination. G20 health ministers have the immediate attention of key world leaders and finance ministers. It’s an effective forum to work out a strategy. Just as the G20 worked together during the GFC, it should work together to build a pandemic response infrastructure that works closely with the World Health Organis­ation.

We need a globally co-ordinated and funded response-ready team, a medical SWAT unit endowed with technical gear and doctors and nurses who can administer care until local authorities are strong enough to take over. One lesson of battling Ebola in West Africa was it showcased the need for early aggressive intervention. Creating and deploying such a specialised unit during a flashdemic’s early stages would avert greater disaster.

This response unit could treat the ill within any stricken country. The WHO does not have this capability but we will need to have its global reach to train healthcare corps from developing countries that would implement those local responses. We also will need to share and benchmark best-practice experiences. What masks really work? What are the best tests? What type of shutdown policies are most effective? Every country has different rules and experi­ences, but let’s not repeat each other’s mistakes.

Such a multilateral advance is needed bulwark against future flashdemics. As Australia is a leading health power in the Pacific with a storied history of medical diplomacy in the region, Australia’s scientific contribution to global health defence is critical. That Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity has replicated the genetic formula of the coronavirus is a significant contribution for rapid development of vaccines and diagnostic tests.

Coronavirus has proven potency to disrupt every aspect of our lives. Haphazard and uncoordinated responses fail. We can beat a global virus only by working together. It is critical that we move quickly to set up the infrastructure that will prevent coronavirus from doing its worst in the future.

Published by The Australian.

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