By the second century AD, European travellers had made their way to China by sea. But the sea route was long and perilous and was seldom used. Consequently a land route to China was contemplated. Chinese silk was in high demand in the West. It began arriving in Europe via what became known as the Silk Road. It was an all-land route that made its way from Eastern China through Central Asia, by way of the fabled cities of Samarkand and Baghdad, finally reaching the coastal cities of the Black Sea or the eastern Mediterranean. The Silk Road seemed to have been created by conjoining a number of ancient trade routes. The silk appears to have changed hands several times before it reached the West passing on from one trader to the next.
In 97 AD Chinese travellers had visited Antioch. Soon after, the Romans began to journey west into Central Asia.
For a millennium or more the trade traffic was largely from East to West. Frankish and Italian merchants attempting to negotiate the Silk Road in the other direction were blocked from progressing by Muslim Turks. Historian, Daniel J Boorstin named this barrier The Iron Curtain of the Middle Ages. But then for a single century, from about 1250 to about 1350, that curtain was lifted and Europeans were able to travel to China. It was during this window of opportunity that the Venetian, Marco Polo, was able to make his way to China.
But these resourceful merchants brought back more than trade goods. They brought back the Bubonic Plague, the so-called Black Death which subsequently decimated the population of Europe. Scientific historians suggest that the Plague originated in Eastern Asia, probably China.
In those ancient times isolated populations developed their own infectious diseases that were not known elsewhere. When those diseases were visited on another isolated population they had no immunity to such diseases which were then transmitted with devastating effect. One has only to review the European colonisation of Australia, North America and other places to see that the diseases the colonisers introduced caused far more fatalities than any of the physical confrontations ever did.
But things have changed in the modern world. New viruses still mutate in different populations but our connectivity is much greater and so consequently transmission to new populations occurs much faster. Whilst the Bubonic Plague was spread by merchants travelling by camel caravans across Central Asia taking months to connect one population with another, the coronavirus is spread by people in jet airplanes that connect populations in a matter of hours. As a result it is very difficult to isolate and subdue.
Now the “woke” brigade might accuse me of racism, but there can be no doubt that the coronavirus which is now called COVID19 originated in China just as the SARS virus did a decade earlier. The coronavirus seems to have been generated in the so-called “wet markets” of China where, as well as traditional products, live animals (some of which are quite exotic and in demand from wealthier patrons) and seafood of all descriptions are sold. The conditions under which these animals are kept are appalling. The SARS virus originated from this source as well. The Chinese government sought to curtail these markets after the SARS epidemic but after a time the demands of the wealthy resulted in a relaxation of these restrictions such that the markets again were allowed to operate. Thus the coronavirus emerged.
I am not an epidemiologist, but these facts are not generally disputed.
I have no axe to grind about the Chinese people. They find, just as we do, great difficulty in giving up traditions. And those of Chinese origin who have migrated to Australia and generations of their offspring have proven to be some of our most exemplary citizens.
But I do have an axe to grind against the ruling Communist Party who were aware of the impact of this insidious virus but kept it hidden from the rest of the world in order not to “lose face” with the Chinese population. Medical experts are telling us that the impact of the coronavirus could have been substantially reduced if we had had a month or more prior notice.
And I do have an axe to grind also with the World Health Organisation (WHO) who uncritically holds China up as the exemplar nation when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus. Remember it was the WHO that criticised Australia and the USA as being racist when they moved to close their borders to Chinese citizens when it became obvious that was a prudent step in protecting their citizens.
The response of most advanced countries to the pandemic has been to try and halt the rate of infection. The principal reason for this is the need to ensure our health systems can cope. We have limited intensive care beds and limited numbers of ventilators that those who get critically ill from the virus will unfortunately need.
As well, there are promising signs that a vaccine might be developed in the next twelve months.
Under these circumstances holding back the tide of infections makes good sense. But this can only be achieved using social isolation techniques that will no doubt severely impact on our traditional way of life.
What a different Australia it now is when football has been cancelled, beaches closed, barbecues discouraged and pubs shut down! Much of what we have identified with is no longer available to us.
There can be no escaping however, that the pandemic will have a permanent impact on us.
The most obvious impact will be to our economy. The government has made a huge economic injection in trying to save businesses and as many jobs as it can as it progressively closes down many sectors of the economy. I am not critical of these efforts but it is likely that it will takes us at least a decade to restore some sense of normality but who knows how long it will take to repay the debt incurred in trying to ameliorate the worst economic impacts?
But apart from the economic impacts this crisis will inevitably affect global political, governance and social environments.
The most obvious impact, which is already being discussed, is on globalisation.
Now, unlike many others, I believe globalisation has largely served us well. Removing tariffs and allowing the import of goods that can be made cheaper overseas has contributed greatly to our standard of living.
It is rational to criticise China for mismanaging the coronavirus and thus greatly increasing the health risk we now face. It is, however, not rational to blame China on our trade dependence on it. We did that willingly. China has become a lucrative market for our exports of natural resources. And China has been a cheap and reliable supplier for many manufactured goods that we rely on to support our standard of living. If we are over-reliant on China as a trading partner we have only ourselves to blame.
The worst thing that we could do now in reaction to this crisis would be to reintroduce the trade barriers in the vain hope that we could again have a substantial manufacturing industry. That’s not going to happen. We can’t compete in the manufacturing space except in niche markets.
Perhaps for health security reasons we might decide to manufacture some pharmaceuticals or medical equipment for example, but that will come at a cost. Consequently if we are to go down such a route we should be careful to target very specific products but allow the cheapest providers to supply all else.
Manufacturing is in effect the business of developing countries and provides them with higher standards of living, eventually resulting in higher wages which in turn reduces their ability to compete such that lower wage countries then take up the baton.
After World War II japan led the way. They passed the baton on to South Korea and it was subsequently passed on to other emerging economies. As manufacturing powers the economic development of these countries, inevitably their wages increase allowing lesser developed nations to take on the role. Expect in coming decades that Africa might challenge the Asian dominance of much manufacturing. We are a high wage country and will never be able to compete in labour intensive manufacturing enterprises unless we were prepared to accept a much lower standard of living, which is unlikely. Rest assured, contrary to what people who complain about our exporting jobs will maintain, any successful Australian manufacturing will only compete if it makes maximum use of automation and robotics thus minimising labour intensity and generating relatively few jobs.
In 1990, I purchased a small sedan for my wife. A couple of years ago I bought an equivalent vehicle for her. Amazingly the price was virtually identical. So after almost thirty years the price in nominal dollars had not changed! Because of removing the trade barriers we now have access to motor vehicles at vastly reduced costs (in real dollar terms) than was the case when we were trying to prop up motor vehicle manufacturing in Australia. For enterprises that use motor vehicles extensively tis is indeed a boon. This is the case for many other manufactured products.
We might, for security reasons, choose to manufacture some strategically important products in Australia but we should be aware that will always come at an economic cost to us.
A good example of what happens when we try to distort international markets to bolster Australian manufacturing is our ludicrous contract with the French to jointly build submarines. That is prescient of the economic debacle facing us if we try to artificially prop up Australian manufacturing.
In our struggle to contain the coronavirus many countries have reverted to addressing their national concerns rather than expound the virtues of being part of a broader supranational community.
The Brexit movement was largely designed to have Britain reassert its national sovereignty and in particular control its own borders. The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of such autonomy. Other European countries that espoused open borders are now having second thoughts.
Surely a national government’s first responsibility is to care for its citizens. It is good that those that have the wherewithal should try to contribute to international well-being, but the reality of the democratic system is that, no matter how idealistic a government might hope to be, if that government neglects the needs and the wishes of their own citizens it will not be re-elected.
The European Union has attempted to subjugate the governments of its member countries to serve its notional perception of the needs of the collective. The coronavirus is challenging that concept. In this respect Australia was far better prepared to manage the coronavirus because of the tough stand taken by the Howard government to control our borders which subsequent coalition governments have reinforced.
[And of course, in the face of this disaster the effectiveness of the United Nations should come into question. There is so much I could elaborate on here, but I might leave that for another essay.]
This is not an easy thing to say, but I suspect the pandemic might put a few things back into perspective for many of us.
I am reminded of a time when I was a young manager. In the power station where I worked there was a decent man whom I admired for various reasons. But sometimes we clashed because he was a strong unionist. One year he went on leave and when he came back he seemed to me to be somehow changed. He didn’t hassle me anymore with his industrial views. Finally I asked him, “You seem a different man from the one I knew before. What has happened to you?”
He sighed and responded, “While I was on leave my mother died. That was such a significant thing for me to come to grips with. I realised then what was really important. Consequently, I realised that many of the issues I was championing for the union were really inconsequential.”
That seems to me to be what’s happening with our country. We have had it extraordinarily good for many decades. In this benign environment, lacking significant social and economic challenges, we allowed reasonably inconsequential issues to be magnified. In these troubling days of confronting a real life and death issue we hear far less about identity politics and fewer concerns about climate change.
Hopefully, if nothing else, the pandemic might concentrate our minds on dealing with what is important rather than what is fashionable and woke.
But it is also a concern that we might over-react to the pandemic.
Scott Morrison is right to insist that both the health crisis and its impacts on the economy must be managed. We need to remember that poverty and despair kill people just as readily as the corona virus does. In a recent essay I posted, I emphasised how important work is to many of us. It means more than a pay cheque, bearing on our sense of identity and bringing meaning and purpose to many of us.
Whilst “flattening the curve” by using the social isolation strategy is responsible because it ensures that our medical facilities are not overwhelmed, it still leaves us in a parlous position. This strategy prevents the development of any significant immunity in the community which probably means that social isolation might continue to be required until such time a vaccine can be developed and broadly administered to the population. Such development might require at least another twelve months. Under such circumstances it will be difficult to fully restore the economy.
So this is a devilishly thin line the Prime Minister and his “National Cabinet” have to walk. On the one hand they have to be compassionate in ensuring the deaths are minimised knowing full well that many of the strategies that they must use will have economic downsides that will also have severe impacts on the vulnerable in our community. As others have stated, we need to be careful that we don’t overstep the line where the cure is worse than the disease.
And as I intimated above, we need to take special care of the vulnerable.
We know that the demographic most susceptible to the virus is the elderly. Demographer, Bernard Salt, points out there many small regional communities that have high levels of elderly people which are remote from good medical facilities.
Other vulnerable groups are indigenous people in remote communities. Unfortunately, as well as having restricted access to good medical facilities, these people have often a poor history of managing their own health. It will be difficult to police the enforcement of social distancing protocols among them and those difficulties will be magnified by drug and alcohol dependency.
Now it is worthwhile pointing out that the countries that have managed coronavirus best, like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, are countries that have societies respectful of authority. They have populations who willingly follow the directives of government. That is hardly how you would describe Australia. If Australia is to quickly get on top of coronavirus we need to revert to the ideal of “mateship”. When we follow the government’s directives, as indeed we should, we need to remember that we are not being slavishly compliant but doing our best to further the welfare, not only of ourselves but our fellow Australians. And although we cannot literally hold out a hand to help others, especially the vulnerable, we can metaphorically hold out a hand to assist others in practical ways to get through this unprecedented trial.
As usual, I am astounded by some of the commentary in the mainstream media and more so on social media. The same commentators that only a few months ago were experts on bushfires and provided the government with “helpful” advice on how to deal with bushfires have now acquired expertise in epidemiology so that they can again guide the government in how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic! If only we could duplicate their learning techniques to education more broadly, our children could soon overtake Uzbekistan in the international educational league tables!