Australians should be really grateful for something called the Biodiversity Act. That gives the Chief Medical Officer independent discretionary power to take control when a health crisis is either with us or pending.
The current incumbent is Dr Brendan Murphy. Two weeks ago he informed his minister, Greg Hunt, he was invoking the Act and that triggered the formal response to the public health threat that is the coronavirus. Now called COVID-19 because coronavirus is a generic viral infection similar to SARS and triggered by the same factors; those factors being the appetite for wild game. In this case, animals like bats but also other species not generally considered appetising by many Australians.
That the latest threat to world health began in China is particularly problematic. From Australia’s point of view it is because the giant Asian economy is our biggest trading partner. It imports billions of dollars’ worth of our coal and iron ore bu,t more to the point here, it is the source of multi-billion dollar exports in the education sector. Chinese students in our secondary colleges and universities are considered exports. Should the travel bans continue much longer we are in grave danger of losing out to countries like Canada that followed World Health Organisation (WHO) advice and did not impose travel bans on them.
That’s one issue. The other is tourism. Here we are in a real pickle. China is the lion’s share of our tourism sector. 1.2 million a year come here and are the biggest spenders, something in the vicinity of $7,000 each – buying expensive consumer good souvenirs and staying in our hotels and resorts. The tourism industry is now bracing for a collapse in the trade. We could see more than 1.5 million from China and elsewhere not travel here. People everywhere are being advised to curtail their travel, bans or not.
But we are not alone. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told us after attending the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Saudi Arabia last week, COVID-19 could see “the shutters come down on the world economy”.
But thanks to Dr Brendan Murphy, our government was given no choice but to be fast out of the blocks. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher accurately said on the weekend, we have “a prime minister who trembles on the brink of inaction” – evidence for this was the response to the catastrophic bushfires. But once Murphy triggered the Biodiversity Act, it was up to Morrison to respond and it seems, burnt once, the Prime Minister had no appetite to be singed again.
All good. Australia was ahead of the WHO declaring a pandemic emergency with a plan triggered to meet it. But this is the acid test. Health Minister Greg Hunt is talking about a surge capacity for our hospitals to meet if needed.
There is a surge at Canberra Hospital every day, and around the country, that is not being met.