Australia ignores the regional vaccine vacuum at our peril

16 March 2021

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday 16 March 2021.

In times of crisis Australians have always stood alongside our nearest neighbours.

It’s the right thing to do and it’s an investment in the future of our region – a region that grows strategically more important by the day.

Business is committed to helping shape the health, security and stability of nations on our doorstep. Our prosperity is intertwined with the social and economic fortunes of our neighbours.

There’s no doubt that Australia has managed the economic, health and social impacts of COVID-19 better than most countries.

The risk now is that we adopt a mission-accomplished mindset and fail to confront the significant challenges ahead of us over the next two decades.

We have a choice to stand still or transform into a more dynamic and competitive economy.

We also have the opportunity to act as a stabilising force in the region while protecting our sovereignty, our values and the strength of our society.

The IMF estimates that one fifth of Fiji’s economic output was wiped out in 2020.

We cannot lose sight of the economic and social destruction COVID has wrought across the developing nations in our region, particularly the Pacific.

Papua New Guinea is battling escalating COVID numbers while Pacific nations are estimated to have experienced a colossal destruction of wealth.

For example, the IMF estimates that one fifth of Fiji’s economic output was wiped out in 2020. Similarly, GDP is estimated to have fallen 3 per cent in Papua New Guinea, 11 per cent in Palau, and 8 per cent in Vanuatu in 2020.

By contrast, Australia’s economy shrunk 2.5 per cent in 2020.

Vaccine nationalism threatens to make this disparity even worse. A divide between hope and despair.

The WHO-led COVAX facility was designed to ensure a fair global vaccine distribution.

Co-sponsored by Australia, the program aims to get two-billion doses of vaccine to the world’s most vulnerable people by the end of the year to end the worst of the pandemic.

Citizens of Australia, Singapore and New Zealand are expected to be vaccinated this year, but nations in our region such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia will have to wait until 2022. For others such as Laos and Myanmar, the Lowy Institute believes it could be as long as five years.

We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, when poorer nations are forced to languish on waiting lists for life saving treatments in the way that African nations did with HIV drugs.

Australia is an open trading nation. What hope do we have for a sustained economic recovery if the virus continues to spread unchecked in the Pacific and Southeast Asia?

The nations at the back of the queue are the same ones that many Australians were born in, like to visit and the ones we trade with. They face poverty and instability.

It’s why the commitment by the Quad – Australia, the United States, India and Japan – to massively expand the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to low and middle income countries in the Asia Pacific is such a welcome and timely development.

Under the partnership, Australia will contribute an extra $US77 million ($100 million) for the rollout of vaccines with a focus on south-east Asia, on top of its existing commitment of $US407 million to help vaccinate the citizens of nine Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste.

Mass vaccination and economic reconstruction are vital to restarting our interconnected economies, whether it be by resuming in and outbound tourism or rebooting supply chains.

Over the past 18 months businesses across Australia stood up to the unprecedented challenge of maintaining the supply of essential goods and services to the community through the dual bushfires COVID crises.

Through this, and many other forms of support, business has demonstrated time and time again its commitment to the community.

Australian businesses are quietly meeting similar challenges supporting millions across our region at a more daunting scale.

They are providing advanced quality infrastructure, critical health services, essential banking and financial products and feeding millions with high-quality nutritious foods.

These efforts, along with government support, will shape Australia’s reputation in the region for decades to come.

As a middle power built on the pillars of human rights, liberal democracy and the rule of law, we cannot ignore the vacuum that inaction might create.

We live in a much more competitive world for foreign aid and the dominance of western donors is waning just as geopolitics is gaining greater influence.

Non-democratic states can finance more projects than ever but that doesn’t come with strong commitment to accountability, governance, transparency, and sustainability.

Only development that respects these principles delivers meaningful, inclusive and resilient economic transformation over the long-term.

For this vision to prevail, especially on our doorstep, we need to be an active and competitive player in the development space.

Australia’s commitment to COVAX as well as our domestic success gives us the moral legitimacy to argue for greater international co-operation.

Business stands ready to partner with government and other agencies, including Micah Australia and the Reverend Tim Costello as they advocate on these needs through the End COVID for All campaign, to help nations in our region regain their footing and recover from the pandemic.


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