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Oceanic Currents

Good Governance in a Time of Pandemics

Alan Tidwell


Photo by Alec Wilson, 2014.


A quick global survey of the impact of COVID-19 shows that few countries have managed stem the virus’s onslaught.  In the Pacific, two countries stand out: Australia and New Zealand. Today, the fatality rate for New Zealand is just .2 per million people, and Australia’s fatality rate is 2 per million.  To put this in context, the US (with the highest total fatalities) has a fatality rate of 29 per million, and tragically Spain’s fatality rate sits at 279 per million.  What have New Zealand and Australia done to prevent an uncontrolled outbreak of the virus?  

In public health terms Australia and New Zealand, watching the virus unfold in China, took the early steps to set up monitoring and testing that would enable them to manage the virus outbreak.  Whereas, other countries, perhaps in a state of denial or hubris, discounted China’s experience and sadly have since suffered the consequences. Both Australia and New Zealand have high levels of tourism from East Asia, and had, in Australia’s case, early exposure to the virus.  Australia’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on January 25, and New Zealand’s first case was not confirmed until February 25. Both countries have implemented social distancing policies and have largely put their economies into ‘hibernation’.

Both Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated in exemplary fashion the principles of good governance.  They are protecting the safety and security of their citizens as a first guiding principle.  

Looking beyond COVID-19 discussions are already unfolding about what the pandemic has unearthed.  John Blackburn, Chairman of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, has long been an advocate for placing resilience at the center of Australia’s national security.  His institute published in early February 2020 a timely report entitled “Australia’s Medicine Supply”, which notes that “Australia imports over 90% of medicines and is at the end of a very long global supply chain making the nation vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.”  Blackburn’s institute focuses on the fact that the interconnected global economy creates prosperity, while simultaneously making countries more vulnerable. The tyranny of distance makes Australia’s vulnerability all the more apparent – the country is often at the end of very long supply lines.

Blackburn is not, of course, the first Australian to observe the need for proactive thinking in an effort to head off disaster.  John Burton, academic and diplomat, worked for years to promote ideas that would reduce the outbreak of violent conflict – to his way of thinking, the best way to resolve a conflict was to not have it in the first place.  Understanding the underlying causes and conditions that made violent conflict likely was a central step in preventing its emergence. Burton coined the neologism, ‘provention’ to capture what he was after.  Rather than prevent a conflict’s eruption, Burton want to ‘provent’ the explosion.  Burton explained in 1990 that “Prevention implies suppression: provention is intended to imply anticipation and avoidance.”  Essential to effective provention is having a clear vision of what society should be. A people who are happy, long lived, and healthy probably goes a long way to capturing what anyone would want.  A second step in effective provention requires imagining just how wrong things can go, as we are now experiencing.  

A country’s response to COVID-19 unearths a myriad of social warts and failures.  Many parts of the world are seeing just how badly prepared they were for the pandemic.  Leaders in those countries did not heed warnings about national resilience. Nor did they take steps to provent the worst aspects of COVID-19 from infecting their citizenry.  It would be wrong to say that there was nothing these countries could have done. Australia and New Zealand (along with Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) are examples of countries getting things right.  Others would do well to look for inspiration to these standouts of good governance.


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