Before we had the Ruby Princess, Australia had the United States. The governmental dysfunction and chaotic health care of our favourite ally has not just made it the world leader in COVID-19 cases, it’s made it the key contributor to shifting the disease in Australia from challenge to emergency.
The COVID-19 data on the high level of overseas infections –particularly through US flight arrivals into Sydney — show that Australia is paying a large price for our social and political integration with North America. Particularly now, in the age of Trump.
The epidemic in the US has been marked with a profound systems failure — a jackpot of denialism from the top, politicisation of policy and implementation and a profoundly irresponsible right-wing media.
These overlay the doctrine of American exceptionalism which has concealed the long-term gutting of public institutions (accelerated under Trump), the uncoordinated mish-mash of local, state and federal responsibilities and the inherent private-public chaos that is the US health system on a good day.
This failure meant the US lost control of the virus. And while we were laughing at the Trump clown show, the virus escaped over the trans-Pacific air routes into our cities.
Flight arrival data suggests that things turned in the second week of March. On March 9 there were 92 cases in Australia. Just two flights into Sydney from the US had each carried what seems a single case (reports are by seating rows, so there could be more than one case in each nominated row).
By the following Sunday, when Australia followed New Zealand’s lead and closed its borders at midnight, a further 15 flights with at least 21 confirmed cases had arrived in Sydney from North America and the US had become the leading source country of overseas infection.
This surge had provoked Morrison on the previous Friday to begin his continuing pivot from, “I’m going to the footy!” to “No, I’m not — and you’re not either!”, shifting his political persona from daggy dad from the Shire to “first among leaders” (at least according to Greg Sheridan in The Australian).
But he had a problem. It was one thing to block hot-spots like Italy or Korea, but how should he respond to this US influx without damaging the carefully curated relationship with the US president? The solution came over the weekend courtesy of Jacinda Ardern — if you can’t single out the US, then single out everyone!
We’ve come to rely on competent US administrations taking responsibility to manage through the challenges posed by the long-term privatisation and marketisation of US institutions — particularly in health. But the US is a long way from the usual and, as Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility.”
To avoid that responsibility, the US right — promoted equally through the Fox network and Trump — worked to shape the story as either (or both) an exclusively China problem or a Democratic hoax.
It was the Chinese virus, Trump asserted, or the Wuhan virus, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was no worse than the flu — probably better, in fact. It was all under control. Anything contrary was a Democratic hoax. His Republican supporters publicly mocked fears, with one representative wearing a gas mask into Congress (he was later quarantined) and the Oklahoma governor tweeting (now deleted) after Trump finally declared a national emergency: “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight!”.
As ever, it’s hard to tell whether Trump was following Fox News or vice versa. Throughout February and early March, the Murdochs’ voice of the right was spreading these talking points through the conservative base, forcing an embarrassing walk-back in late March.
These lines continue to echo faintly over the Pacific with well-known epidemiologist Andrew Bolt continuing the “no worse than the flu” meme this week and the News tabloids yesterday puffing
the Dutton “crack-down” on exports of masks and sanitisers, complete with references to a former Chinese military officer.
It tells us again that when it comes to the United States, Australia is not an island. Trump is our problem too. Turns out, when the US coughs, we catch COVID-19.