Hewson's View: COVID-19 presents an opportunity not to be squandered

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how quickly and dramatically Australia, and the world, can make changes that were previously unthinkable. Image: Shutterstock

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how quickly and dramatically Australia, and the world, can make changes that were previously unthinkable. Image: Shutterstock

COVID-19 has highlighted significant failures in governance, both in preparation and response.

This has been a global crisis.

Warnings and predictions were ignored, governments and countries, at all levels of their economies and societies, were totally unprepared.

To a significant extent the response so far has had to be, to "get through it as best we can", so that we can move on.

COVID was first and and foremost a medical crisis - the imperative was to contain the virus and its rate of infection as quickly as possible, a very real test for medical and hospital advice, capacity, equipment, personnel and services.

The inadequacies soon became apparent, and the rush began to fill the gaps, but with some governments and authorities obviously pursuing different strategies and responses ranging from alarm to herd immunity.

But, whatever, the response involved "learning by doing".

In medical terms, the prescription evolved as closures and lockdowns, border restrictions and social distancing.

All involve a significant trade-off in terms of lives saved, versus economic and social consequences, unemployment, business failures, the sacrifice of lifestyle and freedoms.

The medical crisis soon became an economic and social crisis at a scale not experienced since the Great Depression.

While the world is still well short of the "end" of this crisis, and will remain so until an effective vaccine is developed and deployed across the globe, there is a growing sense that "we are coming out of this" but, again, totally unprepared as to how, and with no real sense of what more may need to be done, and just how long it will take.

Naturally, the world now wants answers.

How did it start, who was to blame, why were the management and governance responses so sporadic, with significant inconsistencies and effectiveness, and many more questions.

These are important questions for all, not just the Chinese.

However, most important, will governments and broader societies actually learn from this experience to better prepare for future pandemics and a number of other catastrophic threats for which this was a very painful dress rehearsal?

Or will they continue to ignore the warnings, the science, and the potential demands of these threats?

It is a very unfortunate feature of our politics and governance that we don't seem to learn, indeed, don't seem to want to learn.

It has become a cynical feature of our governments that when a crisis breaks, such as a drought or bushfire, our governments do what (often as little as) has to be done to get by, relying on the fact that it will ultimately rain, that the bushfire season will end, and memories will fade.

As we have seen recently, the current Morrison government wanted to ignore climate science and its warnings that, in our increasingly hot and dry continent, we can expect more droughts and fires that will occur with greater frequency and intensity.

There has been no significant attempt, for example with drought, to launch a national program of "regenerative agriculture" to improve the drought resistance and resilience of our soils, with the significant additional benefits to farmers and by lowering our carbon emissions, to be better prepared for the next one.

Globally, it should be recognised that since about the mid-20th century, humans have increasingly, although largely unintentionally, threatened significant harm to themselves, and to the planet - prioritising economic and population growth, but largely ignoring its social, political, and environmental consequences.

These include exhaustion of scarce resources, climate change, waste, water, disease, diminished resilience, all compounded by poor, short-sighted governance that has disadvantaged some countries and generations and fostered wasteful military and economic competition.

Our experience with COVID-19 has demonstrated just how quickly and dramatically we, and the world, can change, can adjust our behaviours, practices and lifestyles - making changes that would have been unthinkable previously.

Moreover, we have done this collaboratively, and mostly unselfishly.

This is an inspiring indication that we, and the global community, can embrace essential change.

This experience should not be easily forgotten - indeed it should be accepted as an opportunity for a recovery in governance, and in our economic, social and environmental structures, that ensures that we are better prepared to meet future challenges and threats.

In designing and implementing such a recovery we should only be constrained by the limits of our imagination.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

This story Virus an opportunity not to be squandered first appeared on The Canberra Times.