On Tuesday 16 November, Adjunct Professor Bill Bowtell AO addressed the Institute on the main approaches to the national and international pandemic responses and the role of Australia in safeguarding its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region from COVID-19 outbreaks. He drew on his experience as a senior adviser to the Australian health minister during the HIV crisis from 1983-1987, his subsequent work with the Pacific Friends of the Global Fund on disease control and prevention including malaria, cholera and HIV, and over the past two years his contributions to public policy formation in responding to COVID.
Nature creates the virus, but politics creates the pandemic. Bowtell pointed out that there are generally two types of international responses to COVID-19. Most Western countries have tended to be reactive to the pandemic, relying on “wishes and luck” and focussing on reviving tourism and securing economic growth. Asian countries, on the other hand, have decided to adopt a “zero COVID” approach. Australia, for most of the time, has followed the proactive path of many Asian countries. Learning from past experience with other diseases like HIV, SARS, swine flu and Ebola, Australia has demonstrated the capacity to legislate an effective response to COVID-19 – until the New South Wales government decided to “let it run”. While coordination between different levels of government has been the crux of Australia’s effective response, it is fortunate that other states did not follow the mis-step of New South Wales.
We are in a race between vaccination and mutation, whether we know it or not. The Delta variant really changed the game considering how infectious it is. The global supply of vaccines has experienced severe shortages, and even a developed country like Australia, at certain times, has struggled to procure vaccines. But what has complicated the issue of vaccination more is the strong rise of anti-vaccination propaganda and vaccine hesistancy. Bowtell attributed this to uncontrolled neoliberalism, which saw the lack of state control over giant tech firms like Facebook in dissseminating misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic. In other words, we have been fighting against not only the pandemic but also what the WHO calls “an infodemic” – the distribution of harmful public health information on the pandemic.
If there is no consistent international regulation of COVID-19 as we move into 2022, then no countries can be safe from the pandemic. Many epidemiologists and virologists have concluded that outbreaks will return. Indeed, the number of cases internationally continues to grow exponentially and the potential for the virus to mutate and generate new variants is ever-present. While Australia is faring comparatively well, no country can deal with COVID in isolation: “until we’re all out of it, none of us are”. To improve the international response to COVID and subsequent pandemics, the “anti-science brigade” must be confronted and the capabilities of the WHO need to be enhanced. While the Australian government has – admirably – supported the international COVAX initiative co-led by Gavi (which aims to increase vaccine availably to children word wide), CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) and the World Health Organization, Bowtell recommends more substantial Australian investment to better protect less advantaged countries, remarking that “the greatest vaccine of all is money”.
Responding to audience questions about Australia’s role in dealing effectively with the pandemic in neighboring countries, Bowtell advocated equitable vaccine distribution between developed and developing countries. Criticising the irresponsibility and selfishness of many Western nations in piling up vaccines, Bowtell argued that the shortage of vaccine supply can be addressed when nations cooperate and move beyond the politicization of the virus. In particular, Chinese vaccines should be approved more widely, and the international regulation of COVID-19 needs to be achieved with more consensus rather than the East-West divide as we move into 2022.
For Bowtell, Australia needs to be consistent with putting COVID-19 above politics. Viruses are an inescapable reality of life on earth, embodying the iron laws of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. Tremendously creative national and international policymaking is required to limit harm and “build back better”. Australia should promote an agenda of international cooperation and collective management of COVID-19: helping other nations in responding to the pandemic means protecting Australia itself from the spread of COVID-19.
Report by Grace Bui, AIIA NSW intern
Bill Bowtell AO