Some Chinese are likening the government’s mishandling of the virus to the Soviet Union’s attempted cover-up of the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. “Turns out we are the real Chernobyl,” one posted.
In Hong Kong some businesses are refusing service to mainland Chinese. Thousands of Hong Kong hospital staff have started a five-day strike to pressure chief executive Carrie Lam into blocking all people movements from the mainland.
The fear in China is understandable. Not only because the virus was made there, but because many people mistrust the authorities. They suspect that they are not being told the full truth. The local authorities in the epicentre, the city of Wuhan, wasted precious weeks trying to suppress news of the virus. Doctors and honest citizens trying to warn others were arrested and charged with “fabricating rumours”.
Notably, even China’s top court has criticised the Wuhan authorities and vindicated eight whistleblowers who tried to send out warnings. An article published by the Supreme People’s Court last week said: “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumours’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market.”
As the Chinese authorities crack down belatedly to stop the virus, the economic cost mounts.
According to Bloomberg business news, the Chinese provinces and cities, which have declared that local businesses need not start operations until at least the second week of February, accounted for about two-thirds of of China’s total economy last year.
The fear radiates far and wide. The World Health Organisation advised governments that there was no reason to shut borders and transport links, yet the US last week did exactly that, followed by a lengthening list of others including Australia, Singapore and Vietnam, blocking visitors from China.
We see reports of Indonesians mounting protests against Chinese tourists, in a country that has yet to report a single case of the novel coronavirus. Shops and hotels from Tokyo to Hanoi are barring Chinese visitors.
One layer on top of another, in one country after another, the net of fear spreads and chokes commerce.
This virus – any virus – cannot in itself harm the Australian economy or Australia’s social fabric. In an average year, some 3500 people die of the seasonal flu in Australia, according to the Influenza Specialist Group. Yet the economy sails on every time, and the great achievement of Australian multicultural harmony continues. The damage will come not from the virus but the fear. The case for action by the federal government action is clear.
If Scott Morrison is smart, he will learn the lesson of his great bushfire bungle and get ahead of this crisis rather than waiting for it to crash around him. The two great equities that need to be protected in the face of this crisis are economic confidence and community harmony.
First, the economy. The drought and bushfires already were inflicting economic pain and consumer anxiety. Now the tourism, airline, hotel and hospitality industries are starting to feel the Wuhan effect as the country’s biggest source of tourists disappears.
The university sector that has filled its coffers with riches from the trade in Chinese students is about to start feeling the pain too, with tens of thousands of them unable to travel to Australia for the start of the academic year. Other sectors will feel the knock-on. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says he expects the damage to be “substantial”.
The economic harm that can be estimated from the mechanical inter-connections of the lost activity will be temporary and manageable. If fear continues to grow, any downturn will be made worse.
More than anything else, consumers and investors need confidence. Morrison and Frydenberg should now be preparing a major statement for next week.
They should do what only governments can do. Stand in the market and generate confidence, not only with rhetoric but with economic measures. The government already is working on measures to stimulate investment, with a view to announcing them in the May budget.
Canberra should bring forward the planned investment allowance and planned future income tax cuts. And announce other measures to help tide over the sectors likely to be worst hit by the virus and bushfire double whammy.
Second, the national government needs to stem the fear and suspicion of Chinese people, and even anyone who might be mistaken for being Chinese. Australia has a deep national investment in the wellbeing of its 1.2 million Chinese Australians.
Morrison needs to affirm their central place in the society and the economy. They need to be embraced as part of the solution to the coronavirus as well as the fear virus, not vilified as part of the problem.
Much as the Muslim Australian community played a vital part in halting the spread of radical Islamist terorism, the Chinese Australian community can be a vital part of the management of this twin virus.
Other leaders such as Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Sydney’s mayor Clover Moore were very visible on the weekend in appearing with their local Chinese Australian communities, demonstrating support and countering fearmongering.
The Prime Minister should do the same, and more, to hold together the country he leads. Confidence and harmony are hard-won commodities. Yet they are ineffable and fragile. Once shattered, they are very hard to put back together. It’s time for leadership.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.