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Are we ‘third world’ in flattening the Covid curve?

Since March 2020, I have experienced six Covid-19 lockdowns including the big ones in Melbourne and Sydney. In December 2020, I travelled to India to rescue my dying father and Covid-stricken mother and managed to get back into the country in January; a harrowing journey. I, like thousands of other citizens, lived on the edge in Melbourne, to see when the next lockdown would occur after ONE Covid case …

I am now living in Sydney in lockdown and wondering how we became similar to another country (per capita) in Covid cases and fear: Should India lock out Australians? Just kidding (kind of).

What’s next for me? I don’t know. But when I recently heard a friend in the UK travelled to and from Nepal for a three-week holiday, as did another friend from Bali who went to and from Europe, with no quarantine requirement, it made me wonder, “Where am I and why am I still here?”

We are living in a newly redefined “third world”. With hardly any disease- or vaccine- acquired immunity, Australia is months behind other rich countries in its ability to handle a fresh outbreak. The problem is: What will happen with the next crisis, and the one after that?

The failures that led to Australia’s current situation – a belief that its good fortune is born of merit rather than luck, an inability to plan for contingencies, a breezy confidence that something will turn up to save the day – don’t just apply to its handling of Covid-19.

Since I moved to Australia in 2006, I have been observing significant economic, social, and socioeconomic interactions and tensions across the country, at a federal, state and local level. Working in the social responsibility space, issues like climate change, human rights and reconciliation are dear to my heart, and I started seeing some metaphoric, semiotic and visible cracks in the system.

Australia is supposedly ticking all the boxes for what constitutes a “first world” country. High standard of living – check. Established infrastructure – check. Sovereign state recognised by other nations – check. Orderly transfer of all goods and services required to maintain life – check. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index (a statistical measure that gauges a country’s level of human development), Australia is ranked #8.

But in the new third world, wealth is health. Because health depends on wealth, it is unevenly distributed. In these countries, many people cannot afford to go to the doctor and they get sick or die needlessly. This is treated as their problem, until during an epidemic it becomes everyone’s problem.

If public health is the new world order, Australians are now living in the third world. In terms of vulnerability to an epidemic, we are much closer to Sub-Saharan Africa than Norway.

I grew up in India and Nigeria I know what it’s like living in a poor country where stuff doesn’t work. Where systems don’t make sense and seem actively stupid or cruel. But many Australians are unfamiliar with that feeling. It was always happening to someone else. This will be hard, I hear some say, but I guess we will learn.

It’s not a lesson worth learning. It’s just tragic.

In the earlier days of the pandemic, Australia was blessed by its geography. As the world’s most sparsely populated major economy (only Namibia and Mongolia have fewer people per square kilometre), it’s been remarkably easy to segment into discrete quarantine zones.

As so often in Australia’s history, that geographical good fortune has come to breed callousness and complacency. Once a bastion of Covid success, now two of Australia’s largest cities are under tight restrictions amid a poorly handled vaccine program and the growing Delta outbreak. The lack of urgency, the missteps and the complacency have taken their toll.

As I write this, Sydney is at 3,482 active Covid cases, almost triple where China was on January 23, but (supposedly) with the public health system and political will to flatten the curve. This is a “lion meets limping gazelle” moment and it may not be pretty.

More than 30,000 citizens have been stranded overseas and say they want to return. Technically, that’s been possible: The country had enough places in hotel quarantine to accommodate 6,370 arrivals a week. In practice, though, anyone unable to part with a five- figure sum to pay for flights and accommodation for each returning traveller is stuck.

While India’s outbreak was at its worst in early May, the government banned all travel from the country, with the threat of jail for those who attempted to evade the rules. No such measures were extended for equally virulent epidemics in the US and UK. As Sydney’s outbreak started to spread, the first move from all sides of politics was to raise the drawbridge: Quarantine places for returning citizens, already insufficient, have now been cut in half.

Currently, just 17 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated and an outbreak of the Delta variant is slowly spreading. Australia’s death toll is less than 1,000 and its case total is just over 35,000 – fewer infections than the US, UK, India, Brazil, France and Italy have each reported in a day. But a much less impressive number is the percentage of its population that is fully vaccinated – ranking the country 37 on the list of 38 OECD countries.

Yes, Australia is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots.

With every progressive policy other countries take the lead on, for example on climate emissions targets, its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, in funding public health, in reducing Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody rates, the further Australia slips behind.

If we don’t want our country to be reduced from the engine of innovation to the caboose, there’ll be a time when our people and politicians have to accept progressive policies and practise compassion.

If we won’t, we’ll have to concede that many so-called “third-world / developing countries” are outstripping us, that “third-world country” isn’t the derogatory term it’s subconsciously believed to be.

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Dr Kaushik Sridhar is an experienced and purpose-driven sustainability leader. In 2020, he was named among the “40 Under 40 Influential Asian-Australians”, and also ranked #8 in Assent Compliance’s Top 100 Global Corporate Social Responsibility Leaders.

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