On the first day of February, a sunny Saturday morning in Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula, Greg Hunt was at his son’s cricket match when he received a call from Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy.
“I think it’s time,” Murphy told the Health Minister.
Over the previous week, Murphy, Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been talking about the possibility of some kind of travel ban from China to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
The Australian government had already shown a willingness to get ahead of the World Health Organisation, declaring COVID-19 to be a “disease of pandemic potential” on January 21, more than a month before the global body belatedly followed.
But the travel ban would be a drastic move; it was against the advice of the WHO and would likely draw the ire of the Chinese government.
Murphy was growing increasingly concerned about the potential for a major outbreak in Australia, and he and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee were now of the belief there had been a sustained human-to-human spread outside of China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus.
Hunt knew he had to act fast. After his conversation with Murphy, he rang the Prime Minister to deliver the recommendation. A hastily convened teleconference of the national security committee of the cabinet was set for 2pm.
By 9pm, a travel ban was in place stopping all foreign nationals who were in mainland China from entering Australia for 14 days from the time they left the country.
February 1 would prove to be a fateful day: it was when Australia truly decided to move ahead of the WHO and never look back.
Other measures that would follow – such as the worldwide travel ban, declaring a global pandemic, the creation of the national cabinet and social-distancing measures – all stemmed from this day.
Announcing the ban, Morrison was questioned by a journalist over why Australia was doing it against the advice of the WHO. “Because our medical advice is it’s in the interest of Australians to do so,” Morrison said.
Two days later, the WHO’s Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hit out at Australia and the United States for putting in place travel restrictions from China, saying there was no need for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”. If anything, this reinforced the Australian government’s decision.
For a number of weeks, the government was growing increasingly concerned about the advice coming out of the WHO’s global headquarters in Geneva about the situation in China.
Senior Australian health officials still valued the work of the WHO’s Western Pacific division, headquartered in the Philippines, and respected its regional director, Takeshi Kasai. A distinction was already being formed in Canberra between “Geneva & Manila”.
Fast-forward more than two months, and the extent of the WHO’s failings are obvious. Meanwhile, Australia hasn’t just flattened the curve, but is now pursuing a policy of containment – and perhaps in a few weeks, outright suppression – of the virus.
But there are growing fears that US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding from the WHO pending a review will only serve to further place the United Nations body under Beijing’s control.
As Trump’s America withdraws from the world, ravaged by COVID-19 and deflecting blame onto the WHO and China for its own mishandling of the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to fulfil his long-held goal of “reforming and developing the global governance system” to build “a community with a shared future for mankind”.
So where did the WHO, a specialised agency of the UN established in 1948, go so wrong? Firstly, it spent all of January and most of February parroting lines from the Chinese Government.
The most glaring example was on January 14, when Chinese authorities were still trying to cover up the initial outbreak, and the WHO uncritically repeated China’s assertions that there was no “clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.
WHO didn’t send experts on a field visit to Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, until six days later on January 20. Two days after that, the WHO finally declared there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, but praised China’s efforts in containing the virus.
Tedros, through all of February, was applauding the “transparency” of the Chinese response, applauding the Chinese President’s “detailed knowledge” and “personal involvement in the outbreak”.
When former Hong Kong Health Minister Margaret Chan was appointed Director General of the WHO in 2006, she was very much Beijing’s choice.
At the end of her term in 2017, the Chinese government knew they couldn’t install one of their own again, so they went for the next best thing, using their voting bloc at the organisation to elect Tedros over British candidate Dr. David Nabarro.
Tedros, formerly Ethiopia’s Health Minister & Foreign Minister, trained as a microbiologist but is the first director-general who is not a medical doctor.
Taiwan which has been a model case in its response to the coronavirus – has been sidelined by the WHO at the behest of Beijing. Taiwan was previously granted observer status in the WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, but was ousted in 2016 after the election of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen, a critic of Beijing, as president. The mere mention of Taiwan from a Hong Kong reporter last month saw a Senior WHO Official pretend to not hear the question and shut down the interview.
There is now a bipartisan push within Australia for Canberra to change its position on Taiwanese membership. While Australia has campaigned behind the scenes for the WHO to engage more with Taiwan, it has not endorsed the country’s bid for membership of the world health body.
Australian MPs from both sides of politics have also this week called for a review into the WHO in the wake of the virus, including its relationship with Beijing.
But the problem extends beyond the WHO. For more than a decade, China has been quietly gaining more influence over UN bodies. Four of the 15 UN specialized agencies are headed by Chinese nationals. China now contributes 12 percent of the UN’s regular budget, the second-largest monetary contributor after the US.
Beijing has also co-opted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by using them to promote the Belt & Road Initiative, Xi’s Signature program to bankroll infrastructure around the world which often directly benefits Chinese firms.
There is growing evidence that Beijing has used the BRI in developing nations to create “debt traps” by funding white-elephant projects and then wiping the debt for favors. The molding of the UN’s development goals to China’s infrastructure plans has been helped by the fact that a Chinese National has been in the position of undersecretary-general of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs since 2007.
Michael Shoebridge, Director of the Defense Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says China has used the BRI to sway more votes at the UN, and then legitimized the program by promoting it under the UN banner.
While some analysts say China is using its leverage at the UN just as any emerging or great power has in the past, Shoebridge says China is fundamentally different because of its “Leninist roots”.
“The US State Department has a public diplomacy role, but it doesn’t have a United Front Work Department agenda subverting or co-opting any source of opposition to its state power,” Shoebridge says. “But you have to be in it to win it; nature abhors a vacuum. Given the Chinese state is defined by opportunism, it is a very bad strategic policy by the United States to gift them the opportunity to have even more influence in UN agencies.”
The US is the biggest financial contributor to the WHO, last year forking out $US553 million ($877 million) to its $US6 billion budget. Australia is set to give $5.3 million in membership dues this year, on top of voluntary contributions, while China will give about $28.7 million. Trump’s decision to halt funding will play right into the hands of Beijing, which wants to model itself as a global health leader in the wake of the pandemic.
In some ways, Western countries are reaping what they have sown: for years, the international community called on China to engage more with global institutions, and that’s exactly what Beijing has done.
Dr. Benjamin Zala, research fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, says the Chinese government has increased its UN funding “because we effectively asked Beijing to do so”.
“China looks for greater influence at the UN for exactly the same reason that the US or any other great power does: it is a useful way to advance its interest,” Zala says. “Any greater influence that Chinese money buys within the UN system will be amplified by the Trump administration’s disengagement from things like the UN Human Rights Council or the World Health Organisation.
“Generally speaking, in these arenas power and influence matters in relative terms. So the more the US withdraws, the more influence China will be able to exert.”
UN bodies are inherently flawed, but they are only as good as their member states. Stuck between a rising authoritarian power and a transactional US President, it may be up to middle powers like Australia to chart a way forward.
According to senior sources within the Australian government, the challenge will now be to work out how to encourage the WHO to reform in a way that doesn’t further play into Beijing’s hands.
One way to do this could be to team up with other middle powers to review its handling of the global pandemic, though it will likely wait for the US to complete its review.
At Prime Minister Morrison’s request, senior bureaucrats within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been reviewing Australia’s commitments to global institutions, including the WHO, since late last year. A report is due to be handed to the Prime Minister in the coming months. There is no serious talk within the senior ranks of the Australian government about following Trump in defunding the WHO, with the consensus that the UN body must be improved from within.
After all, Australia doesn’t want to go it alone again. But since the first day of February, it has left no one in doubt that it can.