When the Abbott Government cut Australia’s overseas aid program in 2013, conservative commentators and government spokespeople were quick to point to a “budget emergency” and the need to “balance the books”.
As the world closes another year ravaged by a global pandemic we can now see how short-sighted those cuts to the Australian aid budget were, and how they have
contributed to a worsening situation throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
In total more than $11.3 billion has been cut from the aid budget since the last Labor Budget was delivered in 2013. Most significantly, this included real reductions in health expenditure in the region. In the 2014/15 Budget year, Australia’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) attributed to Health stood at $684 million per year. In the last Budget it stood at $577.5 million, delivered against the backdrop of a worsening pandemic. While the “temporary and targeted” measures introduced by the government to respond to COVID-19 in the region should be and have been welcomed with a spirit of bipartisanship, levels of investment in regional health remain far too low. In addition to the cuts in health specifically, the cuts were savage in South East Asia – critical countries for our health security and Australian trade. Aid to South East Asia has been cut by 30 per cent, falling from almost $1.3 billion in 2014/15 to just over $900 million in 2019/20.
So what has been the impact of this? The global pandemic has revealed just how fragile health systems and economies are across the region. As the first wave of COVID-19 hit the region, many systems were battered but withstood the shock. A combination of public health measures and social distancing enabled many communities to resist large spikes in infections, and flow on cases into intensive care units. As the Delta variant crashed into the region however, we have now seen just how exposed health systems are, and how big a risk to Australia’s health security they pose.
We have seen COVID-19 infections cross the Torres Strait from Papua New Guinea. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, has faced a public health crisis for months. The Red Cross has reported that the death rate from COVID-19 across South East
Asia is double that of North America. So what needs to be done to turn this around?
First of all, we need to restore bipartisanship around Australia’s aid program. The ideologues in the Coalition parties, who pander to the vocal minority of the Australian public opposed to aid, need to put Australia’s national interest first. None of us are safe from this global pandemic, until we are all safe. We need to ensure that a narrative that values reinvestment in aid and development in the region is broadly supported across all major political parties.
Second, we need to do more to support the global efforts to lift vaccination rates against COVID-19 in our region, before there is another mutation in the virus. We need global vaccine justice urgently. Vietnam has reported vaccination rates as low as 11%. Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are pushing only above 20% in recent weeks. We need commitments to long-term vaccine supply to these countries, and support to train the workforce to get jabs in arms quickly.
Third, we need long term reinvestment in health security and health resilience, particularly in our region. Australia has enormous expertise in building effective universal health coverage (Medicare) and in building diagnostic and information systems that support effective crisis management of global pandemics, and the ongoing health needs of local communities. We should leverage this and support countries in our region to build back stronger health systems.
Fourth, we need to help build a well-trained health workforce across the region that has the right clinical expertise, but is also able to deliver the most basic of health services at village or township level. These primary health workers have been shown to be critical in providing public health information and assisting in vaccine drives right across the region.
Fifth and finally, we need to help restore economic growth and jobs to the region. Living in extreme poverty is defined as living on less than USD$1.90 a day. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) now estimates that up to 80 million people in Asia have been pushed back into extreme poverty due to the health and economic disruption caused by COVID-19. This has set back the cause of development in the region by years. Aside from the obvious appalling human tragedy, we know that a lack of economic growth in the region has an impact on Australia as a trading and export driven economy.
Labor should look to rebuild Australia’s aid program, drawing on a long history of regional engagement, support for human development, and a spirit of internationalism that has been the bedrock of Labor values for the last 150 years. Building from these core values represents the best chance of protecting Australia and securing a safe and prosperous region. Because none of us are safe until we’re all safe.
Nick Martin is former Assistant National Secretary of the ALP and works in international development. He has written this article in a personal capacity.