Nicolas Berggruen is the publisher of Noema Magazine and the chairman of the Berggruen Institute.
Six and a half months ago, at the grand finale of the Australian Rugby League, nearly 40,000 eager spectators crowded around the field; later that week, the famed Sydney Opera House reopened its doors. The spread of COVID-19 had subdued and restrictions were being lifted. Life down under had returned to normal well ahead of the U.S., which is only now turning the corner, with large pockets of the country still in the grips of infections and lockdown.
To date, Australia has lost just 910 lives to the coronavirus, compared to 597,000 lives and counting in the U.S. Since both nations are rooted in the same individualist Anglo-Saxon culture and have a similar form of democratic federal government, one wonders why they diverged so sharply in coping with COVID. What is the underlying difference between these democracies that led one country to effectively save its citizens while the other erratically muddled through at such a high human cost?
From the very beginning, Australia’s response was speedy and robust: travel bans, mandatory quarantines, lockdowns and easily accessible COVID testing, including drive-through clinics. These were all largely possible because Australia seems to possess what America lacks: the trust of citizens in their government, particularly at the local level. The kind of “Live free or die” distrust of authority, polarized politicization of the pandemic and widespread resistance to sensible public health mandates that appeared in the U.S. never materialized in Australia.
Despite priding themselves on their carefree, rebellious nature, in truth Australians by and large are far more tractable than Americans. A culture of compliance exists there that is absent in the U.S. During the height of the pandemic, local governments readily deferred to the guidance of their public health officials, and so in turn did their citizens.
As one Australian columnist has written: “COVID-19 is a crisis that very much suits us. Our national psychology is tailor-made for it. Crudely, I’d put it like this: We love a closed border, we’re a surprisingly anxious people in the face of immediate threats, we’re very obedient to authority and we have a deep belief in the role of government to solve our problems. … Our whole history is one of reliance on the state, heightened regulation and mass compliance. So, we were the first nation to make seatbelts compulsory in cars. We’re one of extremely few to make bicycle helmets compulsory. We were early adopters of mandatory breath tests for motorists. We have extensive prohibitions on smoking in public places, including vast outdoor ones. … We’re the only English-speaking country to make voting compulsory. … I’d venture that every one of these measures, from compulsory voting to bicycle helmets, is wildly popular here. In general, we’d argue they’re common sense and regard critics of them as unreasonably ideological.”
According to a 2009 survey, about 49% of Australians thought the government was trustworthy. That survey was repeated during the pandemic: The number had increased to 80%. By contrast, the Pew Research Center found last fall that only 20% of American adults believed the federal government could be trusted.
This begs the question: Was the lack of trust in the federal government at this time due solely to the Trump administration’s well-documented track record of manipulating the truth and dispensing “alternative facts”? Not necessarily. Pew conducted a similar study in 2010, when President Barack Obama was in office, that found only 22% of American adults believed they could trust the government. Aside from a brief spike after 9/11, American’s trust in government has been steadily declining since the 1970s.
In short, Australia was able to curtail contagion because the public trusted its government and public health officials to act effectively in the broad public interest. In the U.S., a populace that prides itself on distrust in government, and which elected a president in Donald Trump who not only amplified that distrust but actively dismantled and disabled the administrative and operational capacity to deliver the goods, suffered horrendously.
President Joe Biden and his administration have been laboring mightily to turn things around since he took office in January. Several trillions of dollars in government spending have been proposed to reignite the stalled economy. America now ranks among the most vaccinated nations, with nearly 60% of adults having received at least one dose so far. Deaths and infections are falling. Families are again gathering. Travelers are on the move.
While some are heralding that “government is back” on the scale of FDR’s New Deal, it is nearly equally true — as indicated by the slim margins of a U.S. Congress divided along hardened partisan lines that reflect a deeply riven public — that distrust of government has not gone away.
The Funding Of Health Agencies
Australia enjoys a vigorous, well-funded public health system, and the country’s health agencies routinely update and test its national action plans against any pandemics. This is what it looks like when a government acts as a servant to its people’s health.
The health agencies of the U.S, on the other hand, were hamstrung under the Trump administration due to budget cuts and personnel loss. He disbanded the pandemic response team that was set up under Obama, hampering the government’s ability to monitor the global landscape in case outbreaks of infectious diseases turned into health crises. And just a few months before the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, ignoring warnings from numerous public health experts and various politicians, Trump recalled the Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist who was embedded in China, and whose job it was to watch for potential disease outbreaks.
The Trump White House’s neutering of key pandemic response positions could be interpreted in multiple ways: a juvenile underappreciation for the deadly potential of Mother Nature, a Sinclair Lewis-style “it can’t happen here” attitude or perhaps simple fiscal prudence. But there is another way to look at it.
In the days of President Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party embraced the ideals of a large, strong federal government that had a hand in everything from national transportation to land grant universities. But the party changed dramatically since then, and now small government is held aloft as the model of national virtue. Believing that power belongs in the hands of the individuals, Republicans have made it their raison d’etre to slash governmental programs and resources. This speaks to the overwhelming distrust in government held by Americans in general and Republicans in particular.
The distrust in governmental institutions and the slashing of public health resources set the stage for a nation caught unprepared for a global catastrophe. Yet, even as the pandemic was picking up speed in the U.S., there was little change. America’s anemic federal pandemic response was further exacerbated by the Trump administration’s efforts to thwart the CDC’s attempts to protect public health, and conflicting messages did little to encourage the public to trust the guidance of public health officials.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from September last year found that public confidence in the CDC had dropped by 16 points since April. Trust in the CDC by Republicans had fallen 30 points since that April, and Democrats’ from 86% to 74%. The deficit of trust in governmental institutions is a hallmark characteristic of Americans, who largely prefer to think of themselves as individualistic people who collectively scorn a herd mentality — an attribute that, during a pandemic, is required to reach herd immunity.
Governmental Structure And Travel Bans
Last March — fairly early in the pandemic — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposed an all-encompassing travel ban. No matter where in the world a person was traveling from, they were required to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Australia.
One epidemiologist traveling to New York and then back to Sydney reported that upon her arrival in New York, no one took her temperature or asked about symptoms or possible exposure. Arriving back in Sydney, she noticed the airport terminal was a picture of military efficiency and cross-agency coordination; an air force officer escorted her to a hotel room for quarantine.
In contrast, the Trump administration only established an initial travel ban that affected travelers coming from China. Europeans were not affected, despite COVID already spreading across Europe.
In Australia, internal travel restrictions were enacted between states and territories. In the U.S., scattered similar efforts by states were largely unenforceable and perceived as laughable — they were only effective if people were willing to go through them, and often they weren’t. For example, when Rhode Island attempted to institute quarantine requirements for travelers from New York, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened a lawsuit.
The contrast remains stark: In January, the Australian city of Perth saw a single case of COVID, and quickly set up a city-wide lockdown and an internal travel ban. Such a move would be inconceivable in the U.S.
The Politicization Of The Public Health Crisis
Americans by and large met proposed travel bans and other restrictions with derision, believing that sacrificing individual freedoms in the name of saving lives is an affront to liberty. In essence, the pandemic became a political event in America, not a medical one.
Certain officials, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, attempted to disseminate important health information to the public, though these efforts were stymied by Trump. Rather than use his press briefings as a means of steering the country toward safer shores, Trump turned them into de facto campaign rallies, undermining the authority of public health experts’ advice to wear masks, self-quarantine and maintain social distancing, while perpetuating falsehoods about COVID.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on the other hand, quickly stepped back from this approach and instead allowed public health experts to take the lead on informing the public. Morrison focused on pandemic-related economic matters, while allowing public health experts to do what they do best.
The Bigger Issue Remains
The concept of individual freedom will always remain diametrically opposed to the ideal of the greater good embodied in active government if it’s frozen into rigid ideological dogma. Government is not always the problem, nor is it always the solution. Similarly, individual freedom is not always the be-all and end-all, especially in a pandemic caused by respiratory contagion when one’s right to breathe freely could entail illness and death for others.
Such a conundrum cannot be forever resolved by settling on abstract principles. But, as Australia has shown, principles must be pragmatically calibrated within the context of actual circumstances. That is true both within nations and beyond. In a planetary context, in which pandemics or climate change know no borders, potential progress can be crippled by national politics and culture in some places, threatening everyone.
As planetary challenges mount, national egoism will reproduce the individual vs. state conflict at the planetary level, unless we shift our concepts of governance commensurate with actual conditions.
Another public health crisis will emerge — it is only a matter of time. How countries handle it depends in large part on their intentions and abilities. Australia had both the intent to treat COVID like the health crisis it was and the ability to present a unified federal front. Although the U.S. may have turned a page with the current administration, the politicization of shared, apolitical problems and the sharp polarization of the country persists, and will thwart our ability to address future challenges and crises unless we can find ways to come together around shared interests.
What the future holds depends in part on whether politicians are willing to think beyond their borders and their term limits. Be it climate change, public health or frontier technologies, it is necessary to recognize global issues as the shared human experiences they are. There is an opportunity for humanity to strive for a better, less divided world, but it requires a long-term approach on a planetary scale. It also requires populations to trust their governments — provided, of course, those governments can earn that trust through performance.