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Malcolm Cook
The 4 Cs of Australia's pandemic response By Malcolm Cook Lowy Institute Australia

The 4 Cs of Australia’s pandemic response
by Malcolm Cook, Non-resident fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney Australia
May 8, 2020

In January, Australia looked to be in a particularly vulnerable position when the covid-19 virus spread outwards from China. Australia’s economy is very intertwined with China. About 40% of Australian exports go to this one market. The people-to-people links between the two are many and thick, and became the first known source of transmission of the virus to Australia.
In 2019, people born in China accounted for the second largest permanent migrant community in Australia after the United Kingdom; over 164,000 students from China studied in Australia ( accounting for 30% of all international students); and over 1.4 million tourists from China visited.

Australia was still burning from its worst-ever bush (forest) fire season that had led to widespread criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison for being out of touch and ineffective. These fires that burned across many states at the same time also exposed the crisis coordination difficulties inherent in Australia’s federal system. Five of the eight states and territories are led by the Labor Party that is in main opposition party in the national parliament in Canberra.

In May, Australia has weathered the first four months of thecovid-19 pandemic among the best in the Western world and much better than the G-20 average. As of May 7th, Australia, despite widespread testing, has recorded fewer than 7,000 cases and 100 pandemic-related deaths.

4Cs – coordination, competence, (social) capital, and China – help explain Australia’s comparative success despite its unpromising pre-conditions.


In mid-March, a unique National Cabinet featuring the prime minister, the six state premiers and two territory chief ministers met for the first time to coordinate the country’s pandemic response. This Cabinet meets very regularly and determines cooperatively the national guidelines for the pandemic response with individual states and territories implementing them according to local conditions. The USA’s federal system has complicated their governments’ response to the pandemic, Australian political leaders have not let this happen.


Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s chief medical officer, has become a leading voice of the national pandemic response in Australia as have his state and territory colleagues in their jurisdictions. They are the primary sources of government information about the virus itself and explanation for the lockdown measures taken. The prime minister and state premiers conduct regular press conferences with these medical professionals and allow them to take the lead answering pandemic-related questions. The regular meetings of these chief medical officers provide the National Cabinet the information used to change policy settings. Medical expertise, not political blame shifting, predominates

Social capital

Australian residents have accepted and followed the lockdown measures and their elected political leaders in this time of crisis. Before authorities began to loosen lockdown restrictions two weeks ago, a majority were against a quick removal of lockdown restrictions despite the return to freedoms lost this would allow. The approval ratings of Morrison and the six state premiers have improved noticeably over the pandemic period.

This combination of communicated competence from political leaders and the social capital of trust and accepted suffering by the population has created a virtuous circle. The public’s active acceptance of lockdown measures has contributed significantly to the reduction in new cases that is leading to the prudent relaxation of some of these measures. Cultural determinists in East Asia often claim that unique ‘Asian values’ foster such virtuous circles of state capacity and social capital, while implying that so-called Western ones create vicious cycles of social distrust and state incapacity. The covid-19 experiences of Australia and New Zealand fortunately suggest that ‘culture is not destiny.’


Strategic fatalists preach that the more a smaller state becomes intertwined with China, the more it will or should align itself with Asia’s leading power and not ‘unnecessarily annoy’ the Chinese party-state. The Duterte administration in Philippines justified exceptions for China from international travel restrictions on this basis. Thailand, where Chinese tourists contribute significantly to the country’s economy, also was slow to stop travel from China.

In contrast, Australia banned travel from China to Australia on February 1 at a time when travel from China to Australia was a major source of virus transmission. Both the Chinese government and the head of the World Health Organization publicly criticized such actions as an unnecessary overreaction, and contrary to international solidarity.

The Morrison government, with strong bi-partisan support, has called for an independent international inquiry that would investigate the origins and spread of covid-19 that has wrought so much damage. Beijing’s response, predictably, has been the opposite of welcoming and has reaffirmed the negative views of the Chinese party-state held by most Australians. The Chinese ambassador undiplomatically mused that Australia may pay an economic price for encouraging this form of international cooperation. The Global Times, a newspaper under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, derided Australia as “the gum stuck on the bottom of China’s shoe.” This colourful idiom implies that China regularly steps on other countries. How else would the gum of Australia become stuck on the bottom of China’s shoe? Australia’s pandemic response has placed Australian interests first, earning Beijing’s ire.

Looking forward

Australia’s covid-19 response success, if maintained, will undercut three unhelpful single-variable comparisons. Australia, and New Zealand, counter claims that East Asian states and societies are uniquely well-placed to manage this crisis. Likewise, along with Taiwan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are more than anomalies to arguments that authoritarian systems are better off than democracies in addressing this pandemic. Finally, like the USA and UK, Australia is led by a conservative, right-wing government. Unlike the USA and UK, it is hard to fault the Morrison government for Australia’s pandemic experience.

More broadly, China and the United States will come out of this pandemic with weakened images internationally, a deeper more virulent rivalry between them, and in more defensive and reactive geo-political positions. For Australia, which is so closely tied to both economically and an ally of the USA, the challenges posed by covid-19 are far from over. Australia is far from alone in this predicament.

Malcolm Cook
Sydney Australia
May 8, 2020

Dr Malcolm Cook, Non-resident fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney Australia
The Lowy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan international policy think tank located in Sydney, Australia. It is Australia’s leading think tank, providing high-quality research and distinctive perspectives on the international trends shaping Australia and the world.
There he focusses on the Philippines and Southeast Asian states’ relations with major extra-regional powers. From 2003 to 2010, he was the inaugural East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and then the inaugural Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide. Before that, he was a lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Malcolm has worked in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore.





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