Australia’s chance to foster good health in Asia and the Pacific

By Seamus Horan 08 May 2024, 5:40PM

As the Assistant Minister for Health Ged Kearney stumbled, rather excruciatingly, over the name of the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, at the opening of the World Health Summit Asia-Pacific meeting in Melbourne last month, the plenary saw Australia’s awkward identity crisis played out on stage.

Following shortly after the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne in March, the Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the World Health Summit comes at a point when Australia is again engaged in debated about its place in the world. As Australia’s   Ambassador for Global Health Lucas de Toca put it at the summit, we are a “Western” country, but we’re in the East; we’re part of the “Global North”, but we’re in the South. Are we an Asian country, as suggested by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr during a Lowy Institute event on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia summit? Or are we a geographically dislocated champion of the Anglosphere?

This global health summit brought these questions to the fore. As the summit gathered disparate partners – experts in public health, medicine, governance, technology – to discuss the health challenges facing the region, Australia’s attempt at reshaping its global identity was on display.

How do we achieve funding oversight without placing arduous reporting burdens on already overstretched health personnel?

The embrace of First Nations cultures and voices, alongside extensive reflections on racism and colonisation by multiple speakers, recognised a fundamental part of Australia’s national story, which probably would not have featured so prominently even ten years ago. It follows the creation of ambassadorship for First Nations People last year by the federal government – a belated recognition of the strength and inseparability of First Nations peoples and Australian identity.

Pandemic preparedness was an inevitable focus during the summit. Increasing urbanisation, population growth, globalisation, growing demand for animal protein and associated increases in livestock numbers, habitat loss and climate change create the ideal environment for new infections to emerge. As Burnett Institute CEO Brendan Crabb highlighted, it probably won’t take another 100 years until the next pandemic. When asked about our preparedness for it, Aotearoa New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark responded that we haven’t even recovered from Covid-19 yet.

While the threat of pandemics and antibiotic resistant superbugs were both examined, Australian perspectives dominated. At times discussions veered into protecting Australia from the world, rather than focusing on how to empower the global community to respond to emerging threats. There were criticisms of China’s failure to report Covid-19 early in the pandemic, but the reality that much of the world live without health systems capable of detecting emerging diseases at all was overlooked.

This is important for Australia as it re-evaluates its position in the world. What is our role in strengthening global health systems? What sort of bilateral relationships are required to be both a partner and a donor? Should we continue to fund NGOs to tackle discrete health problems, or should we directly invest in strengthening local health systems? How do we achieve funding oversight without placing arduous reporting burdens on already overstretched health personnel?

While still in an awkward stage, and with a lot of reflection and growth still to come, Australia is figuring out its new identity in the region. Health will be one of the critical theatres in which Australia determines its destiny in the Asia-Pacific.

This article was first published on the Lowy Institute’s blog site, The Interpreter. Seamus Horan is a medical doctor practising in Melbourne.

By Seamus Horan 08 May 2024, 5:40PM
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