The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a global lack of resilience as a result of a collective failure to assess and act on national risks and vulnerabilities in the face of a rapidly changing world. The pandemic has also exposed both unrealistic social expectations and political leadership shortfalls in coming to grips with the crisis, as opposed to managing prosperity.
We have become complacent with respect to the significant exponential changes occurring in the world and our growing lack of national resilience. We reacted very well to the pandemic initially, but we were not adequately prepared for this or a range of other significant risks that have either already manifested or could still eventuate.
We have experienced medicine shortages, supply chain disruptions, the impacts of the loss of domestic manufacturing capability, tribalism and federal versus state governance disconnects.
Today, more than 12 months into the pandemic, we only have the ability to manufacture one type of vaccine, in one location and in limited quantities. Issues with the vaccine now mean it should only be used by one-third of the Australian population (the over-50 age cohort). The other two-thirds of Australians will have to wait for imported vaccines, from a supply chain over which we have no real control. Confidence of delivery in "quarter four" is not reassuring given the examples of export restrictions we have seen over the past 12 months. This is not a resilient sovereign capability; the physical and mental health issues and the economic risks resulting from these delays are growing by the month.
The first lesson from the pandemic is that the willingness of politicians to act on scientific advice, regardless of public opinion, has proved very effective in reacting to the crisis. The second lesson is that, no matter how well we can react in a crisis, reaction alone is not enough. We need to prepare where the warning signs exist; our failure to prepare for this pandemic has left us in a very difficult position.
How can these two lessons help us address climate change? Firstly, we need to accept what our scientists are telling us: climate change is already occurring. The science also tells us that the impacts of climate change will grow exponentially in future decades if we fail to act collectively with the global community. Denial of this scientific advice by a number of politicians in the current government is wilful blindness that is preventing action being taken to make ourselves more resilient.
Secondly, with respect to action - in this case preparation - unlike a pandemic we cannot quarantine ourselves from climate change. If we continue to wait to react to each climate-related disaster, then our ability to react and recover will diminish even further. We must determine how we better react to, prepare for, adapt to, and where feasible prevent disasters and crises, such as those we experienced last year and during this one. As the Australian Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements' report stated: "Unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared ... We need to be prepared for the future."
The most complex challenges regarding Australia's ability to deal with emerging threats such as climate change are related to our nation's political structure, governance failures, culture issues and the blind adherence to a free-market model that has led to the growing lack of resilience in our society.
There are lessons from the pandemic that need to be applied. Unfortunately, any hope that real leadership will come from this federal government is fading fast. Given the propensity of federal politicians to market success stories and dismiss discussion of risks and vulnerabilities for short-term political gains, any real leadership will likely need to come from others. That is, from state and territory governments, from some industry sectors and, most importantly, everyday Australians. We need leaders at all levels to demonstrate their willingness to work together and then to act.
We must demand more of those who we collectively put into positions of political power. The health and wellbeing of all Australians, and therefore the resilience and security of our nation, depends on it.
- Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn (retd.) is an executive member of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group.