Of the 215 nations and territories that have reported COVID-19 cases, 120 have experienced clear second waves or late first waves that began in July or later. That’s according to the Worldometer global database, which sources data from national ministries of health and the World Health Organisation.
Of these 120, only six have definitively emerged from their second wave: Australia, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. I am not including New Zealand, as the series of clusters that arose in Auckland in mid-August never evolved into a clear second wave.
Ultimately, Victoria has performed extremely well by international standards. Only Vietnam and Hong Kong have enjoyed comparable success in quashing the second wave. Victorians’ sacrifice during lockdown has left Australia well placed to sustain very low numbers of cases through the coming summer.
A grim global context
Any comparison between Australia and other countries takes place amid a grim global context. The worldwide tally of cumulative cases is adding one million new cases every three or four days. On Wednesday, of the 100 countries with the highest total reported cases, just seven reported fewer than 50 new cases: Australia, China, Nigeria, Singapore, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Senegal. The same day, France and the United Kingdom each reported more than 26,000 new cases, and 20 European countries posted all-time daily record numbers.
Europe and North America face enormous challenges to control their outbreaks as winter looms and pandemic fatigue sets in. But already there are signs of decisive measures including a national lockdown in Ireland — very similar to Melbourne’s — and night curfews in Paris, seven other French cities, Brussels, Athens and Rome. Their current struggles stand in stark contrast to Australia’s situation.
Israel’s second wave came early
Which countries offer the most instructive comparison with Australia? Let’s start with Israel, one of the first countries to experience a second wave far more severe than the first.
Israel was also a founding member of the long-forgotten First Movers Group, comprising Austria, Denmark, Norway, Greece, the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Each member nation implemented restrictions early in the pandemic, and held a virtual summit in May to share tips about controlling the virus. Since then, every member except New Zealand has experienced a major second wave.
Israel’s second wave was largely caused by transmission among high school and middle school students, and an uncoordinated exit from the first lockdown. By the end of May, citizens were allowed to go to shopping centres and community gatherings, despite a growing resurgence of cases. During the Israeli summer there was minimal enforcement of face mask use, and moderate restrictions were reimposed on July 17.
Cases continued to surge, prompting a second lockdown introduced on September 18. This included restricting people’s movement to within 1km from their homes. The mishandling of the first wave had eroded public trust in the government, and morale was seemingly bleak during what was the first national lockdown in the world in response to a second wave. While cases have declined in the past few weeks the country has not yet emerged, with daily new case numbers still between 800 and 1,100.
National lockdowns not essential for success
Four of the five Asian countries that have emerged from their second wave demonstrate that lockdowns aren’t an all-or-nothing choice. There are intermediate options, but they only work if certain conditions are met. These include effective testing, contact tracing and isolation capacities; a culture of wearing masks and following public health directives; electronic contact tracing; and selective local restrictions such as closing bars, restaurants and places of worship.
Vietnam was one of the first countries to contain its first wave and did not record a single death until July. Measures included early border closures, aggressive testing and tracing, and enforced quarantine of all cases and their contacts. This may not be an option in less authoritarian countries. Vietnam did have a national lockdown for a two-week period in April.
Clear communication with the public was a crucial element of Vietnam’s response. The government used a range of creative ways to spread messages about symptoms, prevention and testing sites, including via state media outlets, social media, text messages and, famously, a viral song about the importance of handwashing.
After 99 days of zero daily cases, Vietnam’s first community transmission case was reported in Da Nang on July 25. It started with a man who tested positive without any travel history, and it’s still unclear how he contracted the virus.
By September 4, Vietnam’s health ministry had confirmed 632 new cases and 35 deaths. As during the first wave, blanket testing was conducted in Da Nang, transport in and out of the city was cancelled, and bars and restaurants closed. The same local measures were implemented in certain neighbourhoods in Hanoi when new cases were identified. The country has not reported any community transmission since early September.
Besides enforced quarantine, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea have mostly followed the same strategy as Vietnam and haven’t imposed blanket lockdowns. After two months of near zero daily cases, South Korea experienced a series of spikes linked to bars, nightclubs and karaoke venues, with a major surge in August linked to a large church. The response has been characterised by robust decentralised testing, contact tracing and isolation, and a registration system at entertainment venues based on QR codes. However, the country is not yet out of the woods, reporting 50-90 cases a day.
Singapore is a very different case. It has by far the highest per capita number of cases in Asia. With a population of just 5.8 million, the country has reported 57,921 cases — more than twice the number of Australia (which has more than four times the population).
Between mid-April and mid-June, Singapore experienced a massive spike in cases mostly among overseas migrant workers. On June 19, the country eased restrictions opening restaurants and gyms. In the seven subsequent weeks leading up to August 8, Singapore reported 13,096 new cases or 267 per day. Cases have subsequently declined to single digits, comparable to Victoria.
Given a world in turmoil, an ASEAN leadership three-day summit to begin in Bangkok this weekend has slipped off radar screens. But this is not to say the event lacks importance.
The year-end summit of leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations plus eight dialogue partners may well prove one of the more significant regional gatherings, historically.
Away from the tumult in Europe over Brexit, the United States over impeachment, and a US-China trade war, ASEAN and partners have been quietly working to put in place two constructive initiatives.
The first is the bare bones of a mega trade deal that would knit together ASEAN members plus six regional partners. The second is progress towards a regional security framework.
Neither of these initiatives will be fully consummated this weekend. But, if progress is made, the Bangkok 2019 summit may well come to be regarded as more than a pro forma talkfest.
Let’s start with negotiations over a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If the ASEAN summit reaches agreement to push ahead with this initiative, with the aim of completion over the next 12 months, this would represent an important advance in the liberalisation of regional trade.
The RCEP, proposed by China as a counter to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which it was excluded, would bring together the ASEAN 10 plus six dialogue partners.
The ASEAN 10 are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The dialogue partners are Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and South Korea.
Needless to say, a trade liberalisation pact that accounts for 45% of the world’s population and a third of global GDP would represent a momentous development, potentially.
The TPP is a free trade agreement that was renamed the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2016.
That agreement brings together 11 regional countries, some of which are ASEAN members and would also be parties to the RCEP. The awkwardly acronymed CPTPP comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
This is a significant trading bloc. However, it would be dwarfed by an RCEP, dominated by China and India, with the emerging economies of Indonesia and Vietnam as part of the mix.
The RCEP is an important initiative. It matters from a trading standpoint and as a regional power balance in the ongoing strategic rivalry between China and the US.
Beijing correctly views the initiative as a means of countering US-initiated trade and other pressures.
From an Australian standpoint, an RCEP would serve the useful function of providing more certainty to a liberalising regional trading environment.
Australia has a free trade agreement in place with ASEAN and other members of the proposed RCEP, including, importantly, China, Japan and South Korea.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will attend the Bangkok summit along with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, reflecting the importance Canberra attaches to these events.
The vast proportion of Australian trade resides in its trading relationships with RCEP countries, principally China, Japan, South Korea and India.
Australia’s trade with ASEAN, both merchandise and services, totals more than A$50 billion a year, or about 12% of Australia’s total exports.
At the same time, ASEAN countries’ investment in Australia exceeds A$118 billion. These are significant numbers.
Among all of Australia’s trading partners, six RCEP parties – or seven if you include Hong Kong as part of China – are in the top 10 Australian export destinations.
These are, in order, China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Making up the 10 are the US, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
This brings us to one of the principal drags on an RCEP deal in Bangkok.
Indian concerns about Chinese goods flooding its market remain a sticking point under any RCEP arrangement. New Delhi is seeking safeguard mechanisms that would guard against surges in imports and what it regards as unfair competition. India’s particular concerns relate to its vulnerable agriculture sector.
Whether these Indian reservations can be satisfied in time for a broad agreement to proceed with the RCEP in time for the Bangkok summit remains to be seen.
There is another important issue that will feature in Bangkok and on which progress is far from certain. These are matters relating to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing is in dispute with five ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims: Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Conflict with Vietnam over potentially oil-rich territorial waters is the most vexatious of these disputes.
At previous ASEAN sessions, China has aligned itself with client states like Cambodia to bully and block reasonable discussion about its territorial ambitions.
In efforts to reduce tensions over Beijing’s behaviour, ASEAN negotiators hope to achieve a “first reading” of a code of conduct for the South China Sea that would provide some sort of framework for resolving disputes.
It’s not clear whether China will go along with such an initiative.
Judging by remarks made by China’s defence minister, General Wei Fenghe, at a recent defence forum, Beijing will be reluctant to yield ground. He said:
We will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from our forefathers.
The link below is to an article that reports on persecution news from Vietnam.
Korea-watchers around the world are scrambling to tease out the meaning of the abruptly concluded US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. I want to cast a critical eye on denuclearisation itself as the framing objective of the summit negotiations.
If we step back for a moment to look at the extraordinary developments in Korean Peninsula diplomacy over the past year, we see three parties who want different things.
The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea remembers all too well the chaos of 2017 that brought Korea to the brink of war, and sees a permanent peace regime as the most important objective of its engagement efforts.
For their part, the North Koreans want to neutralise the military threat from the US, see sanctions lifted, and obtain economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy. The Trump administration, and much of the broader US foreign policy establishment, remains attached to the denuclearisation of North Korea as the end game of this process.
But denuclearisation is a fantasy that is leaving Washington as the odd man out on the Korean Peninsula. The goalposts on the Korean Peninsula are changing as the momentum for inter-Korean engagement grows, while the importance of the US as the indispensable security guarantor is diminishing.
Who walked out on whom?
Like everyone else, I will be watching closely over the coming days as details begin to emerge about the sticking points that led to the abrupt conclusion of the summit.
In the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, the Trump administration did signal some flexibility on verification measures for full, independent accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program as a condition for further negotiation.
It is ironic that Trump’s apparent willingness to befriend authoritarian leaders has opened the door for negotiations for a permanent peace regime in Korea, which previous US administrations had kept quarantined behind the demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID).
However, in his final press conference in Hanoi, the US president indicated that the North Korean delegation asked for too much in requesting the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Considering the enormous pressure Trump has come under from domestic quarters not to sell out the denuclearisation agenda, there was no way the US delegation could accept those terms.
But there is another possibility. The Congressional testimony of Michael Cohen from Washington may have created fresh doubts in the minds of the North Korean delegation about Trump’s ability to deliver on a deal. It is possible that Kim Jong-un presented terms they knew the Americans could not accept, to avoid the possibility of a lame-duck deal negotiated by a compromised president.
It is important to recognise that the US and North Korea run at different political speeds. Since 1945, North Korea’s three Kims have presided through 13 US presidents. US presidents are confined to term limits and captive to the political demands of relatively short election cycles. The now extreme polarisation of American politics ensures that promises made by Trump may not be honoured by an incoming administration.
With a US presidential election looming in 2020 and widespread criticism within the American foreign policy establishment of Trump’s negotiating position, and with recurring allegations of criminality fuelling calls for his impeachment, it is understandable that the North Koreans might be cautious about making concessions.
They will remember the failure of the US Congress to ratify the Agreed Framework when President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment during the 1990s.
The denuclearisation of North Korea is a fantasy
Regardless of who blinked first, the failure to reach agreement in Hanoi further demonstrates that North Korea will never willingly denuclearise. This is not a secret. It has been obvious for more than a decade, since the failure of the Six-Party Talks. Beyond the economic sanctions regime, there is very little the US can do about it.
It bears repeating why this is the case:
successive US administrations have considered and rejected the use of military force against North Korea on the grounds that it poses an unacceptable risk to its ally in South Korea
because of the longstanding sanctions regime, the US lacks sufficient economic leverage over the DPRK to bring it to heel, even with the expansive list of goods banned from export to the North, and the expansive powers of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to restrict financial flows in and out of the DPRK
North Korea is adept at sanctions-busting, in spite of the squeeze being placed on the country by existing measures.
Holding out for denuclearisation as an end game is an exercise in futility. It is bad policy. It unnecessarily backs the US into a corner of weakness where it cannot bring its obvious strategic and economic advantages to bear.
Denuclearisation has been the obstacle that has kept the US and North Korea at the stage of talking about talking, halting progress on other confidence-building measures that could improve the relationship and take some of the heat out of the Korean Peninsula security dilemma.
Missed opportunity for a peace settlement
The dominant school of thought in disarmament circles is that states that acquire nuclear weapons are a threat to international peace and security, and so must be prevented from doing so. This is the denuclearisation perspective that has dominated the discourse on North Korea in the US and informed the longstanding CVID policy.
There is an clear logic here that stems from the terrible and awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, with which few could argue. From this perspective, any negotiations with North Korea that do not result in full nuclear relinquishment will be interpreted as a sell-out.
However, there is also an obvious hypocrisy in this position (and in the nuclear non-proliferation regime more generally) given the size of the US nuclear arsenal and the deliberate ambiguity of its doctrine around nuclear first-strike. It is this hypocrisy that the DPRK exploits in its official interpretation of denuclearisation as meaning the universal relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all countries.
There is another school of thought that it is not nuclear weapons per se that represent a threat to international peace and security. Rather, it is an international environment teeming with existential threats in which states feel compelled to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
From this perspective, a peace declaration could diminish the level of insecurity that feeds the desire for nuclear proliferation. If the perception of imminent threat lessens, then the probability of nuclear weapons use in the event of conflict is also reduced.
There is space within this perspective to work towards nuclear disarmament. But that goal is one element of a bigger picture. This is the essence of the South Korean position on inter-Korean summit diplomacy, and the fading shadow of a missed opportunity in Hanoi.
These summits are part of a long-term peace-building process. Clearly, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are not on the same page in their negotiating objectives.
If US-DPRK bilateral negotiations are to continue, they are going to have to find a lowest common denominator on which they can build. Regardless of how we feel about Kim Jong-un, the political system he presides over, and the abuses of his regime, denuclearisation is never going to be the lowest common denominator upon which the US-DPRK relationship can evolve.
The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines, particularly in reference to Montagnard Christians (the most recent are at the top).
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Six people lost their lives when Typhoon Doksuri smashed into central Vietnam on September 16, the most powerful storm in a decade to hit the country.
Although widespread evacuations prevented a higher death toll, the impact on the region’s most vulnerable people will be extensive and lasting.
Government sources report that more than 193,000 properties have been damaged, including 11,000 that were flooded. The storm also caused widespread damage to farmland, roads, and water and electricity infrastructure. Quang Binh and Ha Tinh provinces bore the brunt of the damage.
Central Vietnam is often in the path of tropical storms and depressions that form in the East Sea, which can intensify to form tropical cyclones known as typhoons (the Pacific equivalent of an Atlantic hurricane).
Typhoon Doksuri developed and tracked exactly as forecast, meaning that evacuations were relatively effective in saving lives. What’s more, the storm moved quickly over the affected area, delivering only 200-300 mm of rainfall and sparing the region the severe flooding now being experienced in Thailand.
Doksuri is just one of a spate of severe tropical cyclones that have formed in recent weeks, in both the Pacific and Atlantic regions. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and, most recently, Maria have attracted global media coverage, much of it focused on rarely considered angles such as urban planning, poverty, poor development, politics, the media coverage of disasters – as well as the perennial question of climate change.
Disasters are finally being talked about as part of a discourse of systemic oppression – and this is a great step forward.
In Vietnam, the root causes of disasters exist below the surface. The focus remains on the natural hazards that trigger disasters, rather than on the vulnerable conditions in which many people are forced to live.
Unfortunately, the limited national disaster data in Vietnam does not allow an extensive analysis of risk. Our research in central Vietnam is working towards filling this gap and the development of more comprehensive flood mitigation measures.
Central Vietnam has a long and exposed coastline. It consists of 14 coastal provinces and five provinces in the Central Highlands. The Truong Son mountain range rises to the west and the plains that stretch to the coast are fragmented and narrow. River systems are dense, short and steep, with rapid flows.
These physical characteristics often combine with widespread human vulnerability, to deadly effect. We can see this in the impact of Typhoon Doksuri, but also to a lesser extent in the region’s annual floods.
Rapid population growth, industrial development and agricultural expansion have all increased flood risk, especially in Vietnam’s riverine and coastal areas. Socially marginalised people often have to live in the most flood-prone places, sometimes as a result of forced displacement.
Floods and storms therefore have a disproportionately large effect on poorer communities. Most people in central Vietnam depend on their natural environment for their livelihood, and a disaster like Doksuri can bring lasting suffering to a region where 30-50% of people are already in poverty.
When disaster does strike, marginalised groups face even more difficulty because they typically lack access to public resources such as emergency relief and insurance.
The rural poor will be particularly vulnerable after this storm. Affected households have received limited financial support from the local government, and many will depend entirely on charity for their recovery.
Better research, less bureaucracy
This is not to say that Vietnam’s government did not mount a significant effect to prepare and respond to Typhoon Doksuri. But typically for Vietnam, where only the highest levels of government are trusted with important decisions, the response was bureaucratic and centralised.
This approach can overlook the input of qualified experts, and lead to decisions being taken without enough data about disaster risk.
Our research has generated a more detailed picture of disaster risk (focused on flood hazard) in the region. We have looked beyond historical loss statistics and collected data on hazards, exposure and vulnerability in Quang Nam province.
Our findings show that much more accurate, sensitive and targeted flood protection is possible. The challenge is to provide it on a much wider scale, particularly in poor regions of the world.
Reduce risk, and avoid creating new risk
An effective risk management approach can help to reduce the impacts of flooding in central Vietnam. Before a disaster ever materialises, we can work to reduce risk – and avoid activities that exacerbate it – for example land grabbing for development, displacing the poor, environmental degradation, discrimination against minorities.
It is critical that subject experts, particularly scientists, are involved in decisions about disaster risk – in Vietnam and around the world. There must be a shift to more proactive approaches, guided by deep knowledge both of the local context and of the latest scientific advances.
Our maps will help planners and politicians to recognise high-risk areas, prepare flood risk plans, and set priorities for both flood defences and responses to vulnerability. The maps are also valuable tools for communication.
But at the same time as emphasising data-driven decisions, we also need to advocate for a humanising approach in dealing with some of the most oppressed, marginalised, poor and disadvantaged members of the global community.
The link below is to an article reporting on persecution news from Vietnam.