Opinion: Stay frosty – evaluating threats in a turbulent world

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Sunday 20 November 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Democratic societies are reasonably good at selecting governments, but general populations may be less adept at staying alert to known dangers.

The tendency is to gradually normalise threats even where materially, they remain constant, or perhaps even worsen.

These last few years have taught us this. We are now in the early stages of a new wave of Covid-19 – the deadly pathogen we once dreaded and first knew as the “novel Coronavirus”.

Only, it doesn’t seem so novel anymore, nor particularly worrisome.

Indeed, numbers for Covid infections, hospitalisations, and deaths which would have alarmed us just 12 months ago, now struggle to make the news, much less dominate the (frequently) unmasked chat around the office water-cooler.

Ask yourself this – how many deaths have there been from Covid worldwide? It’s a simple global number. Three million, four? The answer is 6.62 million. What were the infection numbers last week in the city you live in, or even yesterday? How many people are on ventilators currently?

This stuff we mostly knew not so long ago. Now, Novak Djokovic is playing in the Australian Open again this year after a forced hiatus. All is forgiven, one news report stated, even though he’s still defiantly unvaccinated.

More worrying (or is it less?) is that the fourth wave currently underway in Australia is coming fast with cases threatening to overwhelm hospitals, possibly close off some aged-care facilities, and ruin Christmas (again) for families and businesses.

Experts say hospitalisations might crest in mid-to-late December – around the same time as supplementary federal Covid funding for hospitals expires, ruled no longer affordable. Que?

In NSW last week there were 39 Covid fatalities, and as many on ventilators or other ICU treatment. Victoria’s death toll that week was higher still at 46.

On flights recently, I was one of just a handful wearing a mask – a simple nonintrusive measure which not only protects the wearer but declaims a consideration for others by not simply assuming their spotless immunity. Nor their level of Covid anxiety.

Yet we seem to have stopped caring. Surely the whole point of “learning to live with the virus” is to not die from the virus? Nor get seriously ill, or wreck the Christmases of exhausted healthcare workers and their loved ones?

Still though, we see no substantial public relations campaigns to drive home this community-mindedness, this basic consideration for others. The absence of such social-moral unity was a core failing of the pointless Morrison government. What’s Labor’s excuse?

There’s a danger here politically also. Crucial weeks were lost as the virus spread here from abroad in early 2020 as the Morrison government dithered. More deaths occurred due to avoidable vaccine delays. In opposition, Labor was rightly critical. In government however, its response to this latest wave displays some of the same inertia. Decisions will be measureable in hindsight, in terms of actions not taken, or not taken fast enough, especially if it gets ugly again.

Over this year, other risks have also shifted. Like the return of aggressive authoritarianism.

Russia’s unconscionable invasion of neighbouring Ukraine had long been signalled – yet the democratic West had arrogantly concluded there would be no consequence from openly flirting with (possibly) extending NATO membership to a country right on Russia’s border.

Vladimir Putin’s illegal attacks, which had already been likened to the Cuban Missile Crisis, last week stepped even closer to that horrendous moment 60 years ago when the world had held its collective breath, the prospect of thermonuclear conflagration, very real.

It followed just hours after Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the freshly liberated city of Kherson and proclaimed triumphantly that this was the “beginning of the end” of the war against Russia. Was it?

An enraged Putin sent fusillades of missiles deep into Western Ukraine.

The targets were often electricity infrastructure, the destruction of which, he hoped, would bring Ukraine’s besieged citizenry to its knees as winter tightens its icy grip.

But war is inevitably chaotic. Just as JFK had wanted to avoid any Russian ground fire on low-level photographic reconnaissance aircraft America sent over Cuba, Joe Biden urgently dispelled Zelenskyy’s claim that a deadly missile strike in Poland had originated in Russia.

Poland, let’s not forget, is a NATO member. Only months ago, Biden had expressly warned the Russian despot that America and its allies were fully prepared to “defend every single inch of NATO territory” if attacked. “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying,” the US President reiterated, “every inch.”

In 1962, the Kennedy Administration needed evidence of Russian nukes being positioned but was desperate to avoid US planes attracting ground fire – such were the unthinkable consequences of American planes being directly engaged by Russian forces.

In Poland, Biden too, moved quickly to establish that the missile strike in Poland was more likely an errant Ukrainian air-defence missile. Biden knew that if it were Russian, it would have required a NATO response. No doubt Zelenskyy knew it too.

While still dealing with the aftermath of the old Cold War, the new one with China is another area where the balance between a medium-term risk of war and some level of engaged and peaceful co-existence shifted last week.

Or appeared to shift, anyway. Appearances can often be deceptive but in matters of strategic manoeuvring, deception can be an end in itself.

On the surface, President Xi Jinping relented in his six-year stand-off, holding his first face-to-face talks with Biden, and his first bilateral talks in years with Australia, Canada, and several others.

Some say the rapprochement has been driven by domestic politico-economic pressures arising from among other things, Beijing’s economy-killing zero-Covid policies. Others suggest it reflects a recognition by Xi that China had simply too many spats running simultaneously.

Few however, believe that the threat of an ambitious, militarily advanced China intent on becoming the world’s number one power, has ameliorated.

Neither should they. Despite the apparent thaw, Xi had taken no backward step on any of the West’s key grievances about China, from its territorial extensions into the South and East China seas, its ruthless treatment of Hong Kong, and its genocidal persecution of the Uighurs, to its revanchist sabre-rattling over Taiwan, and ongoing human rights abuses.

In fact, only days before his alert-lowering G20 charm offensive, Xi was striking an altogether more menacing tone at home, reminding the People’s Liberation Army about the ‘harm offensive’ to come.

Warning of dangerous storms ahead, he told the PLA to “comprehensively strengthen military training in preparation for war”.

“Focus all energy on fighting, work hard on fighting and improve [your] capability to win,” he reportedly said.

Some risks, like climate change, just keep getting bigger, whether we want to see them clearly, or not.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  21 November 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications