World

Jacinda Ardern attends Australia’s national cabinet to discuss regional travel. US–China dispute over Covid-19 origin. Trans rights threatened in Hungary. Migrant workers hit hard by coronavirus shutdowns. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trans-Tasman bubble may extend to Pacific

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to the media on Wednesday.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to the media on Wednesday.
Credit: Mark Mitchell / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: The White House is insisting – with increasing confidence – that Covid-19 originated in a biosecurity lab in Wuhan, despite the findings of its intelligence agents and scientists.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has led the assault, claiming last weekend there was “enormous evidence” that the source of the outbreak was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a facility that was set up in 1956 and has developed versions of a coronavirus. But Pompeo’s claim appeared to contradict the assessment of America’s peak spy agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which said it agreed with the scientific consensus that the virus “was not manmade or genetically modified”.

The White House’s claims have not been endorsed by Australia, Britain or Canada, all close intelligence partners. China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, this week described Pompeo’s comments as “insane”.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Covid-19 was “most likely” to have originated in a wildlife wet market. But he repeated his call for the international community to hold an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, a proposal Beijing has condemned.

The dispute between the US and China over the outbreak reflects their broader and intensifying struggle for global influence and power. In recent weeks, Washington has accused Beijing of advancing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and trying to coerce countries in Asia as they deal with the pandemic. China has also been deploying warships and jets to test Taiwan’s defences.

But Beijing has launched its own diplomatic offensive, aggressively attacking foreign critics or denouncing any country that offers a perceived slight. This so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after two fiercely nationalist Chinese action films, has resulted in several Chinese ambassadors being summoned by governments, including in France, Sweden and Kazakhstan. The tactics are not winning Beijing friends.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported on an internal Chinese review that concluded global anti-China sentiment has increased during the pandemic and is now at its highest level since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: On Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, joined Australia’s national cabinet to discuss the creation of a “trans-Tasman bubble”, which would allow travel between the two countries. It was the first time a New Zealand leader had been included in Australia’s cabinet since World War II.

Both countries have significantly curbed their Covid-19 outbreaks. New Zealand is aiming to completely eliminate the virus and has begun easing restrictions.

Ardern and Scott Morrison said in a joint statement they will introduce the travel zone as soon as it can be done safely.

The creation of a bubble would likely reinstate New Zealand as the largest source of tourists to Australia. New Zealand held this position for about 20 years until last year, when it was overtaken by China.

Other parts of the world are also considering creating travel bubbles as they bring Covid-19 under control. China and South Korea have agreed to open travel for business purposes, and countries in eastern Europe may soon allow access to some tourist destinations.

Significantly, Ardern and Morrison said they would look to extend the bubble to include Pacific island nations. Countries such as Fiji and Vanuatu have imposed strict lockdowns that have had devastating consequences for their tourism sectors.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hungary: Since he was elected in 2010, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has gradually entrenched his rule through measures such as gerrymandering and ensuring the judiciary and the media are dominated by his supporters.

Orbán has not just used his ever-widening powers to weaken his opponents, but also to try to turn the country into – as he put it in an interview in 2018 – “an old-school Christian democracy, rooted in European traditions”. As part of this warped commitment to ultra-conservative illiberal nationalism, he has attacked migrants and minorities. Now, his ruling Fidesz party is seeking to introduce legislation to end the legal recognition of trans people. The government wants to define gender as “biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes”, making it impossible for a person to change the gender recorded in the country’s civil registry or on birth, marriage and death certificates.

Rights groups said the change will leave trans people with documents that do not match their appearance. This will expose them to discrimination and make it harder for them to find jobs or access housing.

Graeme Reid, of Human Rights Watch, accused Orbán of using the cover of Covid-19 to push through the bill, which is due to be passed this month.

“It is typical of the autocrats’ playbook to consolidate power by attacking the most marginalised,” he told The Independent.

SPOTLIGHT: LOST REMITTANCES

Philippines: In recent years, residents of poorer countries have become increasingly dependent on money sent home by family members working abroad. About 800 million people depend on these remittances to access food and basic supplies. But the money transfers are quickly ending as the Covid-19 pandemic leaves many of the world’s foreign workers without jobs.

For some countries, remittances now exceed the amount they receive from foreign aid, investment or exports. Last year, for instance, Tonga’s remittances amounted to 38 per cent of its gross domestic product, and remittances received by Haiti and Nepal amounted to, respectively, 37 per cent and 27 per cent of their GDP. The largest overall recipient was India, which received $US82 billion in remittances, followed by China, Mexico, the Philippines and Egypt.

But migrant workers have been particularly vulnerable to job losses during the recent shutdowns. These workers tend to have short-term jobs in areas such as hospitality, cleaning, social care or agriculture; many have limited rights and are easy to dismiss.

The World Bank expects global remittances to decline by about 20 per cent in 2020 due to the pandemic, the sharpest fall in recent history.

The Philippines – which received $US35 billion in remittances last year, about 10 per cent of its GDP – expects 400,000 of its four million overseas workers to lose work or pay. Many have been rushing home, prompting the government this week to ban all incoming flights.

Roldan Abarentos, a Filipino seaman who is trying to return home, said on Facebook: “So frustrating! … We’re stuck in the ship, and now again you make a decision without any further notice.”

The US is the largest source of remittances sent home by migrant workers, followed by the Gulf states and Europe. Australia’s migrant workers account for about 2 per cent of global remittances.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Trans-Tasman bubble may extend to Pacific".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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