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BY ANY standards, Australia took a severe direct economic hit from COVID-19 although by world standards we have managed to keep the deaths and infections relatively low.

At this time we seem to have things pretty much under control compared to countries like the United States where infection rates are blowing out towards 70,000 new cases a day and France where infection rates are surging past 30,000 new cases a day. Worldwide we have passed 40 million infections.

But, even in Australia, the cost of protecting lives and livelihoods with government assistance will be a massive price to pay and the true cost in lost employment and lost businesses as well as the erosion of family wealth and loss of savings will not really emerge until next year.

We will never know the true cost of lockdowns. Key industries like tourism and hospitality have been decimated. The car retailing industry will be set back years before it can recover the lost business of 2020.

It is not too big a stretch to say that COVID-19 has been, in terms of loss of life, casualties (infections) and billions in economic damage, the equivalent of a military invasion of Australian soil (albeit without the actual physical destruction of property).

The cost to our nation has seen the national government introduce the largest budget deficit since World War 2.

COVID-19 deaths are three times greater than Australian lives lost in the Korean War, twice as many as in the war in Vietnam and four times greater than in the bombing of Darwin and Broome by the Japanese between 1942 and 1943.

There have been more than 27,000 infections (casualties) of COVID-19. This compares with 23,000 Australian casualties in WW2.

So it has been a war without guns but a war nonetheless.

We will probably never know the truth about how the virus got away from Wuhan but we do know that China’s diligence in preventing the spread of the virus from that source city was seriously wanting.

We should also understand that China has learned first-hand that such a virus can bring the economy of the West to its knees without the Middle Kingdom spilling any of its own military blood or treasure.

While we would hope it would not be the case, China appears to have gained an appetite for being increasingly disruptive on the world stage and we should therefore be very alert and, as a normal part of our national defense, be prepared for the possibility of more pandemics with a strategy that contains the damage yet avoids lockdowns.

And to be prepared we should look to the country that has handled this pandemic the best of any; and that is Taiwan.

Taiwan has a population of around 24 million people, similar to that of Australia, and yet it has recorded just 535 cases of COVID-19 and only seven deaths.

So in order to prepare for any further pandemics in future, a look at how Taiwan handled things is instructive because they were ready.

It appears that Taiwan was badly affected by SARS and at that time they took the impact of SARS as a serious warning about the potential for future devastating pandemics (being so close to China was a big factor) and determined they had to be on urgent standby for pretty much any virus that might come their way.

Taiwan had set up a national coordination centre to fight pandemics and the centre conducted relatively regular exercises in practicing techniques and their systems for quashing the effects of any pandemic. Taiwan knew what to do from the time it was clear COVID-19 was a problem.

To fight COVID-19, Taiwan was very early in closing its borders. They tested everyone who came into the country from then on including all those who had arrived up to 30 days before the border controls went into place.

It ordered face masks, but it controlled their release to avoid hoarding shortages and ramped up face mask production with factories earmarked for the task to 20 million masks a day.

Significantly, it appears Taiwan set out to test everyone to find out who already had COVID-19; and immediately isolate those that did. Priority for testing was given to the medically vulnerable.

They apparently did not want to wait until people developed symptoms. They wanted to clear as many people as possible so they could let them get on with their lives (and businesses) while isolating those testing positive and their recent contacts until they were cleared or recovered.

Of great importance in this task was Taiwan’s health system database which holds the medical records of all Taiwanese. You cannot get medical attention in Taiwan without it. This was coordinated with the databases of other government agencies and is said to have been valuable in tracking the progress of the testing program and recording the results; negative or positive.

Surely, out of this success, there is some valuable intelligence that Australia can take on board to be as well prepared. So here are a few suggestions.

First, defending Australia from a pandemic must be the role of the Australian Defence Force.

Defence’s role is to protect Australia and its national interests and we have a long history of calling on the military in times of dire need; most notably for the evacuation and reestablishment of Darwin in the wake of Cyclone Tracy.

The military is national, disciplined, well equipped and understands logistics and we should seriously consider establishing an Australian Medical Defence Reserve with the explicit requirement of setting up the mechanism for pandemic protection of Australians and for manning the systems required.

The reserve would be manned by reservist medical personnel as the frontline pandemic troops and be called on to conduct medical defense training exercises to test its strategies and systems and give the personnel a taste of what their roles might be during a real pandemic.

Military bases would be equipped with face masks and other essential protective gear for reservists and for the community.

The military is uniformed, admired for its roles by the vast majority of Australians, well-trained, disciplined in operations and has authority.

In a pandemic the reserve would man quarantine with reservists called on for the pandemic with the advantage that the military do not go home at the end of the day but return to barracks without spreading the virus through the domestic community as happened in some states – especially Victoria.

And having quarantine in hotels in the middle of cities should be rethought. More remote hostels or immigration centres might be more effective at reducing the risk of a virus getting out.

What we do know is that having each state and territory developing and manning their own ad hoc systems and doing their own thing is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Victorians, who suffered the worst failure of government in the history of Australia for which the whole nation will pay billions.

Hand-in-hand, we need to take the federal My Health Record database seriously and make it work as a complete record of national health so it can be used like the Taiwanese to defeat COVID-19 and the next pandemic.

Australian politicians are too frightened to put their foot down on some issues. Making this national health register voluntary does not cut it when a complete record could save lives and reduce economic damage in a pandemic, as it did in Taiwan. To not do so makes MPs culpable.

My Health Record needs to be completely robust if we are to defend ourselves from the next virus and soft civil liberty sensibilities need to be matched against the cost of lives and the cost to national wealth that could be prevented.

We already do things as a community to regulate our behaviour to save lives and manage assets. Motor registration links your dwelling to a car and licenses have pictures of their holders and their addresses; for good reason. We stop at stop signs and we limit drinking and driving. P Platers accept that they cannot drink at all during a window before driving.

It seems a small price to pay for the successful management of a pandemic to have in place the complete suite of data and tools for testing the community, isolating the infected and contact tracing. And no lockdown.

By John Mellor

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