What the U.S. Could Learn From Australia’s Effort to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic

Coordination. Oxford Dictionary defines the word “coordination” as “the organization of the different elements of a complex body or activity so as to enable them to work together effectively.” Oxford’s example of how to use the word is "both countries agreed to intensify efforts at economic policy coordination."

Coordination. Could this noun be one of the reasons why we have seen a difference between how the United States and Australia have fared in terms of the number of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Same Timeline, Different Impacts

Australia reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on January 19 after a man from Wuhan, China flew to Melbourne. Shortly after, Australia raised its travel advisory level for Wuhan and Hubei Province to Level Four, which means do not travel. As of May 5, Australia, has 6,851 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 5,890 recoveries and 97 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).

The CDC issued a press release on January 21 stating that the U.S. had its first confirmed case of COVID-19: a patient who had recently returned to Washington after traveling to Wuhan. As the pandemic exponentially spread, the U.S. declared a public health emergency on January 31 and encouraged people to quarantine if they had recently traveled to specific regions of China. As of May 5, the U.S. has 1,199,238 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 187,180 recoveries and 70,646 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s CSSE.

On paper, both nations appear to have responded to the pandemic at somewhat similar paces. However, when accounting for the difference in both nations’ population and land sizes, Australia proportionately has significantly lower case and death rates than the U.S. One of the main undercurrents driving this dichotomy is coordination.

Yes, coordination of the governments.

Same Political Theory, Different Praxis

Despite their demographic differences, the U.S. and Australia have this in common: both are federations. A federation is a model of government in which power is divided among different levels of government, such as national, territory, state, and local bodies.

To address the COVID-19 pandemic, the different levels of government in a federation must work together to improve the public’s ability to access treatment and diminish any socioeconomic consequences. The simplest strategy is for public officials to coordinate a solution among the different levels of government. In this case, a coordinated effort means that officials must set aside their political, social and economic differences in order to address the pandemic at hand.

This is where the dichotomy emerges in the U.S. and Australia’s approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic: Australia has presented a significantly more unified front than the U.S.

First and foremost, Australia established the National Cabinet to ensure that government officials delivered consistent messaging about the COVID-19 pandemic and prioritize the greater good of public health. Through the National Cabinet, all government officials agreed to rise above their partisan differences and work together to protect the lives of Australians (even the Prime Minister). Through this, the National Cabinet exemplifies the theory that government coordination lowers the public’s confusion and improves their trust in the information circulated by the state.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not faring as well in its coordination attempts, with political scientists across the nation calling for the different levels of government to coordinate a more consistent communication strategy. “Rule one of communication in a pandemic is to have a message and stick to it,” said Dr. Scott Greer, a political scientist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Some observers argue that the U.S.’s inefficient coordination attempts have exposed the weaknesses in its application of federalism. For example, many governors are autonomously making decisions, with some opening their states while others enforce distancing restrictions. The Trump administration has allowed them to do this primarily because governors have more control over on-the-ground actions in their states. Since these two levels of government aren’t effectively working together, the communication they’ve put forth has been disjointed and the antithesis of coordinated.

Same Problem, Different Solutions

Although Australia has not been perfect in its response to the pandemic, its coordination efforts have effectively improved the public’s trust in the government’s information and strategy. This stands in stark contrast to what’s happening in the U.S., where the government’s inconsistent communication has left the public unsure of how to move forward.

As seen here, a coordinated national effort seems to be what’s made the difference between the U.S. and Australia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it may not be the sole reason, it suggests that the inefficiencies of the U.S.’s piecemeal approach is fostering discord and costing lives.

Article by Tapiwa Chadambura on behalf of the Global Philadelphia Association