How Australia’s Scott Morrison rebuilt his reputation fighting the virus

How Australia's PM rebuilt his reputation fighting the virus
Scott Morrison turned his fortune wuring coronavirus pandemic. Source: Getty Images
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Daily US Times: After exactly one year since he came to office, the stock of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is soaring and the country exits coronavirus lockdown.

Online, there are TikTok memes of teenagers singing his praises, while on the airwaves, shock jocks have apologised for previous criticism.

It’s in stark contrast to how he was viewed during the bushfire crisis -the worst in the history, when he was being lashed for taking a secret holiday to Hawaii while the nation was on fire.

His perceived leadership failure during the bushfire crisis sparked huge public anger. Citizens swore at him on camera, while survivors and firefighters refused to shake his hand.

The coronavirus pandemic started appearing just after the bushfire crisis was over in late January.

Months later, the country has out on top of the crisis and it was viewed as a world leader in its successful containment of the virus.

Australia has reported fewer than 100 deaths as of Monday and confirmed around 7,000 cases.

On Monday, the prime minister’s approval rating stood at 66% – one of the highest for any Australian leader in the past decade, while only a dozen patients remained in intensive care across the country.

So how did Scott Morrison turn things around?

‘Bold and strong leadership of Scott Morrison’

Political and health experts say that Scott Morrison has hugely benifitted from the expert advice he was given, and that he chose to follow – ignoring the massive economic consequences.

Underscoring his reliance on this, the chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy was never far from his side at every major announcement in the whole crisis time.

Dr Brendan Murphy gave the early advice to ban arrivals from China. Source: Getty Images

It was Murphy’s advice that Australia shut its borders to China when the World Health Organization (WHO) was saying travel bans were unnecessary. Australia forecast a pandemic before the official classification.

Australia became successful containing coronavirus because the country took early measures to bar entry from high-risk areas.

Australia closed its borders on February 1 to all foreign visitors who had recently been in China, where the outbreak was first reported in December last year.

As the virus spread and outbreaks flared beyond China, the country barred entries from Italy, South Korea, and Iran in early March. It completely closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents on March 19.

President of the Australian Medical Association Dr Tony Bartone, said: “Clearly, yes you should listen to the health experts in the middle of a health crisis.”

“But listening to the health experts can create an enormous economic disruption. And it takes bold and strong leadership to listen fully and listen early,” he adds.

Mr Morrison also took quick action when it became clear that local infections were accelerating. Shortly after case numbers tipped over 1,000, larger social gatherings were banned and pubs and bars were shut.

Dr Bartone says, the economic consequences of shutting up shop would have appeared daunting, but Mr Morrison didn’t drag his feet unlike leaders in the US and the UK.

Instead, the Prime Minister listened to science- something he was being heavily criticised of not doing during the bushfire crisis.

The Ruby Princess has led to hundreds of coronavirus cases across Australia. Getty Images

Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition had long downplayed or even rejected the science of climate change. The coalition has been in power for the past seven years.

Fire cheifs and scientists said their warnings the fire season would be particularly harsh had been ignored by the government.

Thus during the fires’ emergency, the prime minister’s critics accused him of failing to acknowledge the severity of the disaster or to announce anything to tackle the underlying cause.

Prof Bongiorno argues that with a public health crisis, “there wasn’t that kind of baggage”. Australia has well-functioning and advanced health system primed to respond to outbreaks such as this one.

He says: “No-one has accused the Australian government of being hopelessly underprepared for a pandemic.”

‘Incredibly pragmatic’

Experts say, the pandemic was far better suited to Scott Morrison’s style of leadership.

He embraced the rapid pace of developments allowed room for experimentation.

Prof Bongiorno says: “He’s a thoroughly professional politician. He doesn’t have a big attachment to any policy position and is prepared to throw off particular positions for pragmatic reasons and move on to something else.”

As such, Australians saw its centre-right government – which had for years bemoaned the debt hangover from the global financial crisis – accept that dramatic spending was necessary to protect the economy from collapse.

Charged with the economic health of the nation, Scott Morrison funnelled about 10% of GDP into spending – the biggest public spend on record.

Decisions included pledging free childcare, doubling the unemployment payment and introducing a wage subsidy essentially guaranteeing a minimum income.

You may read: How did Australia flatten its coronavirus curve?