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Politics is back like rash – and makes us wonder who we can trust

And they say men can’t multitask.

I digress. My point is that, like a chronic rash impervious even to prescription-grade Cortisone cream, politics is resuming just in time to remind us how much we disliked it.

Illustration: Reg Lynch

Illustration: Reg LynchCredit:

Most Australians have supported the coronavirus response because it has been a government response more than a political one, at least until now. For once, it seemed, politicians worked in genuine co-operation with public servants, heeding their expert advice and even shoving them to the front of press conferences to explain the government’s strategy to an anxious public.

It only reminds us how much false confidence politicians project when they claim to have all the answers during normal times, such as in election campaigns or parliamentary debates.

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Give ’em a real, immediately life-threatening problem and they’ll run for the cover of expertise. At least, they will in Australia and New Zealand, and various other luckier countries.

The huge, tragic and appalling exception is the United States, where the death toll is more than 75,000 and is projected to almost double by August. Meanwhile President Donald Trump urges citizens to gargle bleach, or something, while he encourages the jackboot fascism of armed personal liberty protesters storming state buildings.

To witness Trump “handle” this crisis has been to watch an historic display of venal incompetence. It’s a kind of exponential, day-to-day dystopia that not even his fiercest critics could have dreamed up.

What with the mass death, it’s unsurprising things are a little more testy in the US – according to the Australia Institute research, only 49 per cent of Americans believe their government has done a good or better job at responding to the crisis.

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This hints at further pain ahead for Americans as restrictions are eased, because any easing will only work in an atmosphere of trust.

How else can we be confident our fellow citizens are washing their hands and staying home with sniffles, and that our businesses are doing what is necessary to keep customers and staff safe?

Mutual trust will be the currency that stimulates the economy as we try to return to normal. This is true on a community level but also an international one.

We are already investigating ways to safely open up travel with New Zealand, because we trust New Zealand, and if we are honest, one of the reasons we trust New Zealand is because it is like us. It shares a similar history, a compatible culture and similar standards of governance. Australians regard its people as essentially decent.

But what of the people and nations that aren’t so much like us? How will we balance the need to trust only those we can rely on, against a descent into xenophobia and nativism?

We have already seen a bit of nativism, in the government’s refusal to extend JobSeeker payments to temporary visa holders. It is also there in the proposal from Labor’s immigration and citizenship spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, that Australia adopt a post-pandemic migration program “that puts Australian workers first”.

Xenophobia is emerging too, most notably against “the Chinese” – those who stoke it deliberately blur the distinction between the country’s authoritarian government and its people.

The Trump administration is promoting a misinformation campaign over the origins of the virus, linking it to the operations of a virology lab in Wuhan, against the weight of evidence, which indicates it emerged from Wuhan’s now-infamous wet markets. The insinuation is that Chinese scientists either negligently or knowingly unleashed a deadly virus on the globe, like cackling villains from a sci-fi film set during the Cold War.

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It’s a dangerous insinuation, because it needlessly provokes China, and will only work against international attempts to have wet markets shut for good.

Last week The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported suspicions that a rival Australian media outlet was fed dubious “intelligence” supporting the lab theory by the US embassy in Canberra. If such meddling is occurring, it is one more reason to distrust the current US administration.

As former NSW premier Bob Carr said, you can only imagine the reaction if the Chinese government was suspected of peddling such dodgy intelligence.

As we emerge blinking into the post-COVID world, it will be difficult to judge who we can trust. It will be even more difficult to ensure a healthy self-reliance doesn’t tip over into nationalism or anti-outsider prejudice.

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