COVID is exposing Australia’s Asia ignorance

Asia is now firmly at the centre of Australia’s economy and security. It’s also the centre of the world’s most serious COVID crisis. Yet from our leaders, to the ABC, Australians are missing when it comes to knowing and understanding their region. The COVID pandemic is drawing this into sharp focus.

Last Saturday night I switched on the ABC evening news here in lockdown Sydney. It was mostly grim viewing; a tighter lockdown, more COVID cases, a climate-change-driven flooding disaster in Germany.

After all the gloom, towards the end of the bulletin, host Jeremy Fernandez broke a smile. Finally – a good news story.

Check out our video on Australia’s Asia ignorance

He told us that Indonesia was sending a surfer to the Tokyo Olympics.

A young Balinese surfer is about to get a taste of life as an Olympian. It was a lovely story at the end of a bad day.

But there was a problem. Something had been left out.

In previous days, Indonesia had been declared the global epicentre for coronavirus cases and deaths. More than 1000 people died of COVID in Indonesia on Saturday, while the ABC was running its surfer story. Bali too, was experiencing a surge in cases.

None of that made the ABC News.

It felt a little sick that on a day of such anguish in Indonesia, the ABC ran a surfing story.

After 3 decades living mostly in South East Asia, I have found myself waiting out COVID in Sydney. I’ve been fortunate to be here. But I’ve been surprised to see how remote Australia remains from the reality of its region.

Since I left Australia to live and work in Vietnam in the early 1990s, our connections with Asia have deepened markedly. Asia dominates our trading economy and underwrites our prosperity. 65% of all of our trade is conducted with Asia. The US, Europe and everywhere else on earth occupy the remaining 35%. Asia is at the centre of our increasingly complex security landscape. The number of Asians now calling Australia home has increased dramatically.

But our understanding of our region and the national resources allocated to that task of understanding, have barely moved since the 1990s. It seems nobody told our government, or the media (including the ABC), that this transformed economic and security landscape should change the international politics, media coverage and education priorities. Australia has glided through the economic boom assuming our regional laziness will serve us permanently.

Hanoi Vietnam – Australians love to travel in Asia. They’re probably ready for some deeper engagement at home too. ¬©Mark Bowyer

The commercial media doesn’t even try to cover Asia. That leaves a stretched ABC, loathed and starved of funds by the Morrison government, to do the job.

The underlying assumption at the ABC is that the UK, US and Europe are still at the centre of our world. It’s especially obsessed with the UK – Brexit, Boris, the Royals. Sure, China, India and the rest of Asia occasionally get stories over the line. But the bar they have to meet is far far higher than something out of 10 Downing St, Buckingham Palace or Washington.

The ABC devotes most of its international resources to the most well-covered news stories on earth. If the ABC closed all of its North American and European resources tomorrow, knowledge of these places wouldn’t shift an inch. But the ABC coverage of Asia, where there is a gaping hole, borders on negligence – recent India and Indonesia coverage demonstrates the point.

The ABC has fewer resources in Asia than it did 30 years ago. I sense our national Asia expertise is worse than it was then too – with a few notable exceptions. Our universities are cutting Asian studies and Asian languages.

The economic and geopolitical facts tell us one thing. Anglo-Australia is not reading the signals.

Right now, our region is facing a crisis with the Delta variant of COVID. It dwarfs the COVID challenges we face here in Australia. This story should be a fixture in our news coverage. It’s more serious and has greater implications for Australia than anything that happened in the UK or North America last year. It’s shaping up as the most serious crisis in South East Asia and beyond for decades. It will have economic and security implications for Australia.

Can someone mention it to the ABC and the PM?