A secret report commissioned by the Department of Defence a year before the coronavirus pandemic hit the globe warned of Australia’s weaknesses in the event of an international crisis.
On Tuesday ABC’s 7.30 revealed Defence’s former director of preparedness, Cheryl Durrant, commissioned the report so the department could plan for three major risks: climate change and natural disasters; a global power conflict, most likely between America and China; and a pandemic, but one with a greater death rate than that of COVID-19.
Put together by 17 senior engineers from across various sectors, the report looked at whether Australia would have enough supplies to sustain itself through a prolonged international crisis.
The report warned Australia would face job losses, social unease, and hoarding within one week of a global crisis. Within three months, a number of factors would wreak havoc on the nation’s ability to function.
Australia largely relies on imported goods. Global shortages, disrupted trade, and restrictions on importing would lead to:
- a shortage of specialist medicines within days, due to more than 90% of them being imported,
- a lack of imported medical equipment within a fortnight,
- a heightened risk of disease due to sanitation issues. Water treatment and sewage systems that heavily rely on imported chemicals could start to fail within a week,
- a shortage of liquid fuel after about two months, leading to the collapse of various Australian industries and prompting a shortage of food supplies, and
- the deterioration of electricity and telecommunications due to reliance on imported spare parts.
So far, the coronavirus pandemic has caused international disruptions to shipping and air freight, and has concerned governments as well as the crucial industries that could be impacted.
For example, just a month ago, the Water Services Association of Australia wrote to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to flag the possible need for government assistance in the incident of shortages and supply chain issues.
The federal government also recently bought $94 million of crude oil from the United States.
Durrant told 7.30 she was “bemoaning the fact” that the report had predicted what might happen, but Defence was not yet able to act on the information. She argued Australian state and federal governments could have better prepared for COVID-19’s strain on essential services, including hospitals and supermarkets.
She has called on the government to “understand the supply chain vulnerabilities”, to decide what is critical for society, the economy, and businesses to function, and to “invest in the processes and skillsets and the data systems” needed to achieve these things.
Durrant left Defence in January, after three decades there.