Is Australia a “third-world” country?

First, my Dad was in ICU (non-COVID related) in March. Then, we (Melbourne) went into lockdown in April. Then, I was made redundant in June. Then Melbourne went into a longer lockdown in June. Then, my mom got COVID. Then, Melbourne sort-of came out of lockdown. Then, I made a perilous trip to India in December as Dad was on death’s door. Then, I came back into quarantine in Melbourne in January. Then, we faced more lockdowns in Melbourne. Then, I relocated to Sydney in March thinking I was going to taste freedom on a more regular basis. And now, I am part of a significant lockdown in New South Wales. In between all of this, I have been patiently and politely observing various turn of events locally and globally. Do I have a licence to write this piece? Maybe, maybe not…however, this opinion piece (which is my own) is one I need to put out into the ether and test the reaction! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Either way, it’s OK…so here goes.

My first experience

I first came to Australia (as a 16-year-old) in 2000 to play a tennis tournament in Darwin. Coming from the US, I didn’t see much of a ‘physical’ difference in terms of the environment, nature, infrastructure etc. Having been brought up in India and Nigeria, and living in the US, I believed I could clearly distinguish between a ‘First World’ and a ‘Third World’ country. I felt my birthplace and place of upbringing were ‘Third World’ countries without a doubt and that the US, and now Australia, epitomised my definition of a ‘First World’ country.

In 2006, I moved to Australia (not permanently at the time; more of a nomadic journey) and did fall in love with the country – stunning nature, lovely and relaxed people, solid infrastructure and reasonably inclusive culture (although this is heavily debatable).

Over the years though, I have been observing significant economic, social, and socioeconomic interactions and tensions across the country, at a Federal, State and Local Level. Working in the social responsibility space, topics like climate change, human rights, reconciliation are near and dear to my heart, and I started seeing some metaphoric, semiotic and visible cracks in the system, and potentially in my definition of what constitutes a ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ country.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 started to test the very fabric of this (and the global) society, I blurted out, to my then boss (over the phone), that Australia would become a ‘Third World’ country by the end of 2020! He was shocked and asked me to explain my rationale.

To do so, let me first unpack the definition of these different worlds.

Definition

The term was coined by French demographer and social scientist Alfred Sauvy in an essay published in 1952 called “Three Worlds, One Planet.” And while I’ve oversimplified things a bit, in short order, many of the countries still reeling from the European colonial experience in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East were asked to assert their place within the new economic binary. That the “short list” was most of the world, or that the term ultimately devolved into an insult, seems unsurprising in retrospect. 

The original definition of the term “Third World” country was not intended to be a now disparaging designation of economic underdevelopment. To be a Third World country was to be on a short list of nations who were being asked to take a side amid the geopolitical chaos of the 1950’s Cold War. Are you democratic like the U.S. and its capitalist allies? Are you communist, like Russia, Cuba and other satellite nations? Or are you undeclared and up for grabs?

I would say that the criteria to be a first world country includes:

  • Rule of Law
  • Capitalist Economy
  • High Standard of Living

The criteria for a third world country includes:

  • High poverty and mortality rates
  • Economic instability
  • Lack of basic human necessities

During the cold war, the three worlds were Team America, Team Russia, and Team Everybody Else. Everybody else was mostly poor, so that’s our concept of the third world. It’s not relevant anymore. There is a new world order.

Some of those ‘not-great’ countries became like South Korea, and some stayed relatively poor, like my home Nigeria/India, but invested in public health. Meanwhile, every ‘developed’ country besides the all-powerful America invested in public health because obviously, why would you live like this. Right?

They say health is wealth, and now we are finding that out, IN AUSTRALIA.

Wasn’t Australia a “First World” country?

Based on the above criteria for what constitutes a “First World” country, Australia is supposedly ticking all the boxes. High standard of living – check. Established infrastructure – check. Sovereign state recognised by other nations – check. Orderly transfer of all goods and services required to maintain life – check. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index (a statistical measure that gauges a country’s level of human development), Australia is ranked #8!

My notion of “Third World”

In the new third world, wealth is health. Because health depends on wealth, it is unevenly distributed. In these countries, many people cannot afford to go to the doctor and they get sick or die needlessly. This is treated as their problem, until during an epidemic it becomes everyone’s problem.

A public health system is only as strong as its weakest link, and these countries have a lot of weak links. A virus rips through these populations like a lion through a herd of sickly gazelle.

So what happened to Australia?

COVID arrived, and the “Health Dictatorship” was born!

This brings us to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Like any predator, it seeks out the weak, and it is especially dangerous to weak healthcare systems. These are countries which cannot flatten the epidemic curve, and which get flattened. Coronavirus is especially dangerous to the third world.

I know what it’s like living in a poor country where stuff doesn’t work. Where systems don’t make sense and seem actively stupid or cruel. But many Australians are unfamiliar with that feeling. It was always happening to someone else. This will be hard, but I guess we will learn. It’s not a lesson worth learning. It’s just tragic.

At first, Australia was blessed by its geography. As the world’s most sparsely populated major economy (only Namibia and Mongolia have fewer people per square kilometre), it’s been remarkably easy to segment into discrete quarantine zones.

As so often in Australia’s history, that geographical good fortune has come to breed callousness and complacency. Once a bastion of Covid success, now two of Australia’s largest cities are under tight restrictions amid poorly handled vaccine program and the growing Delta outbreak. The lack of urgency, the missteps and the complacency have taken their toll. As I write this, Sydney is at 2,123 active COVID cases, more than double where China was on January 23rd, but (supposedly) with the public health system and political will to flatten the curve. This is a “lion meets limping gazelle” moment and it may not be pretty.

More than 30,000 citizens have been stranded overseas and say they want to return. Technically, that’s been possible: The country had enough places in hotel quarantine to accommodate 6,370 arrivals a week. In practice, though, anyone unable to part with a five-figure sum to pay for flights and accommodation for each returning traveller is stuck.

While India’s outbreak was at its worst in early May, the government banned all travel from the country, with the threat of jail for those who attempted to evade the rules. No such measures were extended for equally virulent epidemics in the U.S. and U.K. As Sydney’s outbreak started to spread, the first move from all sides of politics was to raise the drawbridge: Quarantine places, already insufficient, have now been cut in half.

Currently, just 10% of adults have been fully vaccinated and an outbreak of the Delta variant is slowly spreading. Australia’s death toll is less than 1,000 and its case total is just over 30,000 – fewer infections than the US, UK, India, Brazil, France and Italy have each reported in a day. But a much less impressive number is the percentage of its population that is fully vaccinated – putting the country last on the list of 38 OECD countries.

My recent experience

Since March 2020, I have experienced six lockdowns including the big ones in Melbourne and Sydney! In December 2020, I travelled to India to rescue my dying father and COVID-stricken mother and managed to get back into the country in January; a harrowing journey that it was featured in the media! I, like thousands of other citizens, lived on the edge in Melbourne, to see when the next lockdown would occur after ONE COVID case…I am now thinking about Sydney and how we became similar to another country (per capita) in COVID cases and fear…should India lock out Australians? Haha, just kidding (kind of)…

What’s next for me? I don’t know but when I recently heard a friend in the UK travelled to and from Nepal for a 3 week holiday, as did another friend from Bali who went to and from Europe, with no quarantine requirement, it made me wonder, “Where am I and why am I still here?”

Drumroll, please!

So, what’s my verdict?

We are living in a newly redefined “third world”. With hardly any disease- or vaccine-acquired immunity, Australia is months behind other rich countries in its ability to handle a fresh outbreak. The problem is what will happen with the next crisis, and the one after that.

The failures that led to Australia’s current situation — a belief that its good fortune is born of merit rather than luck, an inability to plan for contingencies, a breezy confidence that something will turn up to save the day — don’t just apply to its handling of Covid-19.

Public health is the new world order, and Australians are now living in the third world. In this sense, Australia is, unfortunately, a third world country. In terms of vulnerability to an epidemic, we are much closer to Sub-Saharan Africa than Norway.

Yes, Australia is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots.

In conclusion we seem to equate third-world countries with developing countries. I believe an acceptable definition of a developing country is: One that has yet to successfully implement one or more novel features widely across its population which are available to other countries. Now we have access to both those things, as well as to pretty much any other tangible resource.

My point is, under the current times, we are behind in several ways compared to other groups of society. Why should third-world countries be so negatively coined just because they simply haven’t adopted our ways of life yet?

That point is approaching with every progressive policy other countries take the lead in, and will approach even faster if the third world countries that typically come to mind decide to introduce features like the ones I suggested, so unless you want to be reduced from the engine of innovation to the caboose, there will be a time where you have to accept progressive policies. And if you don’t, you’re going to need to accept the idea that third-world isn’t the derogatory term it’s subconsciously believed to be.

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