Think of coronavirus as a test run: Australian military leaders warn we must prepare for worse – By Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Kyle Taylor, ABC Investigations


 Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Kyle Taylor, ABC Investigations


A supermarket with a large stretch of empty shelves.
There are potential shortages much worse than toilet paper if global supply chains were to shut down completely.(ABC News: Freya Michie) 

As Australia was swept by panic buying and medical shortages this year, the scenes were eerily familiar for one of the country’s most senior military planners.

In a secret meeting only a year earlier, the Defence Department’s director of preparedness Cheryl Durrant and a group of Australian industry leaders had predicted a strikingly similar scenario.

“We predicted the unpredictable,” says Ms Durrant, who left the department in January.

“We knew the problems, we knew this might be coming, we knew that various things needed to be done.”

The ABC has obtained a confidential report prepared for Defence just a year before the COVID-19 outbreak, which provides a forecast of Australia’s vulnerabilities in a global crisis.

Ms Durrant is speaking out about the predictions after ending her 30-year Defence career because she believes it is her duty to convince Australia to prepare for an increasingly unstable world.

“I’ve looked at the global situation,” she says. “It’s no use festering in a bunker somewhere in Canberra — it’s a time of crisis.”

She says the risks to Australia are snowballing, with climate change, US-China tensions and the rise of nationalist governments among the key threats to global stability.

The report, which Ms Durrant commissioned to plan for the growing threats, lays out a timeline of how Australian essential services would collapse within just three months if a crisis put a halt to global trade, causing even greater ramifications than COVID-19.

“If you think of the COVID crisis as a test run, it’s really a critical thing for us to learn from this,” she said.

“The lesson is expect the unexpected.”

Portrait of a woman, close up.
Cheryl Durrant was the Department of Defence director of preparedness and mobilisation and warns Australia must do more to prepare for crises.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

Preparing for the worst

As the Defence Department’s director of preparedness and mobilisation, Ms Durrant planned for horror scenarios that would keep most Australians up at night.

Last year, she commissioned a landmark review of Defence planning — the first so-called mobilisation review since the Cold War — to prepare for what the department concluded was an increasingly likely global crisis.

“We saw three main possibilities of that happening: the increasing and escalating effects of climate change and natural disasters; a global power conflict, probably between America and China; and finally a pandemic — one with a much greater death rate than what we’re seeing with the COVID crisis,” Ms Durrant said.

“The review looked at the big issues, like if we had to go to war, do we have enough fuel? Do we have enough energy?

“Can the national supply chains and our national infrastructure support Defence in a war or other crisis?”

To answer her questions, Ms Durrant gathered 17 senior engineers from Australia’s key industries to war-game whether Australia’s supplies could sustain the nation through a prolonged crisis, where global supply chains were severely disrupted.

“We asked, if we had basically a halt on global supply — a couple of steps more demanding than we’re seeing in the current crisis — what would run out in one week, two weeks, one month or three months?” she said.

“We wanted to understand what was the thing we were most vulnerable in.”

A woman with glasses.
Dr Bronwyn Evans, chief executive officer of Engineers Australia.(ABC News: David Maguire)

The experts were selected by their industry peak body, Engineers Australia, from sectors including health care, electricity, fuel, water, mining and telecommunications.

“Out of this thought experiment, what the group looked at across each of their sectors was what would this mean for their particular sector,” Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans said.

“They identified that because we’re part of the global supply chain, when the ability for that to continue to function [broke down], you’d start to get shortages, you’d run out of things in areas, for example, like the water supply, like telecommunications.”

The report’s forecasts

The final report by Engineers Australia, obtained by the ABC, laid out a chilling timeline of how Australia’s essential services would break down in an unspecified global crisis.

Timeline showing what essential services would break down.
A timeline of effects of a global crisis which severely disrupts supply chains. Excerpt from an Engineering Australia report commissioned by the Department of Defence.(Supplied)

While the group didn’t look at a pandemic specifically, some of the predictions were eerily accurate.

According to the report, “the workshop delivered the overarching advice that, in the scenario provided, Australia would suffer massive upheaval within one week due to job losses, social unease and [public and industrial] hoarding.”

With at least 90 per cent of Australia’s specialist medical supplies imported, the report found specialist medicines “may be exhausted within days”, with “severe repercussions for public health”.

Within a fortnight, with a restriction of imported medical equipment, “health care would be degraded”.

For Ms Durrant, the report was evidence Australian governments could have been better prepared when the fallout from the pandemic hit the nation’s hospitals, supermarkets and Centrelink queues.

“In order to have that response that is really sharp out of the blocks, we weren’t quite there in the first couple of weeks.

“I was bemoaning the fact that even though we’d done the work and had seen what might happen, we hadn’t yet been able to get the buy-in to do the further planning and actually act on that information.”

Australia’s fragile position

Australian industries and governments are now scrambling to prepare in case more supply chains come under threat in the global economic fallout from coronavirus.

Former Deputy Chief of the Air Force, Air Vice Marshal John Blackburn
Former deputy chief of the Air Force John Blackburn is gaining support among federal politicians for a plan to make Australia more resilient to global shocks.(ABC: 7.30)

The pandemic is causing widespread disruptions to shipping and air freight, and wreaking havoc on suppliers across Europe, America and Asia.

For nearly a decade, former Air Force deputy chief John Blackburn has been sounding the alarm, warning Australia is vulnerable to global forces because of its low stocks of essential supplies.

The retired air-vice marshal is attracting a chorus of supporters from the military and Federal Parliament, who are urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison to establish a national strategy to make Australia more resilient to global shocks.

“The economic fallout from COVID is putting us into uncharted territory,” says Mr Blackburn.

“We could be talking about a failure of the trading system in areas — that is a nightmare we don’t want to go to and requires very close cooperation between governments.

He says successive Australian governments have failed to consider the risks of an overwhelming reliance on global trade, particularly given our geographic isolation.


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