Features | Diplomacy | Oceania

Australia’s Unsung COVID-19 Heroes: The Diplomats

The pandemic has changed the way Australia’s diplomats engage with Asia.

By Melissa Conley Tyler and Pravin Silva for
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Australia’s Unsung COVID-19 Heroes: The Diplomats

Staff from the High Commission greet the arrival of an Australian funded COVID-19 support package to the Solomon Islands.

Credit: Flickr/ Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

While most people know of the vital role of healthcare and essential workers during the pandemic, few are aware of how diplomats have worked to keep citizens safe and promote their country’s interests. How has COVID-19 changed the work of diplomats? And will this change diplomacy in the longer term?

Three Australian diplomats talked to us about how the pandemic has affected their work engaging with the region: Ambassador Robyn Mudie in Vietnam, Ambassador Pablo Kang in Cambodia, and High Commissioner Sarah de Zoeten in Vanuatu.

The first challenge that COVID-19 brought was consular. While diplomats are used to helping Australians abroad – with Australians making over 10 million short-term trips a year and more than 1 million living abroad permanently – there has not been a crisis of this scale and complexity before. As commercial flights stopped and borders closed, diplomats were faced with the question of how to get travellers home. In the two months after the government advised against international travel, more than 300,000 citizens and permanent residents returned home. In the hardest cases 22,000 returned home thanks to the work of diplomats, including 6,500 from cruise ships.

In Vietnam, visitors found themselves caught in sudden and strict quarantine. The embassy arranged for Australians to be repatriated on cargo flights, including connecting with a charter flight from Laos to Ho Chi Minh City. Given that borders were closed, this required deft diplomatic footwork and on-the-ground presence. According to Mudie, “One of the big lessons learned all across the global diplomacy network has been to be flexible. We were working in situations we never could have anticipated. We’re put here on the ground for a reason: to push the envelope and make things happen.”

In Cambodia, a particular challenge was the lack of flights. After successfully repatriating 81 cruise ship passengers from the MS Westerdam in February, the embassy found as the global situation worsened that there weren’t many viable flight routes left available. So it worked with the Singapore Embassy to facilitate a flight with Singapore Airlines, which didn’t traditionally fly to Cambodia. This enabled 41 stranded Singaporeans as well as 184 Australians to return home. The embassy focused on communicating with stranded travellers: giving updates, explaining what it was trying to do, and giving real time advice to citizens.

In Vanuatu, a popular tourist and retirement destination, de Zoeten recalls, “We had commercial links stopping quite early with a number of Australians who couldn’t get out. Then we had a category 5 cyclone.” In an unprecedented situation, with a complete absence of an air links, Australia’s humanitarian response to the cyclone gave another option, with Australians able to board an empty C-17 cargo plane for a ride home. According to de Zoeten, “I was at the airport to make sure they got away. The overwhelming sense I received was of frustration at being stuck but gratitude for being able to return.”

The second challenge for diplomats has been to work with governments in the region on their response to COVID-19, particularly through development cooperation. This week Australia announced Partnerships for Recovery, refocusing its development programs to help its near neighbors minimize the impact of the pandemic.

Diplomats’ immediate priority was on how to use existing development programs. For example, in Cambodia, Australia has been supporting 1,300 medical clinics around the country on health needs so the focus was on how to pivot to assist in the context of the pandemic.  Australia’s support is now enabling the procurement of 20 new ambulances to assist the Ministry of Health’s emergency response. In Vanuatu, the embassy worked closely to find out what the government wanted: it turned out that this was not to bring more people into a COVID-19-free country, with even the B-17 pilots delivering aid not able to leave the tarmac. Instead the embassy has been able to find people within the community, such as an epidemiologist who can help the health system respond.

Diplomats involved in multilateral forums – from the G-20, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, and ASEAN – have been arguing Australia’s case in new formats from virtual summits to WhatsApp groups. Australia’s work at the World Health Assembly on a resolution on an evaluation of the response to COVID-19 has been particularly visible.

The third challenge has been the deeper one of how do diplomacy at a time of physical distancing. Diplomacy is famously a people profession relying on face-to-face contact.

How much diplomats were affected varied by country. Vietnam has been on the front foot to transitioning online. Australia and Vietnam have shared phone calls between their prime ministers, foreign ministers, and trade ministers and the focus has been on how two countries that have had success in dealing with the pandemic can look to the future and maximize opportunities. According to Mudie, “We’re showing the world that you can get on with the economic relationship.”

For other countries, like Cambodia, online was less accepted but now the government is more comfortable with going digital. “I’m not sure if it will ever fully go back to the old ways,” said Kang. In Vanuatu, there’s been a need to adapt: “You have to find a way to show that shared affinity and warmth of relationship. There’s a lot of elbow bumping.”

Some of the changes brought by the pandemic may be permanent. For example, the Australian Embassy in Cambodia found that it massively increased its audience on social media, especially Facebook. “It has left a permanent new group of followers whom we’ve attracted initially with our consular response and who now very actively comment on how we manage the broader bilateral relationship.  The challenge will be that we can’t always respond to people’s queries in a matter of minutes, but in time-sensitive crisis situations this will be the new expectation and so far we have lived up to it.”

What won’t change is the focus on relationships. According to Mudie, “Diplomacy is built out of relationships. At the end of the day it’s built through interactions, building connections and trust with your contacts. You can take a well-established relationship and put them in the online medium. Whether you can build them from scratch in that medium is less clear.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, diplomats have often been working in difficult circumstances. Many have been repatriated for health or urgent family reasons, including from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Laos, and are now doing their jobs from Canberra. In the case of Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, that has meant working in a quarantine hotel along with other returnees.

With around 70 percent of DFAT Australian diplomatic staff overseas in place delivering essential services, this has left Australia with a smaller physical presence – in some cases with only one Australia-based diplomat still at post – and thus a greater reliance on locally-engaged staff. Many who have stayed at post are working without family who have returned home.

“With the extraordinary strain that has been placed on people, the depth of the professionalism has been really impressive. The support of the local staff is such a huge asset for us: the moral support and the deep policy experience and cultural understanding,” according to de Zoeten.

Across the region, diplomats have gone to extraordinary lengths during the COVID-19 crisis. For Mudie, “One lesson is that you have to be constantly adaptable. It’s not the same job as in the 1990s.”

Melissa Conley Tyler is Director, Diplomacy and Pravin Silva is Project Coordinator, Diplomacy at Asialink at The University of Melbourne. Melissa tweets at @MConleytyler.