I am ashamed of the response of the Australian Government to the current Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organisation(WHO) declared a Global Health Emergency on 8 August. Their predictions were frightening – if Ebola was not contained immediately there would be more than 500,000 cases by January 2015 and it would soon spiral out of control. WHO says there are two very good reasons for making a sustained global response to the current Ebola epidemic – the first is a humanitarian response to the current and prospective suffering of thousands of individuals in West Africa – the second is to make sure it does not spread to other countries who are not equipped to manage an Ebola outbreak.
WHO appealed to nations around the world to respond and in most cases the response was immediate. Barack Obama was quick to pledge more than 3000 health personnel to the effort, David Cameron pledged over 1000 and other countries followed suit. Tiny Cuba with a population on 11 million and national wealth per capita far less than that of Australia, made an immediate commitment of 165 health professionals and have almost completed training a further 296 for deployment to West Africa.
The response of the Australian Government was similar to what we have seen to other threats to the future of our planet. In the beginning they made a few concerned noises and then seemed to ignore it – perhaps hoping it would go away.
(Photo thanks to crankycurlew.com.au: Townsville residents demonstrate the “ostrich” approach to threats to the planet as perfected by the Abbott Government.)
Finally the British Government in late September, perhaps embarrassed by the lack of response from its Commonwealth “little brother”, invited Australia to provide medical staff to a treatment facility that was being built in Sierra Leone.
Messrs Abbott and Dutton gave all sorts of reasons why they could not immediately accept this invitation. Meanwhile the AMA announced that there were more than 350 Australian health personnel who had indicated they would be available to take part in an Australian health mission to West Africa.
To their credit the AMA kept chipping away at the Government intransigence. Some in the media supported them. They were joined by a number of NGOs such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. Finally the Government were shamed into action. This is how Oxfam’s Conor Costello described this apparent change of heart in a letter to supporters: “The Australian Government finally seems to be heeding the calls to adequately respond to the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa — and it’s thanks to the efforts of health professionals and concerned citizens like you.”
But as Oxfam warns, there is a still a long way to go. Sustained pressure from us all is needed to ensure that the announcement rapidly leads to real action on the ground.
While we have been slow to provide humanitarian aid – Australia has the dubious distinction of being the first country in the world to place a blanket visa ban on citizens of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In doing this we are ignoring the advice of the experts and taking steps which are sabotaging the efforts of others to fight the disease.
Here is what UN officials and regional leaders say about the Australian visa ban:
“Anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER), told Reuters in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf urged Australia to reconsider its travel ban. “Anytime there’s stigmatization, there’s quarantine, there’s exclusion of people, many of whom are just normal, then those of us who are fighting this epidemic, when we face that, we get very sad,” she told a news conference.
Neighboring Sierra Leone called the Australian move draconian. “It is discriminatory in that … it is not (going) after Ebola but rather it is … against the 24 million citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea,” Information Minister Alpha Kanu told Reuters. “Certainly, it is not the right way to go.”
In a letter to a number of Federal MPs, Townsville resident David Andersen explained why the ban is both unnecessary and counter-productive.
“According to the latest figures from WHO, there were 13567 reported Ebola cases in the three affected countries as of October 31, 2014. This amounts to 0.06% of the total population. Imagine if 0.06% of the people of France or of Korea were suffering from a deadly infectious disease, do you think we would impose a blanket visa ban on the other 99.94%. What effect would that have on all the business people, university students, conference participants, whose plans to visit Australia were suddenly interrupted? Would France and Korea feel that Australia was treating them like a friend or an enemy? Why are we treating the business people, university students and conference participants from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia as if they were from an enemy country who should be penalized?
David Andersen continues “This policy is intended to protect Australia from the risk that an Ebola outbreak would occur here. How big is that risk? Obviously there is zero risk from the 99.94% of the population who would be healthy travellers. And if someone already had an advanced stage of the disease, they would not travel. What people worry about is that someone without obvious symptoms might travel here and then come down with the disease in Australia. What do the experts say about this risk?
With regard to health workers returning from West Africa the AMA website states, “The risk to the Australian public was essentially zero. Health care workers returning from West Africa go into quarantine for 21 days. People are not contagious unless they show physical symptoms such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhoea. Every appropriate precaution is taken. (https://ama.com.au/ausmed/ebola-crisis-affects-us-all). David Andersen asks why we are taking draconian measures to guard against a risk that the experts regard as being extremely low. David Andersen concludes “That sounds like panic to me, rather than the courageous and sensible response that Australians usually give in the face of crises”.
There are a number of things we can do to put pressure on our government and other governments to prioritise the global response to Ebola. Like David Andersen we can share our concerns about the inadequate Australian response by writing directly to our Federal MPs. Both Amnesty International Australia and Oxfam Australia have current online campaigns addressing this issue.
We can directly support action on Ebola by donating to one of the NGOs supporting the WHO lead initiative in West Africa – MSF (Doctors without Borders), Oxfam, Red Cross, Caritas International to name just a few.
The last word belongs to Monsignor Robert Vitillo, the special Adviser on Health and HIV to Caritas International whose report on a recent visit to Liberia was published in Eureka Street.
Robert Vitillo wrote”On my recent visit to Liberia, I found a ‘different Africa.’ From the moment that our plane touched down at the Monrovia airport, we were confronted with buckets of bleach water with which to wash our hands and people armed with ‘gun thermometers’ to take our temperatures.
Perhaps the most striking difference from my other visits was found in the ‘no touch’ policy. Africans usually are warm and physical in expressing welcome – they offer hearty handshakes. Now, in the Ebola-affected countries, everyone seems uncomfortable as a result of the need to avoid physical contact in order to prevent further spread of Ebola.”
Robert Vitillo continued “The Ebola situation in the country is grave and continues to disrupt everyday life for most of the population.
Many hospitals and clinics are closed, so it is very difficult to get medical treatment for other diseases. Some people die in the streets looking for medical treatment for infection or for a whole host of other diseases. Schools and many government offices are closed.”
Reports like this from West Africa illustrate the gravity of the situation – but they also describe the resilience and strength of local people in responding to the situation. What they need now is the whole-hearted support of the rest of the world.