Australia needs to get real on Ebola crisis

When the going gets tough, in Billy Ocean’s song, the tough get going. Yet when it comes to Ebola, Australian PM, self-styled tough guy Tony Abbott, wants to firmly stay put.

Abbott’s advisors need to work harder. They need to tell the PM frankly that putting his head in the sand is not a good look; opting for non-involvement is not an option. They could start with the message that his non-involvement sends. It is not flattering: it he doesn’t suit his macho man of action image and it certainly does not signal any deep concern or even a sound grasp of realities. Indeed, he is choosing to ignore local experts; ignore popular opinion.

Abbott’s stance is not representative of all Australians. Certainly, it fails to meet the expectations of Australian health care professionals. Australian medical experts understand that Ebola concerns us all. They want the government to see that the disease demands an effort from all nations. And they want their government to act immediately.

AMA President, A/Prof Brian Owler, sees an evolving international humanitarian crisis, in which Australia must provide urgent direct assistance. Australia should be providing more money to help contain the spread of the disease, and we should also be sending teams of medical and health professionals to help treat the thousands of people, across several countries, affected by Ebola.

“The AMA acknowledges the recent commitment of $18 million by the Australian Government, but it is clear now that much more needs to be provided. If the Government can get military arms airlifted to northern Iraq at short notice, surely we can airlift medical arms and legs to West Africa just as quickly to save lives. Australia and other developed nations must show leadership and act immediately to provide greater support to WHO and the people of West Africa affected by this human tragedy,” A/Prof Owler said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is quick to remind us, Australia has virtuously contributed 18 million dollars but will not send medical personnel. Why? The Abbott government’s reasons sound like excuses. West Africa is too far away from Australia. We are already donating money. We need to have safety guarantees.

Many individual Australians see it differently; they have not hesitated to exercise their humanity. They have no trouble ‘getting it’.  They have quickly shown greater insight and understanding than their government can muster. Australian volunteers understand that money is not enough. Personnel are urgently required.  On the ground. Ebola is a big enough threat to world health to risk your life fighting.

Accordingly, thirty Australians are estimated to be working in West Africa for organisations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières fighting Ebola. Their commitment is admirable, reassuring. These men and women understand what needs to be done and they get on with it.  They appreciate that Ebola is everyone’s business, the collective responsibility of every one of us.

Disappointingly, Abbott appears determined to ignore Australia’s responsibility as an international citizen. What is he playing at? His cautiously timid response contrasts markedly with his other forays into international relations such as his recent hairy-chested response to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin. No shirt-fronting here. Just a quick side step or perhaps a duck and weave, keeping his head down.

Abbott’s response is also in dramatic contrast to his eagerly pledging Australian Military support to the United States call for a joint mission to fight ISIS in the Iraq and Syria. He made the pledge before being asked. Despite having no clear strategy, carrying high risks and with no Iraqi legal indemnity in place except for a loose agreement on a legal framework, Australia has agreed to commit half a billion dollars a year at least to the ‘humanitarian mission.’

Abbott has been quick to fend off critics. He counters suggestions Australia is not doing enough to fight Ebola, by working the responsibility angle: he claims it would be “irresponsible” to send personnel to West Africa without ‘an iron-clad guarantee’ that any health worker requiring treatment after becoming infected with the lethal virus would receive it from one of Australia’s political allies.

Health Minister Peter Dutton argues that an infected person would not survive the 30-hour flight to Australia if they were to contract the virus in West Africa. Government officials claim it could take up to a week to evacuate an infected person to Australia. It hasn’t stopped the volunteers. And it ignores potential medical care for infected personnel partnerships in other countries such as Cuba.

On the face of it, Australia’s response is damning. Australia’s donation of 18 million dollars, is ‘lethally inadequate’ according to Médecins Sans Frontières International, Dr Joanne Liu who contends that ‘The fight against Ebola is like a war and we need to send a clear chain of command.’

Some wars, it seems, are more popular than others to Australia’s leaders. The Australian government is perfectly willing to commit at least half a billion a year on air strikes and military advisers which are guaranteed to ensure the deaths of innocent men, women and children in Iraq. It is willing to give millions to Cambodia with no strings attached to induce that country to take asylum seekers. It is prepared to spend billions on off-shore camps for asylum seekers. Yet it baulks at rolling up its sleeves and fighting Ebola.

All of this begs the question of Australia’s priorities. Our present stance is both unrealistic, unsustainable and unworthy.  We pride ourselves on our national mythos of capability and mateship. We are proud to take our part on world agencies. If we are genuinely deserving of our seat on the UN Security Council or our place in G20, however, we need to put up or shut up.

The Ebola outbreak is our worst on record. 9000 people have been infected. More than half those affected have died. On 8 August, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described the epidemic as “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times”.

The UN has given the world a deadline of 60 days to get the disease under control or face “unprecedented situation for which we don’t have a plan”, warning Africa could see up to 10,000 new Ebola cases a week if the disease is not contained.

Australia needs to take its head out of the sand and act in a way that equates with its responsibilities as a world citizen.