Ebola: Shameful Australian Response


US aid arrives in Liberia: Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams and U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac (left to right under the umbrella) speak to Project Superintendent, James Nebleeh, at Samuel K. Doe stadium, Monrovia: pic courtesy US Army Africa

There’s a petition on change dot org, pleading with Julie Bishop to deploy Australian military-trained experts to West Africa to battle the Ebola outbreak. It has approaching 38,000 signatures.

The official response so far is that the ADF can’t do it: not enough trained personnel and equipment to go safely (scroll to end for updates from around the web).

The first reason is that we simply do not have enough military medical doctors and nurses to send overseas.  … The second key problem is the lack of dedicated military assets. While the ADF retains the use of four C-17 Globemaster aircraft that have been used to recover injured Australian personnel from conflict zones, these planes do not have the capacity to transport people infected with a highly contagious disease.

This is the right answer to the wrong question. In the first place, local governments are asking for people – proper trained medical professionals – not necessarily soldiers – who are in desperately short supply. Volunteer nurses and medics are clamouring to go. Governments are also asking for logistical support and supplies. So far the government has countered with an offer of cash, recently upped to $18m. This is dwarfed by the response from the US and the UK.

Save the Children and Medecins Sans Frontieres, while welcoming the additional aid money offered on Thursday, criticised the Australian government’s refusal to do more, as other world leaders deploy troops and medical experts in their thousands. The US has committed up to 3000 troops while the UK will spend $185 million on its mission, including supporting 700 Ebola treatment beds across Sierra Leone. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore told Radio National Breakfast the Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT) should be deployed, as well as troops and equipment.

“The contribution of the $18 million is fantastic but what we do know [is] that the NGOs [non-government organisations] on the ground just don’t have enough personnel,” he said.

The AUSMAT teams have doctors, nurses, paramedics, logisticians and allied health staff such as radiographers and pharmacists who can be sent at short notice to a disaster zone.

“They are extraordinarily well trained to deal with issues as widespread as the Philippines crisis, or this kind of spread of virus,” he said.

“This is the appropriate response along with having support from volunteers that they can manage, but you can’t do that without logistics support.”

Still the government sits on its hands, taking the rather selfish moral high ground of refusing to put Australians in harms way, especially as there’s no way to evacuate them back to Australia safely. Once again, this is the answer to the wrong question.

It is true that there are very few medivac planes with the necessary capability: the US has two and is currently equipping a third. But the more important issue is this: we don’t want to be bringing infected patients to Australia. Quite apart from the stresses on a very sick patient of such a long flight, the object of the exercise is to keep Ebola out, not bring it in.

The UN Secretary General is desperately pleading for a massive increase in help.

“We need a 20-fold resource mobilisation,” he said. “We need at least a 20-fold surge in assistance – mobile laboratories, vehicles, helicopters, protective equipment, trained medical personnel, and medevac capacities.”

The USA is sending hospital ships to the region to help care for their own personnel on the spot, and as such a close ally, could hardly refuse to treat Australian personnel. They are also rushing fully equipped mobile field hospitals to the region to treat local patients. We could buy and ship some of these with US help. No medivac necessary.

Cuba, a nation of 11 million people, with a GDP of US$6,051 per capita, shames our response.165 Cuban health workers arrived in Sierra Leone last week, the first batch of a total of 461. Australian GDP per capita is US$67,436 – ten times as much. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg alone has given US$25m.

The real and pressing need is for well-equipped field hospitals and the trained medical personnel to staff them. It seems churlish in the extreme to refuse to provide our skilled volunteers when there are so few in the world to go round.

We should form a Task Force Ebola in consultation with the Americans, and get supplies, equipment and personnel out there as fast as possible. Because if we don’t go to it with all the resources we can muster, it will one day soon come to us.

Better to spend money on this, surely, than on expensive, largely ineffective and token bombing in Iraq?


SENDING HOSPITALS: The UK Navy is sending a floating hospital ship. The UK, US and France are setting up treatment centres in West Africa to treat any of their personnel who become infected, but these facilities are not yet in operation.

NO-ONE WILL TREAT AUSSIES: Australian officials have sought assurances from the US, UK and some European Union member states that if Australians were to be sent to West Africa, anyone infected could be treated in one of those countries. To date, no partner country has been willing to give an ironclad guarantee that they would treat an Australian worker.

FACEBOOK GIVES MORE THAN OZ: Australia’s contribution to date has been limited to donations totalling $18 million, a contribution that was overtaken on Wednesday by a donation by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan of $US25 million ($US28.7 million).

Labor supports the government’s financial contribution, which has been welcomed by the United Nations, but says money alone is not enough.

It is calling for the government to deploy Australian Medical Assistance Teams, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and logisticians, which were sent to the Philippines last year following typhoon Haiyan.

US SAYS ‘DO MORE’: US Secretary of State John Kerry said a few rich countries were providing most of the money and doing most of the work to tackle the outbreak, and the load needed to be shared more evenly.  Mr Kerry said more countries needed to provide resources such as mobile laboratories, treatment units and medivac capacity as well as non-medical support such as telecommunications and generators.

PM SAYS WE MAY NEED TO HELP ASIA: The prime minister said Australian hospitals may be called on to provide back up support if there was outbreak in Asia Pacific countries which had weaker public health systems.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)