House debates

Thursday, 2 October 2014



12:36 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The World Health Organization said last week:

The Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa is the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times.

As a generous, wealthy nation, Australia must redouble its efforts and give a rapid response to this emerging crisis.

I am very pleased to acknowledge that the government today has contributed another $10 million, further to the previous $8 million contributed, to help tackle this crisis. But it is not just money that is needed at this time. In question time yesterday, the Minister for Foreign Affairs again refused to offer support for skilled, experienced Australians who are willing and able to fight this crisis. Of course there are significant risks for health workers, and we absolutely need to ensure that we are able to address those concerns. But this is a crisis of such magnitude that we have to take up the challenge. Instead of seeing all of the problems that prevent us from acting, we have to see them as challenges that can be solved. Instead of warning about the difficulties of evacuating health workers, we have to maximise our efforts to find a workable solution.

The dimensions of this crisis are staggering. So far, 6½ thousand people have contracted the illness and more than 3,000 people have died. But this crisis is growing exponentially. On some estimates, 1.4 million people may be affected by January next year. The world community, in recent weeks, has recognised the gravity of this crisis and the urgent need for a response. The United States and the United Kingdom have already committed medical teams to the region. President Obama said last week that the Ebola outbreak was a 'national security priority' for the United States. He says it has to rise to the same level of urgency for the rest of the world. He said:

… it is unacceptable if, because of lack of preparedness and planning and global coordination, people are dying when they don't have to.

Australia co-sponsored a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on 18 September which called on all nations to:

… facilitate the delivery of assistance, including qualified, specialized and trained personnel and supplies …

The resolution was co-sponsored by a record 131 countries. But, from what we have been told by the government, unfortunately Australia is not assisting with qualified, specialised and trained personnel or supplies.

The foreign minister said yesterday that the government would not put Australian health workers at risk in the absence of credible evacuation plans. It is quite right not to put our people at risk, but we must find those evacuation plans. We must demand solutions instead of focusing on problems. Around a dozen Australians are already on the ground in West Africa working with non-government organisations and others dealing with the crisis. We have to negotiate with our international partners to set up arrangements for any Australian personnel in the event that they are needed.

Today the United Kingdom is hosting a pledging conference to get countries and international donors to pledge beds, medical staff and money to help tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone. As late as yesterday, Australia were not able to confirm whether we would be represented and what we would be pledging, so I am very pleased to hear about the extra $10 million today. As many health experts have said, the spread of Ebola is preventable, and health workers can be very well protected with the right infection control techniques. Our infection control techniques are indeed second to none. Medecins Sans Frontieres say our capability is unique. If we fail to act now, the consequences will only grow in seriousness.

The Executive Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Australia, Paul McPhun, says he wonders why the foreign minister will not, at the very least, pledge to send Australian volunteers to the region as soon as medivac agreements are reached with partner countries. MSF is the largest NGO working in West Africa. Mr McPhun said:

… we are not asking for financial support, we are asking the government to evaluate Australia's emergency medical capacity and mobilise it on the ground in West Africa.

The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Brian Owler, said:

The AMA is calling on the Government to urgently coordinate the recruitment and deployment of volunteer doctors and other … professionals to West Africa, and provide ongoing practical support such as protective and medical equipment and supplies, transport and accommodation.

If the international community pulls together, the Ebola outbreak can be contained. But the moment is passing. If we wait, the task will become harder; it will become more difficult. The illness will become worse. That is why Australia must significantly increase our efforts and do it now.