Twirling towards freedom

On Ebola, where the bloody hell are we?

Whether because of design, incompetence, ignorance or a complete absence of empathy, Australia’s response to the Ebola outbreak has been wholly inadequate at best and laughable at worst.

Last week, Senator Jacqui Lambie asked Defence Force Vice Chief Ray Griggs during Senate estimates whether “Australia’s enemies could attack our country or military using the virus, for example with suicide agents who are affected with the disease, or have access to bodily fluids containing the disease.” The conflation of Ebola with terrorism first surfaced on a satirical news site a month ago.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has also fanned fears of Ebola’s spread, as part of what has been described within the Coalition as a grab for power by a man with an “out of control ego”. According to unnamed sources within Morrison’s cabinet, the minister has proposed mandatory quarantine measures for anyone arriving in Australia from affected regions of West Africa, and suggested that such measures would be best undertaken by Operation Sovereign Borders. Morrison has dismissed the claims that he might be over-reaching as “conspiracy nonsense.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has appeared largely unmoved by the plight of West Africa, and has declared that no Australian medical teams would be deployed to the region. According to Health Minister Peter Dutton, there’s a danger that any Australian infected in West Africa may not survive the journey home, which could take up to a week. Countries that are almost as far away from West Africa, like Japan and Korea, have reached the same conclusion. Japan has, however, promised to provide $40 million in aid. Australia has only contributed $18 million, which is less than we’ve spent this year on public “You will not make Australia home” campaigns directed at asylum seekers, less than the cost of Australia’s bid for the FIFA World Cup, and less than the incentive we paid Disney to ensure that the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie would be shot here. 

Nigeria’s successful containment of Ebola’s spread has shown that a quick, competent, prudent and sympathetic response is the most successful way to prevent the epidemic from reaching catastrophic levels. “We can’t just cut ourselves off from West Africa,” Barack Obama warned. “Trying to seal off an entire region of the world – if that were even possible – could actually make the situation worse.”

Much has been made of Ebola being allowed to gain a foothold in West Africa because of Western complacency over a virus which has spared wealthy, predominantly white, Western countries. Comparisons have been made to AIDS, which was largely ignored, first as a black disease, then as a gay one – in other words, not something for the majority to worry about. But the spectre of a global Ebola pandemic becomes ever more real, with cases now diagnosed within the United States.

The number of Ebola cases in West Africa has reached 10,000, while the Australian Medical Association has criticised the government’s response to the crisis. Britain and the United States have, once more, requested that the Australian government dispatch medical officers to Sierra Leone and Liberia to help combat the outbreak. “While we drag our feet on this issue,” AMA president Professor Brian Owler said yesterday, “while the government continues to roll out the tired old excuses about why we can't respond, unfortunately people are going to continue to die.”

These excuses have been hashed over once more, in a high-level meeting between Abbott, Morrison and Dutton yesterday afternoon, when the three “gamed through” and “weighed up” how Australia might respond to this humanitarian crisis. “We’re obviously looking at every scenario,” Dutton told the ABC today. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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