Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Australia pledges A$24m to fight Ebola

Jamie Smyth in Sydney
Australia has bowed to months of international pressure and agreed to provide an extra A$24m (US$21m) to help fight the spread of Ebola in the west African country of Sierra Leone but stopped short of committing Australian healthcare workers.


Canberra has faced criticism at home and abroad for its failure to deploy medical staff to west Africa and a decision last week to become the first nation to stop issuing visas to people from Ebola-affected countries.

Australia has balked at deploying medical personnel to west Africa over fears that staff infected with the disease would face a dangerous 30-hour evacuation flight before they could receive treatment. But following requests from the UK and the US, it has signed a A$20m contract with Australian company Aspen to manage a 100-bed unit in Sierra Leone, which is likely to have Australian staff. It is spending a further A$4m on logistical support to train health staff in countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Papua New Guinea. Australia had already committed A$18m to help tackle Ebola.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, said on Wednesday British authorities had agreed to treat Australian volunteers if they became infected.
Aid agencies have criticised the slow international response to the Ebola crisis, which has killed about 5,000 people, with most of the fatalities in the west African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The World Bank estimates the economic cost of the unfolding Ebola epidemic in west Africa at between $2.2bn and $7.4bn in 2014 and $1.6bn and $25.2bn in 2015, depending on the spread of the disease.
In September G20 finance ministers discussed the emerging Ebola crisis at their meeting in Cairns. A communiqué issued by ministers expressed their concern at “the human cost of the Ebola epidemic” and called for “a co-ordinated international response”.

But on Wednesday Mr Abbott said it was unlikely the crisis would be placed on the agenda of next week’s G20 leaders’ summit in Brisbane, saying it is not a global economic emergency.
Since becoming chair of the G20 in December, Australia has reduced the group’s focus to a few key priority economic issues in an attempt to revitalise an organisation that had been accused of becoming a talking shop.

“If the Ebola issue is raised at the G20, obviously it would be discussed,” said Mr Abbott. “But my very, very strong concern is to try to keep the G20 as an economic forum, not as a security forum, not as a public health forum. That’s what I want it to be: an economic forum.”
Tristram Sainsbury, a G20 research fellow at the Lowy Institute, said the Abbott government would prefer to keep the agenda focused on its key priority areas. “The Australian presidency has earned kudos so far by keeping the agenda of the G20 tightly focused on economic issues and would prefer this to continue,” he said.

The opposition Labor party has accused the government of neglecting the fight against Ebola. On Wednesday Bill Shorten, Labor leader, said the new plan was welcome but overdue. It did not go far enough, he said.
“There are many Australians who wish to volunteer to use their skills – committed and capable doctors and nurses who wish to help in the fight against Ebola,” he told reporters.
Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, has strongly criticised restrictions on travel imposed by Australia and Canada, describing them as ineffective.

The Australian Medical Association had previously criticised the failure of the government to send medical teams to fight Ebola in west Africa.
“I mean there’s an extraordinary willingness to get involved in the Iraq-Syria situation – [but] less [willingness] to be involved in a humanitarian crisis of similar proportions,” Brian Owler, AMA president, told Fairfax Radio.

“I really can’t understand it. I’m not sure whether there’s some political problem where they’re worried about the consequences should someone become infected and the political consequences of that.”
Mr Owler said on Wednesday he hoped Australian medical personnel would work at the Aspen treatment facility.
Aspen has been operating a medical clinic in Sierra Leone for several months.

Glenn Keys, managing director of Aspen, told ABC news that more than 130 Australians had already applied to volunteer in Sierra Leone to fight Ebola.

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