Ebola: Australia not to send health workers to Africa

November 05, 2014 11:01 pm | Updated November 16, 2021 05:52 pm IST

The field hospital in Sierra Leone will be staffed mainly by local health care workers. Photo: AP

The field hospital in Sierra Leone will be staffed mainly by local health care workers. Photo: AP

In what can be best described as half measure, Australia has assured financial aid — $20 million over the next eight months — to manage and run a 100-bed British field hospital in Sierra Leone but has shied away from sending health workers to Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, the three West African countries that have been ravaged by Ebola disease.

“We are not sending people over. We are ensuring that there is a 100-bed treatment centre that’s staffed and run in Sierra Leone,” Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.

“The Ebola treatment facility will be staffed mainly by local health care workers, supported by a contingent of international staff, including some Australian volunteers,” notes a government press release.

Elaborating on the possible role to be played by Australian health workers, Mr. Abbott said, “We anticipate about 240 staff are required to do the job… Some will be international and it's quite possible, even likely, that some will be Australian.”

So much for his stress on local health workers, the fact is that Sierra Leone had just 100 doctors for a population of six million at the time Ebola struck the country. Hence it is not clear how the 100-bed facility needing 240 workers can be staffed mainly by local health care workers.

The Australian government has stayed away from even running the treatment facility. It would be outsourced to a health service provider. “Discussions are underway with Aspen Medical, an Australian company,” notes the government release.

This has been Australia’s way of responding to mounting international and national pressure to get involved in containing the disease at the source. Right from the beginning, Australia had made it unequivocally clear that it would provide financial aid but not humanitarian support.

Australia’s obstinate refusal to send health volunteers to the three countries was on the grounds that it would take nearly 30 hours to fly an infected worker back to Australia and hence impossible to get the worker back on time for treatment. It wanted an “iron-clad” guarantee that countries nearer to West Africa would receive the patient and provide medical support.

Despite getting “credible assurances for in-country treatment and medical evacuation” of its volunteers to Britain for treatment in case they get infected, Australia has refused to send health workers to West Africa.

It is worth recalling that in mid-September, Australia was one of 130 countries to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution calling on all countries to send aid and health workers to fight the virus at the source.

By far, the U.S., Britain and France have been in the forefront in fighting the disease at the source. While the U.S. has taken on a lead responsibility in Liberia, Britain has done the same in Sierra Leone and France in Guinea.

The U.S. alone has committed 3,000 troops to combat Ebola and will set up 17 field hospitals with 100 beds each in Liberia. According to NHS, Britain has committed to delivering 700 treatment beds in the coming months. It will also help roll out 200 community care centres where people suspected of being infected with Ebola can be tested. This will help in isolating the infected people from the rest of community and thus help contain the spread.

But less known is the role of China in containing the Ebola disease. Already about 200 medical workers and advisers from China are present in the three countries.

According to Science , “in the next few weeks, another 480 medical personnel from China’s People’s Liberation Army will arrive in Liberia to build and staff a 100-bed treatment centre.” China has undertaken several other measures like setting up quarantine centres and testing corpses to see if they are infected. Its financial assistance, till date, amounts to $123 million. China has huge interests in Africa and is the continent’s largest trading partner.

According to WHO, so far, nearly 13,700 people have been infected with Ebola and nearly 5,000 have died. By October, Sierra Leone had nearly 3,000 reported cases of infected people.

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