Speeches and Transcripts

AMA Transcript - Australia’s response and preparedness to the Ebola Crisis in West Africa

Transcript: AMA President, A/Prof Brian Owler, 2UE Sydney, 24 October 2014

Subject: Australia’s response and preparedness to the Ebola Crisis in West Africa

STUART BOCKING: Brian Owler is the President of the Australian Medical Association, he's on the line, Brian Owler good morning.

BRIAN OWLER: Morning Stuart.

STUART BOCKING: Think you would have seen this playing out, this set of estimates yesterday. Are we any closer to knowing what is going on here in terms of Australia's preparedness to assist in this part of the world?

BRIAN OWLER: Well it has been very interesting to see that the requests have been made now for some time. I think our readiness is still in question. We've now been told that there are 16 or so personnel that are trained and ready to go. That was news that seemed to come out of the blue given what the Minister for Health and others seem to be saying about their willingness to send people. Now I think it's really important to clarify that the AMA and other groups have never said that we should be sending people that don't want to go. These have to be volunteers because it is dangerous work, but we do know that there are volunteers willing to go and we have about 30 people over there with non-government organisations at the moment. The issue’s always been about the contingency should an Australian health care worker become infected with Ebola.

STUART BOCKING: That's right, which I can understand that would be Tony Abbott's concern, yes, we have concerns for what's happening in West Africa but you don't want to be sending people into harm's way. But given we now know the US has sought our assistance, the UK has sought our assistance over and above the requests from West Africa, surely I'm right in saying that those countries would have given some thought to the fact that we are many, many hours of flight time away from even the US or the UK that there would be some sort of contingency plan in place if we had people on our behalf working over there and contracted Ebola?

BRIAN OWLER: Well, that's right. I mean we are getting sick of the Government talking about this 30 hour flight back from West Africa. No one's ever suggested that's a reasonable way to deal with the situation if someone became infected. But what we do know is that the UK is sending about 750 personnel. They're building a treatment facility on the outskirts of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, that is dedicated to the treatment of international health care workers. Now that's been known for weeks and you would understand that, you know, the UK is saying to Australia please come and help us, then there would be an expectation that that treatment facility would be available for Australian health care workers.

STUART BOCKING: Well, that was the point I made this morning. I mean, I can understand and I've supported Tony Abbott with those concerns, but now that we know requests have come from the US and the UK, that would seem to remove that final impediment wouldn't it?

BRIAN OWLER: Absolutely and the US are doing the same in Liberia, they've...

STUART BOCKING: In Monrovia haven't they?

BRIAN OWLER: Exactly and so there are contingencies there and of course the non-government organisations have been dealing with this problem for quite some time and they haven't found it an issue so, you know, I think some of the excuses have been used – yes, everyone has concerns about people going over there and their safety but I think it's such a serious humanitarian crisis that, you know, this is an opportunity for the globe to stand up and for Australia to play its part and to finally say, you know, when has been a problem whether it be West Africa or anywhere else, we have actually acted in a coordinated way. We've saved lives and we've stepped up as an international community to confront the problem. And while we've got some people that are willing to do like the UK, the US, even Cuba and China for goodness sake, I think Australia needs to be doing exactly same thing and we do have people who are volunteering and ready to go.

STUART BOCKING: Well, tell me which is more dangerous - Iraq or West Africa?

BRIAN OWLER: Well, that's right and, you know, the willingness to jump into Iraq, I mean we've had people over in Iraq even before they were necessarily requested. I mean there's an extraordinarily willingness to get involved in the Iraq/Syria situation, less willing to be involved in a humanitarian crisis of similar proportions and...

STUART BOCKING: It's hard to understand the difference. Now, again, I'm all for what we're doing in Iraq, this is a global problem, but in many respects so is the Ebola crisis and yet our response is different and I don't understand it because often the criticism is, as I said earlier on, is that we're too much in lock step with the US, too often we're quick to jump into the arms of the US and support them in whatever it is. What do you think it is that has been the stumbling block on this one?

BRIAN OWLER: Well, look, 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. I think people acknowledge that there is a danger and volunteers, you know, the NGOs they all know that there's a danger and so they accept that willingly. Now I think maybe they thought the problem would go away and, you know, it's one of these sort of fringe problems. But this is a massive humanitarian crisis and when you have people like the WHO talking about 1.4 million infections potentially, 10,000 cases per week, those guys don't use those sorts of terms and those sorts of figures lightly. They don't scare people. If they're starting to talk those figures, they are genuinely concerned and the idea that this would just be a problem with West Africa, we could see it potentially expanding into other areas of Africa and then, of course, other areas of the globe as well. And while it remains unlikely we will get a case here, I don't think we can be too complacent.

STUART BOCKING: Look, I appreciate your time this morning, it does raise a number of interesting questions and I appreciate your thoughts on it, Brian, thank you.

BRIAN OWLER: Thanks Stuart.


24 October 2014


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