The federal government’s decision to fund an Ebola treatment clinic in Sierra Leone has provoked a diverse range of responses.
While the plan has been largely welcomed, concerns remain about why it took this long for Australia to offer logistical support.
The Australian health company tasked with managing Australia’s contribution to Ebola-ravaged west Africa has offered further details of the government’s plan.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced an additional $24 million for the global response to Ebola.
$20 million will staff a 100 bed treatment centre in Sierra Leone, to be built by Britain and run by a private Canberra-based company, Aspen Medical.
Chief executive of Aspen, Glenn Keys, says within 24 hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, 350 people had already registered to volunteer.
“There is a very strong interest from Australians to be there. We want to be able to tap into that. I think it is great Australians are there and it is great Australians want to go. I know as an Australian company we are proud to be there. What we need to do is make sure we have the right people. It is no use we have 20 doctors when in actual fact what we really need is 50 nurses.”
Mr Keys says many of the volunteers will be clinicians, doctors, nurses, environmental health workers and logisticians.
He says Australians would account for up to 20 per cent of a team of about 200.
“This isn’t a static number. We will be there for several months. We will be rotating crews through all the time. You do that for a number of reasons but critically because you don’t want people to become fatigued, or make mistakes. We are asking people to take time out of their lives and schedule to go and assist. While that’s really important, we realise they have full-time jobs back here. We will be rotating several crews through. So there could be quite large numbers of Australians rotate through over the period of the deployment which is still to be defined but it will be in the region of six to eight months.”
Mr Keys says the first deployment of Australians could be on the ground within days.
And he’s stressed the importance of engaging staff locally and from within the region.
“When Australia leaves at the end of the crisis and it is ready to withdraw, we will have actually left a legacy, so there will be a capability and capacity of trained staff that wasn’t there at the start.”
More than 4,000 people have died from Ebola since the start of the year, with Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea the worst affected.
Bobby Whitfield is from a group known as the Federation of Liberian Communities in Australia
Mr Whitfield says he hopes the goodwill shown to Sierra Leone will also be extended to Guinea and Liberia.
“Tackling the situation across the entire west Africa, equitably distributing resources to address the needs across the three countries that are heaviliy impacted by Ebola is a way forward.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has also welcomed the plan, but questions why it took the government so long to respond.
Mr Shorten has told the ABC Australia can go further with its response.
“The government has sat on its hands. One of the key issues is that the medical experts, AMA Australian Medical Association and the Nurses’ Association, are saying there’s lots of volunteers who want to go over and help in west Africa. One of the big problems the west African countries is facing is they lack the trained medical staff to deal with this Ebola disease and contain it. I don’t understand why the government is not putting more steps in place to make it easier for volunteers to provide assistance.”
It’s a view shared by Australian Greens Senator Richard Di Natale.
“It’s been shameful the Australian response. The delays have cost people their life. It’s all very well and good to run around talking about shirtfronting Russian Presidents or talking tough on terrorism, talking about evil death cults but this is as much a security and economic threat as it is a health and humanitarian catastrophe.”
Senator di Natale says he is awaiting clearance from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to travel to west Africa.
He says he plans to see for himself the work that will be undertaken by Aspen and whether Australia’s contribution so far has been sufficient.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation says Australia and Canada must justify their recent decisions to suspend migration from Ebola-hit west African countries.
Australia became the first Western nation to suspend migration from affected nations last week, saying it was a bid to prevent the virus reaching its shores.
But the WHO says any country putting in place measures that interfere with international travel need to justify the move from what they call a “scientific and public perspective”.
Jeremiah Temple, from the Sierra Leone Australia Community of Victoria, says the measures are concerning.
“We are completely worried that this particular outbreak is no fault of ours. How could the government find measures to restrict us from moving around? Yes, there should be a proper way of quarantining people but we don’t have any problem here, in a nutshell.”