Grattan on Friday: Tony, pick up the phone to Barack on Ebola

Tony Abbott was quick to offer assistance to the US for the action against IS, but has not been so forthcoming on helping with Ebola. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Here’s a thought for Tony Abbott. Why doesn’t he ring up Barack Obama and David Cameron and ask them to help remove the impediment that’s apparently stopping the Australian government providing assistance on the ground for the West African Ebola crisis?

If it is really beyond the wit of officialdom to make arrangements to evacuate any Australian who contracted the virus, surely this would be a logical step, especially as Obama was pressing nations this week for more effort.

Abbott was quick to offer every assistance to the US for the action against Islamic State. Nothing was too much trouble for Australia.

Yet everything seems too much trouble when it comes to the West African crisis, which Obama has called “a top national security priority”.

The government’s attitude is not “how can we find ways to give greater help?” (beyond the $18 million Australia has donated) but “it’s too hard”.

The government and its officials keep talking about the 30 hours it would take to bring an infected person back.

“We don’t believe … an Australian health worker put into harm’s way in West Africa would survive the 30-hour flight back to Australia to be repatriated to receive medical support if they were to contract the virus,” Health Minister Peter Dutton said on Thursday.

This is a furphy, and the government knows it. No one would be contemplating an evacuation to Australia, so why talk about it? Any evacuations would be to countries much closer.

It is also being said that other countries are not willing to take – or guarantee to take - Australian nationals.

Non-government organisations with health workers on the ground – 30 Australians are volunteering at the moment – have emergency evacuation arrangements. But these third country arrangements are “not secure”, Dutton said.

The government wants arrangements providing an “absolute guarantee”.

Abbott sent many Australian personnel to Ukraine where there could be no “absolute guarantee” they’d not get caught in the crossfire of a war zone. They were simply given all the protection the government could reasonably provide.

The PM said on Thursday it would be irresponsible of the government to “order Australian personnel into this very dangerous situation if we didn’t have effective risk mitigation strategies in place, and at the moment there is no way of doing that”.

The reference to “ordering” people is misleading. Unless we were sending the military (which incidentally would be useful), the health workers going in any government contingent should and would be volunteers.

One is left with the strong impression the government would simply prefer not to get involved on the ground in Africa.

It is condemning Labor for saying more should be done and for doubting its claim that evacuation can’t be organised. But the opposition is not saying anything that isn’t being said by the Australian Medical Association and some 113 professors of health who wrote to Abbott this week.

Interestingly, Abbott said Australia was preparing to respond if there was any outbreak in our region. “Let’s face it, there are some countries in our region whose public health systems are not as strong as Australia’s and were Ebola to break out there, we would expect to be asked for assistance,” he said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the Ebola crisis a few days ago.

After officials said attempts to get evacuation assurances had hit a brick wall, American ambassador John Berry said in a statement on Thursday: “the United States is working urgently to devise a system whereby the international community – through the World Health Organisation – can offer Ebola responders quick, effective medevac.

"We are working closely with our European and Australian partners to provide more medevac options and treatment facilities for international responders if they become infected.”

His tone seemed markedly different to that of Australian ministers and officials.

The head of the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, Anthony Banbury, this week told the UN Security Council (of which Australia is a member) that the steps being taken by the international community were not nearly enough to deal with the situation.

Speaking in a video link from Ghana he warned, “Ebola got a head start on us. It is far ahead of us. It is running faster than us, and it is winning the race. We either stop Ebola now or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

More than 4000 people have already died out of some 9000 cases. Banbury said that by the start of December UNMEER could have new caseloads of about 10,000 per week, which meant 7000 beds would be needed. The mission expected to have 4300 beds in treatment centres by then but on present plans staffing would fall short.

Next month leaders of the G20 will be in Brisbane. Ebola will come up in their discussions at some point; the importance of its containment is likely to feature in the communique.

Ebola is potentially a dangerous economic issue. An article in the New York Times this week reported that over the weekend “the topic of Ebola was front and centre at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington”.

Financial analysts have sought to estimate the potential effect on the global economy, the article said. “The most authoritative model, at the moment, suggests a potential economic drain of as much as [$US] 32.6 billion by the end of 2015” if the epidemic spreads beyond Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone into neighbouring African countries, according to a recent study by the World Bank (a worst case scenario).

Let’s hope by the time the Prime Minister hosts the G20 leaders the government, albeit belatedly, will have accepted the need to get an official Australian presence on the ground in West Africa and figured out a way to do so.