The COVID-19 crisis has caused Australians to examine our hospital system with one question in mind: can it handle the coronavirus surge? There has been fierce debate about whether doubling our ventilators from 2,200 to over 4,000 is sufficient.
Australia currently has one ventilator and one Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed per 11,000 people. We have one doctor for every 285 Australians and one nurse for every 78.
Imagine living in a country where there was one ICU bed per 100,000 people and one ventilator per million people. Where there is one doctor per 16,666 people and one nurse per 1,754. Imagine living in a country where at least 3.5 million people did not have access to even one doctor in their district and where only two people in 100 could wash their hands in their home or somewhere close to their home.
This country, Papua New Guinea, is only five kilometres from Australia, a nation of 10 million people already incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to high rates of poverty, poor nutrition and pre-existing health conditions such as tuberculosis.
As naturally as we are focused on ensuring Australia weathers the crisis, we must not lose sight of the immense challenge facing our Pacific friends.
A real friend is one that can be relied upon in a crisis. During Australia’s summer bushfire crisis, countries like Fiji and Papua New Guinea sent members of their defence forces to Australia to help with the emergency response. Governments and ordinary people in small countries like Vanuatu and Palau donated to Australian bushfire victims.
This is the time we can demonstrate our friendship to the Pacific island nations.
Our Pacific neighbours are already facing a crippling economic crisis due to COVID-19 and should the infection reach pandemic levels in these islands it would have an immense health impact.
Australia needs to respond to the health and economic challenges through increasing our development assistance to the Pacific, and it should not be done at the expense of other regions as has occurred previously.
However, firstly we should acknowledge the fact that decisions by the Australian government over the last six years has hurt the region’s preparedness to tackle COVID-19.
Within the Pacific, health aid has been cut by 10% over the last five years. In some nations it has been much more extreme. Health assistance to Fiji has been cut by 22%, Samoa 36%, Solomon Islands 13% and Tuvalu by 75%.
I acknowledge and welcome the $22 million in COVID-19 aid the government has allocated to PNG. Nevertheless, this aid funding is a redirection of existing aid funding rather than additional funds and pales in comparison to the $260 million in health cut from the global aid budget since 2014/15.
More can and should be done. Australia must increase its health aid spending to the Pacific region, focusing especially on ramping up technical assistance and medical equipment. Should the virus reach pandemic levels in our neighbouring countries, we should also send medical personnel to help contain the outbreak.
Beyond our basic altruistic obligation to help fellow human beings, do we really want outbreaks of the virus exploding in countries as close as five kilometres from Australia as we enter the recovery phase?
There is a third justification for this intervention, which is if we do not make the “Pacific Step Up” a “COVID-19 Step Up”, our Pacific friends will look to other nations to assist them in their time of crisis. This is only natural and is already occurring.
Only in the last few days have we seen reports of the Solomon Islands government obtaining assistance from China to carry out COVID-19 tests locally rather than sending samples to Australia. Furthermore, unable to obtain the necessary equipment from France, China is sending a plane with ventilators, millions of face masks and other PPE to French Polynesia.
Our step up on COVID-19 in the Pacific must also address the crippling economic impact. Tourism has been severely impacted, an industry that contributes 40% of GDP to Vanuatu and Fiji for example.
We also have Pacific seasonal workers suffering here right now due to the hit the Australian economy is experiencing due to COVID-19. In addition, many workers’ contracts are due to finish but it is unclear if there is further work available and how they will cover their living costs if travel restrictions prevent them from returning home.
The first and most important responsibility of governments at all levels must be protecting the welfare of Australians.
But just as Australians are also supporting people in their wider neighbourhoods, so our national government needs to lend a helping hand to Australia’s immediate international neighbourhood, the Pacific.
The Prime Minister describes the relationship between Australia and the Pacific as one of family. He uses the Fijian word for family, vuvale, to describe the partnership Australia is building with Pacific island nations.
How we look after our families in times of crisis is all-important – and how Australia responds in the Pacific to the COVID-19 crisis will be critical for our future standing and relationships in this region.