NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
Could Australia cope with a natural disaster?
, September 24, 2005
Australia is ill-prepared for any sort of natural disaster, such as the predicted bird flu epidemic, warns former senior Commonwealth public servant, Colin Teese. Worst of all, the Federal Government is misguidedly dismantling Australia's strict quarantine standards in the name of ever more trade liberalisation.If the recent tragedy in New Orleans tells us anything, it is that governments can't leave risk management - as it relates to public policy - to chance. When only the government can protect citizens from natural or induced disasters, then they must do so.
Terrorism is one obvious example of such a circumstance. Here governments are in no doubt about their responsibilities. But there are other problems of a least equal or greater significance or probability, where governments have less readily acknowledged their responsibilities. New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina come quickly to mind.
The US Government and, indeed, the President himself are being criticised for the part they are said to have played - or not played - in the events leading up to and following the New Orleans tragedy.
Those wanting to defend governments from these kinds of charges may want to lament the fact that the risk management of public policy has been politicised. If it has, governments should not be surprised.Responsibility
It may go against a philosophy of small government, but it is what communities demand. It even extends into the private sector. Any manager will tell you the lengths to which business must today go to accept responsibility for risk.
Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the US Government, when it comes to risk management what we in Australia should be asking ourselves is whether our government is doing enough.
Just possibly, our government's job might be easier than that of the US. At least up to now, our continent has been spared some of the regularity and magnitude of natural disasters (apart from floods and drought) which tend to befall the United States and some other parts of the world.
Yet, there should be no complacency about what might await us. Those of us with a sense of history will recall the cyclone that devastated Darwin in the 1970s and, much earlier, in the wake of World War I, the devastating influenza epidemic which, when the world's population was much smaller, killed 50 million people in about 18 months.
As it happens, right now the possibility of a new influenza outbreak (Avian flu) is confronting the world with a threat greater than terrorism. In fact, the prestigious US published journal Foreign Affairs
(July/August 2005) regards the possibility of the spread of this disease so seriously that it devoted almost the entirety of its latest issue to what it calls "the new pandemic".
Its writers have drawn on expert opinion. They remind their readers that there is a well held belief, stemming from the most informed circles within the World Health Organization, that there exists a high possibility that avian flu will become human-to-human transmittable. If that happens, so the view goes, the consequences would be calamitous.
Understandably, Foreign Affairs
concentrates its attention on what could be the impact on the US. A serious outbreak could result in 16 million deaths - and with that would come incalculable economic consequences. Moreover, the rest of the world, Foreign Affairs
believes, could be similarly affected.Impact
Why might the impact be so great? For a start, most of the world's public health systems, even in rich countries, have been allowed to run down, in the interest of saving money.
Australia is no different. Like the rest of the world, our hospitals are not geared to cope with a sudden and large influx of seriously ill patients. Here, in Victoria, it will be recalled, we have closed our infectious diseases hospital which could isolate infected patients.
It is inconceivable that the world would be able to produce, let alone distribute, anything like the vaccines necessary to deal with a serious outbreak of avian flu.
More serious still, and especially with avian flu, is the impact of globalisation on the human-animal link. The world's experience with mad cow disease is enough to illustrate the point, though it is by no means the only example.
Mad cow and the other recent examples of similar diseases, are troublesome because of their ability, in the words of Foreign Affairs
, to cross the Darwinian divide between animals and people. They generate illnesses which don't need human hosts to survive or propagate. They therefore can easily exist outside the scope of ordinary medical intervention.
Rapid increases in the speed of movement of goods and people, along with an ever-greater density of population, increases the likelihood of cross-species illness. Moreover, ever-expanding livestock production for food and its transport around the world greatly magnify the possibility of diseases spreading. Much of this trade can be expected to host a range of harmful bacteria and viruses.
This development is especially worrying when it is considered that, outside a relatively few developed countries, animals are slaughtered and prepared for human consumption in unhealthy and unsupervised conditions.No preparedness
Moreover, there is no international agency collecting and collating data on the various diseases that can affect people, domestic animals and wildlife, to ensure that health solutions can be developed by health professionals.
Apparently, for a long time, it was possible to believe otherwise; but we now can say for certain that more than half the known diseases can be transmitted in both directions between humans and animals.
It will perhaps be a sobering fact for the advocates of globalism and the freeing up of world trade - which we keep being told is capable of liberating mankind from hardship and of generating such enormous economic benefit to the entire world - can end up having precisely the opposite effect.
If, as seems possible - even likely - the incidental effects of globalism bring in their wake a world-wide outbreak of avian flu, the consequences in terms of human misery and economic cost are unimaginable. It may turn out that the new world is not "flat", as the globalists maintain, but rather, as Foreign Affairs
asserts, a mixing bowl.
We must assume that all of these facts are known to our government. No doubt we will be told that the means of dealing with whatever happens are well in hand. Indeed, as much has been suggested in a former senior public servant Hugh White's opinion piece in the Melbourne Age
(September 12, 2005).
Yet, the government's actions belie that view. Certainly, its well-publicised policy positions don't yet reflect the seriousness of the situation.
In the face of the threat posed by the international trade in certain food products, our government - and no less the opposition - is still preoccupied with the idea of turning Australia into an open and unrestricted market, including for food imports.
Now, as farmers well know, it can easily be shown that this policy makes little economic sense, but that is not the point of this article.
Economics aside, what the policy is doing places our food security at risk. Driving our farmers out of business and leaving us to rely on imported food in today's circumstances are wildly irresponsible - for both economic and health reasons.
While it is impossible to deny the risk of an epidemic of avian flu in Australia, it is also true that, by adopting the right policies, Australia could be better placed than most of the world to resist it.
A coincidence of geography and history allow us to start from a position of advantage. We are an isolated island-continent. We have, since Federation, maintained positions on quarantine and border protection aimed at exploiting that advantage. We have been largely successful - at least until recently.
Our shift in attitude cannot be blamed on government neglect, carelessness or ignorance. The government seems determined, deliberately, to dismantle our strict quarantine protection in the name of ever more trade liberalisation.
In early September, the Minister for Trade Mr Mark Vaile admitted what has been obvious from the time of negotiation of the bilateral trade agreement with the US - that quarantine policy, as it operates to protect plant, animal and human health from infected imports, is now being administered in the context of trade policy.
Given what we know has happened, and is happening, with the possibility of transmission of disease across species, and with what we know about the attitude to health standards in some other countries, now is hardly the time, on either health or economic grounds, to maintain more permissive policies towards the importation of plant and animal products from questionable sources.
If anything, the government should be making conditions of entry more stringent.
- Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade