Epidemics or Extremists?

Following six months in the UK with no access to a television, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover the delights of prime-time news media exposure since returning to Australia.

If I had to point to the (world) issue that is foremost in the media’s minds at the moment, I would probably gesture wildly at the current concerns over the conflict with ISIS (or ISIL) in the Middle East. Indeed, it seems so important to the public that it is one of the few causes that currently has complete bipartisan political support; and to such an extent that the current Treasurer has been (subtly) reprimanded by Prime Minister Tony Abbot for daring to question the Opposition’s commitment.

In fact, the decision to become involved in the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq appears to have been made with surprisingly little difficulty. PM Abbot has committed six F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets, associated support aircraft, 200 special forces troops and 400 military support staff, and has left open the option to commit combat troops for direct operations against ISIS. All of this in the face of an estimated cost of “about a quarter of a billion [dollars] every six months”, and the prospect of a long, drawn-out conflict. It might even be said that the Australian Government has been a little too overenthusiastic, with personnel on the ground still waiting for legal approval from the Iraqi Government to join support efforts.

In direct contrast to this rather enthusiastic crusade has been PM Abbot’s rather lukewarm response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Currently, the Government’s total commitment to the humanitarian response stands at AUD$18 million, entirely in targeted aid. It has also, despite direct pleas from Médicins Sans Frontières and the President of Sierra Leone, refused to send any health or engineering personnel to assist humanitarian efforts, citing risks to Australian health workers.

It may be argued that the rise of ISIS in the Middle East is a greater disaster than the outbreak of Ebola, but it is not obvious that it justifies such a discrepancy in response. The UN estimates that the total civilian death toll in Iraq over the last eight months is at least 8,493, though the real number is likely to be higher. ISIS/ISIL are likely responsible for a large proportion of these deaths, but not all. On the other hand, the WHO estimates the number of deaths from Ebola to be 3,865 over the last seven months, but once again it is likely that this underestimates the death toll. Both conflicts are likely to have severe, and long-lasting effects on the communities that have suffered them. The emergence of ISIS will without doubt worsen the continued instability in Iraq and Syria, but the wider economic and social impacts of Ebola will also be felt into the future.

Closer to home, Australians are likely to face threats from both Ebola and ISIS. The risk of returning jihadists and ‘home-grown’ radicals to the Australian public has been raised almost on a daily basis, with soldiers advised to avoid wearing uniforms in public, and broader legislative powers being sought. Yet, as a recent false alarm in Queensland reminds us, the nature of globalization means we, too, are threatened by Ebola, despite our PM’s overly calm assurances that we are ‘completely prepared’. It is probably not a valid to cite risks to the health of Australian personnel, either, as reason not to intervene in Ebola – presumably there are at least some risks to health when being dropped into an active warzone.

Most importantly, however, is that it is likely that we can do far more good in West Africa than in Iraq. Thus far, Australian jets have flown a number of missions in Iraq, but only conducted actual air strikes on one occasion. Our military personnel, as previously mentioned, remain twiddling their thumbs while waiting for approval. We are, also, only one small part of a large, multi-national coalition of allies who are attempting to intervene, including the giants of the US, UK, and its Middle Eastern allies. Realistically, our presence, or absence, is likely to have little effect on the course of the conflict, other than symbolic unity. Furthermore, by the PM’s own admission, the conflict is likely to be long, protracted, and unlikely to be solved anytime soon – indeed, in some ways it is merely a symptom of wider regional problems.

In contrast, the international response to the Ebola outbreak has been lethargic and widely criticized as insufficient. According to the US Secretary of State, The US has, by far, contributed the most, with $113.8 million; followed by $55.5 million by the EU, and $31.9 million by Canada. Yet more still needs to be done, with vital personnel, equipment, and logistics supply lacking. In light of this, a “quarter of a billion [dollars] every six months” would likely have enormous impact.

Perhaps there are valid (political) reason for this – West Africa has little strategic importance or influence, while the Middle East has oil and symbolic importance. Ebola is also, it must be said, rather difficult to transmit, and is unlikely to be a significant threat to countries with well-developed health systems and policies. Perhaps, then, this is the greatest tragedy of the Ebola outbreak – we understand how, and what is needed to be done to stop the epidemic in its tracks, and we have the means, and resources to do so. Yet precisely because this is understood, we can justify sitting on our hands by noting how little direct threat it poses to us, in comparison to our panicked response to the little-understood and difficult-to-quantify threat of extremism. Hopefully, it does not take a chance mutation to change Australia’s priorities.

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