The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is unprecedented in its scale, its reach, and its impact, and it is much more than a health crisis.
This outbreak has serious humanitarian, economic, and social consequences: rising food prices; closed schools; lost livelihoods. And it threatens political stability. This Council has rightly determined that the Ebola crisis is a threat to international peace and security.
The human impact of the virus is one of its cruellest features – denying our most basic instincts: for a mother to comfort a sick child; for a family to take in a sick relative; for a person to receive a traditional, dignified burial.
These are terrible reminders of the human tragedy of Ebola, beyond the horrific death toll which has climbed to nearly 5,500 people. The current outbreak has infected over 15,000 and left an estimated 3,300 children orphaned.
Women are being disproportionately affected – as is so often the case. They are exposed to Ebola at higher rates than men. They care for infected loved ones. They make up the majority of front-line healthcare workers. We must ensure that their needs are prioritised in the response.
This Council was warned in October that the spread of the virus was badly outpacing the response, and that the consequences of failure would be catastrophic.
The briefings we have heard today confirm that we have started to pull together in this critical race to catch up and stop Ebola.
At the Brisbane G20 Summit last week, leaders underlined their commitment to ensure the international effort “extinguishes” the outbreak.
The response being mobilised, under the leadership of the affected countries and the coordination of UNMEER [UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response], has begun to yield results.
I will make three brief points:
First, complacency is our worst enemy.
The epidemiological curve has started to bend. We are making progress towards the initial 70 per cent targets for isolation, treatment and safe burial by 1 December. We are starting to see important behavioural changes that can help contain the spread.
But we are not there yet. The gains to date could easily be reversed. The spread of Ebola may have slowed in some areas – down to as low as 80 new cases reported in Liberia last week, from a peak of over 450 per week – but the virus is still spreading, and is proving elusive.
And we have seen the risk of further countries being affected, with Ebola cases now reported in Mali. The examples from Senegal and Nigeria show that Ebola can be beaten. It is crucial that countries of the region enhance their preparedness and vigilance to lower the risk.
More broadly, appropriate screening measures can play an important role in stopping the spread of the outbreak.
Second, the response must adapt to the evolving nature of the outbreak.
Overall progress has been offset by spikes of new cases, particularly in remote areas out of reach of the response thus far.
Our response must be able to shift geographic focus to areas of need, and to rapidly respond to new outbreaks.
Sufficient numbers of medical personnel need to be deployed on a sustainable basis. And we need clear, timely information from UNMEER on where the current gaps are, and how they can be rapidly filled.
We must also deal with the secondary impacts of the crisis, including the breakdown of national healthcare systems. We cannot focus only on Ebola while a pregnant woman is left to die from childbirth, and while preventable diseases go untreated. And we must also support early recovery efforts – jobs and livelihoods will be crucial to getting families back on their feet, and to underwrite social stability.
These efforts require a comprehensive response that involves all parts of society – government, the private sector, local communities as well as non-government organisations and the international community.
Third, Australia is committed to doing its part in the international response.
Australia will provide $20 million to fund and staff 100 beds for Ebola treatment as part of the United Kingdom-led efforts in Sierra Leone, and provide $2 million for technical personnel for non-frontline roles in logistics, training, water and sanitation.
We have heeded Dr. Nabarro’s call for quick and flexible financial resources, providing an early contribution of $10 million to the United Nations Trust Fund, in addition to $8 million provided to other frontline services.
And we are providing $2 million to help our own immediate region – Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Pacific island countries – to increase their preventative capacity.
This brings Australia’s total commitment to date on Ebola to $42 million, and we will of course continue to assess where we can best contribute.
Let me close by paying tribute to the heroism of the front-line healthcare workers who are working to save lives and reduce suffering, at great personal risk. Over 300 of them have died from the disease. Nearly 600 have been infected.
We know how to beat Ebola. We owe it to the victims of this terrible disease – and to all of our citizens – to provide our full and unwavering support to overcome this threat.
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