This isn’t over until it’s over for everyone: Australia must roll out AZ vaccine to support our neighbours
Top Enders have always been good neighbours, willing to pitch in and help out, as we saw when storms and floods hit Timor-Leste and Indonesia recently.
When it comes to COVID-19, our regional neighbours need our help. So what are we going to do about it?
Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji are all battling surging cases of COVID-19.
In Indonesia, the toll of the crisis is crippling the stretched health care system: oxygen supplies are running dangerously low with the escalating rates of infections and hospitalisations.
Health staff are bearing the brunt of an unsustainable workload, and large numbers of health professionals have been infected – and have died.
The crisis in Timor-Leste comes in the wake of natural disaster, and its Government faces the twin challenges of rebuilding infrastructure and containing a pandemic.
Dili was under lockdown during an outbreak when it was hit by flooding and mudslides.
With the destruction of homes, and the gathering of residents in displacement camps, the virus spread dangerously quickly, and an already undeveloped health system has come under enormous strain.
Some Territorians have done outstanding work over there, such as the AUSMAT Team including epidemiologist Anthony Draper and regional engagement officer Dinorah Caeiro Alves, team leader, and nurse Bronte Martin, fixers Thomas Aitken and David Cowling, Dr Antony Chenhall, and Dr Josh Francis from Alice Springs.
However, the virus doesn’t respect borders, so this won’t be over until it’s over for everyone – and confidence in international trade and travel won’t be properly restored until we get there.
Every time there’s an outbreak, there’s the risk of the evolution of a new variant which challenges existing vaccines.
Friends of Indonesia and Timor-Leste have looked to the Federal Government to do more – but it’s been slow to act.
It took far too long to assist Indonesia, but the Foreign Minister finally did announce a package which includes 2.5 million doses of AstraZeneca this year.
I welcome that, but it’s not nearly ambitious enough, especially considering how well we’re placed to respond.
Did you know that the CSL facility in Melbourne has been producing a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine a week from at least May?
Thanks to contradictory messaging from the Federal Coalition Government amid fluctuating risk levels and promises of more Pfizer doses, Australians have been hesitant to take up the AstraZeneca vaccine, and a large supply are nearing their expiry date.
If the Government allows these to expire unused, it’ll be another colossal failure in a long list of failures marking its pandemic response.
If these perfectly good doses can be replaced by doses with a longer shelf life here, then the surplus should be sent to Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and whoever else in our region is requesting more, right now.
This is an opportunity for us to reach out as a friendly and supportive regional partner.
Closer to home, we should also help strengthen both Indonesia and Timor-Leste’s health systems, so future health emergencies don’t overly strain the system.
We once had a sister hospital relationship between Sanglah Hospital in Bali and the Royal Darwin Hospital – but this short-sighted Federal Government de-funded the program.
As well as vaccines, we should share our insights into the provision of remote and telehealth services to strengthen Indonesia’s highly decentralised health system.
We need to be able to pull together all the necessary resources to overcome this pandemic.
The NT has led the way for Australia in so many ways during the fight against COVID-19.
The Federal Government has the capability to re-stock vaccine clinics and GPs with fresh AZ and move more stock to the multilateral COVAX program to help our neighbours.
It should show regional leadership and do this now.
Luke Gosling is the Federal Member for Solomon and a former Army Officer.