Australia shuts door to Ebola-hit countries

Australia has become the first Western country to impose a total entry ban on people from Ebola-stricken West African countries. Medical experts, UN agencies and African government leaders denounced the move as discriminatory and damaging for international efforts to combat the catastrophe.

The callous, short-sighted and nationalist decision has set a new benchmark for the response of governments around the world toward the disaster. The World Health Organisation last week warned that the Ebola virus could affect 1.4 million people across West Africa unless 70 percent of infected people were treated within the next two months.

As well as shutting out all residents of these countries, the Australian government went beyond the US government and US states that have imposed arbitrary quarantine regimes on soldiers and health workers returning from fighting the disease in West Africa. The Liberal-National Coalition government has stopped the re-entry of Australian residents—health workers as well as African-born Australians—unless they have undergone a 21-day quarantine before departing for Australia.

This punitive requirement, which may not even be always possible in West Africa, will deter or prevent Australian volunteers from joining the Ebola effort. The decision intensifies the impact of the government’s refusal to send medical teams to the affected countries.

Australia’s visa ban triggered international headlines and condemnations, but it was not officially announced, and has gone largely unreported in the local media. Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison simply exercised the vast executive powers that the government has under Australia’s restrictive immigration regime to lock out refugees or anyone else regarded as undesirable by the powers-that-be.

News of the ban only emerged when Morrison answered a “Dorothy Dix” question from a government backbencher in parliament on Monday. Morrison said all immigration from “Ebola-infected countries,” including under the refugee humanitarian program, had been suspended. In addition, all non-permanent visas would be cancelled, and permanent visa holders would have to submit to a 21-day quarantine.

This amounts to a blanket ban on people from any country designated as “Ebola-infected”—including refugees, immigrants, students, tourists and relatives of Australian residents. It also means three weeks of forced confinement for doctors, nurses and other health workers, and all other Australian residents, trying to return from these countries.

Health experts said such measures have no scientific or health justifications, since people without symptoms of Ebola, even if they later manifest the disease, are not contagious. Adam Kamradt-Scott, of the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, told Reuters the travel ban would do nothing to protect the country from Ebola, while potentially having a negative health impact by creating a climate of panic.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Brian Owler told CNN the government’s announcement came as a surprise. He explained that the chance of Ebola entering the country through a migrant from West Africa was very low. Owler said the government sought the advice of “very few people” and had excluded the AMA, which represents doctors.

Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Ebola Emergency Response Mission (UNMEER), told Reuters: “Anything that will dissuade foreign-trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate.”

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told a news conference that Australia’s ban meant “stigmatisation” and the quarantine or exclusion of people “many of whom are just normal.” Sierra Leone’s Information Minister Alpha Kanu said the ban was “discriminatory in that ... it is not (going) after Ebola but rather it is ... against the 24 million citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, however, vehemently defended the ban. He declared that his government’s priority was to protect Australians, even though Australia has not recorded a case of Ebola despite a number of media-hyped scares.

Abbott claimed that his government’s $18 million ($US15.9 million) donation to the anti-Ebola operation in West Africa proved that his “government are taking very serious steps to address the Ebola crisis.”

In reality, this pittance is a drop in the ocean compared to the $1 billion that the UN says is urgently needed to stem the epidemic. Underscoring the government’s indifference and hypocrisy, the $18 million stands in stark contrast to the estimated $500 million a year allocated for Australia’s involvement in the renewed US-led war in Iraq and Syria.

Abbott continued to defend his government’s refusal to send any medical teams to West Africa, restating the claim that any health workers who became infected could not be guaranteed treatment. This fraud has been exposed by revelations of requests, dating back to last month, for Australian personnel from the US and Britain, both of which have the required facilities available.

In a Senate hearing last week, a senior foreign affairs official, Blair Exell, confirmed that Britain had asked Australia to send personnel to Sierra Leone, while the US had requested help in Liberia. Sierra Leone and Liberia have also made direct requests to Australia for medical teams.

As it has done on the treatment of refugees, the Australian political establishment is setting a reactionary global precedent for the demonising and exclusion of some of the world’s most impoverished and exploited people. Successive governments, Liberal-National and Labor alike, have gone further than any other government in incarcerating all asylum seekers, repelling refugee boats and dumping people in hellhole camps in remote or poverty-stricken locations.

Having scapegoated refugees to divert attention from the worsening social conditions in Australia, including the destruction of jobs and the deteriorating public health system, the government is now using the same “border protection” regime to shut out Africans, while refusing to come to their aid in the face of the Ebola crisis.

Far from condemning the travel ban, the opposition Labor Party asked the government to release the advice on which the decision was made. “We need to be absolutely certain that this government isn’t being tough but dumb when it comes to protecting Australians from the risk of Ebola infection at home,” Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman Matt Thistlethwaite told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This nationalist stance is in line with Labor’s unconditional support for the government on the Iraq-Syria war, which is based on calculations of the interests of Australian imperialism, as a junior partner of the US. West Africa, unlike the oil-rich Middle East, is regarded as not pivotal to Australian business operations or the US alliance.

The Greens’ immigration spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, labelled the ban a “cruel announcement” by Morrison, and called on Abbott to “pull his out-of-control minister into line.” As has become customary, the Greens expressed moral outrage at this latest application of the immigration rules, branding the decision “shameful,” while continuing to accept the nationalist “border protection” framework.