My weekly Guardian column:
The horror of ebola in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and spread fear around the world. This fact, coupled with ignorance and misinformation, has created the perfect storm. The risk is real, but you wouldn’t know the full picture from watching last weekend’s American 60 Minutes. Lara Logan’s report took her to Liberia, but it did not include any black African voices. It was as if colonialism never died, and the life-saving Americans were the only barrier between calm and chaos.
Meanwhile in Australia, last week’s news that private company Aspen Medical was awarded a $20m contract to run an ebola response in Sierra Leone was given surprisingly little scrutiny. Federal health minister Peter Dutton praised the company’s record and claimed that the firm was chosen because “they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground.” He played the patriotism card –“Aspen is an Australian company” – and said that Aspen “will have this up and running efficiently, effectively, saving lives.”
Non-government organisations with months of front line exposure in battling ebola were shunned for a corporation that won’t face any freedom of information requests because it’s a private entity. We have to take it on trust that taxpayer dollars will be spent appropriately. With former senior politicians and civil servants on Aspen’s board (a typical feature of companies that succeed in winning government contracts globally) financial benefits and political knowledge for the company are assured.
The company, established in 2003, has a history assisting Australian defence in the Solomon Islands, policing in East Timor and a range of other activities in the customs, health and fossil fuel arenas. Since 2007, the department of defence has awarded Aspen contracts worth more than $200m.
But deeper questions are being ignored in the rush to do something – anything – about Ebola. While it’s incredibly brave and noble for Australian nurses and doctors to volunteer with Aspen to establish a 100-bed treatment unit, most media coverage framed the discussion over awarding Aspen the contract as a partisan battle between the Abbott government and Labor opposition.
Victorian Greens senator and public health expert Richard Di Natale has been one of the sole voices questioning Aspen’s qualifications. He tells me that the contract “has a real stink about it. I’m at a loss. The only plausible explanation is that a government is so ideologically committed to advancing private interests, even when it’s counter-productive. ”
Di Natale says that Aspen’s win without a tender process bastardises democracy. “If it went to tender, a range of NGOs would have been able to get personnel in the field much more cheaply”, he argues. He worries that “mission creep” could happen, and that Aspen will require more funds to complete further work. The Greens MP is planning a trip to West Africa to examine the reality on the ground and hopes to receive help from Canberra in facilitating his visit.
He’s blunt on the reasons the Abbott government took so long to respond: “There aren’t any votes in black Africans dying. We’ve led the world in developing a vaccine for the Hendra virus which affects race horses, and yet when it comes to something like Ebola both in Australia and in the US we haven’t given it appropriate concern.”
One of the leaders in fighting Ebola remains Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Its Geneva headquarters tells me that they have concerns with the for-profit model that’s creeping into disaster relief. “Our concern is an uncoordinated approach overall that is inflexible and aid-money rather need-driven. It should not be about what governments want but what is needed to respond effectively to the needs on the ground.”
The scale of MSF’s commitments and the money it is spending places Aspen’s meager program in perspective. This year, the NGO has sent more than 700 international staff to the region, and admitted more than 5,600 patients in four West African states while providing roughly 600 isolation beds and two transit centres. This year, this has cost around $74m. As a rich Western nation, Australia’s contribution is stingy.
This era of unaccountable neo-liberalism has brought moves to privatise disaster management across the world. Recall former US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggesting in 2012 that federal emergency assistance should be outsourced? Hurricane Sandy brought out the usual suspects of rent-seekers and disaster capitalists looking to make money from misery.
This ideology must be fought when fighting wars, disease or natural catastrophes at home or abroad.