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Don't forget the world's poor: Australians must offer help during COVID-19

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The Australian Government must rise to fulfilling its weighty moral obligations to less privileged nations (screenshot via YouTube).

Australia has a moral obligation to provide international aid to assist developing countries in the fight against COVID-19, writes Dr Denis Dragovic

AS AUSTRALIA HEADS into a well-earned respite from the threat of COVID-19, now is the time to take stock and reflect how our actions as individuals and as a society stack up morally and what we need to do next as responsible global citizens.

During times of crisis, we often act on impulse, sometimes out of fear, other times simply in survival mode without making proper moral calculations. I saw this in relatives who lived through the Balkan conflict and people I met in war zones around the world.

What I also know is that when the crisis passes it’s as if the wool is pulled away and you see with a renewed clarity. The COVID-19 threat has been likened to a war. This is true, at least in this respect. 

Now is the time to stop and reflect on what we did and how we did it, not to cast aspersions but to make amends and importantly, to plot a course for what we still need to do.

There are some who will want to make amends. The private schools who closed at the first threat to their community despite official advice urging them to stand firm didn’t go unnoticed. For all the community engagement and social justice programs these privileged schools run, what they ultimately taught their students was that having money means you don’t have to bear the same burden.

There are those who seem not to have learned any lessons. Some commentators’ sheltered lives meant they had no context to judge the new threat. So began their undignified scramble to centre stage by trumpeting the worst projections and then taking that one step too far by embracing the role of medical expert, citizen’s advocate and royal commissioner all-in-one without having the expertise for any.

This is a stain that a particular few will bear, though they seem to still be blissfully ignorant of this.

But what actions can we take now when there is still time? While COVID-19 has spread fast and hit the hardest in developed countries it is slowly establishing itself in developing countries. For many, with demographic curves inverse to the West the impact may be limited but for others whose resources have been ravaged by war, this is yet another threat.

The Afghan Minister of Health estimated 110,000 deaths from the virus, doctors in Syria another 100,000, to mention just two war-ravaged countries.

Just as the threat increases the capacity of charities to respond is diminishing. With the closure of op-shops and a reduction in regular donations due to unemployment, many aid agencies are struggling to raise the funds to respond to the need.

Oxfam International has already closed 18 country offices due to reduced fundraising including in countries that will be hit hard by the pandemic such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Rwanda.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that now is the time to help war-torn countries already struggling with broken health systems to combat this new enemy. We can make a difference by donating to charities. We can make a difference by lobbying the government to support Australian charities.

UNHCR is seeking US$255 million to support millions of refugees worldwide. Relative to the $225 billion committed by Australian state and federal governments in direct spending or the $200 million generously donated to the good work of the Australian Red Cross during this summer’s bush fires this is hardly a big ask.

As Australia leads the world in tackling the virus at home, now is the time to do the same abroad and make a global commitment to help others in need before we look back with regret.

Dr Denis Dragovic is an honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne and former aid worker. His latest book is No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis (2018). You can find more information on his website.

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Don't forget the world's poor: Australians must offer help during COVID-19

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