The ramping up of the international effort against ISIS has consumed much of the world media's attention in the last few weeks. However, there is another international crisis unfolding that has killed on a comparable scale, and which threatens to claim many more lives.
The Ebola epidemic sweeping across large swathes of West Africa has, at the time of writing, killed more than 2630 people, forcing the World Health Organisation to dramatically revise its previous ceiling estimate of 20,000 cases.
It is perhaps unfortunate to resort to comparisons in the context of humanitarian crises, yet all too often such tragedies compete for our attention and, in the case of our elected representatives, the allocation of national resources and taxpayer dollars. This is exactly the scenario playing out right now between the Middle East and West Africa.
Indeed, the less emotive nature of the Ebola outbreak as compared with ISIS's hardcore ideology and homicidal tactics seems to be a significant factor in the Australian Government's response thus far. Even when taking into account the latest announcement of A$7 million in support of the international response to the Ebola outbreak, this brings Australia's total contribution at this point to just A$8 million. That looks downright miserly when compared with the A$500 million per year that Australia's military mission in Iraq is forecast to cost.
While the direct security implications of events in Iraq and Syria for Australia are a partial explanation for the massive discrepancy, it also reflects a distortion in priorities that needs to be rectified urgently. Estimates are that the Ebola epidemic is likely to last 12 to 18 months and could infect hundreds of thousands of people before it is brought back under control. Experts have indicated that a concerted and well-coordinated public health effort could significantly reduce the exponential growth in confirmed cases.
This is the challenge that confronts Australia and other countries that can afford to help.
Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop have both received plaudits for their handling of Australia's foreign affairs in recent months, particularly around the MH17 crisis and in response to events in Iraq since June. While this may well be justified, they need to prove that they are willing to do the hard yards away from the spotlight of the UN and big ticket items such as the fight against ISIS.
A good start would be to advocate strongly on the world stage for a large-scale civil or military emergency response to the Ebola crisis and allocate a larger slice of our own resources to show that we are serious about combating it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user European Commission DG ECHO.