Australia should support the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. There are steps that our nation could take in the very short term and beyond to prioritise healthcare over warfare. We are spending vast sums on equipping ourselves for the next war while our frontline health workers struggle to find enough face masks to protect themselves and others. As even greater health threats loom, this is unsustainable.
The recent appeal for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, should be strongly supported. Guterres stated, “Our world faces a common enemy: COVID-19. The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith…The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.”
Wars not only destroy health directly, but they also destroy healthcare systems, facilities and health workers. War-ravaged communities are ill-placed to manage public health crises.
Healthcare not warfare must be our goal, now and in the post-COVID world. This pandemic has shown that cooperation rather than confrontation to address our common threats is possible.
Below are 6 steps that Australia could readily take to help achieve health for all.
1. CEASE OUR INVOLVEMENT IN WARS OF CHOICE
Despite the devastating impacts on civilian people of the “war on terror”, Australia still has approximately 600 ADF personnel deployed in the Middle East region (including Afghanistan). In addition, on 13 January this year, nearly 200 personnel aboard the frigate HMAS Toowoomba left Australia for the Strait of Hormuz adjacent to Iran.
On 23 March, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said that, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, non-essential personnel would move to Australia’s main logistics base in the Middle East. However it is time for Australia’s involvement in these disastrous wars to end.
War is expensive. Australia’s military budget for 2019-2020 is $38.7 billion, which is nearly $106 million every day. The war in Afghanistan has cost Australia approximately $10 billion thus far. The wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have cost the US $6.4 trillion.
2. STOP PROFITING FROM WARS
Current Australian policy is to make money from increasing our arms exports overseas. In January 2018 then PM Malcolm Turnbull announced a $3.8 billion fund for this purpose.
In the past 2 years, Australia has exported arms to nations that are ravaged by armed violence or are contributing to war-induced humanitarian disasters. These include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic.
With our economic interests vested in war, Australia has little incentive to work for peace.
3. STOP SANCTIONS AND BLOCKADES THAT IMPEDE HEALTHCARE
Economic sanctions can have a severe impact on the delivery of healthcare for civilian populations. Currently in Iran, embargoes on medical aid are disrupting the nation’s response to the COVID disaster. For the people of Gaza, the long-standing blockade by Israel restricts their access to essential resources such as healthcare equipment and medication.
Such obstructions to the delivery of health care should be lifted immediately, and Australia must do all that is possible to achieve this outcome.
4. RESTORE AUSTRALIA’S OVERSEAS AID
Australia spends just 0.23% of our GDP on overseas aid, which is far short of the UN target of 0.7% of GDP, and the lowest level ever in our nation’s 60-year history of using aid to tackle poverty.
Yemen is just one example of the countries that have suffered from Australia’s disappearing aid budget. Australia has spent more on promoting our military exports to the coalition bombing Yemen than it has on humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen. Like war-ravaged countries everywhere, Yemen is particularly vulnerable to the COVID pandemic.
5. PROMOTE COOPERATION
Concerns are emerging that the insecurities and fear that are being felt globally will lead to escalating tensions and collapse of the fragile systems of international cooperation that exist. It is imperative that international cooperation, not confrontation, be strengthened if current and even larger threats that humans collectively face are to be addressed.
However, over the last quarter century, the proportion of total Commonwealth spending allocated to Australia’s outreach to other nations via diplomacy has fallen by 42%, from 0.38% of Commonwealth spending in 1995-96 to 0.22% in 2018-19. The Department of Foreign Affairs has been starved of funds, at the same time as Australian military expenditure has been rapidly escalating.
These priorities must be reversed.
6. ADDRESS LOOMING HEALTH THREATS THAT ARE FAR WORSE THAN COVID
Urgent preventive action is needed to address the two greatest threats to human health and survival – nuclear weapons and climate change. Measures to address both are available but have been largely shunned by the Australian government. Warnings by health professionals and others (see, for example, www.icanw.org.au and www.caha.org.au ) must finally be heeded, just as the warnings and advice of health professionals on COVID have by and large been heeded.
However there is a 7th step that Australia could take in support of health for all, which underpins all of the above. It is an explicit endorsement of healthcare over warfare.
HEALTHCARE NOT WARFARE
Australia is spending over$200 billionover the decade to 2028-29, over and above the annual defence budget, on military hardware. Our “security” is defined in terms of our capacity to go to war, and far less attention is paid to threats that can’t be bombed or shot at. The notion of “human security” is marginalised. As we spend upwards of $80 billion on new submarines (and $225 billion over their lifetime), our frontline health workers are struggling to find enough face masks to protect themselves and others against a deadly virus.
Along with such staggering military expenditures, the Defence Department has clearly stated its intention to take a leading role in shaping STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in Australia, in close collaboration with the arms industry – those who profit from wars.
As ecosystems on which we depend collapse around us, infectious disease reasserts its capacity for harm on a global scale, and medical advice consistently warns of bigger threats ahead, such priorities are unsustainable. If we are to achieve health for all, then the goal of Healthcare not Warfare must be explicitly affirmed, and the resources committed to achieving it.
This is not simply a matter of more hospital beds and health workers. It would involve also a close examination of the many factors that impede good health, such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, pollution in all its forms, and a growing sense of anxiety about global risks ahead. It would also involve urgent action to address the ultimate threats to our health – nuclear weapons and climate change, before it is too late.
The first step is to prioritise healthcare over warfare. The UN Secretary General’s reminder of the folly of war is an extremely good step in this direction.
Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.