EDITORIAL: Ebola or other serious disease outbreaks: Where are Australia's pandemic quarantine and logistics plans?


Ebola or other serious disease outbreaks: Where are Australia’s pandemic quarantine and logistics plans?

By Joe Lederman

FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, October 2014


Ebola is different but quarantine is the key

The population of the world faces many troubles and threats. One of these is an outbreak of an incurable and deadly contagious virus called Ebola, and its spread does not stop at national borders.

On October 7, 2014 it was predicted by a team of US researchers that there is a 75 percent chance of Ebola reaching France by October 24 while Spain and Switzerland each have lower risks of 14 percent. The researchers did their calculations using algorithms based on Ebola spread patterns and airline traffic data. The numbers were based on air travel remaining at full capacity although the figures will change if flights to and from affected regions are reduced.

Ebola is not an airborne virus such as the Spanish flu was in 1918-19. In that influenza pandemic, many tens of millions of people died around the world. However Ebola is less contagious unless there is physical contact. Hence the best preventative measure is the quarantining of those who catch it as well as quarantining those who have come into direct contact with a person who has contracted the disease.

The fact that Australia is far away from most countries also reduces the level of risk in Australia but distance does not eliminate the risk. Ebola is also not the only disease with pandemic potential.

When leadership is missing in action

Lord Dr Jonathan Sacks once said “Good leaders create followers but great leaders create leaders.”

Regrettably, politicians today inspire little confidence. Too often the politicians are too political and their messages are too massaged by public relations experts and research pollsters. Today’s politicians may want followers but even followers are hard to find.

In times of difficulty or disaster, Australians have typically pitched in quickly to help one another. In the past, governments have tapped into this latent community strength to address battles to overcome natural disasters such as fires, floods and cyclones.

Regrettably, many political leaders today have lost their voices or are devoid of vision when faced by the bleeding obvious.

There is very little transparency in public decision-making on many issues and little attempt is made to engage members of the public in important disaster-planning efforts. More often than not, the post-disaster Royal Commissions will make recommendations that local knowledge and community involvement in pre-planning are paramount. Yet governments never seem to heed this before the next disaster strikes.

Politicians are keen to play the blame game or pass the buck, or those in government will claim it was all unforeseeable.

Governments seem reluctant to spell out what is being done at a policy level to address legitimate concerns and to bring the public into their confidence.

Quarantine measures

Australia is renowned for its very strict quarantine standards when it comes to such things as importing animals or animal products from other countries. For example, there are quarantine regulations in Australia that require a racehorse from the US to spend months in New Zealand and a further three weeks in quarantine at a particular quarantine establishment in Australia before being allowed to race against horses in Australia.

Historically, Australian cities also once had quarantine stations where potentially infectious persons could be quarantined before mixing with the general population. (These no longer exist and would not be suitable for the situation that potentially faces us today). Although such measures for new arrivals were the norm in an era that preceded the introduction of mass immunisation, it would be foolish to ignore the need for similar measures if a situation arises when a deadly disease might not be preventable by immunisation.

Logistics measures

FoodLegal is aware that some planning has occurred at Federal government level in preparedness planning for pandemics or other disasters. However many aspects remain clouded in secrecy. Even the emergency pantry list that was published on the internet several years ago by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) is no longer displayed (as at the date of this publication).

FoodLegal’s managing principal has, together with others, conducted research in relation to many issues as might arise in the event of a catastrophic disease outbreak. For example, in 2008- 2009 FoodLegal’s managing principal co-authored an academic paper with 2 leading academic experts in Logistics and Information Systems from University of Melbourne. This paper considered the technological issues to maintain equitable distribution of food and supplies in the event of a crisis where considerable population numbers were being quarantined. This was presented at the 2009 annual international conference Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems (PACIS) – SEE ARTICLE LINK HERE.

New technologies

Over the past few years, new technologies have created further opportunities for improved food distribution and improved communications in the event of disasters. However these require considerable investment by government for an emergency infrastructure that could be required and to create the supply reserves and distribution networks whilst maintaining population quarantines.

The government has not indicated at what stage of readiness Australia has reached in this planning.

Basics Card could be a prototype for “worst case” scenarios

As a flow-on from the Federal government’s intervention in the Northern Territory in some indigenous communities where a federal income management system was introduced, there is a prototype government card which allows for basic welfare payments to be used in purchasing particular foods or services.

For example, the BASIC CARD concept has allowed some welfare recipients to be issued with a stored value card, vouchers, or other payments or credits for use in purchasing goods and services.

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 also set up a licensing scheme for stores operating in prescribed areas whose main purpose is the provision of the relevant food or groceries.

For a worst case scenario, this system may offer a prototype, but considerable pre-planning and investment by governments will be required to implement any national system.

When will the public participate in preparing themselves?

FoodLegal is NOT advocating survivalism or public panic. However true leadership is needed to encourage all of us to become rulers of our own destiny and at least be in a position to determine our own levels of preparedness for a quarantined community disaster scenario. Let’s not play the blame game after the event. Let’s get our act together NOW.

This is general information rather than legal advice and is current as of 10 Mar 2020. We therefore recommend you seek legal advice for your particular circumstances if you want to rely on advice or information to be a basis for any commercial decision-making by you or your business.