Australia must help Pacific neighbours fight coronavirus, aid groups say

Daniel Hurst

Australia faces a “moral imperative” to help its neighbours in the Pacific and other vulnerable countries to stop the spread of coronavirus, aid groups have declared.

But at a time when the need for support at home and abroad has intensified, not-for-profit organisations have raised concerns about their own financial pressures as donations decline.

Late on Sunday the government bowed to calls for charities to be granted easier access to the new wage subsidies amid fears that many would have missed out because of the way their funding is structured.

Care Australia, an international humanitarian aid organisation with 90 staff in Australia and a support network of more than 700 staff across the region, said it had to suspend face-to-face fundraising in March amid tighter social distancing rules.

It also expected donations to drop over the coming months because potential contributors were losing their jobs or facing uncertain economic times.

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Its chief executive, Peter Walton, said it would be a tragedy if organisations like his had to consider staff cuts when the need for their work was greater than ever.

“It’s very easy to think about how we can do everything we need to [stop the spread of coronavirus] here in Australia,” he told Guardian Australia.

“But coronavirus isn’t going to be defeated if we’re not defeating it everywhere.

“I think there is a moral imperative that if we really want things to return to normal in Australia, we have to think about how we also make it return to normal within our region and more broadly as quickly as we can.”

Walton said the pandemic would have health and economic repercussions that would hit some of the world’s poorest much harder, including in war zones, refugee camps and disaster zones.

He said while Australia had one doctor to 280 people, Papua New Guinea’s ratio was more like one to 18,000.

Walton noted that a category five cyclone was bearing down on Vanuatu, which is yet to confirm any cases of Covid-19 but has been in a state of emergency for weeks.

Not only was it difficult to send in international support, localised responses such as cyclone-safe centralised evacuation centres were not compatible with physical distancing.

“So we really are in uncharted territory and I’m deeply, deeply concerned about the countries in our region,” Walton said.

His concerns were backed up by other aid groups.

Lyn Morgain, the chief executive of Oxfam Australia, said she was gravely worried for the millions living in refugee camps across the globe, where self-isolation and social-distancing protocols were “completely unrealistic” and any outbreak “would spread like wildfire”.

“Just weeks ago I visited the Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is severely overcrowded with 40,000 people per square kilometre,” she said.

“The Australian government must contribute its fair share to the UN’s appeal to help poor countries contain and respond to the virus, as well as to respond to the looming economic crisis, which will plunge millions more people into poverty.”

The head of Plan International Australia, Susanne Legena, said while positive signs were emerging to suggest Australia was “flattening the curve” of Covid-19 infections, achieving this in developing countries would be “infinitely more challenging”.

Something as simple as accessing soap and water to wash hands was a daily challenge, she said, while physical distancing was difficult in heavily populated areas.

“We have no doubt whatsoever that the Covid-19 crisis is on a path to overwhelm national health systems, badly damage economies and put millions of children at significant risk of harm,” Legena said.

“Girls, in particular, face increased threats of sexual violence, discrimination and abuse as they do in any emergency situation.”

The chief executive of ChildFund Australia, Margaret Sheehan, said Covid-19 threatened not only the physical health and wellbeing of children and families, but the hard-fought development advances of the past 20 years.

“There is a real risk that many communities will back-slide into extreme poverty,” said Sheehan, whose organisation has been assisting the emergency response in PNG.

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She said a range of charity and aid groups might have missed out on the jobkeeper payment scheme as originally announced because the rules had been “fundamentally geared to commercial enterprises”.

While not-for-profit organisations were eligible, they had been set to face the same eligibility test as businesses: a drop in turnover of 30% or more compared with a comparable period last year, or 50% if their annual turnover was above $1bn.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, announced late on Sunday that the threshold would be lowered to 15% for charities registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.

He said the reduced threshold – to be included in the $130bn package to go before parliament on Wednesday – would “support a sector which is expected to have a significant increase in demand for its services”.

Andrew Leigh, the shadow assistant minister for Treasury and charities, said the charitable sector was facing “a perfect storm” and “should not be left out in the cold”.

He said diversified not-for-profits might face a huge drop in one part of their organisation but not in other parts, and were therefore worried about their eligibility for jobkeeper payments.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a more important sector than the charitable sector right now,” Leigh said.