As Australians adjust to huge changes in their way of life, it is timely to reflect upon the challenges faced by others in less privileged circumstances, suggests Lyn Morgain, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia.
This article was written last week when Morgain was in quarantine in Perth after overseas travels. She is now back in Melbourne, working from home.
Lyn Morgain writes:
As I slowly adapt to a life confined within the four walls of a relative’s apartment, I struggle to reconcile how much my reality has changed in just over a week.
Like many others across the country, I am currently experiencing extreme restrictions on the freedom of movement I’m accustomed to.
I decided it would be responsible to undergo a two-week quarantine after returning from Bangladesh 12 days ago – just before the Australian Government’s compulsory quarantine measures for returning travellers came into force. It’s surreal, disconcerting and psychologically challenging.
But then I reflect on my experiences in Bangladesh, the things I saw and the people I met, and gratitude energises me.
The refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, are the biggest in the world. About a million Rohingya people have fled across the border with Myanmar in recent years, escaping violence and persecution.
The view over the camps is jaw-dropping as small, make-shift huts and tents stretch beyond the horizon as far as the eye can see. And the daily challenges the refugees face just to survive, are staggering.
While I was disappointed not to be able to enter the camp itself, due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was only too happy to do whatever I could to ensure the safety of these people who had already been through unimaginable suffering.
And this is exactly the approach we must now take here in Australia to protect those among us who are at greater risk.
It’s only natural that the lack of control we are currently feeling feeds a range of anxieties across the population – for loved ones, for our community and for the ability of our health system to cope.
These are genuine and understandable concerns. And for those of us lucky enough to be in a position of relative security – perhaps stable employment, health and housing – we must keep in mind those who are now even more vulnerable.
Very little is certain right now, but what is clear is that this crisis will impact different people in very different ways – and it will inevitably only serve to deepen the inequality that already exists in our society both here in Australia and overseas.
In times of crisis, as humans we are programmed to narrow our focus to the threats facing ourselves and our loved ones. We must challenge that instinct and broaden our scope of responsibility to include our whole community.
For those with chronic conditions, disability and inadequate employment or income, the consequences of isolation, interruptions to food and other grocery supply, and risk of loss of housing and casual work are truly terrifying.
Due to their already shocking health outcomes and rampant incidence of pre-existing health conditions, our First Peoples are particularly vulnerable. Recognising the heightened threat, the government quickly banned all non-essential travel into Indigenous communities. This surely highlights more than ever the moral need for us to do more and close those gaps.
Women are at their best at times like these – it’s women who are stepping up to the plate, organising community support groups on Facebook, making sure everybody is cared for, as well as trying to do their jobs in unusual and distracting circumstances and perhaps caring for elderly parents. They also make up the majority of health workers on the front line. But we must ensure women don’t carry the entire caring burden on their own.
And while our borders are closing, we can’t afford to close our minds to what is happening beyond them. We are lucky to have an incredible healthcare system.
Yet half of the world’s population do not have access to basic health care, and many are starting from an impossibly unstable baseline.
Take Yemen, which marked the fifth anniversary of the escalation of a devastating conflict this week, and where COVID-19 poses a fresh challenge.
Flights into and out of the country have stopped, restricting movement for many aid workers responding to the humanitarian crisis. Just half of the health centres are functioning, and even those that are open are already facing severe shortages of medicines, equipment and staff. Around 17 million people – more than half the population – have no access to clean water, and the coming rainy season is expected to lead to another surge in cholera cases.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq, people are facing an emergency within an emergency, with heavy rains causing intense flooding, in and around the country’s second biggest city of Mosul – which was only liberated from ISIS in 2017, and is in the midst of a painstaking rebuild.
In Timor Leste, 16,000 people have been affected by flash flooding of rivers flowing in and around the capital of Dili.
And then there are the refugee camps. Authorities around the world are implementing new measures, as I experienced, to try to stop the spread of the virus among large groups of displaced people. But the Greek island of Lesbos recently recorded its first case, which could have devastating consequences among the communities living in overcrowded camps.
Imagine trying to self-isolate, socially distance or quarantine in a place like that – it’s completely unrealistic.
That’s why organisations like Oxfam are ramping up our sanitation and hygiene programs in 65 countries around the world to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and do what we can to help protect the most vulnerable.
We’re distributing hygiene kits in Mosul, training community health volunteers in Yemen, and in Syria, where the conflict is now entering its 10th year, Oxfam is distributing soap and carrying out public health promotion programs.
Yes, our current circumstances are overwhelming.
Yes, it’s not so comfortable being cooped up in our homes 24/7.
But think about what you do have access to – a wonderful and supportive community. It’s times like these that we learn just how precious life is and how lucky we are.
Let’s use this as an opportunity to put out a hand to help others up – whether in our local community or by supporting people in desperate situations elsewhere.
Let’s embrace our shared humanity. After all, without that, what do we have?
• Lyn Morgain is Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia. See Oxfam’s fund-raising campaign.