Christmas Island is ill-prepared to receive a planeload of Australians from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan, with its medical facilities inadequate if somebody falls seriously ill, Australia’s peak medical body says.
Head of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Tony Bartone, said Australia was ranked among the most capable countries in the world at containing the spread of infectious diseases, but that Christmas Island, chosen for its remoteness and because it has a detention centre, was ill-conceived as a health quarantine location.
He said the Australian citizens who will be evacuated from Wuhan city and the broader Hubei province, will be “under a lot of stress and fear and concern”.
“We feel that the repatriation to Christmas Island, to a place which has been previously the focus of populations under enormous mental and physical trauma and anguish, is not a really appropriate solution. We’ll be calling on the PM and the relevant ministers to find a much more humane solution to dealing with a group of very vulnerable and concerned Australians.”
Bartone told Channel Nine that while the AMA has been in regular and close discussions with the government’s chief medical officer over the coronavirus outbreak, it was not consulted on the evacuation to Christmas Island.
“The government has at its disposal a number of facilities, everything from you know, defence sites or other sites, quarantine facilities, which it could ramp up to meet this demand.
“Remember, Australian Medical Assistance Teams (Ausmat) are going into Christmas Island to provide the necessary solutions. It’s not like Christmas Island has got the solution. They’re ramping up their facilities and their resources with the teams coming in. So we can do that in a number of other places much more humanely.”
Ausmats are multi-disciplinary health teams incorporating doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters and other health staff such as radiographers and pharmacists. The teams also include firefighters working on logistics, and are designed to be self-sufficient wherever they go.
The teams are sent into disaster zones to provide life-saving treatment and support local health.
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton defended the Christmas Island evacuation plan, saying it was designed to keep the broader population safe.
“I can’t clear a hospital in Sydney or Melbourne to accommodate 600 people.
“We don’t have a facility otherwise that can take this number of people. I want to make sure that we keep Australians safe.”
The government has said the Christmas Island hospital will not be used, nor any public space or facilities on the island.
While medical facilities inside the detention centre were expanded when the centre was re-opened last year, those facilities will not be sufficient to treat critical cases of coronavirus.
There is no intensive care unit, and other critical medical care could only be provided on a mainland hospital.
Chinese state-run media Xinhua reported the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as saying the UN’s peak health body “does not recommend the evacuation of [foreign] nationals”, during a visit to Beijing earlier this week.
However, already, the US has flown some of its citizens, mainly diplomatic staff, out of the lockdown zone. Japan has flown a planeload of its citizens to Tokyo. Other countries, including the UK, France, and Indonesia, have also publicly announced plans to extricate their citizens from within the locked-down zone.
Bartone said that while the AMA supported the principle of evacuating Australians from the coronavirus outbreak epicentre, “we can find a better set of facilities to deal with that, to manage that staged return to the community”.
“We can protect the Australian community and also be much more humane to those Australians who, as I said, through no fault of their own, find themselves the focus of this epicentre.”
It’s unclear if, and when, Australia will be able to extricate its citizens from Wuhan. It plans to charter a Qantas jet, but it has not yet received permission from Chinese authorities to land a plane or take anyone from inside the militarily-enforced lockdown.
The Guardian understands negotiations with Chinese authorities are continuing, with a focus on the practicalities of choosing Australians to extricate and getting them to the airport and out of the country.
There are also political sensitivities around Chinese authorities allowing foreigners to flee the virus epicentre while keeping its own citizens quarantined.
Concerns over Christmas Island’s runway – a fully-laden large passenger jet cannot land – are not considered a major concern. Passengers could be transferred to smaller planes, while remaining isolated, at mainland defence force bases.
Christmas Island shire president, Gordon Thomson, told the Guardian the decision to use the territory reflected “regressive colonialist treatment”.
“Christmas Island remains a colony and is yet again getting the old regressive colonialist treatment from the great colonial power. Get lost Scotty.”
Thomson said the island was not consulted on the plan – he had learned of it seeing it on the news – and was worried that “now we’ll be a leper colony”.
The federal government massively ramped up the healthcare facilities available on Christmas Island last year when it re-established Christmas Island as an immigration detention centre.
Since then, it has housed just four people, the Murugappan family – a Sri Lankan-born Tamil couple and their Australian-born daughters who had previously been living in Biloela – at a cost of $26m.
The expanded clinic contains an X-ray room and a dental clinic. The government also committed to installing a CT scanner, but the Guardian understands this has not happened, nearly a year later.
The upgrading of the medical facilities was explicitly designed to stop the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia for medical treatment, and to make it harder for them to access their legal rights in the courts.