Adelaide, Australia – Australia became the first developed country in the world last week to introduce a travel ban on West African nations struggling with the Ebola epidemic.
A similar move was made by Canada days later.
Australia’s ban means all temporary and non-permanent visas, including refugee visas, held by individuals from the affected region will be cancelled, with all future applications to be denied. Those on permanent visas trying to re-enter the country will also be required to enter quarantine upon arrival at Australian airports for a 21-day period.
This effectively seals Australia’s border with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in a move that has shocked Australia’s African community.
“Australia has panicked and pushed a button they shouldn’t have,” said Dr Joseph Masika, president of the Federation of African Community Councils of Australia (FACCA).
You can't control Ebola in West Africa by the visa process. What you need to do is support the countries fighting Ebola.
Masika, a trained medical doctor, has urged the government to reconsider, saying the ban is heavy-handed and more likely to cause anxiety than halt the spread of Ebola.
“You can’t control Ebola in West Africa by the visa process. What you need to do is support the countries fighting Ebola,” said Masika. “We want to make sure it is contained and eliminated in a safe way, not scare people. Attacking it at its source is the best way.
“If you are going to use the visa system to keep people from travelling, it makes it harder to track who has the disease.”
For the FACCA, the ban comes at a bad time as the organisation has been campaigning to organise the wider African community in support of West Africans coping with the crisis.
In charge of the campaign is the FACCA’s vice president, Edward Solo, a Liberian who has lost five family members and “a huge number of friends” to the disease.
Based in the Northern Territory, Solo said the government’s decision will do nothing to fight the virus and will only promote stereotypes about West Africans that have spread since the epidemic began.
“The government is not basing their decision on facts,” said Solo. “They’re guessing and these decisions are making it more difficult to fight the virus at its source.”
Former chair of the Federation of Liberian Communities in Australia Reagan Blandee echoed this sentiment.
“Everyone is disappointed, it’s not helpful at all. A better response would be for Australia to send medical personal to tackle the problem at the source,” said Blandee. “It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and makes people frown on Australia globally.”
When contacted by Al Jazeera, Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison defended the ban as a “common sense” response to the crisis.
“The Australian government’s first priority is to ensure the strongest controls on our borders are in place to protect Australian citizens,” said Morrison. “The Australian government is providing significant resources to assist the international effort to address the crisis in West Africa and will continue to do so.
“This is a temporary suspension which will be under regular review.”
Stereotyping a reality
Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai, 32, and Haily Tweh Weah, 25, came to Australia from Liberia as refugees.
|Lyn Gilbert is in charge of Australia’s response to the Ebola virus [Reuters]|
Since the pair met and became friends in 2008, they have been working together to set up an NGO that works with young people in Liberia.
So far neither men have lost any family members to Ebola, but each has lost friends. Both expect to lose more.
“It’s easy to lose someone the longer this situation has gone on,” said Yarkpai.
Asked about the travel ban, they said it will have subtle consequences for them and those in the diaspora who are already struggling with the pressure of supporting families back in Liberia.
Worst of all, the pair said, is that the ban effectively extends the stigma faced by Ebola victims and their surviving family members in small villages to all Liberians everywhere.
“Everyone’s afraid to touch each other,” said Weah. “Everyone’s afraid to meet each other. Relationships have fallen apart. Families have fallen apart because of Ebola, and that feeds into the stigma over here.”
Weah speaks from personal experience. He told Al Jazeera how recently he tried to use a computer in a public library, only to have a man tell him to leave when he found out Weah was Liberian.
“A lot of people in the diaspora have been posting on Facebook ‘I am Liberian, I am not a virus’ because people have been stereotyping, have been linking the virus with us,” said Yarkpai.
“The stigma, the fear, can really affect people. I think it will actually instil more fear into people. I think the better way is to explain what Ebola is and how you can get it.”
Work to be done
Australia’s travel ban was introduced after a scare involving an 18-year-old woman who had recently arrived from Guinea on a humanitarian visa.
The excuses have gone away. Australia's volunteer organisations are near their capacity to deal with the crisis.
The woman was isolated in a Brisbane hospital when she broke out in a fever, but the tests came back negative for Ebola.
To date, the conservative Australian government has refused to officially send medical staff to support afflicted countries, saying it won’t compel medical personnel to risk their lives in West Africa, and that there are no facilities in the region able to treat medical workers who become infected.
Instead, the government has focused its attention on a “regional response” to the crisis while allowing volunteer and private organisations to take up the slack.
This lack of Australian action has caused friction among the international community, with the World Health Organisation’s Director-General Margaret Chan attacking the travel ban. Chan called the policy “ineffective” and said travel bans and airport quarantines only serve to attack freedom of movement while harming local economies.
The Australian Medical Association has also been critical of the Australian government in recent weeks. President Brian Owler told Al Jazeera that with the US and UK governments setting up field hospitals in the region capable of treating stricken health workers, the Australian government must now live up to its responsibilities.
“The excuses have gone away,” said Owler. “Australia’s volunteer organisations are near their capacity to deal with the crisis.”
Asked about the ban, Owler said it “seems to be overreach” as Ebola is only infectious when a person shows symptoms and requires direct contact with an infectious person, making the chances of transmission in transit minimal.
While the official death toll from the Ebola virus is now nearing 5,000, there has been speculation the actual number could be much higher.
Even so, the spread of the virus appears to be easing, but officials say more work still needs to be done to make sure it is properly contained.