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  • John McDonnell

Australia must help India

India is experiencing the world’s worst Covid outbreak. CNN reports that on Monday India had 352,991 news cases. This was the highest single day of infections for any country in the world.

Hospitals in India are having difficulty coping with the demand for beds, ventilators, and oxygen. There is obviously considerable stress on doctors and nurses.

On Tuesday, prime minister Scott Morrison announced a support package for India consisting of 500 ventilators, 1 million surgical masks, 500,000 protective masks and oxygen supplies.

However, on the downside, the government has decided to pause direct flights from India until May 15. Indirect flights have already been paused by the transit countries.

When flights are resumed, travellers will have to have a negative PCR test and a negative rapid antigen test before uplift. DFAT will resume charter flights as soon as possible with the objective of getting as many Australians home as possible.

The prime minister said that the pause was generated by the number of positive cases in hotel quarantine that originated in India. This had put quarantine facilities in NSW and the Northern Territory under pressure.

The problem is that we may not have seen the worst in India. Dr. Giridhara R. Babu of the Public Health Foundation of India said on Monday:

"I'm afraid this is not the peak. The kind of data that we see, (we are) at least two to three weeks away from the peak."

Others say India may be approaching the peak now, sooner than Babu's estimate -- but with so many ill and so few supplies available, the country will see many more deaths before the second wave subsides.

In these circumstances, Australia needs to increase its assistance to India. From this perspective, it is important that the prime minister said that his announcement of support for India was an initial contribution, not a final one.

However, the fact that there are 17,000 Australians who are stranded in India means that there is an additional burden on Indian resources that that country should not have to bear.

Mr Morrison was asked why Howard Springs in the Northern Territory could not be used to bring more Australians back from India. The PM said the medical advice was that Howard Springs needed a pause, in order to manage the high level of positive cases that it had at the moment. He said that the quarantine facility was being expanded and from mid-May would be able to handle 2,000 returning travellers at a time. It would be used for charter flights organised by DFAT.

The Howard Springs quarantine facility is dealing with its highest number of positive COVID-19 cases since it began handling repatriation flights last year, according to NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles. There are 20 positive cases.

This caused the local AMA to arc up and demand a ban on flights from India for fear the positive cases would lead to community transmission.

Last Wednesday morning, the Australian Medical Association NT branch president Robert Parker said National Cabinet should look "very seriously" at placing a pause on repatriation flights coming into Howard Springs from India. Dr Parker said:

"I certainly think they should look at the situation and have a significant look at the risk/benefit of those flights."

This reveals the flaw in the argument put by Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan and the AMA that the federal government should commission more isolated quarantine facilities like Howard Springs rather than using hotel quarantine.

But what is the point of this if the AMA is still going to want inward flights banned?

As Northern Territory health minister Ms Fyles said last week, her government had a "humanitarian responsibility" to repatriate vulnerable Australians and backed the infection control measures at Howard Springs to safely manage the increased positive caseload.


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