Global Polio Eradication Initiative

Federation Chamber 29/11/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (17:03): I second the motion and I rise to speak in support of the motion moved by the member for Higgins relating to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. We are honoured to be co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of UNICEF and advocates committed to the GPEI. We are also very fortunate to be living in a country where polio is eradicated and a world in which polio is 99 per cent eradicated. It is a remarkable achievement. Today the disease is almost forgotten except by the few whose lives were and remain directly affected.

It was once hard to imagine that 70 years ago polio was rife across the globe. But over the past 18 months we all got a taste of what a worldwide pandemic actually looks like and feels like: cities shut down, borders closed, isolation from friends and family, spending most of our days online—they didn’t have that luxury 70 years ago—working from home, watching Netflix. The only possible domestic travel was to the edge of your five-kilometre radius, as some of the lockdowns in Melbourne restricted us to. We’ve gone through the Rolodex, through many kinds of public health interventions, in our struggle to stop COVID-19 spreading. Now, just like with the polio epidemic, vaccination is the primary means by which we’re aiming to end the pandemic for good.

Thanks to vaccines, the prevalence of polio has been reduced to a small sliver of what it once was. At its worst, in the late 1940s, it infected hundreds of thousands and paralysed more than 35,000 people a year. Polio remains in only two countries—Pakistan and Afghanistan—with the entire African continent certified as polio free on 25 August 2020. This is a testament to science and what it can achieve and to vaccinations. It is a historical legacy of achievement, and it also speaks volumes as to what can be achieved when the international community works together. Much of this is thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The GPEI leads the world’s efforts to end polio, bringing together the World Health Organization and many stakeholders with the core objective of ending polio once and for all. And we’re almost there.

It’s fitting that we’re talking on this motion today, given the new strain of COVID-19—omicron. This new variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has shed light on the low vaccination rates in developing countries. Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders around the world, our failure to put jabs in the arms of people in the developing world is the reason the virus has come back to haunt us with this variant. We were forewarned, yet we are here. Vaccine equity was critically important. The WHO asked every country to vaccinate at least 10 per cent of their population by September. More than 50 countries have missed this target. Most of these are in Africa. Our neighbour in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, has achieved only 1.7 per cent coverage of the vaccine.

Why are we forgetting that we are part of a global community? Why have we forgotten this, from the very beginning of the pandemic? Why are we forgetting that Australia has to play a role in protecting our region, supporting our friends and partners and stepping up to support that part of the developing world? We have delivered only 18 per cent of the COVID vaccinations that we promised to developing nations—just 18 per cent. This is not a partisan point here. I’m imploring the government to do better, because it affects all of us into the future. Until we vaccinate enough people, we will see this happen over and over again. We are literally in an arms race to vaccinate the world.

I call on the Morrison government to step up. They talk about the Step-up policy in the Pacific. Well, they’re not stepping up. It’s time now that they do so, because it’s in our interests in Australia and it’s in our common global interests to actually vaccinate the parts of the world that have such low vaccination rates. I implore the government to do what is necessary to get those vaccines to our friends and partners, particularly in the Pacific as well as in other parts of the world. We are a wealthy nation. We are privileged in many respects. We could do so much better in helping our friends around the world with vaccination, and, by doing so, we would be helping ourselves as well.