Polio and COVID-19

Federation Chamber 22/02/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (11:27): I second and support the member for Higgins’s motion on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. We’re co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of UNICEF group and as such are very committed advocates of the GPEI. We are very, very lucky to live in a country where polio has been eradicated. But it’s been a bit more than luck; it’s been a lot of hard work by Australia and the international community.

Australia was declared polio free in 2000, and there have been no local transmissions of polio in Australia since 1972, before I was born. It is hard to believe for some of us who are a bit younger—there might be some who might remember; sorry, member for Bennelong, but I didn’t mean to point you out!—that just 70 years ago polio was widespread across Australia and the globe and that now in 2021 it is 99 per cent eradicated. That’s a remarkable achievement. There is still wild polio, though, in two countries, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The entire African continent was certified as polio free just last year, on 25 August 2020. That is an incredible achievement, and it speaks volumes to what can be achieved when the international community works constructively together. Much of it is thanks to the GPEI, which led the world’s efforts to end polio, bringing together many stakeholders—the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others—who had a core objective to end polio once and for all.

In 1988, when the GPEI began, there were more than 350,000 cases of polio that had paralysed and killed children worldwide. I was old enough to remember that; it wasn’t just others. We remember when it was a still a big problem globally. If it weren’t for the efforts of the GPEI, we could have seen much larger numbers across the globe. While we have already consigned polio to history in Europe, the Americas, Africa and India, there is only one more push to finish the job, and that is in, as I mentioned, the two countries that still have wild poliovirus.

Of course, we all know that a new challenge exists—the one that we’re facing right now: a new virus, COVID-19. As Mark Twain is said to have said, ‘History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes.’ Two epidemics, 104 years apart, see cities shut down, movie cinemas shut down, public schools closed, strictly enforced social distancing rules, and mothers keeping their children away from others. Some things remain the same, even after many generations. We can hope that what ended the polio epidemic will end this one: the development of a vaccine.

It’s fitting that I’m speaking today about this, as our nation began the rollout of the COVID vaccine yesterday. In Victoria, we saw the first vaccine given to the head of infection control at Monash Health. It’s a historic moment in the fight against COVID-19. We’re on the offensive now in tackling this virus. We’re no longer on the back foot, but we still have a long way to go, not only in Australia but across the globe. But, with these first vaccinations, I think we’re all very hopeful. These vaccinations will allow us to be safe and to protect our families, friends, community and the nation. I hope to see Australia play a role in protecting our region by helping roll out vaccinations to our neighbours across the Pacific region. We must not forget that, even though we can’t travel right now, we’re still part of that international community—the international community that did so well to eradicate polio. The GPEI is an example of the world working together towards a common goal. We can do it again with respect to COVID-19 and the rollout of the vaccinations. The GPEI has also played a role in the fight against COVID-19. Many of their resources and infrastructure that were used to help fight polio are now being used to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread out of control in the developing nations. Setting COVID aside, our fight against polio is still not over. There’s still work to be done, and much of the eradication effort has slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The progress that we have made so far is at some risk. So, although we are in a great battle against COVID-19, Australia must not forget the fight alongside the global community to continue the eradication of polio for good, wherever it exists.