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The envy of the world

By Justin Denholm - posted Wednesday, 23 November 2011

"Australia's never had it so good". I hear this again and again, mostly from economists and newspaper columnists who observe that our financial status is the envy of the world.

"We've weathered the GFC," they say, and note that our GDP is high, unemployment low and we have more television sets and mobile phones than people. Australian cities are consistently near the top of lists of the best places on earth to live. Surely, life is good?

Well, it's true that Australia is a rich country, and most of us live very comfortable lives. Something about the continual trumpeting of financial and material statistics about our country makes me uncomfortable, though, and leads me to question the idea that "we've never had it so good."


While I think there are a few problems with justifying this refrain, it is particularly nauseating that we should choose to showcase our riches while, in global terms, we are surrounded by people overwhelmed with the afflictions of poverty.

As an infectious diseases physician, I'm brought alongside some people for whom life is not so good, both here in Australia and overseas. My work is mainly with people who have tuberculosis.

In Australia, about 7 people in every 100 000 get TB each year, while in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, 200 people in every 100 000 are afflicted. Malaria, filiariasis and severe diarrhoeal diseases all take their toll, too.

Overall, children born in Australia have a life expectancy of around 81 years. Those born in Papua New Guinea, though, have a life expectancy of 57 years, with 7.5% dying before their fifth birthday. These discrepancies between countries actually visible to each other in good light should shock us, but seem mostly to be overwhelmed by the latest Reserve Bank interest rate speculations.

Recently, I met with a group of specialists and public health workers to discuss different aspects of local and global health issues related to tuberculosis. Papua New Guinea was again at the forefront of our concerns. We talked about the rapidly expanding problem of multidrug resistant tuberculosis in the midst of the failing PNG health care system.

We talked, too, about a critically sick mother transferred to an Australian hospital for care, only to be found hoarding her food, intending to save it for her children once she returned home.


Of everything I heard, though, I was most upset to hear about the threats made by the Australian Immigration Department, including potential charges of 'people smuggling' levelled at Australian doctors providing health care in the border region.

The situation surrounding tuberculosis care in Papua New Guinea parallels current issues in Australia's response to refugees generally. We are faced with people in great need, whether it is due to an infection like tuberculosis or the dangers arising from war, famine and persecution.

Our politicians talk about the need for structural developments overseas; strengthening healthcare systems, streamlining refugee assessment processes, contributing to rebuilding damaged and violent societies. All of these things are good and proper, and we should surely make serious efforts to improve conditions in the countries that sorely need help. None of this, though, changes the fact that suffering people are on our nation's doorstep, struggling in situations that are vastly different to our own.

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About the Author

Dr Justin Denholm is the Coordinator of the Centre for Applied Christian Ethics at Ridley Melbourne.

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