Last Monday and Tuesday, Micah Australia (which I lead) took church leaders and faith-based agency heads to Canberra.
We went to lobby about the desperate messages we were hearing from our brothers and sisters in PNG.
We met with the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Zed Sejelsa, and such was the urgency in this crisis we prayed for him at his request. He had just attended Cabinet where they had talked about their response to this catastrophic news on our doorstep.
The PNG PM had said perhaps one in three are now infected with COVID-19 but with so little ability to test, let alone trace, no-one knows the size of this outbreak. Certainly, half of the women coming in for pregnancy tests who now get a Covid test are recording positive to the virus.
Micah has been running the ‘End Covid for All’ campaign, pointing out that more than 60 per cent of the global vaccines have been bought by just 16 per cent of the global population – namely the rich nations, including Australia. And we have seen our Government step up in past months with nearly an extra billion dollars of new aid funding.
But this was now a much more difficult decision. Would Australians tolerate a government sending some of our vaccines out of the country to PNG, when there are stumbles in our roll out and many are going to be waiting until October for their jab?
Why should healthy young Australians get vaccinated when health workers in PNG get infected because there are no vaccines?
As church leaders, we were well aware of the political sensitivities. We want our Government to be humanitarian and generous but we expect our Government’s first clear and sovereign duty is to protect us. This is where, as church leaders, we helped massage the message that with the virus in Queensland hospitals from PNG nationals flown in for treatment, it was a clear and present threat to Australians. And closing down flights is necessary – but we cannot close our borders or build a wall, as our Torres Strait islands are less than four kilometres of sea from PNG’s Western Province. The virus would transmit, given the regular boat and cultural traffic that is centuries old.
A virus does not recognise national borders, given cultural ties and commerce. So this is now about us. It requires us not to just be humane towards groups infected overseas, but to be intelligent and say we must help them to help ourselves.
As Christian leaders, there is always a theological clash between our beliefs – namely, that all are made in the image of God and the gospel teaches that the most vulnerable get priority in the Kingdom of God – and our nationalism that prioritises Australian first. This is a delicate dance. Why should healthy young Australians get vaccinated when health workers in PNG get infected because there are no vaccines? But nationalism around the world is a raging fire and we have to be realistic.
We assured the Government that we would be singing loudly in the Murdoch press. I was quoted on the front page of The Australian and in The Daily Telegraph seeking to give the Government cover from any nativist backlash from their base about diversion of our vaccine stock. And we kept our promise, backing this up on Wednesday’s front page of The Australian and in The Daily Telegraph. That was followed up with interviews on Sky TV and 2GB in Sydney.
Behind the scenes, it was amazing to see the reach of church leaders. When our Prime Minister was having difficulty during these days reaching the PNG PM to discuss this issue, it was one of our church leaders who has a deep friendship with James Marape who reached out directly to him. He helped both these PMs to connect. These church ties go very deep.
The Pacific peoples are not only deeply Christian but so are their political leaders and they trust Christians here. These Pacific Churches are deeply conservative so many Australian Christians are often surprised at their depth of feeling about climate change which poses an existential threat.
Jesus always prioritised the least and the last.
On Wednesday last week at about 10am, the PM stepped up at a press conference with both Zed Sejelsa and Marise Payne and announced he was immediately sending 8,000 vaccines from our store of vaccines to PNG to vaccinate health workers. And he demanded one million more that we have purchased from Europe to be sent immediately – so we can send them to PNG.
He spoke of how Covid does not end for any of us until it ends for all, which has been the Micah campaign.
This sending of ‘our’ vaccines was the big call. In addition 200,000 respirator masks, 100,000 gowns and the same number of goggles, gloves, bottles of sanitiser and 200 non-invasive ventilators were to be sent. Also, all flights between our nations were shut down.
PNG had done so well in containing the virus over the past 12 months but, during recent months, an outbreak has simply got away from them. I am proud of our Government stepping up to vaccinate their health workers. I am even more proud of Church leaders lobbying so decisively for the last and least in our region. I believe we are saved by faith alone but it is faith in Jesus. And Jesus always prioritised the least and the last.