On last night’s ABC news, I noticed a rather chilling form of accounting going on. Recent weeks have seen an increase in the number of “unauthorized arrivals”/”asylum seekers”/”boat people” coming into Australian territorial waters. The terminology varies, and I sense but am not attuned to the nuances in the different phrases. It is part of a world-wide phenomenon, and one that comparatively, Australia is largely insulated from. But we have a particular sensitivity to the image of hordes sweeping down and ravaging our solitary continent, sharpened perhaps by the inflexibility and cockiness borne of being an island nation, freed from the messy necessity of sharing borders with any one else.
And so to the news this week of the fire aboard one of the boats. The West Australian Premier’s rapid assertion that the boat was deliberately doused with petrol evoked a sinking feeling of deja vu, to the subminal soundtrack of “We will decide….”. I feel a hot prickle of embarrassment when I think of Australia’s refugee policy over recent years, a shame-faced acknowledgement that we have not acted with the fairness or generosity that we would like to claim for ourselves, but also feel wooden-tongued and at a loss to find the words or the prescription for a more principled stance.
However, as a result of the fire on board, the ABC news told me – let’s call it all ‘x’ as good mathematicians seem to do- X men were airlifted to Broome hospital, X to Darwin and X to Brisbane. X number of doctors had been called in for duty; X ambulance crews scrambled, X nursing teams assembled to provide intensive care.
In a society with finite goods and resources in the health sector, there is of course a form of rationing going on all the time. The whole Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is based on it; it underpins the question of funding for IVF treatment. It is reflected the bemoaning in today’s Sunday Age of the arrival of ravers who had overdosed on GHB while hospitals were on high-alert for the arrival of more innocent burns victims from Black Saturday.
But, rightly, all this accounting goes out the window in an emergency, when our shared humanity is at stake. As London bombing survivor Gillian Hicks reminded us just this week, kindness was extended to her , irrespective of colour, nationality, religion because she was a person who needed help. No-one was standing at the door, counting the doctors and nurses and totting up the figures when burns victims were being airlifted from Bali. “What ever it takes!!” the politicians vowed after the Victorian bushfires.
Ah, but that’s ‘us’; not ‘them’.