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When crisis strikes, this is how Australia should respond

The biggest threats of our time can be helped by some of the simplest of solutions – communication, respect for individuals, building relationships and discussing with crisis-hit communities what they need rather than telling them, a major forum has heard.

The remarks were in a panel discussion after social justice leader Rev Tim Costello gave the 2022 Investigator Lecture titled Conflict and Crisis: A Global Health Emergency, part of Flinders University’s Fearless Conversations series.

Panel members were Professor Leonard Notaras, executive director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, Professor Paul Arbon, director of the Torrens Resilience Initiative and former foreign correspondent Eric Tlozek.

Rev Costello had earlier observed “Our planet is a more dangerous place than ever before” and warned nuclear weapons and climate change are profoundly different to past threats.

The panel noted from natural disasters to man-made crisis such as the war in Ukraine, the world is interconnected and consequences from drought to refugees affect other nations.

The discussion heard climate change may fuel future pandemics, while also noting systems from sewerage to electronics need to be robust to survive sudden disasters and prevent a ripple effect of health emergencies.

Resilience expert Prof Arbon said Australia is very good at responding to natural disasters such as flood and fire both here and overseas

“But in my view, that’s not the problem.,” he said. “The problem isn’t the kinds of challenges that people in their communities have to face.

“It is the problem of the complexity and interdependence of our societies today that means it isn’t the event that’s the problem, it’s the damage that event does to all of the other systems.”

Prof Arbon said it is more difficult than ever today to maintain social cohesion.

“It is more difficult to sustain trust, trust in governments in particular. Trust in science, for example, is waning, and that makes it harder for us all to respond to emergencies, but also to prepare well for them because we have to work together.

“We have to respond together. We have to trust in the responses that people are recommending.”

He cited the pandemic as an example, with suspicion over vaccines, lockdowns and masks, which he said were valid questions to ask but did challenge social cohesion.

He also warned the “new threat” to dealing with emergencies is “living in the modern information ecosystem.”

“We all live now in an environment where we have access to so much information all of the time, in volumes that we can’t process,” Prof Arbon said.

While much of this information including medical healthcare has been beneficial, the sheer volume can be overwhelming.

“The problem in the context of crisis and conflict and disaster is there is too much information and it’s incredibly difficult for all of us,” Prof Arbon said.

“Even those of us with some experience, to work out which piece of information we should trust, what we should actually do, which source is most reliable.

“So the information piece is really challenging these days and I think it starts to unpick our ability to function as a society in crisis.

“It’s one of the new threats – it’s not the fires and floods, not the earthquake. It’s the stuff we need to deal with it and the information that are the real challenges for us today.”


Partnerships with local people is crucial for agencies intending to assist in man-made or natural disasters, the panel says.

Executive director of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, Professor Leonard Notaras, said this effort to help communities become more resilient was contrasted by aid given to Haiti which exacerbated problems, and aid given to Vanuatu.

He said a lot of “well meaning people” had tried to help in Haiti in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake but ended up being a further burden on that community.

He said his group is self-sufficient in communities they are helping, down to their own food and desalination of their water.

He also noted the importance of listening and understanding local people rather than telling them what they need.

“Local people will tell you what’s appropriate for them,” Prof Notaras said, adding some governments will have different views from the wider community on what is needed.

“If we say to a particular nation, ‘what do you need?’ It will be a case of ‘money, guns and lawyers, send as much as you can right now’, ” he said.

However, in cases where development aid has upskilled locals to deal with crises with resilience and innovation, the need for help diminishes.

“One of the most wonderful things with Cyclone Gita in 2018 was that I was asked by Vanuatu to send a team up and we did send a team up,” Prof Notaras said.

“And I was then told, ‘you can actually bring the team back because you’ve actually trained us over the last 5-10 years and mentored us in the way we best respond. We will keep one of your command and control people, but we don’t actually need much else.’

“And I think that is the secret of success.

“There are solutions out there but often we look at the complexity of the situation and are confounded by that … be fearlessly focused.”

Rev Costello stressed respect and partnerships with local people in times of disaster is critical to successful outcomes.

“I have gone to disasters and you have this interesting stage where you almost have the humanitarian cavalry who ride in roughshod, take control, make sure the water’s clean and you’ve got to withdraw them pretty quickly, and have the development people come in and say ‘actually, what’s appropriate?’, ” he said.

“There are moments where you need the humanitarian cavalry to stop cholera breaking out, and they do trample on what should be the locals’ decisions.

“So you do have balances in this. We have gotten a whole lot better at this.”

Rev Costello said sometimes “just about everything that can go wrong goes wrong” and that when tsunami hit Indonesia the rush to help caused problems.

“We had the madness of just about every group deciding, even though they’d never been outside Australia, deciding to pitch a tent up there,” he said.

“Utter chaos, leading to a review where the UN literally said ‘only if you’ve got capability and experience can you go in.’

“So you don’t ever want to cut off the charitable need to help, that’s a nice thing.

“But the havoc of course, is the trampling down of people’s own sense of ‘this is our place and our capacities’.”


Amid the chaos, manpower and millions of dollars in humanitarian relief efforts funnelled to natural and man-made disasters, sometimes a little common sense helps.

The panel discussed ways to improve such efforts – hot topics were less rescue “cavalry” and more aid workers upskilling locals as well as Australia’s world-recognised medical aid responses to global crises.

There was also emphasis on co-operation, noting events that affect one country – from natural disasters to the war in Ukraine with its subsequent refugee exodus and fears about its nuclear reactors – affect other countries.

Adelaide-based Eric Tlozek was the ABC’s Papua New Guinea correspondent from 2015-18 and related how he hitched a helicopter ride to a remote village following an earthquake.

After a few days he ended up in a local committee meeting with an Oil Search company employee who had been running a health program.

“He said, “We’re two weeks after the earthquake, why is the power still off?’ And they said, ‘oh, there’s a line down about halfway along the road to Mendi,’ which was about 40km out of town,” Mr Tlozek said.

“And he said, ‘Well, we’ve got electricians here and we could just reattach that line. Right?’ but they said, “No, we haven’t got a ladder.’

“Then they sort of went ‘well, who’s got a ladder?’ And then they asked around and all of a sudden we’ve got a ladder.

“It just took someone to ask the question, there was a little bit of co-ordination and electricity got restored. It was astonishing.”


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