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COVID-19: Executive Director Jennifer Tierney talks on ABC's Weekend Breakfast

11 Apr 2020

Jennifer Tierney, Executive Director of MSF Australia joined Fauziah Ibrahim and Johanna Nicholson on ABC Weekend Breakfast to discuss the way the organisation is responding to the challenges of COVID-19.


Johanna Nicholson: The coronavirus pandemic is putting a strain on aid organisations that are struggling with increase demand for services as we've been saying. Border closures and health risks are faced by those workers and volunteers. Vulnerable members of the community and groups including refugee populations are of most concern as the virus spreads around the world.

Fauziah Ibrahim: Let's now speak to Jennifer Tierney, who is the Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières. Many of MSF’s medical personnel work in refugee camps or conflict areas. We know at best of times, these are areas that have poor access to clean water, poor accommodation, and basically poor access to medical services as well. What are your teams on the ground telling you about the challenges they're facing now, at this time of the pandemic

Jennifer Tierney: Right now we're working in about 40 countries around the world, either to launch COVID-19 responses or to repurpose the programs that you just talked about to be COVID-ready. We're focused on refugees, the homeless, people who are in healthcare systems that have been decimated by wars, as you mentioned. And one of the most important things that the teams can be doing now is infection control and prevention. As you said a lot of the systems in which we are working don't really have the capacity to respond to both war trauma and, for instance, the giant measles outbreak that we're dealing with in DRC, and then add COVID-19 on top of that.

We're doing a lot of things on the field. For instance, in Bangladesh we have a hospital in the refugee camp and we are creating a facility to isolate COVID-19 tested positive patients. We are using our mobile clinics and repurposing those, to actually give out infection control and prevention messaging amongst the population and of course we're working very hard to try to protect all of our staff with personal protective equipment and the right training on infection control.

Fauziah Ibrahim: Of course, MSF volunteers come from right around the world but there have been these travel restrictions. How are you getting around that?

Jennifer Tierney: So, the first thing I want to say is how grateful MSF is to all the staff in the field who are either extending their stay in the field, foregoing holidays, moving from one country back to their home society to which they have been called and taking up work with MSF there. So for right now, we are doing the best we can to cover the needs.

We’re going to see a crunch in a few months from now when folks start getting exhausted and we need to replace them. We're doing the best we can to talk to the government about humanitarian exemptions for travel and making sure that we can actually get flights in and out of countries, which is proving as difficult as it is for a lot of folks travelling in and out of Australia.

Fauziah Ibrahim: Now, MSF websites as I noticed, lists many countries that your organisation is working with to try to battle this particular pandemic. Are there certain hotspots that MSF is concerned about?

Jennifer Tierney: You know, we're very concerned about a lot of places, frankly. We are concerned about the Sahel and great swathes of Africa where the healthcare system won't be able to cope. That's why we're working frantically on the infection control measures,because that is going to make the difference at the end of the day to the health systems in complete collapse verses being able to handle this pandemic.

Fauziah Ibrahim: This global pandemic goes to highlight we're only really as strong as the weakest healthcare system there is around the world. Going forward, do you think there will be more of a united or collaborative effort to try to strengthen healthcare systems in developed worlds?

Jennifer Tierney: I mean, there is no doubt that we are asking for that. We are always asking for that. If you look at the case of Greece, for instance, the refugees living there are currently living in tents, where they're sleeping ten to a tent that’s made for four people. Overcrowding and the sanitary conditions are terrible. So we're calling on the European government and on Athens to improve the conditions for refugees living in that situation.

When we talk about the vaccine, the disparity between developed nations and countries with undeveloped or underdeveloped or damaged healthcare systems, who can't afford to pay commercial prices for vaccines on a good day, certainly won't be able to afford to pay for a highly expensive COVID-19 vaccine. We are really advocating that the vaccine be accessible and affordable for everyone, so we don't see the disparity you're talking about. This pandemic – every single person counts, every patient counts so we have to be global in our response.

Fauziah Ibrahim: Jennifer Tierney, the Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières, thank you.


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Right now, Médecins Sans Frontières is providing much needed support and medical care in over 30 countries to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our teams are also gearing up to confront potential outbreaks in the hundreds of areas we were already working before the pandemic struck. We are deploying medical staff, sending supplies and applying nearly 50 years of experience fighting epidemics to protect the most vulnerable and save lives.
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