Monday, 6 September 2004

Skirting the Libel Laws

A group of 50-odd senior, respected medical practioners in Australia recently wrote an open letter slamming the Australian Government
The open letter calls Australia's role in Iraq a tragic mistake and accuses the Howard Government of taking Australia to war on false and misleading grounds.

Dr Gillian Deakin, from the Medical Association for Prevention of War, says the action stemmed from a collective conscience.

"Warfare is no longer, in the 21st Century an acceptable practice," she said.

"It should be seen that our troops are only used for the defence of Australia and never in acts of aggression."
But I thought War was not acceptable? Immediately thereafter, Dr D. speaks about 'defence of Australia' as if it was somehow justified. From these words considered alone, either the good doctor is mentally slothful (so is unaware of the contradiction), or both mendacious and so arrogant she doesn't think anyone will pick her up on it. Or maybe she's just misquoted, and is merely misunderstood. I have no wish to libel the good doctor, so let's look further.

More details from The Age :
One of the signatories, Westmead Hospital Professor Richard Kefford, today described the government's response to Iraq's reconstruction as ''insufficient''.

''Now that the Coalition of the Willing has invaded Iraq, we want the coalition to be much more actively involved in picking up the consequences with respect to the devastating effects on health care.

''We have a responsibility, as one of the countries that invaded that country, to make things better.''
Arguably true in all respects, and quite a reasonable thing to say. I'm not sure I agree, there's no point in spending all the money on hospitals, and none on making sure they don't get shelled (as has happened recently). But reasonable.
Another signatory, the head of the University of Sydney's School of Health, Professor Bruce Armstrong, told AAP there was little evidence the government had done anything to address health issues in Iraq.

''These kind of things seem not to have been considered,'' Prof Armstrong said.

''It is identified as collateral damage, whereas health is such an important thing.''
Now everyone should treat politicians statements with not just a grain, but a couple of kilotonnes of Sodium Chloride. But this is what was said in reply :
Mr Howard says the medical professionals are entitled to their view but he does not agree with it.

"I would have thought as doctors they would have taken account of the fact that spending on public health after Saddam is 60 times greater than what it was when Saddam ran Iraq," Mr Howard said.

"It was about $US16 million on public health when that monster ran Iraq.

"Expenditure on public health in Iraq is now more than $1 billion a year."

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has dismissed the letter.

He says that most doctors in Australia would agree that Iraq's health system had made good progress since Saddam Hussein's regime was ended.

Mr Downer has suggested those who signed the document share a minority view.

"I'm very surprised that any doctor would regret the passing of the regime of Saddam Hussein which in its last year spent $20 million on its health budget compared to the current Iraqi health budget of nearly $1 billion.
OK, so who's telling porkies?

Go read Chrenkoff. He has facts and figures to back it up. Things like
Australia has already given A$125 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq. Some of it was going towards health needs even before the fighting even stopped.
Chrenkoff in a previous article quotes a piece in The Scotsman and dated June 25th.:
Yet, despite the frustrations of life at Medical City, Iraq's health system overall is off the critical list and more or less stable, if suffering occasional lapses. Last year, $245 million (Pds 135 million) was spent on reviving its 240 crumbling hospitals, more than a dozen times the $20 million budget it had under Saddam (roughly 44p per person).

This year, the spending will nearly quadruple to $950 million. The 32,000 doctors and nurses will be retrained to catch up on the past 15 years of medical science.

Staff who fled to the US and Britain are occasionally coming back and state-owned hospitals that were once "self-financing", Saddam-speak for making patients pay for operations, are free again.

Among the optimists is Medical City's new manager, Dr Majid Jalal Ali, 54. He is also its main paediatric surgeon, and does the manager's job "for free". It is an extra burden that he is willing to carry, given that he is now earning approximately 35 times what he used to.

"Under Saddam, I got only 20 Pds a month, now it is $700," he said. "Lots of our old staff are applying for their old jobs back because the pay has gone up so much, which is better than them working as taxi drivers.

"For the hospital itself, things are also better: we have most of the essential drugs we need, and three big generators for electricity. We've also built a new casualty unit and soon we will be rehabilitating the whole building."

Others, though, are convinced things are still not any better than they were in the last years of Saddam's rule, when excessive military spending bled what was once a First World-standard health service of 90 per cent of its funding.

With electricity shortages still endemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that hi-tech ward equipment has not yet arrived to replace the patched-up and broken 1980s relics. But why, with money pouring in for the past 14 months, do drug shortages still exist?

Dr Dave Tarantino, a senior health adviser at the Coalition Provisional Authority, says that, despite the huge cash injections, the financial medicine has had trouble flowing through the network of Iraq's pharmaceutical distribution system. It was a child of the oil-for-food programme, where UN red tape and Saddam-era corruption combined to form a system that was overarchingly bureaucratic, inefficient and riddled with bribery.

Many of the foreign medical suppliers involved in oil-for-food are now under official investigation on allegations of taking millions of dollars of kickbacks, often sending medicines that were out-of-date and massively overpriced. As a result, Iraq's health ministry is having to rebuild the system anew, weeding out corrupt suppliers and recruiting new ones.
Had these 50-odd medical practitioners had their way, this situation of graft and corruption would have continued. And hundreds, thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands would have died. Professor Armstrong's views in particular, seem rather at odds with the facts, facts that anyone with Internet access and an interest in the subject should have known.

And I'll leave it at that, because Australia has a fairly tight set of Libel laws, where truth is not neccessarily a complete defence.

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