A message to our public health workers in 2020

Terry Slevin

Emotionally charged, fraught, threatening, unsettling and filled with uncertainty. 2020 is finishing like it started.

In January it was bush fires, choking smoke and in some places hail storms.  And lurking in the background was a new and little-understood brewing virus.

In December, after a year of chaos, heartache, isolation and disruption, there is another outbreak. Arguments about the best response are underway, and we are again faced with restrictions to travel, lives, and families.

Emotions have run unrelentingly high.  And it feels like there is still no end in sight.

Most are physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained and yet there are more hurdles to overcome.

Millions of Australians have given up freedoms, large and small.

  • Some for a soul scarring period of many months.
  • Thousands have quarantined, losing the most basic of freedoms for 14 days.
  • Many have done so more than once.
  • There are those who have done so willingly as the sacrifice they have been prepared to make to allow them to do their part in quelling the disease.

The impact of 2020, I suspect, is yet to be fully appreciated.  I hope you are part of the lucky few for whom the year has generated little more than unanticipated inconveniences, reduced travel opportunities, modest levels of anxiety and unique insights into the ways of the world.

But for many the challenges of isolation, stress, fear for self and loved ones, a first-time experience of deprivation of liberties, physical or mental ill health, deep, deep exhaustion, extended separation from the people most important to you, employment and income uncertainty and more, has tested our resilience to the limit.

But in that time of quiet reflection which I hope we all will get, it is vital we step back to take a broader view.

Despite the criticisms, anxiety, frustrations and arguments, we might look with some relief at our position in the world. As of 22 December, Australia must be ranked one of the most successful countries in the world in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.  On a world ranking with the number of Covid-19 deaths as the criteria, and the highest number of deaths being ranked number one, Australia ranked 138 out of 190.

Currently about 245,000 cases of, and 3,600 deaths from Covid-19 are diagnosed in the USA PER DAY.  England? 25,000 cases and 600 deaths. Brazil? 70,000 cases and almost 1000 deaths. Germany, 32,000 cases, 900 deaths, and South Africa with 10,000 cases and around 200 deaths.  The list goes on.

These figures are a monumental human tragedy.

Our island nation status was no doubt a key factor in our relative success.  The isolation provided by being “girt by sea” has served us well in 2020.  But so too has our public health people and systems.

I am immensely proud of the extraordinary and mostly unsung dedication of the public health workforce in 2020.  Being co-operative, evidence-driven, constructive and pragmatic have been vital to our relative success.

But so too has it been a lesson that success in public health can really only happen when our political leaders play their part.  Regardless of political stripe – for the most part our elected leaders have taken and been prepared to follow public health advice.

That should be reinforced and celebrated. And we’d wish this might be a precedent followed more frequently in future.

There are stark examples of failure on that front internationally. And that will no doubt be more thoroughly and dispassionately documented over the coming months.

Putting this aside for now, here is a little treat. 

Consider this my modest Christmas offering.  I first credit Priscilla Robinson for sending it to me.  Her quote is:

how about this different and very interesting multicultural version of a normally schmaltzy carol”.

One offering in the YouTube comments is worth noting:

“For those who don’t know Arabic, the last two singers of this amazing quintet draw a connection between Jesus’ poverty and the poverty of the Palestinian children being born today in the West Bank.”

If you will allow me to make a recommendation, it is worth five minutes of your life.



And finally, I most wholeheartedly and sincerely wish you rest, peace, love, joy. And returning to the preeminent theme: Thank you. I mean, in every possible sincere, heartfelt and humble manner, to all of our dedicated public health and health workers. Thank you.

We need you and the community needs you to be ready to saddle up again in 2021.


Terry Slevin is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, and is also Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University and Adjunct Professor in the College of Health and Medicine at the Australian National University.



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