By Dr Ingrid Johnston, Senior Policy Officer, Public Health Association of Australia
Australia’s response to COVID-19 so far, has been one of the better examples globally: consistently led by medical and scientific advice. It was bipartisan, cooperative and decisive. The response and efforts of community members, health, community and service workers, the national advisory group, and governments generally in Australia demonstrates the extraordinary capacity we have to deal with a significant health threat. The response from the public health sector should be recognised and celebrated.
Compared with international rates, Australia has had a low number of infection cases and deaths. Distancing measures have clearly worked so far – with the added benefit of a notable reduction in influenza and other seasonal communicable disease cases this year.
However, we must remember that this event is far from over. Globally, the virus is spreading faster now than early on in the pandemic, and Australia is in no way immune from encountering a second wave.
Yet, this success has come at significant costs. This is clear from unemployment figures and the recession we are now in for the first time in decades. But some other costs are less obvious. Other public health activity was all but forgotten as every available public health professional was pulled into the pandemic response. The repercussions of things like reductions in immunisation services won’t be known for some time.
We have seen the value of public health measures in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our health. But this won’t be the last pandemic. We need to ensure that we protect and support the skilled public health workforces at Federal and State and Territory levels, so we can deal with what’s coming in the future.
An essential element of that will be recognising and addressing some of the underlying causes of the pandemic, and ensuring that the stimulus investments we make during the recovery from COVID have long-term benefits not harms. A healthy recovery is one that recognises that human, economic and planetary health are closely connected – when all three are healthy, all three are strong. When human health is compromised, the economy suffers.
COVID has demonstrated that human and animal health are interdependent, closely linked to the health of ecosystems, and that recognition of these links is paramount to preventing future pandemics. Destruction of animal habitats through deforestation and urban expansion, and wildlife trade, all increase the risks of transmission of viruses from animals to humans. Air pollution accounts for 7 million premature deaths each year, and leaves people with weakened respiratory and circulatory systems, increasing vulnerability to coronavirus pandemics. The global shutdown gave us a peak into a world with cleaner air – we have seen what is possible.
The undemocratic, fossil fuel dominated National COVID Commission, must not be allowed to be the single source of wisdom regarding “all non-health aspects of the pandemic response”, because it is not equipped to do so. Investments in the recovery will need to take account of many broader social impacts than jobs.
The Government needs to continue the good example set in the early response, seeking and respecting scientific and medical advice, and seek scientific advice on the broader social impacts to properly design stimulus responses for long term as well as short term benefit.
In PHAA’s recent submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Australian Government’s response to COVID-19, we highlighted impacts of the pandemic and response to it, on particular population groups and health issues, recognising that these impacts have not been universal.
Our recommendations included:
- Sustained increased funding for public health at Federal and State and Territory levels
- Support for training and capacity building for the public health workforce
- Establishing an Australian independent designated public agency to provide scientific advice and education, and coordination assistance on communicable disease control, including all diseases of public health importance
- Retention of the real living wage provided through JobSeeker, to allow recipients to focus on attaining new jobs as the recovery progresses, instead of being plunged into poverty requiring a full-time focus on basic survival needs
- Provision of services in recognition of the likely longer-term impacts of the pandemic such as increased mental health services
- Rather than economically and environmentally irresponsible investment in gas, strong action on climate change, led by scientific advice, to address underlying vulnerabilities to pandemics.
The size of the economic impact of COVID and the resulting need for significant stimulus in recovery provides a rare opportunity for significant investments in Australia’s long term health and wellbeing. We have to make sure that’s an opportunity taken not squandered.
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