Facing Unprecedented Challenges: lessons from the 2020 Australian Public Health Conference

Jeremy Hunt

At this point, unprecedented doesn’t quite do 2020 justice. Throughout the year governments and organisations have had to quickly develop and modify responses to emergencies: globally, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic; locally, the Black Summer of bushfires. Thus it was unsurprising that the virtual (like seemingly most events these days!) Australian Public Health Conference 2020 centred on the topic, Public Health Action: Response to Bushfires, Climate and Coronavirus. This triumvirate of crises have had significant impacts upon the physical and mental health of individuals, and the conference brought together pre-eminent public health minds from Australia and abroad to discuss the response to these crises, and how they and other crises may be mitigated in 2021 and beyond.

In addition to the aforementioned emergencies, 2020 has also seen awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement swell. In Australia, the movement has particularly focused on the injustices that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have, and continue to, face. Several research papers have emerged demonstrating that minority groups are disproportionally affected by COVID-19 in terms of the health outcomes of those infected with the virus, as well as socially and economically.

In light of this, I found the first session of the conference COVID-19: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health particularly important. Michelle Dowden discussed the success of enlisting local communities to help crowd-source local language video-based COVID-19 prevention messaging. Christine Williamson and Margaret Smith discussed how COVID-19 had impacted the ability of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory to deliver support to young people in remote communities and how the lessons that they learnt utilising an action research model to evaluate service changes can be applied moving forward. These, along with the presentations by Sonny Green and Christine Williamson, suggest that by solving issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, important lessons were learnt which may benefit the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the future.

The second plenary at the conference, Planetary and Climate Health, provided another set of presentations that I thought were of great importance. Climate change infringes on the fundamental right of individuals to health; rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns result in increased transmission of infectious diseases and undermine environmental determinants of health such as clean air and water, and sufficient food. Associate Professor Donna Green reported the catastrophic bushfires of last summer resulted in a cost to the health system of nearly $2 billion, and events such as those bushfires are only to worsen if action on climate change is delayed or too weak. Climate change is a health issue, and it needs to be tackled now. To hear this explicated so clearly by Amanda McKenzie, Peter Sainsbury and Donna Green was powerful.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the presentation by Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute, where she discussed the practicalities of driving change. I learnt about the process of establishing the gap in the policy discussion (whether it be that stakeholders aren’t aware of the problem, that they don’t have a solution, or that there is something else standing in the way of the problem being solved) and different strategies to target particular policy changes. These were areas of policy work which, to a significant extent, I hadn’t considered before. Furthermore, I found discussions on the need to convince different stakeholder audiences (i.e. the public, politicians, industry stakeholders etc.) and how to target messages to these different audiences very enlightening.

These were just a few highlights from a conference which was, for me, a highlight in its entirety. I would like to sincerely thank the QLD branch of the PHAA for the opportunity afforded to me to attend the 2020 Australian Public Health Conference. It gave a much broader and comprehensive context to many of the topics that I am learning in my studies, I learnt from so many incredible people with incredible minds, and I developed my skills that I look forward to applying to effect change into the future.


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