Terry Slevin, PHAA CEO
We’ve made our way through the unforgettable 2020. We’re coming out the other side and have coped with the many adjustments and trials of quarter one, 2021. Vaccination programs have dominated the news and the expectations that have been created haven’t been delivered.
Frustrations have been emerging and now the blame game has started. Public health people have been the meat in the sandwich.
The core challenge isn’t state/commonwealth co-operation. It’s not political will or game playing. It is primarily about supply. The mass production and quality-controlled manufacture of a vaccine for a disease we’d not heard of 16 months ago, and then its roll out in the biggest vaccination program in Australia’s history, remains a little behind schedule.
In the past week an outbreak has occurred in Queensland. It won’t be the last.
“Let’s blame the vaccination roll out failure”
Well, not so much.
Let’s take half a step back.
There have been less than 300 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Australia in the last month, the large majority of which came in from overseas. And in that period, in fact in this calendar year to date – no deaths from the disease in Australia. In many parts of the world there are still hundreds of deaths every day.
On our near northern border, in Papua New Guinea, there are thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands of cases.
In a population of more than nine million in PNG, we’ve sent 8000 vaccine doses. We need to do much more; as PHAA’s One Health expert, Dr Andrea Britton, wrote today.
While there is clear community and political pressure to persist with a single-minded focus on the vaccination roll out within Australia, serious consideration should be given to ensuring proper supply and roll out for our near neighbours, and other countries in our region with more urgent needs than our own. And if we do so, we also add to layers of protection for Australians. Remember, the majority of infections are still coming in from outside our borders.
And, THE BLAME GAME MUST STOP.
We saw the value and impact of putting politics aside in 2020 to respond to the emergency. We saw a new approach to governance with states and territories working hand in glove with the Australian Government. We saw oppositions being constructive. And it worked. And we’ve seen oppositions who persisted with ‘opposing for the sake of opposing’ punished at every ballot box.
We’ve learned this week that we still have a long way to go in dealing with COVID-19. The emergency isn’t over.
Blame games across the state/territory and commonwealth divide weren’t acceptable in 2020. Let’s send a very clear signal: they are not acceptable in 2021 either.
And let’s accept that – despite promise and counter accusation in the political sphere – it is public health people who are working day and night to make this happen. Our people are working to assist our near neighbours. Ensuring quality control is in place, and transport, delivery, consent processes, logistics, communications, financing models (who pays for and gets paid for what) are all close to best practice standards. All happening under the closest daily scrutiny ever experienced.
One hiccup in the supply chain, a delay on the set-up of a mass manufacturing process, one glitch in a booking system, one failure of power supply knocking out a fridge that spoils a batch of doses, all attract front page and lead story attention. And they slowly undermine people’s confidence in the vaccine program.
These are the realities, the pressures and the challenges facing OUR people trying to make this whole thing work.
There are lots of armchair experts throwing rocks from outside.
My instinct is to offer what encouragement and support we can to these hardworking, dedicated and expert public health souls taking on this monumental and complex task.
We’re all looking forward to a brief respite over Easter to rest and reflect. I wish you and yours peace and a chance to enjoy it.
But please spare a thought for those on the front line of our biggest ever vaccination roll out program who no doubt will be toiling away while many of us aim to catch the last of the warm weather before the return of another winter.
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.