The catch-cry ‘we’re all in this together’ during the COVID-19 public health emergency has brought to the fore a multitude of examples of ‘people helping people’ in the most challenging of circumstances.
The latest example is the response to a nation-wide call for public health mentors to support those engaged in the front-line response to the pandemic in Victoria. The Public Health Association Australia (PHAA) partnered with the Australasian Epidemiological Association (AEA) to establish a bespoke mentoring program for early-mid career public health workers in the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), many of whom have faced an extraordinarily steep learning curve and borne the brunt of the impact during the pandemic. While the pandemic has taken its toll on every Victorian in some way, those at the pointy end trying to keep people safe and alive face a unique set of challenges. Through no fault of their own, having coped so well with the first wave of the pandemic, the group of public health professionals at the DHHS found themselves dealing with an even bigger crisis in the second wave.
Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association Australia confirmed, ‘It’s been a huge challenge and a high-pressure environment to work in, with long hours, intense situations and heavy workloads, and so many competing priorities. Many new people were brought in to deal with the crisis as it grew, and they were effectively learning on the job in this most stressful environment. We have been delighted to be able to offer some assistance to around 200 of these workers through our mentoring program with the AEA. Having been stretched to the limit and in some ways caught in the crossfire of a political debate over how best to respond to the pandemic, we felt we owed it to these dedicated, tireless workers to provide a helping hand and whatever support we can.’
In just a matter of weeks since the call went out for experienced public health mentor volunteers, the program has recruited enough expertise to provide one-on-one support for every Victorian public health care worker who registered with the program. Volunteers have signed on from right across Australia in a show of solidarity and support with their fellow public health professionals. Ten mentors have generously signed up to take on more than one mentee.
Experienced individuals, from the CEO level down have put their hands up, representing dozens of organisations. These include the World Health Organisation, Australian Health and Medical Research Council, the Doherty Institute, the Menzies School of Health Research, four state health departments and more than a dozen Australian universities. Thanks to the tremendous response, no-one who has sought the PHAA and AEA’s help through the program has been turned away.
While the daily updates from Victoria are extremely promising right now, those within the public health community are cautious of the need to be vigilant and not lose sight of the impact the past few months has had on the front-line responders.
Prof Slevin described the mentoring program as an opportunity to provide more access for these groups grappling with the emergency of covid to more experienced public health professionals. ‘It’s an opportunity for an exchange of knowledge between those who have been in the field for a long time with those who are earlier in their careers, allowing the mentor to give guidance, feedback and support, but to also learn from the experiences of those on the frontline of this pandemic. Having a mentor as a sounding board is designed to build the DHHS worker’s capabilities and enhance their wellbeing in this challenging time,’ Prof Slevin said. ‘It’s also a unique, once in a generation opportunity for learning which should help not only in our current response in Victoria, but for other parts of Australia and overseas, and for future public health emergencies.’
Despite the early success of the mentoring program, Prof Slevin cautioned that it is by no means a long-term solution to the larger structural issues with Victoria’s public health workforce, which has been progressively pared back by successive governments and left the state with inadequate staffing and resources. The PHAA has advocated for a significant strengthening of the public health workforce nation-wide through increased funding, training programs and the allocation of resources, which it says is essential to bolster efforts in this pandemic and in future public heath crises.
The encouraging COVID numbers in Victoria justify the decision of the Victorian Premier and Chief Health Officer to stay the course and listen to the public health experts in the need for taking a precautionary approach to getting the state back to ‘covid normal’. Many other countries have struggled to control their second wave, indicating that any other approach than that taken by the Premier and Chief Health Officer could have been disastrous.
The PHAA supports the sentiments expressed by public health experts in Victoria and in other states and territories who strongly favour the approach of short-term suppression to protect the long-term health of the local community.