Health officials’ timidity to politicians has hampered pandemic response

Jan 12, 2022
COVID-19 vaccination centre queue
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

If Morrison has his way with impression management, the pandemic is now simply a problem for the states, with the Commonwealth scarcely having a role.

It was not only experts who have been convenient alibis for Scott Morrison’s mishandling of the pandemic. Morrison sought to get some personal distance from his own debacle of badly organised vaccine logistics, deliveries and management by appointing a military officer to take charge.

Lieutenant-General John Frewen was supposedly an expert in logistics, a skill that must have been very helpful in helping run the Australian Signals Directorate. “JJ” (as Morrison matily calls him) was supposed to take particular charge of what had been agreed to be Commonwealth responsibilities: the vaccination of key groups of vulnerable people, such as people in aged and disability care and their carers, people with auto-immune problems, and Indigenous Australians.

Commonwealth performance in all of these tasks, particularly with Indigenous Australians, disabled Australians and carers — ended up with indifferent results, missed schedules and disappointing rates of vaccination. This was because the task seemed to change into helping the Prime Minister (and later, a premier) in dealing with whatever political crisis suddenly occurred.

The Australian Defence Force was used and politicised by its acceptance of the role. Far from demonstrating any expertise, flexibility or non-partisan sense-of-purpose, it badly let down disabled people and Indigenous Australians. It lent itself with far too much enthusiasm to a “Brisbane-line” division of Sydney, complete with police officiousness, overreach and overhead surveillance of poorer areas of Sydney.

One can confidently expect that the official war history — recording the ADF’s second defeat in 12 years from interventions in Indigenous affairs — will blame the victims, not the military culture, or its habit of going for the glamour and the glory, rather than the grunt and the grit.

Over recent months, even the experts have been tending to follow the lead of the politicians in saying that the fight against the Coronavirus, and the statistics by which one assessed progress, were changing. Initially everyone was focused on new cases, and new deaths, rather less on figures such as hospitalisations and the number of cases in intensive care wards. No one any longer talks of suppression strategies focused on “flattening the curve” — if only because there were fewer cases in intensive care wards than initially anticipated.

Then, for a while, the focus seemed to shift to vaccination rates, the working assumption being that the higher the proportion of people vaccinated, or double (now triple) vaccinated) the fewer there would be who were vulnerable. Even if those who were vaccinated remained vulnerable to infection — as it seems many do — the evidence suggested that their condition would be much milder.  Accordingly, it was said, the key statistics at which one should look were those needing care in hospitals, or, worse, very-labour-intensive acute care in ICUs. Everyone else, it seems, can “live with the virus”.

Our heroic front line is exhausted and out of gas. Politicians are not listening

Yet again, politicians have been able to pretend that such wisdom has come from the experts, rather than the other way around.  First, those in isolation at home are often significantly, rather than trivially ill, and a burden on others. Second, such people, including many not even infected at all, were being put to significant inconvenience, including long queuing awaiting testing — testing sometimes required as a condition of employment, or travel, or ordinary prudence after exposure to infected people.

Assuming that there are adequate supplies of RAT tests, it may well be that RAT tests could operate as a substitute for more intensive, and slower, tests. But government was not “dealing with” the problem simply by abolishing the need for any testing at all in some cases (for example when exposure to an infected case was for less than four hours, or for interstate travel), by saying that those who have proven positive on RATs tests need not go for more intensive testing.

Likewise, with the apparent lack of thought given to the need to maintain statistics on fresh cases, and the dismissive suggestion, once attention was drawn to it, that this was a problem for each of the states to deal with in its own way. If Morrison has his way with impression management, the pandemic is now simply a problem for the states and territories with the Commonwealth scarcely having a role at all.

No doubt this can be folded into popular feeling that we are all “over” the personal inconveniences and precautions of the pandemic, and that, we are in particular tired of being bossed around and over-regulated. Hence, of course, the idea that the Coalition is the party with the light hand, focused on supporting freedom, personal responsibility and market-based solutions rather than central controls, masks, restrictions on movement and the imposition of authoritarian approaches.

A good deal of the press of cases on public facilities still comes from Delta strains of the disease — far more virulent than the original form of the coronavirus. We know that Omicron is even more infectious — so much so, in fact, that people are talking calmly of everyone, ultimately, becoming infected. A massive explosion of cases — and in recent weeks perhaps 250,000 Australians have been infected, with cases increasing exponentially by the day — may not be producing hospital cases in the same proportion as Delta infections, but, Omicron does produce serious cases, if at lower rates, and much higher strike rates will also seriously tax health facilities — even were healthcare workers not exhausted and over-extended already.

Indeed at the moment, the resourcing problem is as critical as the virus itself — and it cannot simply be dismissed as a state or territory matter. Nor can the problem be dealt with by overtime, by dispensing with earlier protocols about furloughing exposed or “mildly” infected staff, or by ordering people to work when they are sick or exhausted. Such people — much more the selfless heroes of the pandemic than the experts, the bureaucrats, the army or the police force — can and will resign or drop out of the public health workforce.

This is additionally a disaster while very much the same politicians, and very much the same teams of administrators and professionals should be planning a doubling of the numbers of professional health carers — to deal with existing needs in aged and disability care. No doubt we can be sure that the experts will not be hesitating to proffer frank and fearless advice over coming months, as Morrison plans the raid on his campaign chest.


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