I am a physician at a public hospital in south east Melbourne.
I was intermittently following the emergence of a new disease in China, but after watching a webinar with Dr Bruce Aylward, of the WHO-China Joint Mission in China (1), I started to take COVID19 seriously. I realised that 2% of patients were dying despite all the efforts of a very well-equipped health system within a society that was putting massive efforts into prevention and management. Italy and the US showed that once the health system was overwhelmed, the mortality was two or three times that seen in China.
From there everything moved quickly. Everyone put in huge days at the hospital, meetings upon meetings, establishing new wards and new protocols. I wasn’t the only one who sometimes cried from exhaustion and mourning a loss yet to come. But we did it, the leadership was excellent: consulting widely, checking in, managing both professional and personal anxiety and maintaining cohesion. We have managed those people who came in with COVID-19 and many more who needed to be tested and “cleared” before getting on to manage their actual acute conditions.
One welcome, yet troubling realisation: this was the first time in ten years that I heard a senior executive specifically mention the word “racism” and explicitly state that it was not to be tolerated. It addressed the tide of prejudice that has been rising ever since sensationalised media coverage of coronavirus began late last year. Tribalism is nothing new in times of crisis: anti-Jewish pogroms went hand in hand with the Black Death in Europe through the Middle Ages. It needs strong leadership to prevent that sort of prejudice from being expressed.
More than being anti-racist, we need to be inclusive. The Australian public health response was initially very “Ramsey St” – discussion about prevention, social distancing, quarantine and changes to health services all seemed to assume an anglophone nuclear family of Australian-born citizens. Thankfully, that has improved: SBS has some excellent multilingual health information and global news bulletins for people with family and friends abroad.
However, our government has left international students and many other temporary visa holders without any support: where will they live? What must they do to survive? How will they manage social distancing? Will they trust public health officials who are tracing contacts to prevent a second wave of infections in Australia? Singapore is a stark example of what happens when a society excludes people and cuts them out of the pandemic response. I have real fears of something similar occurring here.
I wonder what lies beyond the coronapocalypse. Will the new ‘normal’ be an open, just, inclusive society, more conscious of our interdependence with each other and the natural world? Or will we be anxious, homebound neoliberal citizen-consumers in a surveillance state? It depends on the stories we tell ourselves. Maybe we \ should ask the young people whose future is paying for our lives.
A vast amount of thanks to Dr Chris Lemoh for sharing his experience during this time. Dr Chris is one of those wonderful doctors, with empathy, societal comprehension who also manages to do a PhD in his spare time.
For those that enjoyed his piece he invites you to read this piece in the ABC.