Two years ago COVID arrived in Australia. In that time it has changed the world but it hasn’t changed the fundamentals of Australia. In a world with over 5.5 million lives lost officially and more likely closer to 15 million, Australia has witnessed hardship and tragedy but we have emerged with one of the lowest rates of loss of life, highest rates of vaccination and strongest economic recoveries in the world. Above all else we remain an essentially optimistic nation and people.
Australia acted quickly. The Government called the pandemic two weeks before the World Health Organization did. Border measures were put in place, ‘human coronavirus with pandemic potential’ had been listed under the Biosecurity Act 2015, the Department of Health provided advice to doctors and Emergency Departments across the country, and then Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy convened the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC).
The National Incident Centre at the Department of Health, which had been dealing with bushfires, re-focused and became the epicentre of a national approach to this new threat. It has been in operation for every day of the past two years. They have been guided by trusted medical professionals who have since become well known on our TV screens, offering calm, consistent and considered advice. To Brendan Murphy and the now Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, the country owes them so much for the steady hand they have provided and the guidance that has kept Australians largely safe when other countries have been – and continue to – lose thousands – if not hundreds of thousands of lives.
But as they also warned, a pandemic doesn’t just go away. It will continue to change and we must respond as needed, learning the lessons of the past two years. As we move through another challenging time with the Omicron variant, it’s important to reflect on how far we have come and how well Australia as a community have navigated the pandemic.
As case numbers rapidly grew around the world in 2020, efforts were directed towards keeping community transmission low to give us time to ready the health system – especially Intensive Care Units – for an influx of patients requiring ventilation.
Closing the border, lockdowns, telehealth, bolstering medical supplies, developing testing regimes and communicating with the public all played a part. The strategy was remarkably successful – a key factor being the engagement of the Australian people in embracing a raft of unprecedented protections. Throughout 2020, Australia’s COVID-19 statistics were among the world’s best and fatalities were one of the lowest in the world, as they have remained.
At that time, a vaccine was a hope, rather than a certainty. Treatments were yet to be tested.
2021 brought more sustained community transmission but now we had more tools to combat the onslaught.
Vaccines were developed in record time by the world’s best researchers and regulators around the world – including Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – who worked tirelessly to assess their safety, quality and efficacy.
Australia’s vaccine rollout began in earnest – focusing first on our most vulnerable citizens including in aged care, where COVID has had the greatest impact here and around the world. There remains a direct correlation between hospitalisation and death from COVID-19 and age. Plus this group largely have underlying health conditions or are in palliative care.
Treatments became available and the Commonwealth worked with states and territories and the private hospitals to bolster health system capacity. This demonstrated the unique advantage of our health system that when needed, it could come together to meet the health needs of the Australian population – and continues to do so.
The Delta variant, and now Omicron, have demanded renewed efforts and investments.
The National Medical Stockpile (NMS) has been a vital supply lifeline for states and territories, aged care facilities, primary health, pharmacies and the disability sector. As of 21 January 2022, the Government has supplied 53.6 million N95 masks, 74.6 million surgical masks, 19.4 million pairs of gloves, 15.8 million isolation gowns and 10.7 million face shields.
The commitment to use PCR testing as advised consistently by the medical experts, enabled Australia to track the virus and limit its spread. That decision saved thousands of lives. We could flatten the curve, minimise the spread and undertake contact tracing, which other countries didn’t have the ability to do, which sadly led to mass hospitalisations and death.
Even so, we continued to adopt the latest technology and approve such tests to use as a screening method, knowing we would need a range of tools. The first of the rapid antigen tests were used in aged care in August last year. Omicron and its higher transmissibility has now changed the landscape coupled with a highly vaccinated population. Our approach and the advice of the medical experts has now changed. One of the key lessons in the past two years, is when circumstances change with the pandemic, our response must also change.
The NMS has provided over seven million rapid antigen tests to aged care since August 2021 and tens of millions of more tests are arriving in Australia over the coming weeks.
The TGA has provisionally approved five vaccines, seven treatments, and approved 66 rapid antigen tests.
Telehealth – now an enduring legacy – has been embraced by doctors and patients alike and been used for over 90 million consultations, providing ease of access to health services when it’s been needed, minimised the potential risk of face to face contact and taken some off the strain off the health services.
To date, the Australian Government has spent over $37.4 billion on the health response to COVID-19. We’ve administered over 48 million COVID-19 vaccines, with over 95% of the 16+ population having had at least one dose.
We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and have been of the first countries to commence a booster and kids 5-11 vaccination rollout.
While these are important achievements, never do I forget the people we have lost, those who were very sick, the Australians in hospitals around the country, and those struggling every day with the debilitating symptoms of long-COVID.
And nor do I forget the tremendous, sustained and professional efforts of the health workforce – the frontline that every Australian relies on in such times of crisis.
Above all else, the test of our collective national achievement is that through all of the hardship we have saved over 30,000 lives compared with the OECD and over 45,000 compared with the US and UK.
There has been one constant throughout the pandemic – the goodwill and the good sense of the Australian people. Their contribution has been extraordinary. As a consequence, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Thousands are lining up for boosters every week and kids are rolling up their sleeves. In the past week, the vaccination rate has seen the highest single day since the vaccination program began.
These last two years have been hard and challenging, and there is more to be done, but the essential Australian spirit remains unbowed and optimistic. In so many ways, while we don’t like to brag as a nation, we are perhaps better and stronger than we ever realised.