All rests on our health system

Hindsight is a funny thing. Had we known the COVID-19 wrecking ball was coming for us, we would have ducked for cover. We can’t use that excuse anymore.

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The pandemic taught us many things. Looking back, we may have established dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, imported or trained an army of health care workers that would be desperately needed, we might have ordered more vaccines, quicker.

You only need to look across the globe to Europe and the United States to realise that COVID-19 is sadly not behind us. Victoria should be preparing now for a similar situation to protect ourselves and ensure that we never have to go into lockdown again.

Germany is in the grip of a fourth wave while France is being hit by a fifth. Indeed COVID-19 cases and deaths are escalating right across Europe. Belgium’s president has said "Europe's map is quickly going red, and we are the same."

Right across Europe, people are being asked to return to working from home and vaccine passports, which had been abolished in many nations, are being reinstated. Sweden is bringing in its first vaccination pass from 1 December.

Intensive care units and healthcare workforces are once again being stretched to their limits.

While Victoria’s 90 per cent (over 12) vaccination rate is among the highest in the world, the virus continues to pose a threat to our health and our economy. We have the luxury of our warmer months to put mitigation methods in place now to prepare for what winter may bring.

The latest World Health Organisation survey on the continuity of essential health services shows that elective surgeries, rehabilitation, diagnostics, cancer and cardiovascular screenings, mental services, and dental care remain heavily disrupted in several countries, with long and unmanageable waiting lists, primarily because of a shortage in health and care workers. This is also causing delays in access to preventive and curative care.

The Victorian situation is no different.  We know from our experience that elective surgery and other treatments were postponed to ensure hospital beds were available for COVID-19 patients. We also know that lockdowns were in part used to ensure our hospital systems didn’t become overloaded. The load on the health system of all that backdated elective surgery is going to be huge.

Victoria should be increasing our health care infrastructure now in tandem with boosting the workforce capacity. Yes, both strategies will be costly and difficult but it’s a price I’m sure we are all willing to pay to protect ourselves from what could lie ahead.

The flu is likely to be a massive strain on our health care system, especially as international borders reopen from next week. There’s no doubt that we have kept the flu at bay throughout the pandemic because we have been locked down, practiced excellent hygiene, closed borders and kept students home. But what happens next winter? Our immune systems will certainly be more susceptible.

Then, there’s the threat of new strains of COVID-19 that looms over us.

We simply can’t have any more lockdowns as the impact to business, community and non-pandemic related healthcare needs are too important to risk again. If our health care system can cope, then coupled with booster shots of vaccine, we won’t need lockdowns.

The time is now. We should be using the breathing space that we currently have to investigate, plan and fast track projects and strategies that will help keep us safe and look after our vulnerable.

The World Health Organisation’s Health systems resilience during COVID-19: Lessons for building back better report states “This book calls on decision makers to learn from them and take action so that they never again fail to protect our health on the scale that occurred during this pandemic.”

Sage advice.

This article originally appeared in the Herald Sun on 25 November 2021.

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