At a National Press Club appearance last week, Anthony Albanese promised that a Labor government would “step up” Australia’s national COVID-19 strategy. Now, he finds himself in office as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, and medical experts are piling pressure on him to follow through.
Australia has so far clocked more than 7,900 coronavirus deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 70 percent of which have happened in the first five months of this year. The virus is now a leading cause of death nationwide.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, COVID-19 was the “underlying” cause of 89 percent of all deaths in Australia up until the end of last month. And these are deaths as a result of virus, not just those that have occurred while someone has been infected.
And the daily COVID-19 mortality rate across the country is steadily increasing as well.
Across all the states and territories, Australia on average is seeing more than 50 deaths every day, and experts suggest the nation is on track to reach as many as 18,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year. That’s more than sixteen times the annual road toll, which clocked in at 1,127 last year.
Albanese’s Labor government has been vocal about making Australia’s COVID-19 response a priority. On Tuesday, it was reported that he ordered the Health Department to prepare a fresh briefing on the pandemic state of play across Australia, and suggested that he’d make the issue one of his first agenda items when he returns from meetings with world leaders in Japan.
For experts, though, there is a long list of suggestions—and, of course, some demands. Chief among them is an almost unanimous push for the Labor government to drive better uptake of third and fourth booster shots, while making them more widely available.
Professor Greg Dore, from the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, said the Prime Minister should open up eligibility for fourth doses immediately. On Wednesday afternoon, acting health minister Katy Gallagher announced that people living with disabilities, cancer, and other complex health conditions would join people over 60 years-old and First Nations people over 50 years-old in being eligible for a fourth shot.
Only last week, the multidisciplinary group of experts at OzSAGE came out with a list of recommendations of their own. Like Dore, they encouraged the government to look at opening up eligibility to fourth booster shots more than they already have, along with a long list of other community transmission prevention measures.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the Kirby Institute, said it’s time Australian policy makers started looking to new, rapid treatments to help GPs tackle COVID-19 complications at a community level. She said “it is disappointing” it’s taken this long.
“Simple, proven, available measures like the asthma preventer inhaler, budesonide, may prevent severe complications, but there are no guidelines for community treatment. There are two effective antivirals which can reduce hospitalisation rates and one is widely prescribed in other countries, but access is severely restricted here,” MacIntyre said.
“Living with COVID also brings with it a responsibility to provide access to effective treatments. We will regret not doing so, with a massive burden of chronic illness that will follow, much of which, along with deaths, could be averted by early use of antivirals and other treatments.”
Beyond treatment, the experts at OzSAGE said the federal government needs to begin thinking more critically about what “living with COVID” actually means in Australia, because at this rate, it has “failed”. An early strategy that state and federal governments could look to adopt is retrofitting public spaces and schools with better ventilation and filtration.
That could mean offering grants to improve ventilation infrastructure—in the same way that the Victorian state government did with its small business ventilation program—and even just legislating standards for safe indoor air quality through filtration. Associate Professor Robyn Schofield, the associate dean of environment and sustainability at the University of Melbourne, said it would offer immediate relief to all sorts of issues.
“There are so many co-benefits to improving and paying attention to indoor air quality including increases in productivity and cognitive function and decision making ability, and a reduction in absenteeism,” Schofield said.
“Pre-pandemic, the cost of poor indoor air was estimated for Australia to be at $12 billiion per year—I think we are only now appreciating that this is a significant underestimate when our indoor spaces are challenged with a pandemic,” she said.
What has so far been left out of Australia’s political discussion of COVID-19, though, is how the nation plans to tackle the surging number of people who are likely to suffer the debilitating, long-term effects of “long COVID”.
According to the World Health Organisation, long COVID is defined as a post-COVID-19 condition suffered by someone who has in the past been infected with coronavirus, before going on to suffer symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, and any number of other symptoms for a minimum of two months after first being infected.
At this stage, there isn’t any explanation for it. In Australia, there isn’t much discussion of it, either.
In the lead up to election day, Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid warned that it might only be a matter of time before hospital clinics and GPs become overwhelmed with patients presenting with the condition and that now is the time to upskill them.
“We need the system to provide services, and the next government won’t be able to ignore long COVID,” Dr Khorshid said.
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