COVID has been a dirty word this election campaign – but health experts say its impact isn’t fading
In the shadow of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, you might have thought health would be one of the key issues dominating the campaign trail.
But you would be wrong.
Despite a prediction that more than half a million Australians could develop debilitating illness from COVID-19, thousands of children are lagging due to the pandemic, and Australia has a hospital staff that is “in crisis”.
We have received announcements from Labor and the Coalition about lowering the price of medicines, some Coalition action on national and regional health, and a focus on Labour’s primary care.
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But we haven’t heard how the next administration will deal with some of the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neither side has released a detailed, stand-alone plan on how it will manage the pandemic in the future, including the future supply of vaccines, securing and distributing adequate antiviral drugs, and tackling emerging variants – released every six months. Seem to appear.
With strict lockdowns still fresh in the minds of many Australians, public health experts say it seems COVID-19 is a dirty word politicians fear.
This is even though so many Australians are still living with the impact of the virus daily.
The country’s moving average is now at 45 deaths daily – the highest since February. And last week, Australia’s per capita infection rate led the world.
What is missing?
Neither side has outlined how it will deal with the growing number of Australians who continue to suffer the debilitating effects of the virus with long-term COVID.
The World Health Organization defines long-term COVID as a post-COVID-19 condition in someone with a history of COVID infection, with symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive dysfunction for at least two months, which an alternative diagnosis cannot explain.
While some states and territories have set up long COVID clinics in public hospitals, these are already being overrun with people trying to get help.
There is no national action plan for a coordinated approach to long-term COVID. And no plan to address post-viral diseases, such as evidence-based treatment pathways, Medicare funding for access to medical and allied health support, or widespread primary care physician training.
Many Australians are still living with the impact of COVID-19 day to day. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Estimates vary regarding how important a public health problem long COVID could be for the next administration.
There are conservative estimates that 10 percent of COVID patients will develop COVID for a long time, with official figures showing 6.4 million positive cases in Australia. That means more than half a million people need ongoing medical attention for a post-viral disease that is currently almost non-existent.
The chairman of the Australian Medical Association, Dr. Omar Khorsid, said there is no way a few hospital clinics can manage the demand for services and GPs need to be retrained to diagnose and work long-term COVID.
“We need the system to provide services, and the next government will not be able to ignore the long COVID-19,” he said.
According to Dr. Khorsid, it should be at the top of the new health minister’s to-do list.
‘National recovery plan’ needed: RACP
While children and young people have remained fairly free of serious illness from COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic is causing many to fall behind in other ways.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians is so concerned that it calls for an urgent “national recovery plan to help the country’s children make up for the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic”.’
RACP chair and pediatrician Dr. Jacqueline Small said she had seen the impact of the past two years on children who came to her clinic.
“As a developmental pediatrician, I see this daily in my job,” she says.
“Children have faced many challenges and hurdles in the past two years, and some of those impacts have yet to be realized.”
Public health experts say the next government needs a clear commitment to take comprehensive measures to tackle children’s health, starting by agreeing on funding and implementing the National Strategy for Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing.
This is a preventive, integrated, community-wide approach to support the mental health and well-being of children aged 0-12 and their families, curated by Australia’s leading mental health experts.
The strategy was released in October 2021, but so far in the election campaign, there has been no clear commitment from either side to fund and implement the recommendations fully.
Dr. Small said a chief pediatrician should be appointed and a task force to address children’s challenges.
“The impacts, and how they will be exacerbated, are very concerning if they are not thoroughly investigated and addressed at the national level across all sectors,” she said.
Demand for care ‘underestimated.’
A perfect storm is brewing in our public hospitals with a burnt-out workforce, the growing flu and COVID-19 caseload coupled with an elective surgery backlog – all of which are putting unprecedented pressure on public hospital staff across Australia.
The chairman of the Australian Medical Association, Dr. Omar Khorshid, said hospital staff was doing their best with limited resources. Still, it was especially challenging for those on the front lines in emergency rooms.
“They don’t have a system with enough capacity to meet the demand — it’s that simple,” he said.
“What has happened is that the bean counters, the politicians, have simply underestimated the magnitude of the demand for health care in our country.”
The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr. Omar Khorshid, said the staff “struggled”. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)
He said lockdowns meant many people were delaying medical care, even when many needed it.
That meant patients were now coming to hospitals sicker than usual and requiring many more hospitalizations.
“When you add all this up, you have a workforce that is struggling, and the most disturbing thing is that people don’t see a way out,” he said.
“We hear emergency room staff talking about the moral damage of not being able to care for patients the way they know they should, and what that does to you as an individual, as a practitioner.”
The AMA has called on the next government to raise funding from the current 45 percent that the federal government contributes to a 50-50 match with the states and territories.
So far, the coalition has ruled that out, saying that when mental health funding is added to the state contribution, it exceeds 50 percent.
Labor has promised to sit down with states and territories to discuss the issue if it wins on Saturday.
Health experts say increasing the funding commitment would be a good first step for any incoming government and a way to ease state and territory hospitals’ pressure to deliver quality care in a resource-poor environment.
But so is the recognition that the pandemic has changed people’s healthcare needs in ways we’ve never experienced before.