As we reach the end of 2021 and cast our eyes towards 2022, we can begin to imagine what life in the “post-pandemic” world might look like.
But before we do this, it’s vital we look back and learn every lesson we can so next time we are faced with such a crisis – and there will be a next time – we can do better.
If the measure of success in responding to the pandemic is the amount of disease prevented and lives saved, Australia will undoubtedly be held up globally as an exemplar of best practice.
However, the real story of the response to COVID in Australia is messier.
It’s important to appreciate the experiences across the states and territories in the pandemic have been as different as Swan Lager is to Victoria Bitter.
Victoria indisputably went through the toughest ordeal of any state in the country. While we should celebrate what went right, it’s much more important we look fearlessly at what could have been done differently.
In doing this, the objective is not to blame. Context is important and needs to be factored into any critique. Decisions had to be made quickly, often with only limited and uncertain evidence, and most importantly, without the all-knowing benefit of hindsight.
With that in mind, let’s look at what went right, and wrong, in Victoria amid the pandemic so far.
Success 1: Victorians followed the rules and ‘stayed the course’
Living in Victoria the last couple of years has been really tough.
Despite enduring one of the longest aggregate periods of strict lockdown in the world, the Victorian community by and large hung in there. Victorians displayed enough collective adhesion to the strict public health orders that were in place to make those orders effective.
It would have been so easy to lose hope and stop complying with the tough restrictions en masse, especially as Victorians navigated their way through lockdown six, arguably the toughest to endure.
The fact this didn’t happen should make Victorians extremely proud.
Success 2: the uptake of the vaccine was incredible
Whether the period spent in lockdown – and the desire to do anything it took to avoid more of the same – was a motivating factor, or whether there were other reasons for this, does not really matter.
What does is Victorians got vaccinated at a rate that surpassed all expectations. This resulted in the state being able to emerge from the final lockdown five days ahead of schedule and the return of freedoms so desperately desired.
Success 3: determined commitment from our leaders
Regardless of your political stripes, or whether you felt all of the calls Victorian health authorities made were always the right ones, no one can doubt the commitment of the government and health authorities to get Victoria through the pandemic, and to communicate with Victorians.
Fronting up to press conferences day after day and answering all of the tough questions was important for many reasons.
But most importantly it kept the community focused on what was needed to bring the virus under control.
Failure 1: the Victorian public health system was exposed
It was no surprise for those of us familiar with the Victorian health department that at times it struggled to cope during the pandemic.
While resources were poured into the department to cope with the unprecedented demands during the pandemic and some structural changes were made – most notably the creation of local public health units – more work undoubtedly needs to be done.
The pandemic has highlighted the vital role public health plays in keeping the community safe and healthy, so it needs adequate resources in future.
Failure 2: hotel quarantine was a debacle
The way hotel quarantine was managed in Victoria in the early part of the pandemic can only be described as a mess. The government and health authorities failed to control infections among returned travellers spreading to hotel quarantine workers and beyond.
This is clearly one of the biggest failures of the Victorian public health response to the pandemic, and was the catalyst for the devastating second wave in Victoria.
Although many issues were eventually rectified and Victoria finished up with one of the best hotel quarantine systems in the country, the failing was in the leadership model and how responsibilities were delineated.
The bigger question of course will be whether we ever need to rely on hotel quarantine again or whether we have learned the more important lesson about how unsuitable hotels are for containing infectious diseases.
Many health experts advocated for the development of purpose-built quarantine facilities and Victoria was a comparatively early adopter, yet we still don’t have a facility in operation.
Failure 3: it took too long to control outbreaks in aged-care centres
The outbreaks that devastated the aged-care sector during the second wave in Victoria were desperately sad.
Vulnerabilities such as understaffing and inadequate training have been known for decades and were largely swept under the carpet. These were exposed in all their awfulness during the pandemic.
Many issues quickly became clear, such as the understaffing of aged-care centres and infection control practices, along with the lack of the proper accountability by government for these facilities.
Despite the efforts of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, a new unit specifically formed to bring these outbreaks under control, hundreds of elderly people died unnecessarily.
If the devastating impact of COVID on aged-care centres is not enough to catalyse meaningful reform in this sector in Australia, then nothing will. And our society will be all the worse for it.
Failure 4: we struggled with community engagement
One of the things that makes Victoria so vibrant is it’s a melting pot of cultures.
When it comes to responding to a pandemic, however, this presents its challenges.
This is more than simply a language issue. Multicultural groups are more reliant on different channels to get their health advice and may have different attitudes towards government and health officials.
They may also have more extensive family and community networks that aren’t in the minds of health officials when laying down a one-size-fits-all set of rules.
In the early part of the pandemic, the amount of effort needed to reach these groups was underestimated.
But to the credit of the authorities, efforts were boosted in the second part of 2020 and beyond, building resources that were language and culturally appropriate and partnering with community leaders to design local public health interventions and disseminate messages.
Many lessons have been learned about engaging the diverse communities of Victoria. But as the initial challenges with the vaccine rollout highlighted, there’s still more work to do.
We must invest in these community partnerships to ensure all communities are more resilient and protected.
We need to prepare for the next pandemic
Crises expose weaknesses, and there’s no doubt the pandemic revealed a number of issues in Victoria.
There will be another pandemic and potentially this will occur sooner than we all would like.
Consequently, there is an urgent need to reflect on the journey and to address issues that have been raised so we can be on the front foot and do even better next time.