COVID has been a dirty word this election campaign — but health experts say its impact isn’t going away

by Sophie Scott

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’d be wrong. 

This is despite a prediction that more than half a million Australians could be left with a debilitating illness because of COVID-19, that thousands of children are falling behind because of the pandemic and that Australia has a hospital workforce “in crisis”.

We’ve had announcements from Labor and the Coalition on reducing the price of medicines, some action on rural and regional health from the Coalition and a focus on primary care from Labor.

But what we haven’t heard is how the next government is going to tackle some of the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neither party has released a detailed, standalone plan on how it will manage the pandemic in the future, including future vaccine supply, securing and distributing adequate antiviral medications and how to tackle emerging variants — which seem to be appearing every six months.

With strict lockdowns still fresh in the minds of many Australians, public health experts say it’s like COVID-19 is a dirty word that politicians are fearful of addressing. 

This is despite the fact that so many Australians are still living day-to-day with the impact of the virus.

The country’s moving average is now at 45 deaths a day — the highest it has been since February.  And last week Australia’s per-capita infection rate led the world.

What’s missing?

Neither party has outlined how it will tackle the growing number of Australians who continue to suffer debilitating effects of the virus with long COVID.

The World Health Organisation defines long 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, that can’t be explained by an alternative diagnosis.

While some states and territories have set up long COVID clinics in public hospitals, these are already flooded with people trying to get help.

There’s no national action plan for a coordinated approach to tackling long COVID. And no plan to tackle post-viral illnesses such as evidence-based treatment pathways, Medicare funding for access to medical and allied health support or widespread general practitioner education.

A man wearing a face mask and a woman walk outside of a Sydney hospital.
Many Australians are still living day to day with the impact of COVID-19.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Estimates vary on how significant a public health issue long COVID could be for the next government.

There’s conservative estimates that 10 per cent of COVID patients will develop long COVID, with official figures showing 6.4 million positive cases in Australia. That means roughly more than half-a-million people will need ongoing medical support for a post-viral illness where currently almost none exists.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorsid said there was no way a few hospital clinics would be able to manage demand for services and that GPs needed to be upskilled to diagnose and manage long COVID.

According to Dr Khorsid, it is something that needs to 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 significant illness from COVID-19, it’s clear many are falling behind in other ways as a result of the pandemic.

In fact, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians is so concerned, it is calling for an urgent “national recovery plan to help the nation’s children catch up from the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic”.’

RACP President and paediatrician Dr Jacqueline Small said she had seen the impact of the last two years on children coming to her clinic.

“As a developmental paediatrician, I see this in my work every day,” she said.

Public health experts say what’s needed is a clear commitment from the next government to adopt a range of comprehensive measures to address children’s health, starting by agreeing to fund and implement the National Children’s Mental health and wellbeing strategy. 

This is a preventative, integrated, whole-of-community approach to support the mental health and wellbeing of children aged 0−12 and their families, compiled by Australia’s leading child mental health experts.

The strategy was released in October 2021, but so far in the election campaign there’s been no clear commitment from either party to fully fund and implement the recommendations.

Dr Small said a chief paediatrician should be appointed and a task force set up to address the challenges children were facing.

“The impacts, and how these will be compounded, are deeply concerning if they are not thoroughly examined and addressed at a national level across all sectors,” she said.

Demand for healthcare ‘underestimated’ 

A perfect storm is brewing in our public hospitals with a burnt out workforce, a growing flu and COVID-19 caseload coupled with an elective surgery backlog — all of which is putting unprecedented pressure on public hospital staff across Australia.

Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid said hospital staff were trying their best with limited resources, but it was particularly challenging for those on the front line in emergency departments.

“What’s happened is that the bean counters, the politicians, have just underestimated the extent of the demand for health care in our country.”

A man from mid-chest up wearing blue scrubs.
Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid said the workforce was “struggling”.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

He said lockdowns meant many people deferred getting medical care, even when many of them really needed it.

That meant patients were now coming to hospitals sicker than usual with many more requiring admission to hospital.

“When you add all this up, you have a workforce which is really struggling and the most worrying thing is that people really can’t see a way out,” he said.

The AMA has called on the next government to boost the funding split from the current 45 per cent the federal government contributes to an even 50-50 with the states and territories.

So far, the Coalition has ruled that out, saying when its funding for mental health is added to its contribution to the states, it exceeds 50 per cent. 

Labor has pledged to sit down with the states and territories to discuss the issue, if it wins on Saturday.

Health experts say bumping up the funding commitment would be a good first step by any incoming government and would go some way to reduce the pressure state and territory hospitals are under in trying to deliver quality care in a resource-poor environment.

But so would a recognition that the pandemic has changed people’s healthcare needs in a way we haven’t experienced before.

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