As the pandemic appears to be in decline, with cases dropping in Australia and worldwide infections appearing to slowly decrease, it is tempting to cry victory and declare this the end of our interest in public health.
Even in the UK, where cases remain high, it’s encouraging to see the impact on vaccines with fewer deaths and hospitalisations than in previous waves. Australia has done well overall – our vaccination programs, while frustratingly slow to get going, have been an enormous success. The majority of Australians have had both of their shots, something that a year ago seemed like an impossibility. We’ve controlled a massive outbreak in New South Wales, and are (fingers crossed) going to see the same kind of reductions in Victoria as well.
Unfortunately, the fight isn’t over, and public health will remain a pressing problem, probably forever.
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Now, you might argue that I would say such things – I’m an epidemiologist, and we all think that our area of interest is the most important. A bit over a decade ago, when I was really into circus arts, I would’ve cheerfully argued that fire twirling was a cultural mainstay that was sadly underfunded by our cruel overlords.
That being said, there are real and pressing problems we cannot ignore as we slowly move back into normal life. The most obvious issue is infectious disease – Covid-19 may have been the first major pandemic in most of our lifetimes, but there’s no assurance that it will be the last. Once-in-a-century events happen on average, well, every hundred years, but it’s entirely possible the next pandemic will arrive far sooner than that and we must be prepared when it comes.
Moreover, the problem of non-infectious and chronic disease is something we were already grappling with when the nasty coronavirus came along. While estimates vary, we know around 10% of all adults in Australia have diabetes, much of which is likely preventable. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is estimated to cost the country at least $1bn each year in direct healthcare costs – hospitals, GP services, medicines etc – alone, without factoring in the impact the disease has on people’s wellbeing and livelihood.
The reality is these are entrenched, socially-driven problems that are unlikely to go away any time soon. Public health is integral to every one of our lives, whether it be the pollutants we are being exposed to, food-borne disease outbreaks, or even just the crushing weight of chronic disease that burdens our society.
This may sound depressing, but I think the message is quite the opposite – we’ve done an amazing job against Covid. In the last two years, as a country, we’ve proven that we can genuinely make a difference to change the course of our lives, health, and economy. There’s a palpable sense of relief that we haven’t had the pandemic experience those in the UK, Brazil, or India have.
What we’ve really proven during Covid-19, above and beyond everything else, is that we have the ability to change the future of public health for the better, and we have the will to do it too. The key is not to forget the message of the pandemic, that we really can make improvements that will benefit both our health and wealth.
Don’t get me wrong – the pandemic, and our responses to it, have caused harm. But we’ve proven we can take the momentum brought about by an impossible situation and make something really impressive out of it. For all our ills, as a country we have done a remarkably good job, and regardless of which measure you use, our nation comes out looking very good on the pandemic scorecard. Of course, we should be doing more internationally, and sending vaccines overseas seems like an absolute minimum to protect ourselves and our neighbours long term, but as a country we have done an objectively good job.
Now let’s take that energy, and apply it to the other problems we as a society face. Next year, we could make preventing the next pandemic a topic on everyone’s lips. We may not be interested in coronaviruses forever, but we can act to prevent influenza every year, which may have a large benefit not just to health but our ability to work productively as well.
The point is that public health is everyone’s problem, because we are all part of the same society. While we may go back to normal, we cannot ignore the messages of the last two years, because these issues will never really go away. We’ve shown we can respond effectively to a public health crisis during Covid-19 – now let’s use that same ethic to begin fixing all of the other problems that plague our society.
• Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz is an epidemiologist working in chronic diseaseInternet Explorer Channel Network