I work with inspiring people in emergency medicine. Doctors and nurses whose compassion sets a benchmark I strive to follow, and allied health workers and support staff who quietly and humbly provide care to people who can be having the worst day of their lives.
Sarah is a senior nurse I have known for 20 years. She is calm in a crisis, practical and confident. She is a colleague I turn to when I find the going difficult. Together, we regularly provide medical and nursing leadership in one of my emergency departments.
This week, for the first time I can remember in those two decades, and despite our masks and face shields, I could see that Sarah was distressed and in tears.
We had a patient who had been brought in by ambulance, struggling with her breathing. Sarah was trying to find a place in our department to give her the assessment and treatment she needed, and it was proving impossible.
This was the fourth such case in two hours.
Delays, a lack of space, people in pain and distress – these are not new to us in emergency. But in the era of Covid-19, it has become an even harder slog, and it gets to us all at some stage. It is well over a month since the second Covid wave hit us, and we have been under the pump ever since.
We have learned in healthcare that to effectively deal with these problems, we must be transparent and honest with each other. We also know that assigning blame achieves very little.
What we experience at work, we see dissected in the daily news. Healthcare worker infections and isolation. Aged care centres facing collapse. The daily Covid case number, and whether the trend is favourable or not. The daily death toll, to which I hope we never become desensitised.
While I can take this news in moderation, I cannot abide another aspect of this all-consuming public discussion – the political blame game.
My emergency specialist training taught me the value of teamwork, prioritisation and a culture of collaboration. When lives are on the line, it’s time for the team to be united and focused, learning as we go and debriefing when the crisis has passed.
My years in medico-political leadership taught me that policy development and decision-making can be complex, difficult processes. All too often, the adversarial system between governments and their opposition counterparts degenerated into name-calling and personal attacks. The result: poor policy, regrettable decisions and expensive, lamentable outcomes.
When we faced the first wave of the pandemic in Australia, the sense of impending disaster was matched by bipartisan political cooperation and dedication to service – unmatched in my lifetime. The national cabinet process, rapid allocation of resources, prompt political support for expert recommendations – all led to the achievement of national preparedness that was unimaginable only months earlier.
Fast-forward to today, and that common sense of purpose has, to a great extent, unravelled.
There are many urgent, critically important issues being faced by communities here and abroad. As I write, many aged care facilities remain at risk of severely compromised care. Hospitals in Melbourne are struggling under the load of patient numbers and staff roster depletion. Businesses of all sizes face the prospect of permanent closure, and their employees are contemplating the devastation of long-term unemployment. The mental health of almost every member of the community is under constant threat.
And yet, so much energy is being diverted away from the necessary, immediate priorities.
I welcome ongoing analysis of our response to the pandemic at every level, whether it be an individual family trying to cope with lockdown, a business trying to keep its employees engaged and productive, or a health setting trying to preserve the safety of its workers and the lives of its patients.
The question for us on the frontline, the unemployed and the distressed must be “What do you need?”, not “Who is to blame?”
And this doesn’t only apply to families, businesses and hospitals. It applies to governments, opposition parties and the media.
At a time when so much is at stake, the main focus for all of us should be on saving lives, preventing outbreaks, mitigating economic damage and protecting the mental health of an entire nation.
Fatigue is setting in, but that cannot be allowed to degenerate into the political games we tolerate in peacetime.
• Dr Stephen Parnis is a Melbourne emergency physician and a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association