December is the month I cherish above all others. I savour this time with my family and friends – celebrations of generosity, love, and my many communities. It is usually a chance to reflect on another busy year, and to anticipate the coming one with hope and optimism.
This year, however, December feels very different. I don’t think I’m my normal self, and I know that many of my colleagues in the health professions feel the same way.
After months battling the worst pandemic this country has seen in living memory, many of us are finally coming to terms with a fatigue that will not be sorted out by a good night’s sleep.
We have been in a state of constant alert for the entire year.
While it seems so long ago, this year began with face masks for reasons other than a pandemic. Smoke, destruction and massive bushfires left many with scars. If the blackened skies, devastated communities and horrific air pollution levels were the only health crisis of 2020, they still would have made the history books.
But then, a virus called Sars-CoV-2 made its presence known in Australia.
In the past, I would often be speaking for the medical profession in this country. But after a year when “teamwork” has become the most important word in my professional life, I feel the need to speak for the entire spectrum of healthcare workers. I pay tribute to their brilliance this year. We have endured so much together in 2020, and we now share a bond that will never be severed.
Of all the challenges healthcare workers have faced this year, a constant theme has weighed upon us.
When would the pandemic hit? Would Australia go the way of many nations, and see hospitals overwhelmed? How would we treat our patients when they became desperately ill, and their oxygen saturation dropped to levels we usually associate with cardiac arrest? How could we protect ourselves, our colleagues and our families, knowing how infectious this virus appeared to be? Would a Covid vaccine ever be developed, and how long would it take?
For some of us, there was always one question that lingered more than any other.
When the wave arrives, and the patients start being wheeled through the ambulance bay doors, would I be equal to the task?
Fast forward nine months, and many of those questions now have answers.
We have all faced some degree of lockdown, isolation from loved ones, and been prevented from working, travelling and studying in ways we used to take for granted.
More than 28,000 Australians have been infected, and 908 of them have died.
Among the dead, the frail elderly have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Many have died in aged care settings, as well as in hospitals. So many died separated from their loved ones, only able to hear their voices on the phone or see their faces on a screen – that will remain with me long after this pandemic is over.
Thousands of healthcare workers contracted Covid-19, 3,573 in Victoria alone. Despite the best efforts of many, and a very steep learning curve, our safety has never been fully assured. While I dodged the bullet and was a close contact in isolation early on, many of my colleagues weren’t so lucky. Some ended up as patients in their own hospitals; some required intensive care. Time will tell how many develop chronic illness – so-called “long Covid”– with unknown implications for their professional and personal lives.
Australia has done well by world standards in combatting this pandemic. But if you lived through the second wave in Victoria, you would be entitled to think differently.
The long months from July to October were bitter and painful in Melbourne. Caring for so many of the sick behind face shields, masks and gowns has traumatised many of us. But we have much for which we can be proud and grateful.
Melbourne healthcare workers soldiered on despite high infection rates, long hours, staff shortages and little chance for a break.
Melburnians stayed the course. They followed the expert advice, contained the virus, and protected the rest of Australia. All the while, the kindness shown towards healthcare workers touched us all, and made things a little easier. Looking back, eliminating community transmission in Victoria is a remarkable and unique achievement.
And yet, mental health presentations have skyrocketed – showing that the pandemic is not yet finished with us. News from around the world is heartbreaking, and all we can do is offer support from a safe distance.
As this painful year draws to a close, Australia is tempted to congratulate itself on doing much better than most of the world. But even as I write, Sydney is contending with a new outbreak. The rest of the nation watches on anxiously – particularly those of us who have seen the impact when an Australian city loses control of the virus.
Safe, effective vaccines are on the verge of approval and mass production. The need for PPE at work in most of the country is declining. The last Covid case I treated was over two months ago.
Adversity is the greatest teacher, and there are so many lessons to learn. But right now, all I can think about are a few weeks off with the people I love.
And closing the book on 2020.
• Dr Stephen Parnis is a Melbourne emergency physician, and a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association