Mid-September is a beautiful time of year in my hometown of Melbourne. We are ready to emerge from the cold and dark of a southern winter, to savour the warmth and sunshine with family and friends, in the vibrant city we love.
But this year, September is unlike anything we have ever known before.
We are now in the fourth month of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are enduring a long and bitterly painful lockdown, and we are all exhausted.
It’s not often that I refer to something affecting absolutely everyone, but in the case of the second wave in Victoria, nobody has been spared the suffering.
Children unable to go to school, the elderly confined to their homes, employees fearful of losing their jobs, and employers desperately trying to keep their businesses afloat – all through no fault of their own. Immense loneliness and painful isolation have weighed heavily upon millions of Victorians, and our mental health is under threat as never before.
Though I have had the luxury of secure work, the endless demands of emergency medicine in a pandemic have taken their toll on many of us. The perpetual ritual of donning and doffing uncomfortable PPE many times each shift, of worrying who among our colleagues has been infected, and having to repeat ourselves many times to hear or understand each other behind N95 masks and face shields.
Even the traditional ways we have to relax and recharge – a chat in a hospital tearoom, trips away from home and hospital, a meal after work with friends – are now, understandably, denied us.
It feels as if we are running on empty.
It is much harder this time around, when compared with the first wave. Back then, it felt that the entire country was in this together, and a sense of common purpose was undeniable.
Now, Victoria feels very much on its own, and we envy the relative freedoms enjoyed by other Australians. We have been moved by the gestures of kindness, solidarity and support from beyond our borders, and felt the sting when those messages or actions were less than kind.
Over 700 Victorians have lost their lives in this pandemic. I have been with some of them. I have conveyed heartbreaking news to their loved ones, and with my team, I have tried to care for them as if they were members of my own family.
In spite of those terrible losses, and having endured immense hardship, Victorians have again driven down the numbers of Covid-19 cases. It is an effort that deserves the gratitude and respect of the entire nation, for it could have been even worse.
So many thoughts race through my mind as I remember the names and faces of those who have died. Some of those reflections must await a time in the future, when we can collectively debrief, and learn what we need to do better. Fundamental changes to our aged care system are near the top of my list.
But for now, more pressing matters require care and attention.
As Covid-19 numbers decline in the community, hospitals and aged care settings, we are faced with choices about the path to a safe resumption of activity. The Victorian government has put forward its model, and it has attracted enormous attention, and some profound hostility.
I support the model. I regard it as based on sound public health principles, wary of the incredible ease with which the coronavirus can spread, and transparent in terms of the criteria which allow progression to greater levels of normality.
That said, I do not see it as being set in stone. If safe opportunities for more selective or earlier easing of restrictions are possible, I would welcome them.
What should be acknowledged is the breadth and depth of frustration, despair and anger being experienced by Victorians, as we see light at the end of the tunnel and are desperate to reach it.
I accept, understand and share many of those emotions. We have been through an awful time.
But I take singular exception to some of our political leaders, current and former, state and federal, who have used their positions to undermine medical advice, advocate for useless or dangerous drugs, and abuse public health officials. Worst of all, some have suggested that letting the virus run through the community would either cause minimal harm, or result in an acceptable number of elderly casualties. That borders on despicable.
Last week at work, I was leaving the bedside of an 80-year-old patient whom I had just assessed. As I turned to leave the cubicle, she grabbed my gloved hand between hers when I wasn’t expecting it, and said directly to me, “Thank you for taking care of me.” It took a moment for me to compose myself, but then I said to her, “EVERYONE is taking care of you.”
May we never lose sight of why we are doing this.
• Dr Stephen Parnis is a Melbourne emergency physician, and a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association