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Australia’s chief medical officer reflects on a year fighting coronavirus and what’s still to come

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Australia’s chief medical officer vividly remembers the first time he heard about the novel coronavirus.

“We were in the national incident room dealing with the bushfire emergency on New Year’s Eve, 2019,” Professor Paul Kelly told SBS News.

“Suddenly, on our big whiteboard of everything to do with bushfires, there was this other point that said there’s some unusual pneumonia activity happening in Wuhan in China.”

In the midst of the Black Summer bushfire crisis it may have seemed like an innocuous point, but Professor Kelly – who was the country’s deputy chief medical officer at the time – would become increasingly concerned.

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“About a week later was when we found that this was definitely a new virus and it seemed to be transmissible between people. That was when we started our concern,” he said.

Medical staff with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

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“I never thought it would happen, but of course it’s been on our minds for many years. My whole career really has been focused on what would happen if we did have a major pandemic, hoping that we never would.

“But here we are.”

On 25 January 2020, the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Australia – a man from Wuhan who flew to Melbourne.

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Initial modelling suggested under a worst-case scenario between 50,000 to 150,000 Australians could die.

“Those figures were always on the basis that we didn’t intervene as quickly and as strongly as we have,” Professor Kelly said.

“I was really glad that modelling initially was wrong, but we were planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”

In March 2020, cases began to surge from about 200 to 2,000. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia’s borders would close, and restrictions on gatherings and businesses were enforced.

Mass unemployment and a sharp economic downturn would follow, with the federal government telling temporary visa holders who couldn’t support themselves to “go home”.

Multicultural messaging mistakes

Even after more than 28,000 infections, 900 deaths and various lockdowns over the past year, Australia has emerged as something of an international COVID-19 success story.

But Professor Kelly concedes there have been mistakes made.

One big issue has been accurately informing and educating the country’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities about the virus.

NSW authorities as recently as this month revealed some people in multicultural communities still thought they had to pay for a COVID-19 test

Basic translation errors in federal and state health messages have also been uncovered.

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“All through this response there’s been this trade-off between speed and accuracy and that’s one of them,” Professor Kelly said.

The federal government in recent months established its Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group, aimed at bettering its coronavirus response for multicultural Australians.

“[That’s] specifically to make sure that we’re not only giving the right message in the right languages but making sure that message is also tailored for particular communities,” Professor Kelly said.

As authorities prepare for the national vaccine rollout – expected to begin in mid-February – the CMO is confident lessons around in-language communication have been learned.

“We’ll certainly take that learning into the vaccine rollout. It’s very important that we discuss that with the whole Australian community,” he said.

Professor Kelly also has a message for Australians who are apprehensive about getting the jab.

“My message is the one that we’ve said throughout and I’m absolutely sure of: safety is the first priority. If these vaccines are not safe, we’re not going to be allowed them to be used in Australia.”

While he’s optimistic about 2021, Professor Kelly believes Australians need to accept coronavirus will be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“We will control it more this year than we did last year,” he said. “But we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus. I don’t think it’s going to be completely eradicated anytime soon.”

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“Some things will change forever… but I’m really looking forward to the time when we can gather as people and have that social interaction, like what we used to do, because that’s such an important part of our humanity.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your jurisdiction’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

Please check the relevant guidelines for your state or territory: NSWVictoriaQueenslandWestern AustraliaSouth AustraliaNorthern TerritoryACTTasmania.

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