Introduction by Croakey: As parts of Australia sweltered through a record-breaking heatwave on the final weekend of spring, stoking dangerous fire conditions, Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton issued a clarion call on climate change.
Delivering his office’s biennial report on the health of Victorians, Sutton identified the climate emergency and antimicrobial resistance as two key threats to human health, describing the former as “indeed the greatest existential threat to our health and wellbeing in this era”.
“Victoria is already experiencing the effects of climate change, and these will increase unless significant, urgent and sustained action is taken to address greenhouse gas emissions,” said Sutton in his introductory message to the report.
Victoria has been at the epicentre of this year’s defining challenges, with back to back state of disaster declarations in response to the bushfire crisis and then the COVID-19 outbreak.
Though the pandemic has diverted global attention and resources away from climate action, the return of heatwave and fire conditions serves as an unwelcome reminder that the climate crisis remains a pressing challenge for our time.
A thought-provoking plenary during last week’s annual meeting of Australian and New Zealand emergency doctors (held virtually for the first time this year) examined lessons from the pandemic for climate action.
The session, one year on from the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine marching in Hobart to declare a climate emergency, highlighted a variety of perspectives, and you can read a 40-tweet Twitter summary here. We’ve also published Dr Arnagretta Hunter’s presentation from the event.
NSW South Coast GP Michelle Hamrosi captivated attendees with a harrowing and deeply personal account of surviving last summer’s fires, which we publish unabridged below, with thanks.
Michelle Hamrosi writes:
I am a General Practitioner and Lactation Consultant from Broulee (Yuin Nation), on the South Coast of NSW, situated between Moruya and Batemans Bay – about four hours south of Sydney. I wanted to share my story with you today – as I am living witness to the climate and COVID crises.
Below is my witness statement: my husband and I are frontline health care workers and we have directly seen the devastating impact of the bushfires and then COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year’s bushfires began in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. In my town, we watched the verdant landscape turn brown. The grass vanished and many trees began to die back.
We went to bed on the the 30th of December, knowing from the RFS’s predictions that the next day would be bad. We’d been watching the fires making their way down south, for months. It was our turn now.
The reality was far worse than the predicted maps.
The next morning, we answered the phone at 6am, to hear a prerecorded message from the RFS. A bushfire was approaching from Mogo, 10 kilometres west of us.
Outside it was heating up. The sky darkened, then the power went out. My husband checked his phone. There’s no signal. He’s on call for anaesthetics at Moruya hospital. Now they have no way of contacting him in an emergency – so he tells me he has to go and be there, especially as casualties are expected on a day like today.
Thinking the fire was a long way off, he decided to make his way into work to check the situation there. He felt torn between his duty to his family and duty to his community. I was worried for his safety.
Not long after my husband left, the fire hit the borders of our village like a freight train. It sent a fireball across the town and lit the beach dunes to the north of us. I dashed over to our neighbours for support. We could see a wall of fire approaching us.
We decided to evacuate to the southern beach, about 500 metres away from our homes. I grabbed all the woollen blankets and clothes we had, a backpack, snacks and my toddler carrier. We were ready to go, when a strong southerly wind started blowing, changing the direction of the fire. Moments later my husband arrived, packed us into our car and we set off to Moruya. That was the first time we evacuated.
We arrived in Moruya with our three kids where the air was thick with smoke. We didn’t have any P2 masks – Bunnings had sold out. The toxic smell of the thick smoke irritated our eyes and throat. I developed a deep pain in my chest.
Meanwhile, thousands of people had evacuated to beaches, spending hours sitting in intense smoke with children, babies, animals and pets. Many people spent the next few nights in their cars or campers or in the evacuation centre. Most people didn’t have appropriate masks.
We returned home the next day, repacked and set off again, but this time to Batemans Bay. We camped out in the centre of town at our friends’ shop and cafe. I was lucky to have friends with me, as my husband was unable to accompany us for the stay due to his on-call obligations.
When at last we returned home on the 5th of January we were relieved to see our home still standing. Everything was covered in ash.
Too afraid to stop
The next day my husband came home, exhausted from sleeping in spare beds in the hospital and in the back of his car. We had a coffee together — made on the camping gas stove, as we still had no power.
He recalled his experience in Moruya Hospital, a Level 2 hospital without an ICU or HDU.
The hospital was being solely run on a diesel generator and it was struggling. The CT scanner was out. Aircon was down and it was hot inside. It was even worse for many nursing homes who didn’t have a generator. People in the community with life saving medical devices such as oxygen concentrators and CPAP machines, were now unable to use them.
Thankfully there were no major traumas that day, especially as the retrieval helicopters from Canberra and Sydney were unable to assist due to the dangerous conditions. That was the first time Moruya Hospital was at threat from the fires. It later faced two more battles — one coming within 150 metres.
That extreme weather day, the hospital was on standby to evacuate. My husband, Luke, watched the emergency workers through the window of the operating theatre, risking their lives to fight the fires and keep them safe.
We talked about concerns over basic supplies such as petrol, food, medicines and more. We had major highway closures due to active fire or fire damage; our main connections to Bega, Canberra and Sydney at various times were down.
At one point the only way out was via Brown Mountain, via Cooma, to Canberra — a journey thousands of holidaymakers and locals took to escape as the crisis worsened. One mother told me she drove for nine hours straight on the congested road with her two-week-old baby screaming with hunger. She was too afraid to stop.
Wounded by the trauma
After we finished our coffee, I set off to work at my general practice in Surf Beach – just 10 minutes south of Batemans Bay.
As I drove to work that day, the once lush green forests were unrecognisable. Street signs were damaged, and many powerlines were burnt and fallen.
At the surgery that day, we had no power, phones or internet. But somehow we managed a walk in clinic. We were able to broadcast on ABC Radio that our surgery and pharmacies were open. My colleague and I spent the harrowing day seeing bushfire victims.
We hand wrote notes and scripts, listening, counselling and offering support where we could.
I will never forget bushfire survivor stories.
One mother, desperately escaping the flames with kids in tow, went the wrong way and found herself in the fire front.
One grandmother who was rescued from her home by her son, just moments before it caught on fire, escaping with just her insulin, cat and the clothes on her back.
One widow’s home in Rosedale, consumed by the fires. Her husband’s ashes lay in her bedside table and now mingle with the ashes of their forever home.
As I drove home that day, I cried. Wounded by the trauma I’d personally witnessed.
I cried for my community and their collective loss.
I cried for my patients and their suffering.
I cried for family and friends. Grateful for their support.
I cried for the trees, the insects, the animals, the frogs, the birds — the dead numbered in the billions — forever lost to the flames.
That night around the dinner table my 7-year-old daughter said, “I just want it to be normal again”:
I’m just imagining the future. Everything is dead and brown. There is no food. There is mountains of plastic and the air is filled with pollution.”
She was speaking from her experience: since the fires our community have had food and fuel shortages, threatened water supply and quality, and our beaches too polluted to swim in. Day after day, we had to check the Fires Near Me app and then the Air Quality Index. Was it was safe to go outside? We had taken so many of these givens for granted.
Another tragic blow
The climate-driven megafires of last summer are a signature event of the Anthropocene. We have entered a new era for fires in Australia.
I was witness to the worst bushfire season in living memory in Australia.
By the end of the Black Summer, over 24 million hectares were burnt, 33 people were killed, 6000 homes destroyed. Some 80 percent of Australians were negatively impacted by the bushfire smoke, causing an additional 417 deaths, and over 4000 hospital admissions. Then there’s the longer term mental and physical health impacts, the subject of which is beyond this short submission.
Then came the heavy flooding rains. They were bittersweet. The fires were now officially out, but our rivers were poisoned by the toxic ash and debris impacting local aquatic life, including our major oyster industries.
In my practice, we were all really exhausted. Serving a traumatised community added significant mental health load to our general work, and after months we all were beginning to feel the weight of it.
And then coronavirus came to town.
For bushfire-affected communities this was another tragic blow. Community events, rebuilding efforts and relief centre operations were shut down.
Whilst most of us had the comfort of our homes and our familiar surroundings during lockdown, bushfire victims were left feeling even more vulnerable and socially isolated. Many had poor living conditions, in tents and campers, and lacked basic hygiene and storage facilities.
I hope you can see how just climate driven events such as last summer’s bushfires undermine the social and environmental determinants of health: clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. And that the most negatively impacted are those with the least resources at their disposal.
We, the front line health care workers, are also significantly impacted, as are our families.
Overlapped extreme weather events or those in close succession give little time for recovery. This, we are warned, is going to be the new normal. As a nation we are unprepared, and so are our health systems. From my experience, you could see just how unprepared our health systems were in my region.
The greatest global health opportunity of our time
Our leaders listened to the science and the medical experts and went bravely into a very difficult situation, leading the world with our pandemic response.
We must do the same for the climate crisis.
We must step up, acknowledge the solid irrefutable science, and act accordingly. Anything less is putting Australian lives at grave risk. Let’s be a shining example on the world stage, not an embarrassing laggard like we are today.
Climate action is a life-saving movement that is growing in momentum. Addressing climate change is the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.
We need to make climate change mitigation and adaptation central to all policy areas of government across all levels of government and within our health care systems.
Every dollar the Australian government spends to stimulate the economy and get unemployed Australians back into work must also build individual and community resilience, tackle climate change and reduce social, gender and race inequities.
You might have heard the phrase “build back better”, but I believe we need to build back differently. These unprecedented times require unprecedented action. We need to forge a new path forward, one that embraces science and new, clean technology and recognises the urgent need to regenerate the natural world, our living planet, as what sustains us.
We need to put the health of Australians first when choosing how to rebuild our economy, so that bushfire-ravaged communities like mine can welcome 2021 with a lot more hope.
In the words of Greta Thunberg:
We all have a choice.
We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail.
But I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Michelle Hamrosi is a NSW South Coast GP passionate about women’s & children’s health, breastfeeding & environmental medicine. You can follow her on Twitter at @mhamrosi