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In the fight of our lives, why are health and medical professionals so timid?

As the Federal Government moves to weaken national environmental laws, health and medical professionals have been urged to step out of their comfort zone and engage much more proactively in the fight for planetary health and survival of the human species.

Be bold, and stop being so timid and constrained are the strong messages for health and medical organisations, such as the Colleges and Australian Medical Association (AMA), from public health advocate Dr Peter Tait.

Meanwhile, the Climate and Health Alliance has launched an online petition to protest changes to national environmental laws that it says would work in favour of “expanding gas and fossil fuel projects that harm the environment and threaten human health”.


Peter Tait writes:

Health and medical organisations need to act more strongly to drive the changes necessary to ensure ecological wellbeing and human survival.

An excellent article in the August edition of the Australian Journal of General Practice, titled ‘General practice in the era of planetary health: Responding to the climate health emergency’, pointed out things that doctors could be doing about global heating and listing organisations they might join. All of this necessary but I fear insufficient.

In starting to write a response to that article, I realised that a much bigger and deeper issue needs highlighting: health professions are overall being much too timid and limited in their scope of action to ensure the survival of the human species.

Firstly, we have been indoctrinated into the individualist, personal change paradigm which puts responsibility on individuals to change and ignores the politico-economic power relationships that maintain the status quo.

Conversely, it also disregards not only the political power but responsibility that the various Colleges and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have to act in putting the brakes on social change or in pushing governments to make change.

We should remember that not acting or acting ineffectively is a decision to support the status quo regardless of any accompanying rhetoric.

The second aspect of timidness is in limiting the boundaries that organisations work within, which effectively ignores the bigger picture facets of health care that are about ensuring human and planetary wellbeing.

Existential crisis

Humanity is facing an existential crisis and if that is not important enough to put major effort into driving political and social change, then what is?

I accept that organisations are set up for a purpose and they have to achieve that purpose – but we are in unprecedented times and we need to take correspondingly big action.

The situation also highlights the conflicted nature of health organisations’ relationship with government. Again, I am told that we need to work with government to effect change. We need to keep the health minister and their shadow on side.

But what if that leads to ineffective action and self-censoring?

Systems are resilient and our political economic system has evolved to maintain the political and economic status quo. Working within the system when humanity is threatened with extinction is fighting with both hands tied behind our back. We are doomed to fail.

The medical profession has form in being a beneficiary of and so working to maintain the social status quo. Wins such as vaccines, seat belts and plain packaging only partially offset the role health carers played in big past historical events like the holocaust and colonisation of Australia.

The medical profession played an active role in the eugenics movement and the extermination camps in Nazi Germany. In Australia, the medical profession was a part of the systemic colonisation of Australia, supporting white expansion and only interested in Aboriginal health when it affected non-Aboriginal people. These are examples of the medical professionals working with the status quo and not challenging it.

Consider a hypothetical. In today’s world how would we work with a health minister who, during an international pandemic, defunded public health units and refused to follow public health and clinical advice? Who argued that the economic costs of trying to limit infection put too high a burden on future generations? Who maintained that, while there was a pandemic, paying for the funerals of those who regrettably succumbed was all the action the government would take?

What would we do?

Or, a real example, what about a Government that uses its numbers to quash democratic parliamentary debate to ram through amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, gutting its ability to protect the environment.

A proportionate response

So, in a situation where there is an overwhelming consensus that a suite of ecological, environmental, social and political happenings seriously threaten our existence in the longer term and our wellbeing now, what do we do?

Our response needs to match the severity of the crisis. As so many have said, this year has woken people up to the need for changes in how we do things. This is the opportunity that cannot be missed.

Organisations such as the Climate and Health Alliance, Doctors for the Environment, Healthy Futures and many non-health organisations such as Beyond Zero have already put the hard yards in to develop policy and action proposals that can help mitigate and adapt to the crisis.

Rather than token support, the big medical and health organisations such as the AMA and the Royal and Australian Colleges of the specialties need to bring their political muscle and community credibility behind those organisations to demand that government implement those ideas.

They can use their existing publicity and advocacy machinery to publicly support and promote the ideas. They can call out bad policy and strongly support good policy. They can work in the hospital sector to mainstream ecologically sustainable practice. They can educate, support and encourage individual action by their members in parallel.

All this helps normalise and provide social proof for action to transform our political economy. At election time they can make government action for human survival an election issue.

Ecological wellbeing is a health issue. Human survival is a health issue. The health care professions need to act as if they believed this to be true.

Fix the political system

Further, we need to act to change the political system so that it works for planetary and human health.

Vocal support and advocacy for an Australian Integrity Commission, limits to political donations, lobbyist registers, truth in political advertising and so on all help create governments who will work for the public good.

Now we need to be calling for Parliament to be brought back to lead debate policy and legislation for planning Australia’s future post-COVID, rather than this being done by the secretive National Covid Commission.

Much more needs to be done. As members of these organisations, we need to be advocating necessary action. We need to elect onto Boards people who will be bolder. We need to stand for election ourselves.

As voters we need to be choosing representatives who as MPs will take the action that is necessary. The government is ours; we need to remind them of this. Only our bold action together can save our species and all the others too.

Peter Tait has been a General Practitioner for 38 years, 30 in Aboriginal health in Central Australia. He was the 2007 Royal Australian College of General Practitioners General Practitioner of the Year, and 2017 Public Health Association Australia Sidney Sax medallist. He attained a Masters of Climate Change at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2010. He is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Population Health at ANU Medical School. Peter believes a person’s health is grounded in a healthy society, and a healthy society in a well-functioning ecosystem. He is a co-convener of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group, active in the Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy, an Expert Advisory Committee member of the Climate and Health Alliance.

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