Introduction by Croakey: In the UK, a People’s COVID Inquiry has been holding hearings and taking evidence from health professionals, community members and others as part of its investigations of the Government’s pandemic response.
Its interim findings state that “the deaths of 150,000 people, most of whom died needlessly, have been the result of incompetence”, and that “there has been an inconsistent, ill-prepared, and miscommunicated policy of measures to counter the pandemic”.
The inquiry, chaired by human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC, was convened by the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, a non-party-political organisation campaigning against the privatisation and underfunding of the NHS.
It calls for action on the widening social inequalities that drive health inequalities, and for health in all policies approaches. Investment in public care systems should include not only hospital beds but also the workforce, primary care, diagnostic capacity, social care, and public health, it says.
A BMJ report highlighted the inquiry’s finding that the Government’s reliance on private sector contracts at the expense of existing public structures and expertise is a key reason for the UK’s high pandemic death rate.
If such a people’s inquiry was held in Australia, what would it uncover?
The article below, by Bruce Levett, CEO of Health Consumers Tasmania, suggests that the community is fed up with confusing messages and untransparent processes, and needs to be engaged much more directly in finding better ways forward.
Bruce Levett writes:
COVID fatigue is becoming a common term.
People are exhausted watching as their states and territories battle to keep on top of the new strains of COVID-19 circulating within their communities or, as in my state of Tasmania, nervously waiting and hoping the virus doesn’t hitch a ride across Bass Strait realising that, as current headlines remind us, nowhere is immune to the potential of infection.
People tell us they are confused and fatigued by the constant stream of COVID news and the constant changing of rules so that for many, it is hard to keep up, while others have simply tuned out.
With vaccine rollout continually facing logistical and supply issues, combined with the increasingly confusing and contradictory messages around vaccines and all the other ‘noise’ around the vaccine rollout, it is not surprising that less than 10 percent of our population is fully vaccinated.
Something needs to change and change quickly.
So the question that Health Consumers Tasmania (HCT) asks is simply: what can we do as a community to help the vaccine rollout? What we have seen and heard to date from our federal and medical leaders is not working.
The current political debate that we are witnessing is really sad.
We are in a middle of a pandemic, many across Australia are in lockdown, some in the community are nervous but what we repeatedly hear from the Federal Government is at times an argumentative, defensive, and confusing message. There are differences of opinions on how to best rollout the vaccine, arguments with states on lockdown measures and hotel quarantine, while influential medical groups like the Australian Medical Association contest the Prime Minister’s statements on whether younger people should have the AstraZenca vaccine.
And then there are also the confusing messages around side-affects, probabilities of side effects and statistical comparisons to other events. The recent images of military personal sitting around a table do little to put the community at ease and launching the ‘4-stage pathway out of the pandemic’ in the middle of chaotic public debate about AstraZenaca’s use didn’t make sense.
Important information has become noise.
And the community can see that the rollout is not working the way it should. It’s a mess and has left many people frightened or confused, while others have simply had enough.
How the community can help
Health Consumers Tasmania believes the community can play two important roles to help our national leaders.
Firstly, a civil public conversation about where we go from here led by the community is crucial because our leaders have demonstrated that they can’t do it.
We need a conversation without the politics, and it needs to be driven by communities.
Secondly, involve the community in the decision-making process.
As a government, you cannot ask the community to trust your judgements and decisions if you in turn won’t trust the community with all the information that was used to make those decisions in the first place.
Using words like ‘Cabinet-in-Confidence’ or ‘In the Interests of National Security’ as reasons to justify not releasing information does not make sense during a pandemic emergency. It comes across as being selective with the truth, untrusting and perhaps wanting to hide something.
We strongly argue that this information is in the national interest, particularly when the full cooperation and buy-in of the community is critical to successfully combatting the pandemic.
Two non-negotiable principles are critical for a successful vaccination rollout – transparency and trust.
No one, from where I sit, has asked the community how they would like to receive a vaccination and where they would like to receive it.
For example, there has been no community discussion around whether:
- mass vaccination centres are more likely to be accessible and effective than a rollout via general practices
- the community wants to be vaccinated as soon as possible or whether they are happy to dawdle along as we are
- we should have concrete targets of 70%, 80% or 90% of the population being vaccinated versus just offering it to whoever wants it
- the vulnerable, aged and all front-line health and aged cared workers should be vaccinated before we open up our borders
- vaccine passports should be used; for example, to enable travel across state or national borders or accessing certain services like attending public events
- hotel quarantine is preferable to custom designed quarantine facilities and where these are located
- the community supports measures to bring Australian residing overseas back home and how best to do this
- Australians want our borders opened up, and if so, when.
No one has explained to me that if it is in Australia’s best interest that the whole world be vaccinated as soon as possible, then why are we, as a nation, wanting to withhold information from our Australian community or our neighbours for security reasons?
Should we not work with other countries openly to beat the pandemic? The community doesn’t get to see what is discussed at national cabinet or at ATAGI (the technical advisory group). Why not?
To understand the issues these groups need to balance and navigate to reach a decision is important for the community so they can better appreciate why we are in our current predicament.
The community will continue to be alienated and vaccine hesitancy will continue to grow if the Federal Government continues to operate the way it is.
It’s time for governments to work more transparently with the community so that we can help them, because as they have demonstrated, they are unable to do this on their own.
The solution is simple: involve the community in the decision-making process and let them craft the conversation amongst themselves and we may finally see some positive unintended consequences from all this – a more united approach to beating the virus and rebuilding of trust between the community and governments.
Australia is now effectively 18 months into this pandemic, it is time to openly review what has worked and what we need to do differently going forward. The community, as the biggest stakeholder, would have a major role to play in any such review.
People have concerns, so why not let these concerns be raised through a coalition of community groups that are empowered to respond to these concerns through implementing changes to the vaccine rollout so it better meets the needs of the community. Involve this coalition of community groups in the formal decision-making mechanism established by government, so the community voice is present and involved when decisions are made.
For community representatives to become the public face of the campaign, they need to be empowered to do so.
Why not fund community groups around Australia to be able to have meaningful input into the vaccination rollout within their communities.
Fund the community to develop messaging for their communities.
Trust the community to develop a national marketing campaign and supporting information that is presented in a way that is understood and believed.
Encourage and fund individuals and communities who may have had concerns prior to being vaccinated to talk publicly about why they agreed to be vaccinated and let the community develop an on-line campaign where they can talk about their vaccine journey and celebrate being vaccinated.
What we have seen and experienced with the Australian vaccine rollout so far is not working.
Bruce Levett is the CEO of Health Consumers Tasmania – an independent, not-for-profit company which has a mission to empower the Tasmanian community to have meaningful input into their health system to ensure it meets their needs.
Previously at Croakey
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