Australia is struggling with an acute healthcare crisis from decades of under-resourcing public healthcare. Crucially, the COVID-19 pandemic has not caused the crisis, only made it worse, and the pre-existing lack of adequate front-line resources has severely limited options to handle the pandemic. Yet what are governments doing about it?
The pandemic should have been—and still must be—the catalyst for a war-style mobilisation of resources, training and staff into boosting healthcare infrastructure all across Australia. This must include restoring the rural and regional healthcare infrastructure that has been systematically shut down over decades, which has left Australians who live in regional areas vulnerable to healthcare emergencies requiring long trips to distant municipal centres. Most importantly, the Australian people must resolve to never again allow politicians to gut healthcare resources on spurious, short-sighted budgetary grounds—public healthcare must always be the number one priority.
The systemic run-down of Australia’s healthcare is undeniable:
Hospital beds per thousand (public and private) fell from 6.4 in 1980, to 3.84 in 2016-17 (according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics).
Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett’s reforms in Victoria in 1992-99 saw some of the most aggressive dismantling of public healthcare in Australia, with the closure of 17 hospitals (including the world-leading Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital) and firing of 3,500 nurses—Dr Graeme Brazenor, then Victorian chairman of the Australian Association of Surgeons, resigned in protest at Kennett’s “ideologically driven” cuts in 1997, saying that Victoria’s public system had gone from being the “repository of the highest standards” to “if it were a dog, you’d shoot it”.
Australia has become very reliant on overseas-born doctors and nurses, often from poor developing countries (which pay to train clinical staff only to have them poached by ostensibly rich developed countries like Australia)—the 2011 census recorded 19 per cent of GPs, specialists, and nurses in Australia had arrived in the previous five years, a sharp increase from 12, 15 and 9 per cent respectively a decade earlier.
Ambulance services are increasingly overwhelmed all across Australia, irrespective of COVID outbreaks—in April 2021 Ambulance Victoria chief operating officer Mark Rogers noted in The Age that emergency ambulance protocols had been adopted at triple the rate of the previous two years combined, and Victorian emergency medicine specialist Sarah Whitelaw told the paper there was “an acute public health disaster”, with the system at its worst in three decades: “We haven’t understood how close we were to a crisis before COVID with normal demand outweighing health system capacity”, she said, adding, “We are incredibly nervous going into winter. Even with no COVID, no flu … we are tipping over the edge.”
COVID-free Western Australia experienced ambulance “ramping” from lack of availability of hospital beds that exceeded 6,500 hours for the month of August, prompting the government to announce another 332 beds, but the WA Australian Medical Association insists double that number is necessary.
Healthcare in regional Australia has been gutted—dismantled and concentrated into larger centres—by economic vandals who prefer to use words like “rationalised”, which has resulted in the damning statistic that the rate of potentially avoidable deaths increased from 91 per 100,000 people in the major cities to 136 in outer regional areas and 248 in remote Australia, according to AIHW in 2019.