Dr Colin Hughes considers the paradox of successful public health measures.

As we learn to live with COVID, there is much criticism of the extreme public health measures such as lockdowns and their overall cost to society. 

Dr Colin Hughes

The Australian Government spent $337 billion in COVID stimulus, a lot of it wasted, leaving our children with a mountain of debt.

There was the $40 billion from JobKeeper given to small and large companies that made a profit. 

The $20 billion spent on COVID supplements to low-income pensioners and jobseekers on the other hand was 100% spent in the community and for the first time lifted so many out of poverty. 

How much was wasted on the privatisation of COVID testing or an ineffectual privatised vaccine rollout particularly to the most vulnerable in aged care and NDIS instead of through State-based public health, GPs and pharmacists?

In public health we call this opportunity cost. How much better to spend these billions of dollars on preventative strategies like clean air, clean water, diet and exercise that would save lives from heart and lung disease, mental illness and cancer?

Was the previous strategy all wrong? Could we have just let it rip from the start? Are we ready to let our dearest grandparents die from a preventable disease? Was our public health response over the top and unnecessary? 

Only in WA did Mark McGowan actually listen and act on public health advice. Outside China, it is perhaps the one place in the world that a zero COVID policy has been implemented with the economic benefit of an estimated $5 billion surplus by keeping our society, mining, regional tourism and business open and flourishing including hosting the AFL grand final and staging the only live performance of the Messiah in front of a full audience at Perth Concert Hall anywhere in the world in 2020. 

He did this by measures including strict quarantine, mask and vaccines mandates.

NSW and the Federal Government chose to cherry pick public health advice. They refused for months to acknowledge that COVID could be airborne spread. Therefore, they refused to provide free N95 masks and implement better clean air strategies in quarantine and more importantly all public buildings especially schools. 

If we are to live with COVID we must have HEPA filters, CO2 monitors, and externally vented air conditioners preferably with solar power. Masks must be encouraged by changing the focus from mandates to “do it to protect your loved ones at home, your mates at work and all those vulnerable strangers who are more at risk from COVID”.

Individually we must take personal responsibility to not spread the virus to the most vulnerable. My medical colleagues in the UK use their free RATs before visiting any home especially those of the elderly. They use them before getting on a flight and when they are on holiday before flying home. So far none of them have contracted COVID.

COVID is not the flu, and we haven’t started to see the waiting lists for treating long COVID. A new variant is just around the corner.

Let’s learn from our mistakes and actually listen to the real public health messages. That means quarantine, N95 masks in public places, free RATS, physical distancing (don’t hug or shake hands), washing hands, QR codes and social distancing with limits on venues and the 2 sqm rule.

As to lockdowns, even they must still be on the table in situations such as regional hospitals being unable to cope. 

ED: Dr Colin Hughes, is a retired GP and former Head of Public Health and former chair of RACGP WA.