Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall's response to COVID-19

10 June, 2020


I rise to speak on Australia's COVID-19 health response, following the minister's statement on the response taken to this global pandemic. We are very fortunate to live on an island where we really can shut ourselves off from the rest of the world physically. As a nation, we've done well to practise physical distancing from one another, and I commend all Australians on their responsiveness to the health challenge and their compliance with the guidance.

While we've done so well to date, we need to keep up the good practices developed already. To this effect, I urge everyone to stay focused on the measures we all must ensure we take responsibility for: these are the 1.5 metres of distancing; hand-washing; staying home; getting tested if there are any concerns; and downloading the app or, if you have uncertainties, keeping a clear record of your movements. We all have a part to play to maintain this outcome, in terms of this health crisis. Of course, we can't talk about this health crisis and how well Australia has done without saying thank you to all our health and frontline professionals who have played such a massive part in the outcome. They have kept Australia going and kept Australia safe through the pandemic.

This is also an opportunity to speak about the issues that have come up as a result of this pandemic: one that pertains to the current crisis and one that reflects where the government should go in the future in relation to health crises. Some of the stories that we've received—and I'm sure my fellow MPs have received many as well—have been about the personal impact and challenges that so many in our community have gone through with this pandemic. It has tested so many aspects of our systems, and, whilst the response has often had to be in haste, there have been issues where there is an opportunity to look at whether our response have been adequate and whether we have left some of our more vulnerable in the community exposed and with insufficient assistance.

One such story that I received from a constituent in Warringah was incredibly moving and highlighted a real difficulty. It was about a family of four who face a wide range of challenges in their everyday life and who in the era of COVID-19 have suffered even more and continue to do so. The mother, father and one son all manage multiple comorbidities, and all require psychological assistance. Their youngest son has cerebral palsy and a hearing impairment and is also in need of psychiatric help. The family are paying for their various medical costs on one wage. They were not eligible for the coronavirus supplement, as were so many others in their situation. This is an example of how many families have struggled with the conditions created by the crisis, which exacerbated an already difficult situation.

From a policy point of view, I urge the government to consider further measures to assist these families. A particular area that comes up a lot in constituent correspondence is the limit of 10 psychology visits per year, which is not enough for people in this situation, with or without a pandemic. It has been made worse and it is insufficient. I urge the government to raise the limit on psychology visits per year for people who have a mental health diagnosis in addition to other disabilities. Their carers, too, need further support. As we emerge from the COVID-19 health crisis, we need to be vigilant in its aftermath and about the impact on the mental health of so many Australians. We know that there is a much greater risk of domestic violence and we know that there is a much greater risk of poor mental health outcomes. We need to ensure that services are adequately funded and that specific packages are put in place to make sure that those more vulnerable in the community are assisted.

One of the things that have been interesting has been the government's ability and willingness to act on health and scientific advice. In fighting this pandemic, we cannot escape the obvious parallel with other crises that we face, the most obvious being the health impacts of a hotter world. We must shift our focus to the long-term health challenges this will present. In September last year, the Australian Medical Association declared that climate change is real and will have the earliest and most severe health consequences on vulnerable populations around the world, including in Australia and the Pacific region. The AMA further stated that climate change will affect health and wellbeing by increasing the situations in which infectious diseases can be transmitted, through more extreme weather events, particularly heatwaves. In doing so, the AMA were joined by the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association and a chorus of other associations like the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australian Medical Students Association. The government must listen to our peak bodies for all health risks.

Last year, the world's pre-eminent medical journal, The Lancet, established that Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health and that policy inaction in this regard threatens Australian lives. It stated that the increased prevalence of heatwaves will lead to more instances of acute kidney injury, congestive heart failure, heat stress and heatstroke, interpersonal and collective violence and impacts on mental health. Children will be more at risk than the general population and will have a greater risk of electrolyte imbalance, fever, respiratory disease and kidney disease. There's also evidence that a hotter world will make infectious diseases like COVID-19 more common. Andrew MacDonald of Stanford University found:

… the sorts of large environmental changes we are seeing today, including climate and land use change, have a high potential to lead to changes in health outcomes, including the transmission of infectious diseases.

The health impacts of our changing environment should have been made clear to all Australians during the 2019-20 'black summer'. We learnt from the recent bushfires royal commission that 445 people died of smoke inhalation and over 3,000 people were admitted to hospital with respiratory issues.

We have shown great regard for science and the advice of our experts to chart our way out of this crisis, and I commend the government for that. We must also do that on climate change. With COVID-19 we accepted that we had to act early and decisively to avoid our systems being overrun. The same applies to our emissions and the environment. If we fail to reduce our emissions decisively, our systems and environment will be irreversibly impacted and will be overrun. The government knows that we must flatten the curve on our emissions as a matter of urgency. We can use this recovery as an opportunity for significant economic reform and to put us in an immediate trajectory to achieve the best health outcomes.

This parliament has a duty of care to the country and particularly to its children and future generations. The health emergency we are facing now has revealed the importance of being prepared and taking early action. Changes to our lifestyle that we would have thought impossible to accept were overwhelmingly accepted by so many Australians. We all pulled together for a common good to ensure we could defeat the health crisis of the pandemic. It's now time to do the same for the impacts of climate change. We were not prepared when the coronavirus first hit our shores, but we did take early action, and that has served us well. Now we need to take urgent action on the biggest long-term health risk we face.