COVID-19 exposed significant fault lines in Australian society and revealed weaknesses in our national capabilities. We now have to build the lessons learned into our institutional structures.
The story of Australia during COVID-19 will depend on who’s telling it.
For some, it’s a story of inconvenience. It’s a narrative of cutting our own hair, struggling to exercise and endless Zoom meetings.
But for others, it’s a story of trauma. It’s a tale of lockdowns in overcrowded housing, job loss, deteriorating mental health, isolation and domestic violence. It’s a story of losing loved ones and missing final goodbyes.
These were the heartbreaking stories Jillian Broadbent, Isobel Marshal, Peter Varghese and I heard as we undertook our Independent Review into Australia’s Response to COVID-19.
The Review was a first for Australia. Its terms of reference were not set by a politician. It was entirely independent of government. It was philanthropically funded. It was apolitical.
The more than 350 people who participated in the Review were not compelled to appear. They did not feel obliged to defend a decision in public. Their evidence was entirely confidential.
They participated because they wanted to help answer the Review’s core question: What can Australia learn from the pandemic to be better prepared for the next health crisis?
We did not seek to ascribe blame. Politicians and public servants did their best in the fog of uncertainty in which they had to make decisions.
We titled the Review ‘Fault Lines’ because this is what COVID-19 exposed. The crisis exacerbated inequalities. It exposed vulnerabilities. The adverse consequences of the pandemic were not distributed equally.
We must address societal fault lines in our decision-making, especially in a crisis. This was the core finding of our Review.
Australia got many things right. The financial support extended was important. So was our initial health response to such an uncertain disease. But we got four consequential matters badly wrong.
First, economic supports should have been provided more fairly. Casual workers, migrants and international students should not have been excluded. Sick leave should have been immediately provided to all workers, JobKeeper should have had a clawback mechanism for employers whose profits rose significantly.
Second, lockdowns and border closures were overused. Initially these are useful measures to buy time and prepare. But many were the result of policy failures in quarantine, procurement of vaccines and equipment, contact tracing, testing and disease surveillance. Too many were guided by politics.
Third, school systems should have stayed open. Closing schools was a mistake when we knew that children were unlikely to be severely ill when infected and that schools were low transmission environments. The costs of educational disruption and increased mental stress will continue for years.
Fourth, older Australians should have been better protected. Making it difficult for aged care residents to transfer to hospital when they contracted COVID 19 was a mistake. It cost many lives.
We take five lessons from these shortcomings: we must have societal fault lines front of mind when we make decisions; we must better plan, prepare and practice for future health crises; we must avoid the perils of overreach; we must be transparent, clear and consistent in making and communicating decisions; and we must better balance competing trade-offs between health, social and economic outcomes.
It’s not enough to note these lessons. Building these lessons into institutional structures is the goal of our six recommendations.
First, we need to strengthen crisis preparation, planning and scenario testing. Australia’s pandemic plans were not regularly tested. Many key actors didn’t even know they existed. It’s little wonder they were quickly discarded. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Second, we need an expert body and trusted voice on public health. We need a fully independent Australian Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, with complete access to national data. Australia is the only OECD country that doesn’t have one.
Third, we need to improve government decision-making. We should establish a panel of multidisciplinary experts and representatives—not just health experts—to advise governments during crises. We should better harness the frontline experience of business, unions, the community sector and local government. We also need to publicly release the modelling and evidence used in government decision-making. Transparency creates trust.
Fourth, we need to enhance public service capability. It is imperative that governments authorise better collaboration between jurisdictions and strengthen their collective capabilities, particularly in data, digital skills and communication.
Fifth, we need to significantly enhance how governments use data. We must improve the collection, linking and sharing of real-time data while keeping it safe and protecting privacy. Only then can we adapt our crisis response as new evidence comes to light.
Finally, we need to build a culture of evaluation and learning in the public sector. We should establish a politically independent Office of the Evaluator General to assess which policies work, which don’t and how they can be improved, particularly in a crisis.
The wisdom of hindsight only comes if we have the wisdom to seek it. We won’t be prepared for the next pandemic if we don’t learn from the current one. And one thing is certain: there will be another.
Peter Shergold, the Chancellor of Western Sydney University, is Chair of the James Martin Institute for Public Policy. He headed the panel which undertook the independent review of Australia’s response to global pandemic.
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