Why can’t a wealthy country like Australia, with its world-class medical resources simply shut out COVID-19? In this episode, Burnet Institute’s Professor Leanne Robinson, Program Director of Health Security unpicks the reason we can’t just barrier ourselves off from the rest of the world.
She points to glaring inequalities on our doorstep, in countries like Papua New Guinea (PNG) where she has lived and worked for more than a decade, and warns that ignoring this inequity will be at our own peril.
No one is safe, until everyone is safe
Australia’s early response to the COVID-19 storm was to batten down the hatches.
But almost two years into a pandemic, what have we learnt living inside a fortress-like island-continent?
Burnet Institute’s Program Director of Health Security, Professor Leanne Robinson says we can’t hide behind a force shield forever, no matter how good our defences are.
“We as people live in an interconnected world and we can’t just barrier ourselves off – in whatever country that may be. As people, but also as economies. That can’t last.”
According to Professor Robinson, Australia cannot be inward looking in the face of a pandemic that’s caused great human suffering worldwide.
“It comes back to that ‘leave no one behind’ type approach, whether it’s for COVID or whether it’s for endemic diseases – we are global citizens.”
Inequities in healthcare a real danger
A lack of pandemic preparedness in one country can endanger the entire world.
UNICEF warns that poorer regions could become potential breeding grounds for deadly variants.
Our closest neighbours in PNG are particularly vulnerable to the Delta variant because of low vaccination levels.
Professor Robinson says there are “very real operational constraints of the health system and the logistics of getting vaccines into arms.”
“I think many of us have reflected on just how difficult a challenge escalating COVID-19 cases were going to be, for what is a recognised under-resourced and understaffed health system in PNG.”
The threat of COVID-19 on our doorstep
While PNG’s response early in the pandemic was very strong, by March 2021 Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk was voicing a ‘real concern’ about the danger our northern neighbours posed to her sunshine state.
Professor Robinson says “a blurring of the sources of truth” is what enabled this coronavirus outbreak in PNG.
“It’s become very blurry for people to know whether to trust their church leader or somebody from a reputable organisation on social media with a completely opposing point of view.”
The island nation’s testing numbers were also low and slow.
“I think if there was one thing that probably has been slower, it would be empowering of communities to have access to the science they trust.”
An enduring love affair
Professor Robinson has an intimate relationship with PNG. After setting off to work there for two years on malaria studies, she found herself settling into the community for almost a decade – even giving birth there.
While Robinson can, “attest to the resourcefulness and the inner calm that is inherent within health workers in PNG,” she’s also seen firsthand how inequities in healthcare can drive significant suffering and burden of diseases.
“People are living in remote and rural areas of the country and they’re often hours walk away from a health facility. So just understanding the way the population and the health system interact I think can give some insight into just how difficult it is to get that timely messaging of the correct health information.”
The impact of a catastrophe like COVID-19, according to Professor Robinson, can only be solved with a global response.
“We can do more to ensure that the best tools and strategies can be implemented in a community-led way to reduce that suffering.”
“That really is what has kept me so strongly tied to PNG.”
Listen and subscribe to How Science Matters, an 8-part podcast series by Burnet Institute to help us to make sense of the many impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic through science.
Hosted by former ABC broadcaster, Tracy Parish and Professor Brendan Crabb, a microbiologist, malaria researcher, and one of the best minds in infectious diseases and global health today. Produced by Written & Recorded.