21 August 2020

Cross borders, cranky communities and common sense about COVID-19

| Anne Cahill Lambert
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Anne Cahill Lambert

Anne Cahill Lambert arrived in the ACT on 13 August after almost a week in limbo on the NSW-Victoria border. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

I realised last week that the health system is stuffed. The thing that pushed me to this bleak conclusion was the story about the woman who gave birth at Lismore Hospital in northern NSW.

The baby was exceedingly ill and flown to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. The parents couldn’t fit in the retrieval helicopter and applied to drive to Brisbane. They were refused approval to cross the border and therefore entry to the hospital until they completed 14 days of isolation in a hotel, presumably at their own expense.

The lack of compassion and care, in this case, is extraordinary. Parents, especially mothers, need to be with their newborn. Common sense eventually prevailed, but not until considerable grief had been caused to those parents.

In defending her stand, the Premier of Queensland proudly proclaimed on 19 August that “people living in NSW, they have NSW hospitals, in Queensland, we have Queensland hospitals for our people”.

I am one of the 100 Canberrans who was stuck at the Victorian/NSW border recently. Readers will remember we all had permits to transit through NSW on a specific date to return to the ACT and then isolation for 14 days. Our permits were rescinded with no notice and it took six days to resolve the situation.

NSW advised us to travel to Melbourne and catch an aeroplane to Sydney, quarantine there for 14 days and then head home. At the time I asked about our cars. They were fully packed as we had been away for four months while my husband undertook a locum position as a doctor in a major regional hospital, helping out with the workload caused by the pandemic.


I was shocked that NSW would provide such public health advice – sending people into the epicentre of the pandemic. Then there was the little matter of my old, but very cute dog, Hunny. Would she just sit in the car park at Melbourne airport hoping for someone to saunter by with a bone?

READ ALSO Stranded Canberrans begin arriving home from the NSW-Victoria border

The ACT Chief Minister and other ACT authorities definitely pulled the rabbit out of the hat on this occasion, working night and day to get us home.

Over the last fortnight, we have seen other farcical situations at the Murray River.

People who live in the Albury region north of the Murray were unable to work in their usual jobs at Victorian hospitals. NSW wanted them to head to Melbourne, catch a plane to Sydney and isolate for 14 days.

Similarly, those who lived in Victoria and worked at the Albury Hospital would be required to fly to Sydney and quarantine for 14 days before starting their shift. On one occasion, one of the Victorian hospitals was 80 staff short.

NSW has also refused to allow relatives in Victoria to attend to their terminally ill relatives in NSW in their dying days. However, they will (generously) allow them to attend their funerals. Death is one of those things that you don’t get a second chance at if you stuff up the care the first time around.

We are also seeing a worrying decline in organ donation and transplantation, presumably because of these arbitrary rules being applied. Normally, borders don’t matter when considering who will receive a transplant. Organs are moved around the nation as a routine so that the person who will benefit most receives the transplant.

One of the mantras of public health gurus is that public health interventions must be proportionate to risk. No proper assessment was made by authorities in relation to we 100 Canberrans. In north-east Victoria, where we were based, there had been no COVID-19 cases for months.

I am not downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19. It is right to have public health interventions in place. But those interventions should be proportionate, rather than using state borders as the Berlin Wall.

The Queensland/NSW border and the Murray River border of NSW/Victoria are large communities that move between the states for their healthcare, education, work, families etc.

Unless we replicate health services around rural and regional Australia to address ‘hard borders’, we are going to need to find other ways to deal with the problem.

We must consider the risk and whether the interventions are proportionate in the first instance. And then we should consider the concept of communities or regions rather than the Murray, or the dotted line if implementing a Berlin Wall.

Finally, we all pay a Medicare levy. We are Australians who are part of a universal health system. There is no such thing as Queensland hospitals exclusively for Queenslanders. Or Canberra hospitals exclusively for Canberrans. We must stop pitting Australian against Australian. It’s tribal and not what our Federation forefathers had in mind.

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Very well said.

Thanks Anne. Well said. On TV you commented that there were only forefathers at federation. No women helped to draft the Constitution. Now the problems with the federation are more exposed by the coronavirus wouldn’t it be great if we all got involved in fixing it?

HiddenDragon6:29 pm 22 Aug 20

Stories of farmers who need to make a short cross-border trip being told, instead, to fly livestock and fodder inter-state to a state capital, and also then pay for the quarantining of the animals and the feed (presumably in one of the many CBD hotels equipped for such things), further illustrate the utter impracticality of some of the decisions which are being made.

Some of what is happening may be due to officials being overwhelmed by the need to make so many decisions so quickly and under far more pressure and scrutiny than they are used to. Beyond that, though, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there are too many people in positions of authority (whether elected or unelected) who are too remote and insulated from the costs and consequences of the decisions they make.

People who cheer on this “make no apologies” attitude from officials because they think it’s keeping them safe (from one of many potential causes of illness and death) need to think about what is coming in days ahead as the negative consequences of lockdowns and lockouts take their own terrible toll. In fairness, I hope we get daily reports and press conferences about that, too – but I doubt very much whether that will happen.

What we are seeing is incompetence at the highest levels of government and an un-Australian ‘bugger you’ attitude displayed by all state premiers and the senior health officials who are dictating public policy. Their absence of leadership is a reflection of their lack of common sense and human decency. While these Neros fiddle, Rome burns.

All well said Anne. The hard borders imposed, while effective and understandable up to a point, have also highlighted the worst of small-minded Australian parochialism. It is not sustainable over the long term and leaders need to start coming up with more creative ways of dealing with our current problems that don’t split up families, ruin businesses, and obstruct equitable access to essential services such as education and healthcare. We’re about 6 months into this thing, it’s about time we start thinking about how we can live with it because we can’t go on as we are currently.

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