‘Nation’s disgrace’: We should be ashamed

 

It's become a story of numbers.

The number of new cases in Victoria overnight: 723.

The number of those who have died overnight: 13.

The number of active cases in aged care in Victoria: 913.

But it should be a story about people. People we love. People who've loved us. People who've shaped us and built our foundations.

Yes, the figures are shocking and scary but it's the faces we need to focus on. Because right now, our nation's disgrace is the elderly people in care homes who have become the neglected victims of a disaster we're failing to handle.

A resident is transported out of Epping Gardens Aged Care home which has a COVID-19 breakout. Picture: NCA NewsWire /David Crosling
A resident is transported out of Epping Gardens Aged Care home which has a COVID-19 breakout. Picture: NCA NewsWire /David Crosling

If sickness and deaths from COVID-19 were skyrocketing in, say, a neonatal ward or a kindergarten rather than in aged-care facilities, we would be outraged. Every resource possible would be harnessed to solve the crisis.

But because it's the elderly, the forgotten, the ailing and the flailing, we are accepting the shameful death of our older people as if they are collateral in a war we can't stop. The truth is they are as much victims of grievous mismanagement as they are of a pandemic we're struggling to contain.

What are we doing? How dare we treat this generation as if they have less worth and less social capital than the rest of us. How dare we abandon them when they fought for us, made sacrifices for us and guided us to the prosperity we have long enjoyed.

The travesty is not just the outbreaks in care facilities but that four months ago we had a trial run with Newmarch House in NSW and appear to have learned nothing from it.

As Albert Einstein so pointedly observed, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

In this case, it's also the definition of cruelty.

A body is removed from the Epping Gardens Aged Care Home, Melbourne on Wednesday. Picture: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.
A body is removed from the Epping Gardens Aged Care Home, Melbourne on Wednesday. Picture: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

The federal health department may have moved in to help run nursing homes in Victoria but, arguably, it's another reactive and inadequate response. As the state's chief health officer Brett Sutton warned, if the clusters in nursing homes were not brought under control, case numbers would continue to climb.

"We could get a number of aged care facilities with 50, 60, 70 cases a day that would change the numbers, that would also put at risk the broader community," he said.

Again, those numbers. Why, between Newmarch in April and St Basil's Home for the Aged, Menarock Life RACF Essendon and Estia RACF Ardeer in July, has there not been a proactive and decisive change in policy?

The lessons of Newmarch House should be central to how authorities are handling this second wave of infections, given that they were paid for by a catastrophic loss of life and family heartache.

With 19 deaths and more than 70 known infections, what happened at the Anglicare-run aged care facility stands as an indictment against flawed policy. Back then, no one knew what we were up against.

But with the benefit of hindsight it seems ludicrous now that authorities would continue to adopt a stance of continuing to keep a community of the most vulnerable people locked up inside a known virus incubator and allow the disease to pick off residents one by one.

 

Surely it would be a better option to send the healthy residents home with their relatives to self-isolate, and send those who have tested positive to hospital?

Around the same time Newmarch House was grappling with its unfolding disaster, another aged care facility in Sydney, Dorothy Henderson Lodge, was managing things very differently, sending about 80 per cent of its infected patients to hospital. In stark contrast to Newmarch House, there were only six deaths emanating from that facility.

But it is not just the heartbreaking loss of life, the separation from loved ones as they fought to breathe or the utter terror and powerlessness of those who had no access to their relatives. It's also what it says about us as a society.

We are not Sweden where they took the view that they would not sacrifice their economy or restrict people's lives too much because the evidence suggested that only those aged over 70 were the most vulnerable to the virus.

They ringfenced their elderly in care homes, restricted visitors but let everybody else largely go about their business. With a population of a little more than 10 million, Sweden has recorded around 80,000 infections and 5700 deaths. If we had the same mortality rate we would have suffered 15,000 deaths instead of the 170 or so to date.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown an intense spotlight on many areas of vulnerability in our nation. It's exposed our unhealthy reliance on China as a trading partner, laid bare the folly of universities of making foreign students a key pillar of their economic survival and forced struggling businesses and institutions to the wall.

Critically, it has lifted the lid on one of our greatest scandals - how we care for our frail and aged citizens. We already knew there was a problem. That's why there's a Royal Commission examining the aged-care industry.

COVID-19 has saved the commission time by tearing down the facades of our nursing homes and revealing the plight of those terrified, isolated and poorly treated people. And that's just the staff.

What's happening to the patients doesn't bear thinking about.

Originally published as 'Nation's disgrace': We should be ashamed



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