For Australian Minister for Health Greg Hunt it has been ‘non-stop to the minute’ since the beginning of the year when the bushfires started, to be followed soon by the pandemic that shows little signs of passing in a hurry. “But that’s okay,” he told G’day India in an exclusive interview. He touched upon several key aspects concerning the pandemic while also extending a “warm embrace” to the Indian diaspora. And yes, he is also looking forward to seeing Virat Kohli batting in Australia.
Q: This pandemic is one-in-a-life-time situation for many. What hopes would you give to the people of Australia?
A: There’s real hope in the way we have managed the virus and our number by global standards are really low, eight out of eight states and territories and the Australian population did magnificently the first-time round. In Victoria we have a challenge, but we are winning progressively. The Australian people have borne a huge weight and the second time round the Victorian people, but we are getting there. Also, there is legitimate prospect of a vaccine in ’20-’21. It’s a difficult time around the world and we know that India, for example, has had immense human tragedy, but will continue to fight and continues to support not only Australia but other countries as well.
Q: Besides the launch of extra health care clinics to address growing mental health cases, how prepared are we, as many believe that the worst is yet to come as a result of this pandemic?
A: Mental health and economic health are very related, whether someone has a job, whether someone has enough money to pay the mortgage, whether somebody has the capacity to restart their small business; it could be an accounting firm, hairdresser, cafe or a restaurant, all of these are very important. We are well prepared. We have a very, very strong mental health support. Telehealth, a 10-year plan instituted in 10 days has now supported over 30 million consultations, a very large number of which has been mental health. We have welcomed the support of home delivery of medicines assisting people under quarantine or they have been under Victoria’s lockdown laws; Then we have the role of jobkeeper and jobseeker in taking care of people and that assisted them with economic security which does help immensely with mental health. We have established 15 new mental health clinics in Victoria, very specific support for culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We have established a 74-million-dollar programme focussed on Beyond Blue, Headspace and LikeMind, all of the different support services.
Q. With your mother and wife both from nursing how does that empower you in decision-making for the role you are in?
A: It’s been a very important part of the background. My wife was a theatre nurse for the focus on infection control. She has kept a book by Laurie Garrett, the foreteller of pandemic. She has often talked to me and prepared me for that. My mother taught me the culture of healthcare workers and nurses in particular with regard to caring and I have seen that where our healthcare workers have been heroes during the course of this pandemic.
Q: Would you say this would have been your most challenging role in your political career?
A: I think absolutely. It’s non-stop to the minute and it’s been like that since 1st January because we had the bushfire, but that’s okay. I am lucky I have my health and got a very strong family and there’s complete focus. The Prime Minister every day is focussed on what it means for the people, he is not focussed on himself but the people, giving them safety and giving them health and mental health support and also economic health support and that allows them to see the future and see a way pass where we are now.
Q: Is the new normal here to stay? Would life ever be back like before?
A: Some things will be different, but most things will be the same. We may well keep more distancing in long term. Even with the vaccine, hand hygiene, cough etiquette, physical distance will all be important. We have seen flu deaths plummet this year, which is immensely important. Interestingly, even though we have had terrible and tragic loss of life in aged care the total loss of life this year is down by about a thousand compared to last year and a lot of that has got to do with intense level of infection control, so there are some positive changes that we will continue to make; Telehealth will be a positive change. But also, time will come when people will be back in their cafes, restaurants, going to dances, the gymnasium which is so important. We can see it in other states and territories outside Victoria, people are doing that. We just want to make sure there is full and free movement through the country once the case numbers are down in Victoria, but there should be no barrier to movement between all the other states and territories. Some things will return with some differences, some changes in working practice but all up the magnificent culture diverse multicultural Australia we will return to that.
Q: Is there a possibility that the vaccine would be out earlier than expected?
A: I will be very cautious on this part having been optimistic. We have very high confidence about the first half of 2021 and high confidence about the first quarter with the potential for vaccine in January certainly February.
Q: Is there a message for the Indian diaspora in Australia?
A: Firstly, I like to say a big thank you to nearly half a million Indian-born Australians in the country for the great contribution to the country. Secondly, we are very aware, and I have spoken to the Indian Health Minister. Many of you will be feeling for your families, some may have lost family members in India. I would like to give a warm human embrace to all of you and finally, I like to say we will get through this and the world will get through this, too. We will grow because of the immense spirit of the Indian community and so many other communities within Australia bring to who we are as a Nation. Lastly, I am looking forward to seeing Virat Kohli batting in Australia.
By Tonee Sethi