Leadership during a crisis
- On January 12, 2021
- January / February 2021
LEADERSHIP DURING A CRISIS
One of the greatest lessons from the pandemic was the importance of having a strong organisation to represent doctors.
The COVID-19 pandemic rendered people helpless, anxious and uncertain. People were unsure how to help as the world was plunged into chaos and their families and communities faced an invisible enemy. In some ways, as healthcare workers we had a clear role during the pandemic – a way we could roll up our sleeves and actively make a difference – but even we felt helpless at times. Every day there was a new, sometimes conflicting, directive. We had no control over when we could wear PPE – let alone widespread access to equipment.
As junior doctors, we encountered the usual learning curve and stresses, compounded with the prospect of frozen rotations and cancelled exams, with resultant uncertainty around training and progression. And while we were luckily able to work in-person and see colleagues daily, the (much-needed) lockdown rules prevented us from gathering in groups to talk through everything.
But it wasn’t just junior doctors who felt a sense of powerlessness. We were at the mercy of decisions made by Government. And while elements of Australia’s response are to be lauded, there were also errors. We’ve done pretty well, comparatively, because good decisions were made. But we’ve also done well in spite of suboptimal or slow decisions.
The decisions around PPE, lockdown, quarantine, screening and testing were made by Government and expert advisory groups, while individual healthcare workers on the ground had to bear the consequences, ie ED doctors who were told they weren’t allowed to routinely wear masks, because that wasn’t the policy (yet); GPs who were left in the lurch without access to adequate PPE; doctors who saw patients with COVID-like symptoms, but couldn’t test them because, even though they had travelled overseas and had all the symptoms, they hadn’t come from China or Iran.
We were the ones who would risk getting the infection in order to treat those in need, the ones who risked bringing the virus into our homes and infecting our loved ones. And it felt like we weren’t adequately prepared or protected. We had to contend with a daily flood of emails, and wade through the information to see how it would affect our work, and lives. As Advocacy and Wellbeing Officer for our RMOA, I wrote a small daily WhatsApp newsletter for my hospital to try and summarise relevant information, allowing people to switch off from the onslaught of notifications, emails and breaking news alerts sending our phones crazy when we were trying to focus on work.
We watched horrified, as the Victorian Government toyed with letting the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix go ahead whilst lambasting (and publicly naming!) a COVID-positive GP who followed their guidelines. We had Facebook groups, and we circulated petitions. We tweeted, and we messaged furiously in WhatsApp chats.
The pandemic has taught us the importance of community. We learned how essential it is that a community comes together and agrees to stay home to protect each other. We saw how our community ensured that vulnerable folk received groceries and essential items, and how they thanked us for our work. Individuals had no hope of staving off the pandemic alone – but a community, united, could make sure there was no fuel to fan the flames of infection.
Doctors need a community too – and not just the informal ones we make with our friends and colleagues, but a formal organisation that lobbies on our behalf. The AMA, both state and federal, worked tirelessly to convey doctors’ concerns to the government – lobbying for PPE, for fit testing, for a lockdown. The AMA provided the kind of advocacy power that can only be achieved when you have strength in numbers. Pragmatically, we will always be more successful when we come together as one voice – rather than dispersed doctors who despair alone.
If we speak together, we become so loud that we can’t be silenced, or ignored. We become so powerful that we galvanise people into action, and enact changes that protect both our patients, and ourselves. Together, we are strong.