Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and health economist Stephen Duckett say there is a “missing recovery phase” in the national COVID-19 road map. 

The National Cabinet road map consists of a four-phase plan to increase vaccination rates and ease restrictions. It ends with a “final post-vaccination phase” that will see international borders open and the Australian community left living with COVID-19.

But the public health experts say an extra phase is needed to address severe economic impacts that have been disproportionately felt by those on low incomes. It should also include response to workforce burnout and mental health impacts, their report states. 

“Disappointingly, the road map includes no explicit recovery phase: it [is] as if we could all soon heave a sigh of relief and simply move on,” says a new editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia.

“COVID-19 became a disease of low-income workers – those who couldn’t work from home – and their families and communities. It affected Australia very unevenly, with poorer outcomes for those at greatest disadvantage.”

Brett Sutton and Stephen Duckett believe 2022 will mark the start of an “interpandemic period”, marked by only occasional COVID-19 outbreaks, not requiring lockdowns.

“In 2022, public health practitioners and organisations must seek to better understand [the] social drivers of health in the COVID-19 era,” they say. 

“It is convenient to imagine that respiratory viruses are randomly transmitted from one person to another. 

“The reality is that they find all the social, demographic, and economic vulnerabilities within and between populations: differential effects related to sex, overcrowding, essential but casualised work, public housing, homelessness, poverty, poor health literacy, cultural marginalisation, and stigmatisation. 

“These are not individual human behavioural problems as much as “causes of the causes”.

The experts ask; “How has prolonged remote learning affected children and communities differently? How have young people fared, a group particularly exposed to mental health problems, loss of employment, and casual work hours? And how can they best be helped in the years ahead?”

In an interview with reporters, Professor Duckett said the national cabinet plan is “really peculiar”, as it does not include any plans to restimulate the economy or address the shadow pandemic of mental health problems, missed schooling and deferred healthcare.

“I think part of it is the Commonwealth government wants to pretend there are no problems, as part of its political narrative,” he said.

“We do have to accept that there are ongoing issues and the Commonwealth has to fund some of it. And they would prefer not to fund any of it.”