17 December 2020

A year-long reminder of our debt to medicine

General practice

So here we are – our last newsletter of TMR for the year, and that’s the end of 2020!

It’s unlikely we’ll forget this year in a hurry. Between drought, bushfires, COVID, Harry’s death and the ongoing Trump fiasco, most people are agreed that the passing of this year deserves little in way of celebration: just bring on the future.

Quite rightly 2021 is generally being greeted with a high degree of expectation and enthusiasm. Here in NSW, courtesy of rains from La Nina, the countryside has never looked more beautiful, even with its scars from last summer’s devastation. And the emergence of seemingly effective COVID vaccines internationally has given us a light at the end of this tunnel of isolation and trepidation.

It will be interesting to see to what degree life returns to “normal” over the next 12 months. What will be the legacy of 2020 on our lives going forward, especially our professional lives?

There will be many lessons learned from this episode in our history. Everything from how much can be achieved remotely to the value of infection-control measures and the importance of community.

But for me, if what 2020 has taught us had to be summarised into one word it would have to be: humility.

It would seem that this year, between drought, fire and pestilence, we’ve been visited by our own version of the Apocalypse and yes, we have survived but the power has not been ours.

To see the entire world brought to its knees by a single microbe has been terrifying. To see it spread and wreak havoc across both developing and first-world countries, showing no deference to wealth, health or medical systems has been an incredible lesson in just how vulnerable we, as the human race, are.

The upside of feeling like an insignificant and quite possibly transient speck in the history of the universe is that it does make you appreciate what previously was very much taken for granted.

In particular, I have found many of my patients – rather than criticising modern medicine’s lack of answers when it came to COVID-19 – have been expressing a new-found appreciation for our bread-and-butter: evidenced-based Western medicine.

Except for a couple of weeks right at the beginning when everyone seemed afraid of everything and the patients all stayed away, our practice has been inundated. Like most places, this year we had the highest uptake of the flu vaccine ever.

It has been as though our exposed vulnerability to this highly infectious agent has made people realise how medicine’s history of gains – in terms of immunisations, antibiotics and even just understanding how our bodies work – has shaped our destiny and delivered a life expectancy well past 80. Yes we have COVID now – but we don’t have polio, measles, smallpox, high infant mortality etc. etc. …

It has been a time for science and scientific fact.

Brendan Murphy was everyone’s pin-up boy and is in the running for next year’s Australian of the Year. Pete Evans and his crackpot COVID-curing BioCharger and anti-vax crap have been banished to ignominy (hopefully). Jacinda Ardern, who made New Zealand the world’s pandemic success story courtesy of listening to scientists, was overwhelmingly re-elected. Trump with his adversarial approach to scientific fact and inability to respect expert advice has been finally ousted. (The fact that about 70 million Americans did still vote for him, I know, does go against my theory that respect for scientific truth is in the ascendant – but there are many factors).

Of course I’m not saying that 2020 has been anything less than a horribilisin the annusfor everybody,  but for science, and for the respect people have for science, the news has been some positives.

With the promise of at least one effective, safe COVID vaccine, there is much to look forward to in 2021. The joy that people are now feeling as the state borders open and we can travel nationally is an indication of just how these restrictions have affected Australians. And of course, we’re the lucky ones.

But as the pandemic pressure lifts and we slowly emerge from our worldwide crisis, it is to be hoped we (as in everybody) don’t forget too quickly how tenuous our existence on this planet really is and just how much science and evidenced-based medicine have contributed to securing our existence.

Hoping you all have a happy and safe Christmas. Take care.

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