Thursday, 3 December 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest health challenge of our time. As I speak, more than 1.4 million have died from the virus and more than 63 million people have been infected. While we have great hope about the future, following the discovery of vaccines, we also understand that this battle does not end with the discovery of vaccines.
Millions of people have been infected with the virus and survived. Sadly, many have not fully recovered. Many suffer from a condition known as long COVID or post-viral fatigue after contracting COVID-19. These so-called long haulers are the people I speak up for today. There is no agreed medical definition or list of symptoms shared by all patients. Two people with long COVID can have quite different experiences. However, the most common symptoms reported are crippling fatigue, breathlessness, and muscle and joint pain. Others report suffering mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and brain fog. In the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, in particular, people are now battling from the longer term effects of their infection.
Tonight I call for greater support, awareness and understanding for people with long COVID in Australia and for greater focus on them as we build our policy response to our recovery for people—like my friend Ben. Ben contracted COVID-19 in March and, since July, he's had long COVID. On a good day he struggles with mild fatigue. On a bad day he's flat on his back in bed. He can no longer go for a run or do any strenuous activity. He's told me it's not a linear recovery; it's up and down. He doesn't hold much hope of a full recovery, at least not in the next six months—another six months like this. Fortunately, Ben's flexible work in professional services enables him to continue to work, but Ben's worried about what will happen to people with long COVID who work in more physically demanding jobs.
Of course, Ben's not alone. We know that more than 27,000 people have contracted COVID-19 in Australia and more than 25,400 have recovered. That we know so little about the long-term effects of COVID-19 is a source of considerable concern. Indeed, Dr Anthony Fauci, America's top diseases expert, recently told a University of Melbourne webinar that the currently unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 are his greatest concern, citing a study showing that some long-haulers suffer from heart inflammation. A review by the National Institute for Health Research in the UK found that long COVID may in fact be a number of different syndromes such as post-intensive-care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome and long-term COVID syndrome. The professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London even warned in a recent report that long-haulers 'could turn out to be a bigger public health problem than excess deaths'. The study found that 10 per cent of people infected with the virus had symptoms for a month, with between 1.5 and two per cent having them after three months. The median age of those with long COVID is 45. Women are more likely to be affected than men. Another study found that, six weeks after leaving hospital, around half of patients were still experiencing breathlessness. Approximately one-third of hospitalised patients sustained heart damage.
In short, we still don't know enough about the long-term effects of this virus. We must ensure that we are giving people suffering from long COVID the necessary support. We must ensure that research into the long-term effects of the virus continues well after the rollout of the vaccine. We must also ensure that there is no lasting stigma afflicting these people, especially in the workplace. Ben's concerns for others at work must be matched by action. We can't assume understanding on the part of every employer. There's a role and a responsibility for government here. I'll finish by saying this to the people suffering from long COVID-19: we are with you, we won't forget you and I for one will stand up to ensure you get the support you need in your recovery.