Main Image

19 January 2022

The past fortnight has got to be among the strangest in tennis, if not sporting, history.

There's no doubt Novak Djokovic was hoping for a decisive victory on and off the court in Melbourne. In the words of Julius Caesar: "Veni, vidi, vici" or "I came, I saw, I conquered", but it didn't work out that way for Serbia's favourite son.

I can't say I'm unhappy to see the back of Djokovic on this occasion, even if I think the Morrison Government achieved its own grand slam of ineptitude in its management of the entire saga. Tennis Australia was a close second, playing a doozy of an unforced error in its attempt to get the world number one on to centre court.

In the maelstrom of legalese, lies and fierce national pride being lobbed in court and in the media, what stood out to me was intensity of support Djokovic has in his homeland and among Australia's Serbian community. One Serbian diplomat commented on the legal battle, saying it was of particular national importance because Novak is Serbia's "top person".

I shouldn't be surprised by such hero worship. The reverence for Djokovic, who is affectionately called "Nole" by his fellow Serbs, is such that murals, statues, restaurants and sporting arenas in his image and honour are heavy on the ground in Serbia. Each win is treated as a triumph for the country. Djokovic is no doubt a phenomenon on the court, but his decision to remain unvaccinated and the trickiness he and his team used to get into Australia was nothing short of unsportsmanlike.

But the whole saga did get me wondering who Australia's "top person" would be if we had to name and claim?

It's certainly not Prime Minister Scott Morrison or anyone in his government. In fact, best to leave politics out of this one.

Could it be Shane Warne who has an astounding gift as a commentator after his own stellar cricket career? Barry Humphries, as either himself or Dame Edna, a gift that keeps on giving? Nicole Kidman, "Our Nic"? Or Cathy Freeman, a true sporting stateswoman? I don't think you could go past Ash Barty. Not only is she a spectacular player, but she has finesse, heart and the smarts a triple threat. It's all rounded out by passion and commitment to getting indigenous children into her sport. The comparison between Barty and Djokovic and their conduct this month has been telling indeed.

Other worthy candidates are our frontline health workers, including the nurses and doctors working in exhausting conditions to treat Australians in this fourth COVID-19 wave.

Just imagine wearing protective gear for 10 hours a day. It's stiflingly hot, restrictive and has given some health workers rashes, pressure marks and claustrophobia, not to mention not being able to easily have a drink of water or go to the bathroom without changing into new gear.

Then there's the pressure on staffing levels, with wards across the country staying open in extraordinary conditions.

One registered nurse recently talked of the extreme stress of only having one midwife to 12 mothers in a busy Melbourne birthing unit. This is just one example of how the system is stretched. There would be many more.

A lack of staff, with many healthcare workers having to intermittently isolate, means they can rarely call in sick or ever go home early.

Our nurses, many of them young, and new and junior doctors turn up and never judge or discriminate, even when faced with those refusing vaccination.

It's been heartbreaking to hear of patients in Australia's intensive care units begging for a vaccination when it's too late.

Our healthcare staff, and the workers behind the scenes supporting them, are truly our COVID soldiers. Let's hope we treat them better than we do some of our service men and women when this wave washes through.

The reason hospitals are straining at the seams is thanks to the distinct lack of leadership and funding from the Morrison Government throughout the pandemic.

We have underfunded and underestimated our health services for too long. I hope we can use the lessons to push for improvement and reform.

Under the resolute leadership of Mark McGowan, WA has been protected from the pandemic, at least in the sense that life has gone on, for all intents and purposes.

Although the new cases in WA are enviably low, it's not unlikely, in my opinion, that we will see Omicron move across the State.

Hospitals are already at breaking point in the west, with Premier McGowan sending an SOS some time ago for Federal support.

Australia is frozen as Omicron moves across the nation. Rather than allowing prophets of denial through our borders, the Morrison Government's efforts must go towards keeping our healthcare sector from collapsing in the face of a pandemic one can only hope is a once in many, many generations occurrence.

Our nurses, doctors, paramedics, hospital cooks and cleaners, and the health workforce generally are our national treasures.

All one million-plus of them.

Let's keep them and our healthcare services safe and sound.

Our healthcare staff are truly our COVID soldiers.

Bill Shorten is shadow minister for the NDIS and government services, Federal member for Maribyrnong and former leader of the Australian Labor Party.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 19 January 2022.