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Our sympathies are with all individuals, families and communities affected and we hope you all have been able to take care of yourselves, that you are okay and that your families and loved ones are as safe as possible.

It’s a terrible situation, with significant fires continuing to burn, and smoke haze choking communities locally, regionally and reaching as far as Aotearoa New Zealand and even South America. The loss of lives, livelihoods and homes, and the ongoing threats are heartbreaking.

We thank and pay tribute to all emergency responders who have worked across the holiday period, and indeed from well before then, to fight the fires, keep communities safe and provide vital emergency and medical services in the most trying of circumstances.

Amidst all of this, emergency doctors across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand have been carrying out their work providing crucial care 24/7 in emergency departments, as well as in the field; no down-time for EDs.

Though immensely rewarding, our work can provide challenges at the best of times. For our colleagues in hospitals and communities in fire and smoke-affected areas, these challenges will have been compounded.  

Just as the emergency doctors and staff in Whakatane Hospital and others involved in the response to the Whakaari/White Island eruption in late December so keenly felt, and continue to feel, the impacts of that horrifying disaster, our colleagues in fire-affected regions will feel the impacts of the Australian crisis for some time to come.

After all, we are not just staff in a hospital but members of these communities, where we live, raise families, have friends, own homes and care. When our communities are affected, so too are we.

While we are trained to deal with such dire situations, often in a prolonged crisis such as these bushfires it can take some time for trauma to fully sink in. As the emergency response continues, the extent of the devastation becomes clearer, and the slow recovery process begins, we stand with all affected colleagues and communities as a College; just as we continue to stand with those still dealing with the aftermath of the White Island tragedy, and other recent traumas.

Our experience, from our members who have been key responders in emergencies such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and the 2019 terrorist attack, White Island and these ongoing bushfires, is that the process of recovery continues long after the media and broader community move on, and that it is not always straightforward. 

The demands of our job do not mean we often have to carry the psychological burden on our own. It is as important as ever that we look out for each other and, as needed, reach out to our networks, colleagues, friends and families.

The College is part of that network; we offer an EAP to support all members and trainees (details are available here) and I would like to think that all members support each other when the going gets tough.

As emergency response, relief and recovery efforts continue, the College will also continue its advocacy to relevant authorities to seek resources for both physical and mental emergency health care, for you as professionals, and for the communities you serve, now and into the future.

During the bushfire crisis, the College has also heard from many emergency physician colleagues eager to assist or provide relief in any way they can. The College, through Immediate Past President Dr Simon Judkins and staff, is continuing to liaise with relevant agencies, and other medical peak bodies, to seek the most co-ordinated approach. The Australian Government has also released information, including contact details to register interest, for health professionals wishing to help.

To have seen such outpourings of concern, support and willingness to assist from our colleagues and the broader community is deeply heartening, and gives cause for hope.

While the efforts from emergency responders, agencies and communities are deserving of admiration, the crisis has starkly highlighted the lack of a coordinated national strategy, and federal leadership on climate change and associated health impacts.

The evidence tells us that extreme events such as the current crisis will become more common and pronounced due to climate change, and the pressures on our hospital emergency departments and communities compounded as a result. A concerted, co-ordinated emergency response is required.

The College has raised its concerns through our declaration of a climate emergency, and other subsequent statements, calling, with other medical bodies and community advocates, for a National Strategy on Climate Health and Wellbeing among other measures.

Increasingly, and across the board in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, our hospital EDs are under pressure as a result of population growth, increased chronic disease burden, lack of acute care alternatives and other factors. The increase in resources has not been commensurate. Climate change will continue to make the situation worse, and vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected.

There is much that needs to happen to alleviate these challenges, and we remain committed to working methodically and steadfastly through the many and complex issues we are facing.

In late 2019, our formal advocacy work continued with submissions in New Zealand and Australia including to the New Zealand Parliament’s Health Committee on the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission Bill as well as Therapeutic Products and Gun Control Bills. Meanwhile, representatives of the College’s Geriatric Emergency Medicine Section recently gave evidence at a hearing of the Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and in Victoria we jointly submitted to the State Government’s Liquor Act Review with the Victorian Alcohol Policy Coalition.

Thank you to all our members who give a huge amount of their time to being involved in different ways in supporting the College’s advocacy efforts on all these fronts. Your efforts make a huge difference and together we can continue contributing to positive change.

Though it was a traumatic end to 2019 and has been a tough start to 2020, my resolve is as strong as ever.

Despite the challenges we face, I’m hopeful and excited that together we can achieve some great things in 2020, for our speciality and for the communities we serve. We must lift ourselves up and support each other in the great work that we do.

Kia kaha