COVID pandemic drives doctors to politics

·2-min read

The COVID-19 pandemic and experiences working in hospital emergency departments led to the political awakening of two of the Labor government's newest federal MPs.

Former doctor at a major Melbourne hospital Michelle Ananda-Rajah told parliament she stopped sleeping in the first half of 2020 as she "watched healthcare workers in Italy die".

"Hospitals resembled war zones, patients lined corridors, death was everywhere," she said during her first speech on Monday.

"At the time, vaccines were a pipe dream and we were going into battle with sticks rather than lightsabers."

Meanwhile, Gordon Reid - one of six First Nations people in the Labor caucus - shared the experience of a typical ED shift, caring for hundreds of patients without enough beds to service everyone.

"By undertaking this most important role, my skills and my experience will no longer be limited to the bedside," he told parliament during his first speech.

"At the bedside I have the opportunity to help one family at a time. Here in this place I have the opportunity to be part of something that can change the lives of everyone in our community, for the better."

Dr Ananda-Rajah made history on May 21 by becoming the first Labor candidate elected to the Victorian seat of Higgins.

The seat has previously been held by two former Liberal prime ministers - Harold Holt and John Gorton - as well as assistant treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer.

"I am the unlikeliest of politicians, no political experience in the conventional sense, no history with the Labor Party and no political pedigree," she said.

"Since its inception in 1949, Higgins has been a Liberal stronghold. Until now."

Dr Ananda-Rajah said the cure to her insomnia was political activism.

She co-founded Health Care Workers Australia which advocated for better access to personal protective equipment, transparent reporting of healthcare worker infections and widening Australia's vaccine stocks.

But the Labor MP warned about "the sting in COVID's tail", saying chronic disease and mass illness will disrupt Australian's lives and constrain productivity for years to come.

"Cleaning the air is one important but neglected lever that will help apply downward pressure, (and) national guidelines on ventilation will empower our people and businesses to stay safe and live more freely," she said.

"It will spawn a new industry in our safety, making us more resilient against respiratory viruses and future disease 'X'."

Dr Reid pledged to ensure politicians are held to account for their decisions in parliament and said the nation's health depended on it.

"A healthy democracy, has at its core, accountability and I see it as ... our responsibility to ensure that we safeguard and protect it for future generations," he said.

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