School of Population Health

What we can learn from HIV

Baume HIV and Covid

Bipartisanship is key to action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and much can be learned from how Australia transcended politics to fight the HIV epidemic, writes Emeritus Professor Peter Baume AC DistFRSN, former Head of UNSW School of Population Health and previously Senator for New South Wales. 
   
Some issues should transcend party politics, but sadly, that does not always happen. The current COVID pandemic in Australia is one such issue with major health effects, major economic effects and major challenges for our hospitals and public health systems. But action has been made more difficult by party political point scoring, and some politicians are against other politicians, on the basis of their political beliefs, and not primarily on the basis of the crisis itself. The COVID pandemic is an issue that is so existential that politicians should come together to solve problems as the UK did during the second world war. The National Cabinet here worked initially with politicians of different political persuasions, but it has degenerated subsequently and Australians are bewildered and saddened.

It does not have to be so. Some issues are so important that they should be above party politics. People should work together to solve the issue – and to hell with party affiliations, party labels and party concerns.

Consider the HIV epidemic. When it appeared, we had no effective treatment and prevention was the only “cure” we had. Incidentally, Sir Michael Marmot (who did his medicine in Sydney) said recently that all sickness is failed prevention, and some of the effective work we do is to prevent disease occurring. We immunise babies against common infectious diseases, we protect and enrich the water supply, we have garbage removal, we have food laws, we have sewage removal, we have safer roads, we forbid drink driving, we mandate seat belts in cars, we immunise young people against herpes infection and rubella, and so on. We prevent things happening.

So, with HIV the issue was how could we prevent this infection from happening. This was the situation when Dr Neal Blewett (then the Health Minister) asked me to go around for a cup of tea. He had, as a senior officer Professor Bill Bowtell (now of the Kirby Institute in this University). Bowtell wanted to prevent HIV and understood how it could be achieved. He proposed to Blewett that we make the affected groups responsible for achieving change. Such a proposal was anathema to certain people, with some of whom I had shouting matches later. Some legislation was required and the then Prime Minister (Bob Hawke) then said that there must be no debate on the issue. So Blewett asked me, from the other side of politics, if I could ensure that Hawke’s condition be met. In turn, I went to the shadow cabinet (of which I was a member) and suggested that this piece of legislation should “go over our shoulders”. We had plenty of other matters on which we wanted to fight. I got agreement to my proposal, the legislation went through, the affected groups took over, HIV prevention was achieved in Australia, the World Health Organisation praised Australia; other countries emulated the Australian approach.

Many years later Blewett and I were made life governors of the Kirby Institute, a position which I value greatly and an award which recognises that importance of that piece of bipartisanship.

If we could do it then, we could, and should do it again now.

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UNSW School of Population Health