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Curtin alum beats pandemic with large-scale effort

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Plans cancelled, jobs lost and futures put on hold. Globally, life has been by eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in Western Australia (fingers crossed), things are almost back to a ‘new normal’.

Standing at the helm of WA’s successful health response to the virus is Dr Andy Robertson, WA’s Chief Health Officer and Curtin public health alumnus.

From his command centre in East Perth, where every inch of wall is covered in digital screens, maps, posters and notices like a scene from a detective novel, Dr Robertson leads and coordinates multiple teams to ensure the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – the most significant health crisis since the Spanish Influenza in 1918.

Under his broad direction are frontline medical staff, contact tracers, public health campaigners, roadside testers, equipment procurers and hotel quarantine coordinators, just to name a few.

“We actually had a couple of plans – we had a State Health Emergency Response Plan, an Infectious Disease Emergency Management Plan, and we also had a Respiratory Illness Disease Emergency Response Plan,” he says on his department’s preparedness for a future health crisis.

“We’d learned from the 2009 swine flu and the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but the scale of this is quite different.

“The plans helped us set up governance fairly robustly, but as the classic quote goes: ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’.

“We had to learn on the job. As we got a better understanding of the disease and its ramifications, we updated our plans, and will continue to update them as we move towards a vaccine.”

Helping communities get back on their feet

Dr Robertson’s ability to finely coordinate large-scale public health efforts has been honed over many decades of working in public health and disaster management, including leading disaster response teams in many parts of the world.

In December 2004, he led the Australian Medical Relief team into the Maldives following the Boxing Day tsunami; in 2005 he managed WA Health’s response to the Bali bombings and again in June 2006 following the Yogyakarta earthquakes. In 2011, he was the Radiation Health Adviser to the Australian Embassy after the Fukushima nuclear incident, and in 2015 he co-led the forward Australian Medical Assistance Team in Nepal after the Gorkha earthquake.

“My proudest moments have been providing public health and medical services to areas which really need some help at the time, getting them through a difficult period until their own services can get back on their feet,” he reflects.

Dr Robertson stands in front of a massive Royal Australian Navy Air Force plane, surrounding by packing boxes.
Dr Robertson ready to board the RAAF plane to Kathmandu, to assist Nepal’s recovery efforts after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

Dr Robertson’s genuine desire to assist others, coupled with his ability to remain calm in a crisis and see the bigger picture, were first forged during his service with the Royal Australian Navy as a medical officer. His work involved treating the ship’s crew on naval deployments in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

“There was always work to do – running primary care clinics, preparing for exercises, educating staff or preparing for health operations ashore,” he explains.

Later, he worked for the Navy as a Biological Weapons Chief Inspector for the United Nations Special Commission, which involved completing three tours of Iraq in 1996/97.

“Iraq denied having biological weapons, and a lot of the paperwork and facilities had been destroyed, so we were looking for evidence of the biological weapons program, visiting facilities and trying to pull it all together.”

Dr Robertson recalls one particularly heated moment during a joint biological and chemical mission in 1997 where “we had guns pointed in our direction.” Not one to embellish, he ends the tale with “fortunately we were able to get some resolution of that.”

Skirting death rattles the best of defence personnel, but Dr Robertson says he was lucky to always have a supportive team to talk to and share experiences with. His travels made him doubly appreciative of life back home, and of our universal pursuit of happiness.

“There is always a contrast when you go to different countries, but the thing in common was the basic humanity of most people.

“I remember the Iraqis were very hospitable – the government wasn’t! – but the man in the street just wanted to basically have a job and look after their families and hope that things would continue to improve. Their aspirations were not dissimilar to most of us.”

Always ready for a challenge

Dr Robertson also undertook postgraduate study during his time with the Navy. From treating large groups of crew members, he developed an interest in improving the health of populations as a whole; and while posted in Perth, he took the opportunity to complete three Curtin degrees in occupational health and safety, public health and health service management (now health administration).

His says his studies continue to be relevant in his daily work and have prepared him for future roles in public health and medical administration.

“I gained skills in organisational behaviour, personnel management and teamwork, risk management and epidemiology. My studies gave me an understanding of what is good research and evidence, and what is not, and an understanding of pandemics and health law. I apply my understanding on a daily basis.”

Dr Robertson’s illustrious career has been recognised at this year’s Alumni Achievement Awards, where he received a Professional Achievement Award in Health Sciences. His diverse roles and work locations show the possibilities and impact of a public health career, and what can be achieved with a cool head and careful planning.

While there is still a way to go to fully recover the state’s health and economy in the aftermath of COVID-19, there is no doubt that Dr Robertson and his team are capable of steering us into safe waters.

“We are constantly reviewing, updating and revising, and looking at what’s happening in Australia and around the world, and that forms the basis of health advice going forward,” he says.

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