Canberra's leaders reflect a year after the ACT's first COVID-19 case

Canberra Health Services chief executive Bernadette McDonald (left), the ACT's Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman, and ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Canberra Health Services chief executive Bernadette McDonald (left), the ACT's Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman, and ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra was still under a thick haze of bushfire smoke when news of the coronavirus pandemic broke.

The women at the helm of the city's health system were already dealing with mass "hysteria"; they couldn't have anticipated the tears, 20-hour work days, "soul-destroying" isolation, and triumphs to come.

Ahead of Friday, the 12-month anniversary of the ACT's first COVID-19 case, The Canberra Times sat down with those women to reflect on the year that was.

Battling uncertainty

When Dr Kerryn Coleman was thrust into the spotlight as the face of the ACT's COVID-19 response, she hadn't dealt much with the media. The Chief Health Officer remembered being nervous - "I will never not get nervous," she said.

One of her biggest learning curves, being fairly new to the role, was having to tell the public things were uncertain when they were with coronavirus.

She wanted to maintain Canberrans' trust and be a kind of "anchor" for the community. Ultimately, she took a straightforward approach.

"[I've] become more confident with what I know and what I don't know, and how I communicate," Dr Coleman said.

"They have to know that you're not going to tell them bullshit."

Over the next few months, the conversations weren't easy. There were restrictions, a lockdown, job losses, deaths, and illness. To date, there have been 123 cases of COVID-19 in the ACT, and three people have died from the virus.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith remembered getting home one night in the early days, and switching on the TV to see Prime Minister Scott Morrison talking after a national cabinet meeting.

She'd spent hours with her team working on what would and wouldn't be considered an "essential" business in the ACT. As the minister for children, youth and families, youth centres made her list.

They didn't make the prime minister's.

"You know, I was very tired, I was very emotional, and I just broke down in tears," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"I was just devastated for those young people ... [and then I said]: 'OK, we need to make sure that there are things in place for those young people for whom that is a safe space.'"

Ms Stephen-Smith said she was always conscious of the impact necessary coronavirus restrictions would have on people. While her working life and income would go on, many would lose theirs.

"We've had to really think through, how do we identify all of those impacts and ensure that someone is addressing those?" she said.

There were low points, too, for Canberra Health Services' chief executive Bernadette McDonald.

Dr Coleman and her team were working 20-hour days, seven days a week, but the Chief Health Officer at least had her "amazing" partner to come home to.

"I would come home at nine o'clock at night, and he would have dinner on the table, or he'd been at the shops, and he'd have done the washing. And yeah, that kind of stuff was really important," Dr Coleman said.

"I think without it, that would have been impossible."

Meantime, Ms McDonald didn't see her family, who live and work in Melbourne, for eight months.

She described the experience as "pretty isolating" and "soul-destroying".

"I had a family in lockdown in Melbourne, and watching from a distance ... you worry about them, but you can't do anything about it," Ms McDonald said.

"And then, my whole focus was here. So, you know, there were times where you think, it would just be really easy to pack up and go home.

"But I hung in there and we got through it."

Punching above our weight

There were many high points too, though.

Dr Coleman said being at the forefront of Canberra's COVID-19 response was "both exhilarating and exhausting".

She, like Ms McDonald and Ms Stephen-Smith, mentioned the speedy 36-day construction of the Garran Surge Centre as a feat achieved through good management and coordination.

Luckily, it was never used for its intended purpose - a COVID-19 emergency overflow department.

It's now the ACT's first coronavirus vaccination hub.


Ms McDonald said: "I think the ACT is punching above [its] weight.

"There's not a huge number of Pfizer hubs around Australia yet because of the nature of the vaccine.

"But we stood that up ... very quietly and calmly stood up and started vaccinating our staff.

"No issues, no major fanfare - just get on with it."

All three women have adopted the same attitude going forward.

None of them believe there won't be more challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, but there's at least time enough for Dr Coleman's staff to start taking breaks.

The Chief Health Officer will take a short break in a couple of weeks time to visit her family.

"I think people just have to remember how quickly and fearful we were for the first three months of this experience, right through to Easter, until things started to look better in April, May," Dr Coleman said.

"I mean, we bought a whole new separate centre anticipating waves of [infected] people."

Dr Coleman said it was clear some parts of the community and business sector were still hurting because of the impact of coronavirus.

She said while there was no quick fix for that, "I think there's hope over the next six months to see some progress".

The ACT's rollout of its second COVID-19 vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine, started on Wednesday.

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This story Tears, triumphs, 20-hour days: Leaders reflect a year after Canberra's first COVID case first appeared on The Canberra Times.