Photo exposes our biggest shame
While gravely ill elderly residents were rushed through the front entrance of a Melbourne nursing home and into the back of queued ambulances, a body wrapped in a blanket was quietly rolled out the back door.
The gut-wrenching photo taken this week pointed to another victim of the disease that has claimed the lives of millions and attacked human freedom all over the world, but it also exposed deep cracks in a system supposed to care for Victoria's most vulnerable.
Two medical workers covered in protective suits wheeled the body from Epping Gardens nursing home into the back of a van, raising the question why the state's aged-care system is being crippled by the same flaws outlined almost a year ago.
A damning three-volume Royal Commission report tabled in Australian parliament last October and entitled Aged Care in Australia: A Shocking Tale of Neglect found the sector failed to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable citizens.
It comes as disturbing tales of neglect and death emerge from inside Victoria's private aged-care homes as the state's COVID-19 crisis deepens.
As of July 31, there are 928 active cases related to outbreaks across 103 aged-care facilities. There are 10 homes where infections have risen past 40, with three amassing more than 100 infections and others nearing triple-digits.
Forty-six of Victoria's 113 COVID-19 fatalities have been linked to aged care, with families of those who died left in the dark for days not knowing if their loved ones are alive, and some unable to even say goodbye.
Aged-care consultant Nicole Dunn gave evidence at a Royal Commission hearing into aged-care quality and safety last year, and said it was "hugely distressing" to see history repeating itself.
"A year later, here we are again hearing more stories of inadequate care in our aged care system," she told NCA NewsWire.
"The report is literally entitled 'Neglect'. It's in the hands of the government, it's publicly available - the message couldn't be clearer that aged care in this country needs urgent attention."
Commissioners Richard Tracey and Lynelle Briggs's investigation led them to describe the nation's aged-care system as "a shocking tale of neglect".
"The neglect that we have found in this Royal Commission, to date, is far from the best that can be done. Rather, it is a sad and shocking system that diminishes Australia as a nation."
The interim report called for an overhaul, finding the system "hard to navigate" and identifying problems in aged-care that was designed around transactions, "not relationships or care".
It identified a reliance on a regulatory model that "did not provide transparency or an incentive to improve", and had a workforce which was "under pressure and under-appreciated and lacked key skills".
"The government has clearly not prioritised aged care. It's been pushed aside and it's been pushed aside for too long," Ms Dunn said.
"The system doesn't have mandatory staff-to-resident ratios in this country and there is no mandated skilled staff ratio.
"There are clearly not enough nurses or healthcare professionals in aged care. It's all about aged-care assistants and workers, so in a health event these facilities don't have enough health resources and that's what we're seeing right now - significant issues with care and trying to access clinical health resources."
A hearing dedicated to how the aged-care sector has responded during the COVID-19 pandemic will be held from August 10 to 13, as the Royal Commission prepares to hand down its final report in February next year.
"Aged care affects us all. Whether we have a parent or grandparent in them, we are all reliant on aged care and eventually it will affect us one day," Ms Dunn said.
In a horrifying story at St Basil's aged care home in Fawkner, the family of Vicky Patsakos said she had been bed-bound for 10 days without a shower, proper food, water and administering of medication.
"And she's one of the lucky ones because she's still alive," her son-in-law Jack Karikas told NCA NewsWire.
A frantic Mr Karikas and his wife Helen visited the home on Sunday and brushed past the sole staffer to see the Alzheimer's sufferer through the window.
"She was unresponsive, just laying there on the bed," Mr Karikas said.
"We started banging on the window and took our face masks off so she could recognise us, and she started motioning for water.
"These residents aren't dying from coronavirus, they're dying from neglect," he said.
Mr Karikas said he yelled through a closed glass door to staff, pleading with them to give his mother-in-law water.
"She's just laying there neglected," he said.
Ms Patsakos was transferred to Peninsula Private Hospital in Frankston on Monday night.
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos choked up during a live press conference on Tuesday while announcing more deaths in Melbourne aged-care homes.
Visibly upset, Ms Mikakos took a long pause while expressing her condolences to family members whose loved ones had died at St Basil's.
"(St Basil's) is close to many members of the Greek community and I know they have been distressed to see the rising toll of deaths at that facility. Sorry …" she said before taking a moment to compose herself.
Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters he wouldn't even let his mother stay in some of the state's private aged-care facilities grappling with coronavirus outbreaks.
"My mother is in her mid-70s, she has some underlying health issues, but she lives at home," he said.
"Some of the stories we've seen are unacceptable, and I wouldn't want my mum in some of those places, but that's not a matter for me.
"I can't change that … I would not let my mum be in some of these places. I just wouldn't. But that's not a decision I have to make at the moment because she's living at home."
But Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt fought back tears as he defended aged-care workers.
"The idea that our carers, that our nurses are not providing that care is, I think, a dangerous statement to make," he said.
"I will not hear a word against them."
The Federal Government was now leading a critical response at St Basil's where teams of the elite AUSMAT nurses and medical assistants were helping to transport all remaining residents to Victorian hospitals.
The Australian Department of Health's chief nursing and midwifery officer Alison McMillan said it was a decision health authorities "did not make lightly".
"We know there is a risk associated with moving very vulnerable people, particularly those that have dementia, but it was felt it was time that we needed to do this for the safety of the residents," she said.
While professor McMillan admitted more "care staff" would be needed in the coming days, she assured family members were being kept abreast with critical details of their loved ones.
"We certainly do need more care staff to support these facilities in the coming days given the proportion of community transmission we're still seeing in Victoria," she said.
"We are using the resources of some culturally appropriate expertise so that we make sure that the families are kept well informed around the decision making."
Originally published as Photo exposes our biggest shame