Every year, the world gets together to celebrate a day reserved in the calendar to recognise and appreciate all that veterinarians do – World Veterinary Day. This year, that day is the 24th April, and the theme is “The Veterinarian Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
In early 2020, hot on the heels of one of the worst bush fire seasons Australia has witnessed – with many affected veterinarians still in recovery mode - the veterinary profession was thrown into another spin - the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Whilst the world was literally shutting down, veterinarians in Australia remained unsure about what their future in the pandemic would be. The Australian Veterinary Association lobbied hard for recognition of veterinarians as essential service providers, to ensure they could continue to function. On the 27th March, the Minister for Agriculture’s office released a statement, announcing that the Federal Government considered the role of veterinarians to be essential - a memorable day for Dr Melanie Latter, AVA’s Head of Policy and Advocacy, who said “receiving that statement of recognition for our profession was a huge relief. It was an important acknowledgement of the significant role veterinarians play in our community - in animal welfare, human welfare, food security and public health.”
Improvise, adapt and overcome has been the necessary theme for veterinary professionals around the world over the past twelve months. Just as life as we had known it was shaken up and flipped on its side, so too was the way in which veterinarians were able to operate.
As professionals responsible for the delivery of ‘essential services’, the veterinary world was quick to respond – a remarkable effort considering the complex, multilayered nature of veterinary practice and our close dealings with members of the public. Innovation and team consultation were key to practices successfully navigating the unpredictable waters of the pandemic. Terms, once alien to us became ingrained in our every-day language – ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘one and a half metres’ will not soon be forgotten.
The AVA set up a COVID-19 working group to assist veterinarians with resources to navigate the public health aspects of the pandemic. Practices worked quickly to develop and implement protocols to ensure compliance with ever-changing government regulations - maximising the safety of their staff and clients, whilst at the same time, continuing to provide uncompromised patient care. “Veterinary staff excelled when the going got tough, with their resilience and tenacity” said Dr Moss Siddle, Chair of the AVA’s Veterinary Business Group. He also commended practice managers “who have had to navigate new ground and become even more adaptable since the onset of COVID lockdowns and restrictions.”
In true ‘Aussie spirit’ and for that matter - true ‘veterinary spirit’, teams rallied together. Teams were split down the middle in many cases, to safeguard against the entire team being out of action should they be exposed to the virus and have to self-isolate. Despite the strange new set of circumstances and the feeling of great uncertainty that accompanied them, stories of veterinary team members helping each other out and helping other veterinary practices out were aplenty. PPE was donated to clinics in need and veterinary equipment was loaned to human medical facilities.
Tips for performing the perfect kerb-side consult were shared as were the locations of supermarkets where you might stand a chance of picking up a roll of toilet paper on your way home. It was a whole new world… Innovation and adaptation were fundamental to success, and modifications to existing business models became a necessity.
Despite the new way of living which was adopted around the world, the animals kept coming… and not only did they keep coming, but they came in increasing numbers. A combination of increased time at home and an excess of money (largely due to cancelled holidays and closed retail outlets), combined with the social isolation that came part and parcel with the pandemic – saw many rushing out to acquire a new four-legged companion. Rescue shelters were emptied, breeders were unable to keep up with demand, and to this day, reports of being unable to find a new puppy for love nor money are common.
But what was the effect of this rapid rise in pet ownership on our veterinarians? Business was booming for many practices – and in times when full veterinary teams were operational, there were no pre-existing veterinary shortage issues and there was not the uncertainty of whether or not your team would be exposed to the virus and need to self- isolate, things would have been, well – very different. In reality, the stressors associated with the pandemic, including an increased demand for veterinary services, put a great deal of additional pressure – both physically and mentally - on a workforce already under strain.
In addition, on the other end of the spectrum to those working from home with time and money to spare, were those who had lost employment due to the pandemic, and were struggling both mentally and financially. Spanning the continuum from one end to the other, was an element of fear of what this strange new world had in store for us - frequently palpable during pet owner-veterinarian interactions, particularly during the height of the lockdown period.
One of the results of the changing social and pet ownership dynamics has been an overall increase in the frequency of ethically challenging situations experienced by vets due to COVID-19. Dr Anne Quain et al. very recently published a paper detailing the findings of their research in this area.
Rural and remote veterinarians experienced additional challenges with state border restrictions in place, and in the case of Western Australia - intra-state movement restrictions. These posed enormous challenges for practitioners who travel vast distances to serve their livestock clients – some having to negotiate border crossings multiple times per day. The additional stress this added to already difficult circumstances was significant. The AVA assisted members by developing letters of support for cross border travel, along with frequent member communications to decipher the ever-changing state government instructions.
Veterinarians soldiered on through the Pandemic, they continued to show up to work each day and they continued to put the care of their patients first, often with considerable personal sacrifice.
Pandemic or no pandemic – veterinarians are remarkable human beings working in a profession that is as challenging as it is rewarding. Happy World Veterinarian Day to all of our amazing vets - without whom society would not be afforded the luxury of animal companionship, of animal welfare and of biosecurity.
From a member of the public – to the AVA during the COVID-19 Pandemic:
“I am a grateful person to all the Vets and their staff who have continued to care for our animals during the pandemic. They don’t get mentioned enough. Without our animals many wouldn’t cope as well in isolation. Just add my thank you to the thousands of pet owners who are humbled and grateful for your work.” Louis Gurney, VIC