Professor Brendan Murphy started off 2020 like a lot of fortunate Australians would have. He was on holidays in Rome with his family and by the time he had arrived back in Melbourne, a new virus had begun spreading through a Chinese city called Wuhan.
Unlike other Australians, however, the recent ACT Australian of the Year nominee was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the country, responsible for advising the health minister and department and responding to health crises.
He’d heard reports there were around 50 cases but by mid-January as people started dying and healthcare workers became sick, Professor Murphy realised the situation was getting more serious.
“It was sort of that time, about the 20th of January, that we got really worried,” Professor Murphy said.
Weeks later, he recalled it being fairly clear the world was heading for a global pandemic and Australia, under his advice, declared it so on February 27, two weeks ahead of the World Health Organisation.
Quickly, after weeks of daily press conferences, Professor Murphy became a familiar face for concerned Australians tuning in for updates.
It turned Professor Murphy into somewhat of a celebrity, one only this year could deliver. He admitted he’d even been approached for selfies during that time.
“It got to the stage where I started wearing a head cap and sunglasses when going to the supermarket or going for a walk,” Professor Murphy said.
“People were invariably nice but it is unsettling when you get recognised in the streets and it’s not something that I’ve ever been used to or particularly comfortable with.”
Like the unexpected celebrity status that has come attached with his role as CMO, Professor Murphy was surprised by a lot of the coverage of the virus during the first few months.
Experienced epidemiologists became “personally frightened” by the uncertainty of COVID-19 and it meant some panicked responses found their way into the media.
“I was a little surprised at some of the extreme views portrayed in those early months because they were more based on fear than evidence,” Professor Murphy said.
“I tried to stick with the evidence and tried to be as reassuring as the evidence would allow but without being dishonest.”
Sticking to the evidence in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is a big talking point for many nations around the world. It’s something Professor Murphy’s counterpart in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, has had a hard time convincing federal and state leaders to do, including the country’s own president.
For Professor Murphy, it’s a big part of the reason Australia has largely been considered a success on the world stage.
“Every government, federal and state and territory, at the very beginning, basically said that we want to be guided by the health advice,” Professor Murphy said.
“I think that’s been a key to our success is that they’ve accepted that advice, even when, at times, it has been uncomfortable.
“I was there when we suggested to the premiers and the Prime Minister that we needed to start physical distancing measures and the effect on the economy, you know, it was obviously very troubling but they said, ‘Well, that’s health advice, we’ll stick to it.'”
Professor Murphy finished up in his role as CMO in June, marking the end of his appearance in COVID-19 press conferences for more behind the scenes work as Secretary for the Department of Health – a role he was supposed to start back in January before it was extended due to the health crisis.
“I remember saying to Minister Hunt when we were talking about [the Secretary role], I said ‘well, I’ve done three years as CMO and I haven’t had any serious public health crisis, so maybe I’ll go and do another challenge,'” Professor Murphy said.
“That probably tempted fate a bit.”
His priorities for the next few years aren’t any less hectic. A Royal Commission into aged care, significant mental health care reform as well as a look into the workplace distribution of health care workers across the country are all on the agenda.
That’s on top of all the added work any new curve balls COVID-19 could throw.
To round out a major year, Professor Murphy is among four nominated for ACT’s Australian of the Year. He admitted he was a bit embarrassed by the attention but humbled to receive the nomination.
“I’m very happy, very, very proud to be nominated, but that’s as much recognition as I need,” Professor Murphy said.
There are still two months of the year remaining but on reflection, Professor Murphy admitted it was already the most high pressure year of his life with a few uplifting moments too.
“[It will] probably be the most dramatic and high pressure year of my life,” Professor Murphy said.
“I think I will look back on it feeling that I’ve given it my best.
“The most enduring memory of it is how a crisis has brought people together in a spirit of collaboration with the likes of which we’ve never seen before.”