New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant (Image AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Dear Dr Kerry Chant,

This is just a note from a stranger to say thank you. While you don’t know me, you’ve become one of the most important people in my life.

Each day, without fluster, you anchor the next 24 hours, providing a number that dictates how we need to live. This week, though, I saw a hint of something more in your daily address. Still calm — but it was difficult to hide your concern. Could I hear a touch of fear too?

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It was only a couple of weeks ago that the tally of new COVID-19 cases sat at two. And then you announced it was 22. Then 112. Then 172. Then 262. And then, in the blink of an eye, 415. Then 478. And we all know, deep down, that the trajectory is up.

“I cannot describe my concern level if we do not drive these cases down.’’

That’s what you as New South Wales’ chief health officer said on Sunday, and I’ve listened to you long enough to know you do not know how to embellish. You’re measured, always. Even yesterday, when you listed, with enormous empathy, the details of those who had been killed in 24 hours by this indiscriminate beast. Straight-talking. Sincere. An antidote to the screaming leadership that turns everyone off. And you turn up, no matter what. Don’t underestimate the importance of that to the rest of us.

Broken glasses, and you turn up. Imperfect hair. Missed family functions. God knows when you last saw your three kids. And I say that as I hold my own tight.

I’m sorry that so many are ignoring your advice. I’m talking about those at the beach. Out and about, because they can. Shopping! Why are those shops even open?

Your composure, no matter what is thrown at you by politicians and pundits, is remarkable. I envy that. Don’t you want to just call out the idiots who are pitting their ignorance against your decades of experience? Just once?

You must be dog-tired. And I don’t say that in the condescending way NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard suggested last week. But you can’t lead a response to a pandemic like this and not feel exhausted. Worried. Fearful. I can’t imagine you enjoying too many good nights’ sleeps.

Thank you. Because you’re not doing this for you. You’re doing it for us. And you just keep turning up. On days when numbers are good. And on days now, too frequently, when numbers are bad.

That must entail significant personal sacrifice. I know your mother-in-law has been making food for your family; I hope she’s a gourmet cook! And you told us how important your husband was to you — just after he got his first dose of AstraZeneca. He, and your three children, must miss you terribly. Thanks for doing that, for us.

Thanks for the message you delivered our teens too, the one where you didn’t have a clue what you wanted to do in life, and spent time working in a furniture shop and a pharmacy and even Mr Whippy. Our children need to hear that. And how it was only later that you settled on medicine. Thank God.

A bachelor of medicine and bachelor surgery in 1987. A master’s in health administration in 1992. A second master’s — in public health — in 1995. Your experience is an antidote to the craven misinformation being spread by many. The anti-vaxxers. Those opposing lockdowns. Those worried about 5G chips in their foreheads. The shoppers. The beach-goers.

You haven’t just arrived on centre stage. The time you spent in the pubic health unit of Sydney’s south-west area health service must have been invaluable. Plotting the state’s HIV strategy, early on, must have delivered superb negotiation skills. And you’ve served as deputy chief health officer, before taking the big job 13 years ago.

That experience is reassuring. So is the fact that you don’t play politics. You just tell us what we need to know: that daily number. And you try, in the most gracious and serious way, to tell us to treat this monster more seriously. It must have been difficult this week to read out that list of people who have had their lives cut short by COVID. Especially 15-year-old Osama Suduh, who also came from Sydney’s south-west.

Everyone says you’re a team player. But in this war, you’re out front and centre, copping the flak for those behind you. That’s been perilous some days; dangerous on others. But you keep turning up. Serious-faced. Genuine. An anchor in the day of hundreds of thousands of people who are falling in behind you. 

I’d like to think I speak for so many of them. Thank you.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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