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A Year Like No Other

 “2020 will be the toughest year of our lives.” Scomo wasn’t wrong when he uttered those fateful words in March last year. Who’d want to be Australian of the Year in the toughest year of our lives?

The 60th Anniversary of the Australian of the Year Awards was an extravaganza of functions, topped off by the stunning Awards Ceremony at the National Arboretum. Alumni, celebrities, press. 10 hours sleep in 4 days. What a whirwind! And then, the unexpected happened… I received the award! I should have been more confident after learning a few days earlier that I had the best odds on SportsBet, however I didn’t believe a doctor from Adelaide could win two years in a row.

My first month was filled with excitement and anticipation and the invites to speak flowed in thick and fast. I was to be away most weeks, with countless opportunities to talk about the toxic impact of sugar, the blinding consequences of diabetes and the sight- and life-saving work of Sight For All.

Then in early March, the unimaginable happened… COVID-19 joined the party. And one by one, all these engagements simply dissolved away. I was flattened, but not defeated, spending my time productively to create three keynotes. The world was consumed by the coronavirus frenzy, so I had to pro-actively seek opportunities to deliver these presentations from my study, harnessing the new online webinar world, speaking to the computer screen and the unseen faces beyond.  During those early weeks, I opened a variety of social media accounts and started posting hard-hitting messages about Australia’s hidden health crisis. People who liked my messages wanted to meet me, people who didn’t like my messages wanted to meet me. I made lots of friends. I probably made even more enemies. And the trolls descended. It was a tumultuous time, and a stressful time.

I delivered 67 on-line keynotes during my term, the majority dedicated to raising awareness of the ravages of type 2 diabetes and the origins of our dietary disaster. I filmed my lead keynote, Blinded, which has been viewed nearly 40,000 times on one site alone. There were only 17 live presentations, most toward the end of the year, and all in Adelaide. I had dozens of media interviews, participated in 30 podcasts, and penned five opinion pieces for Australian Consolidated Media, which incorporates The Canberra Times. My social media messages also garnered solid impact, with the Facebook posts alone achieving a reach of over one million.

I wrote to South Australia’s three universities and the Adelaide Women’s & Children’s Hospital, convincing them to remove much of the junk food from their vending machines. I wrote to the Australian Communications & Media Authority to encourage them to stop playing TV commercials for unhealthy products on free-to-air TV during those hours when our kids are watching. Sadly, no luck there.

I met with Coles and Woolies, and wrote to many of the other major supermarket and store chains, encouraging them to curb their predatory sales and marketing tactics. Once again, I had no luck, however pleasingly, Australia Post removed the junk food from checkouts at over 700 of their corporate stores, following my interview with Christine Holgate at an Australia Post executive dinner.
We still have a long, long way to go with our diabolical food environment, to protect our children and the vulnerable from the insidious grip of the ultra-processed food, sugary beverage and fast food industries. And the food and beverage landscape is bordering on criminal in poor socio-economic areas and many remote Aboriginal communities where type 2 diabetes is soaring.
I joined the Expert Advisory Group for the review of the National Diabetes Strategy and cajoled our Department of Health to include reversal of type 2 diabetes in this document, for the first time ever, giving hope of remission to the 1.7 million with type 2 diabetes and the 2 million with pre-diabetes.

I persuaded Diabetes Australia and a number of the state-based diabetes associations, including Diabetes SA, to admit that type 2 diabetes doesn’t have to be a progressive life sentence, and to change the wording on their websites. Once again giving hope to newly diagnosed patients with this all-consuming sight- and life-threatening disease.

I met with Health Minister Greg Hunt on Zoom and Shadow Health Minister Chris Bowen in the flesh, sharing my deep concern regarding the declining metabolic health of Australians, and proposing a multi-pronged strategy to reverse it. It seems to have fallen on deaf ears though. In the recent budget, not one dollar was committed to the prevention of type 2 diabetes, despite the fact that in 2020 we lost 15 times more lives to diabetes than to COVID-19. And despite the fact that we’re 12 times more likely to die from COVID-19 if we have a diet-related chronic disease such as type 2.

The climax of my year was a controversial address to the National Press Club in December, discussing the many barriers to overcoming our man-made and highly avoidable chronic disease epidemic. The highlight of my year though was the opportunity to film with mercurial English doctor, Michael Mosley, in his upcoming documentary for SBS. Perhaps this three-part series will have the reach and impact that’s so desperately needed in this country.

Winning the award still seems like a dream, the entire year quite surreal. Only one person recognised me as Australian of the Year for 2020, in 2020. To be honest, I was quite happy to fly under the cover of COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic gave me more time to dedicate to this seriously important role.
I am thrilled to have been Australian of the Year in ‘the toughest year of our lives’. And wouldn’t trade it for the world. Thank you Australia Day Council of South Australia, Adelaide University, Royal Adelaide Hospital and Sight For All for giving me this incredible opportunity, this highlight of my life.

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