Public health specialist Paul Byleveld has served in multiple international humanitarian responses over the years. From refugee crises in Lebanon and Bangladesh to the aftermath of floods in Pakistan and typhoons in the Philippines, his background and experience means he is well placed to support NSW Health’s COVID-19 operations.

Paul took some time out from his demanding role in the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre for a brief chat. Find out what he had to say.

In non-pandemic times, what is your role in NSW Health?

I am the manager for Health Protection NSW’s water unit. The water unit looks after the safety of drinking water in the state. We work with large utilities like Sydney Water and Hunter Water, local councils in regional NSW, and some 60 Aboriginal communities to ensure people have access to safe drinking water.

What are you doing now as part of the COVID-19 response?

I’m one of the four team leaders in the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre’s planning team. The planning team helps support public health activities and the sharing of information.

We prepare a daily situation report, respond to enquiries and correspondence, and provide technical input on information featured on the NSW Health website, which we update when changes are needed. Information such as testing criteria can evolve and we need to communicate this fairly quickly to the public and clinicians.

We also support our public health units and other parts of government with information that will help them with their roles as part of the pandemic response. For example, we worked closely with SafeWork NSW to help them effectively assist different workplaces and industries to manage the risk of COVID-19.

Prior to this, I was part of the team deployed to work with one of the schools affected by COVID-19. Two doctors and I worked with school staff to examine class timetables, school rolls and activities that students took part in, to work out the close contacts that needed to self-isolate. This started on Monday, 9 March – my first day in the COVID-19 response team.

Given your background as a public health specialist, is it safe to say you’ve been involved in things like this before?

Like many of my colleagues, I was around in 2009 and worked in the NSW Health planning team when human swine flu, H1N1, first emerged.

I have also done a few stints internationally in disease outbreak settings with the Red Cross and the Australian Government - nothing on this scale, of course - but I’ve been involved in things like a cholera outbreak in Somalia and in various public health roles as part of the response to international emergencies arising from natural disasters or conflict.

Can you provide some examples?

In 2016, I worked in Lebanon as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ efforts to help the 1.5 million people displaced by conflict in Syria. I’ve also worked in Pakistan to support Red Cross relief efforts arising from flood and separately, conflict in the north-west.

I was also in the Philippines for a typhoon response and in 2018, was in Bangladesh helping with the response to the displacement of the Rohingya people from Myanmar.

Any surprises about how COVID-19 has unfolded in NSW?

It’s hard for me to say. There’s good acceptance of physical distancing in the community and we are having a good impact on controlling the spread. But we still do not know how this will progress over the coming months.

The best thing we can do is to provide good information so people are clear on what they need to do to prevent the spread.

You have good insights into what’s happening with the pandemic. What do you tell friends and family when they ask?

To follow the advice around physical distancing and practise good hygiene. But there’s no reason to panic.

I’m taking a well-trodden line from the Premier and Prime Minister (and other leaders), but it’s true that everyone has a part to play in this. Our success depends on how well people play their role in helping control the spread of the virus.

What’s your message to colleagues across the system?

Given what it is I do, I think we should always prepare for what could happen over the months ahead, hope for the best case but be prepared for the worst case. And as we go along, we should give ourselves adequate rest – something I really should remind myself to do more often.

Look after yourself. Look after your team. And look after each other.

I appreciate this is a pretty intense time at work for you – how do you unwind when you get a spare moment?

I run and cycle still. Exercise is important.

I enjoy cooking, so I make cakes which I bring to the office. I spend time in the garden. I also make sure to connect with family and friends via phone or social media.​​​

Current as at: Wednesday 20 May 2020
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW