Dr James Muecke, an eye surgeon who has dedicated his professional career to preventing blindness among the poorest people in the world, has been recognised as the 2020 Australian of the year.
Adelaide-born Muecke, who began his medical career in Kenya, said it was an “enormous … tremendous honour” to be named Australian of the year for 2020: “such an auspicious year for eyesight”.
Accepting the award in Canberra, Muecke said he would use the profile of the prize to campaign for better eye health across Australia and around the world, to address the root causes of the “insidious disease” of diabetes, and “to build greater awareness of the detrimental role sugar plays in our society and how it’s as toxic and addictive as nicotine, and should be treated by consumers, businesses and governments as such”.
“In 2020, I’m going to continue my fight for the right to sight,” he said.
Muecke paid tribute to firefighters who had spent the summer fighting blazes across the country.
“The uncompromising bushfires that have swept through our country have left widespread disruption and heartbreak in their wake, and few of us remain untouched,” he said. “Too many people have lost their lives and the devastation of our landscape and iconic wildlife is beyond belief.”
Muecke praised his fellow award winners and said Australia was made great by those who contributed to it through their willingness to help others.
“Australia Day is all about celebration and gratitude and so, tonight, I thank – from the bottom of my heart – those of you who give of your time, give of your expertise, give of your hearts, and especially those who risk their lives to make this country the greatest place on earth.”
The French Open champion and the world No 1 women’s tennis player Ashleigh Barty was named young Australian of the year, while obstetrics specialist Prof John Newnham – an internationally leading authority on the prevention of pre-term birth – was named senior Australian of the year.
The 2020 Local Hero is youth advocate Bernie Shakeshaft of Armidale, NSW. Shakeshaft founded the BackTrack Youth Works program in 2006, using skills he learned as a jackaroo to turn around the lives of vulnerable children and adolescents.
Muecke has spent his life fighting blindness in disadvantaged communities, both in Australia and overseas. He argues good vision is a human rights issue: 80% of the world’s blindness is avoidable – and almost 90% of that is in poor countries.
In 2000, he co-founded Vision Myanmar, a million-dollar program to combat blindness in the impoverished south-east Asian nation, and in 2008 Sight for All, a social impact organisation “aiming to create a world where everyone can see”.
His career has taken him from the Gaza Strip to the mountains of Kenya, and across Asia, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Bhutan, Nepal and Vietnam. His work has seen him threatened by rebels and forced to undertake eye surgery amid a machine gun battle.
Muecke’s current focus is the leading cause of blindness in adults – type 2 diabetes – a spiralling epidemic that impacts nearly one in 10 Australians. Type 2 diabetes is the fastest growing cause of vision loss in Aboriginal people and the sixth-biggest killer of Australians.
Muecke warns Australia is facing a “looming catastrophe” as the number of people with diabetes – the vast majority of whom have preventable type 2 – is set to double from 1.7 million.
“It is now the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in this country,” he said before the announcement. “It’s a growing epidemic and it’s the biggest threat to our health system.”
The chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche, said the breadth of the achievements of the award winners reflected the myriad ways in which Australians contribute to their country and the world.
“Our 2020 Australians of the year are great examples of the Australian spirit – people who saw a problem and decided to take it upon themselves to solve it, unsung heroes working to make a difference, champions who have risen to the top through sheer commitment and hard work, and those lending a helping hand where it’s needed most.”
Muecke has been a prominent supporter of a “sugar tax” as part of measures designed to get Australians to cut their intake of sweetened food.
“Taxing would hopefully encourage people to seek lower-sugar alternatives, particularly taxing sugar-sweetened beverages which are a huge culprit in type 2 diabetes,” he said.
He has also argued governments should step in to regulate food labelling and advertising.
“Advertising space and time for sugar needs to be reduced, particularly in kids’ TV,” he said. “I think advertising sugar in kids’ TV is terrible.”
Advertising campaigns to make people aware of the consequences of over consumption of sugar and the effects of diabetes on sight are also crucial, Muecke said.
“Most of us are addicted to sugar – probably unwittingly,” he said. “Sugar is as addictive as nicotine. It’s a highly addictive substance.
“People are going blind and losing vision, what we need to do is go right back to beginning and say, ‘What is causing this?’”