He has stared, quite literally, into the eyes of human suffering for decades, working selflessly to save the sight of those being enveloped by the dark world of blindness in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Now Adelaide opthamologist Dr James Muecke has been named Australian of the Year for 2020, with centre court star and French Open winner Ashleigh Barty getting her gong as Young Australian of the Year.
Senior Australian of the Year is another medico, Perth obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham AM, who was recognised for his decades of work to prevent premature births – the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.
All the recipients were lauded by Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a glittering ceremony in Canberra on Saturday night, although Ms Barty had to skip the celebration to focus on her quest in Melbourne to claim the Australian Open crown.
Also honoured was Bernie Shakeshaft, of Armidale, NSW, who was named Australia’s Local Hero for his work getting troubled teens back on track and into school.
But it was Kenyan-born Dr Muecke who received the lion’s share of accolades.
“Dr James Muecke’s passionate and selfless commitment to preventing blindness here at home and around the world is literally changing lives,” said National Australia Day Council chairwoman, Danielle Roche OAM.
“He is a fierce advocate at the forefront of the fight against the rising epidemic of diabetes-induced blindness.”
Dr Muecke has devoted much of his adult life to combatting type 2 diabetes, a prime cause of the escalating epidemic that afflicts nearly one-in-ten Australians.
It is the fastest-growing cause of vision loss in Aboriginal communities and the sixth biggest killer overall in Australia.
His personal goal, he has said, is to see Australians break the national addiction to their sugar habit — a campaign that has seen him become one of the most ardent and vocal supporters of a tax on sugary drinks and junk food.
Dr Muecke plans to use his national platform to challenge the perception of sugar and the impact it has on the development of type 2 diabetes.
“What saddens me greatly is that, much of the time, such complications are avoidable, whether through lifestyle changes or more disciplined health checks,” he said.
“My mission this year is to get back to the root cause of this disease and prevent what will otherwise be our nation’s health catastrophe.”
Mr Muecke’s path to Saturday night’s award began in 2000 when he co-founded Vision Myanmar through the South Australian Institute of Ophthalmology, a program responsible for eye-health and blindness initiatives that has saved the sight of hundreds in that developing nation.
With its modest budget of just a million dollars a year, Vision Myanmar became something of a template for Dr Muecke’s next crusade, Sight For All, which aims to bring about a world where everyone can see.
With 80 per cent of world blindness avoidable – a rate that rises to 90 per cent in poor countries – Dr Muecke treats blindness “as a human rights issue”.
Local Hero Bernie Shakeshaft founded the BackTrack Youth Works Program, tapping into the skills he developed as a Northern territory jackaroo to “keep kids alive and out of jail”.
“Bernie Shakeshaft took the initiative to help and support young people in need, helping to build stronger individuals, communities and futures at the same time.” said Ms Roche.