Before Christmas I flew from Sydney to Brisbane to visit my parents for the first time in nine months. My father, who is unwell, receives treatment that suppresses his immune system, and, despite having long been eager to be vaccinated against COVID, doctors only recently permitted his first dose, and they remain unsure whether he can develop antibodies sufficient to fight the disease. Given my father's vulnerability, I agonised over the decision to travel, but his doctors told me that if I took precautions (including locking down for a week prior to the trip), the visit would be worth the risk.
Under these conditions, it was tricky to locate the line between reasonable concern and unhinged paranoia. As I took a train to the airport, and then a plane to Brisbane, every throat-clear, every cough, every improperly worn mask was cause for some alarm, a potential symbol for the sealing of my family's fate. Such anxiety was obviously unhealthy and unhelpful, but how, after two years of COVID headlines, against a background of skyrocketing numbers that dwarfed previous peaks, was I meant to think about anything else?
In the end, the holiday went well; my family and I remained healthy. But it was shaped by the fear that, if I were to give my father COVID, it might bring about his death, or, at the very least, a period of serious anxiety and trauma. Such a scenario was unlikely, but not beyond imagining.
COVID has drawn attention to the degree to which policymakers must determine what constitutes acceptable death and suffering across a population. There is no getting around this, but I would prefer it to be a greater part of the public conversation. For example, Australia accepts over 1000 deaths per year, and about 100 hospitalisations per day, in exchange for keeping cars as the dominant form of transport (there are of course programs aimed at eliminating this toll, but imagine, for example, if terrorists were killing and hospitalising this number of Australians; the policy response would be significantly more enthused). This could be changed, but the cost of doing so has been deemed unacceptable. Particularly insidious is that these decisions tend to be treated as necessary evils rather than the products of choice, or decisions that we might arrive at as a community.
Some of us have been granted the freedom to go to the cinema and the pub. Consequently there are others who fear for their lives when attending necessary hospital appointments.
When it comes to COVID, there is a balance to be found between locking everyone in their homes and taking no action whatsoever to moderate the virus's spread. I'm not going to argue for what the precise balance should be, but as things stand, my father and those similarly vulnerable are being sacrificed so the rest of us can get on with things.
The confluence of Omicron and the lifting of restrictions has meant that where once the curve was flattened, we are now experiencing a violent spike. Some of us have been granted the freedom to go to the cinema and the pub. Consequently there are others who fear for their lives when attending necessary hospital appointments.
Perhaps there is no other reasonable option. For some time, it has seemed inevitable that COVID would become endemic, and such a scenario would always endanger and restrict those most at risk. But now we've entered that reality, it's worth pausing to acknowledge the arrangement of a society that distributes harm to those who will feel it the most keenly.
Shortly after I flew to Brisbane, the Prime Minister gave a press conference in which he insisted that Australians move past our "culture of control and mandates" and instead adopt the mantra of "personal responsibility".
The conservative dream is that success is always earned and suffering is always deserved, so those suffering can be blamed for having taken on risk and placed themselves in harm's way. But living with COVID means that if my neighbour takes on risk, they are putting me at risk, and then my father and others like him face a far higher risk. This is not limited to the dangers that accompany contracting the disease, but expands to the burnout and quarantining of hospital staff, exposing patients to myriad additional hazards because they cannot get appropriate care.
When Australians are told to take "personal responsibility", that burden of responsibility is felt far more heavily by some.
A pandemic is not an individual problem, it is a social problem, and it demands a clearly articulated social vision. The Morrison government with its limited imagination has made no effort to articulate its vision, because doing so would mean admitting that the ideology underlying its approach depends on the economic and social exclusion of people with the least economic potential: the sick, the disabled, the poor. To say we are moving from "a culture of control" to a culture of "individual responsibility" is another way of saying we are replacing community with competition.
Catastrophes are often followed by transformation. What if COVID were to make us more alive to the notion that the wellbeing of much of our society depends on collective and communal care, and that this is the case not just for public health, but also for housing, welfare, and education?
My dad is lucky. He lives in a house with a garden, in a quiet neighbourhood where he can walk, and my mum, who has her booster shot, is able to shop and care for him, to take him to and from the hospital, to manage his medications. During my visit, he expressed his horror that there are people with his illness without such support. "It would be impossible," he told me.
In the society we've built, this is indeed the case. Must it be?
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.