You might not know it from walking around Civic or visiting your local supermarket, looking at a sea of naked faces, but we are still in a pandemic. Omicron is surging - yet again - thanks to the arrival of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which have effortlessly taken hold in a population with few remaining protections.
In mid-July, Health Minister Mark Butler warned us that "millions" of Australians would be infected in coming weeks, with the wave expected to peak in August. In fact, the third Omicron wave (yes, this is our third in seven months) is predicted to be worse than the previous two due to the highly infectious nature of BA.4/BA.5. Yet there has been no rush by the government to re-implement protections that keep our community safe, and these warnings seem to go unheeded by many Australians.
Over 11,000 Australians have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic, with over 8500 in the first half of 2022 alone. Experts are predicting it will soon be the leading cause of death. At the time of writing, the country's seven-day average of daily fatalities is 69 - equivalent to a Boeing 777-300 a week - and the virus continues to ravage the country, infecting almost half the population since January 1. We must also not forget those now living with long-term disability. Studies estimate that anywhere from 2-40 per cent of those infected develop "long-COVID", which includes a myriad of symptoms from "brain fog" and hallucinations to tremors and tinnitus. At best, 260,000 Australians are currently suffering such symptoms and, at worst, that figure could be a whopping 3.9 million.
This has inevitably wreaked all kinds of havoc on schools, hospitals, air travel and businesses, while increasing the burnout of care workers and teachers. Unlike our Northern Hemisphere counterparts, we have the misfortune of facing this surge during winter and in the midst of our first proper flu season since 2019. To claim this as a crisis is an understatement.
During our first Omicron wave, I wrote that the government had sidelined measures like financial support, mask mandates and test and isolation protocols in favour of the market and individual responsibility, choosing instead to "let it rip". It appears not much has changed, despite electing an entirely new federal government. After an election campaign in which COVID-19 received the silent treatment, the Labor government now has the power to fill the leadership deficit left by Scott Morrison. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese can redefine COVID leadership, reunite a divided federation and regain the control lost by Morrison to the state premiers to ensure the safety of all Australians. Yet he seems to have abandoned this opportunity in favour of the same complacency and even many of the same mistakes that we came to expect from the Coalition.
It increasingly feels like we're being gaslit by a government in stasis. We are being warned of the virus and yet its severity is downplayed. There has been no widespread campaign informing the public of airborne transmission or the importance of wearing a P2 respirator. Hospitals are nearing collapse and yet the Health Minister says we've "moved beyond the realm of lockdowns and mask mandates". The government urges us to take "personal responsibility" for our health but they are not providing us the tools to do so - and most people do not have the luxury. Speaking at a press conference last month, Albanese advised Australians to work from home but, rather than mandating it, left the decision up to "individual businesses". The government is essentially offloading their responsibility onto the individual.
Public health communication is confusing, to say the least. We are told to take this virus seriously, yet there is no real political urgency behind these statements. We are advised to update our vaccination, but fourth doses are only available to those over 30 and third doses only to those over 16. We are warned about the severity of BA.5 but are also told that repeat infections are "mild", contradicting the research identifying that they increase chances of developing long-COVID. We are "strongly recommended" to wear masks indoors but again this comes down to personal choice, with only a few Australians heeding such advice while many others succumb to peer pressure. We are also told that masks reduce transmission and protect the community but that the government is "empowering" us to make our own decisions, ignoring the fact that when it comes to a highly contagious airborne virus, our choices have an impact on those around us. This is where the government needs to step up.
What's worse than government inaction? A government that removes the few remaining protections during a deadly surge. The COVID disaster pandemic leave payments were set to end by June 30. Albanese initially refused to extend this date, citing an inherited trillion-dollar budget debt, though he continued to advise people to stay at home if they tested positive. How someone without sick leave could do that, especially at a time of rising inflation and living costs, was not considered. Concurrently, the concessional rapid antigen test scheme also faced the axe, compounding the financial difficulty of people on low incomes who would have to choose between buying food and paying bills, or spending $10 on a RAT. Due to widespread pressure, the Albanese government reinstated the pandemic leave payments until September 30, though he rejected calls to extend the RAT scheme.
Like his predecessor, Albanese is prioritising the budget over health without recognising that this is an entirely false economy. Yes, the budget is in dire shape. But preventing casuals and concession card holders from accessing pandemic leave or RATs will only cost more in the long-term. A choice between putting food on the table or buying a RAT will inevitably result in less testing, which means more sick people and more economic disruption. Despite the past two and a half years, the government has not yet learned the lesson that a sick population does not make for a healthy economy.
The ALP campaigned on a platform of care: healthcare, aged-care and childcare. After Morrison made it clear that he had given up on leading the nation and protecting us from COVID (or floods or fire), I had been hopeful that Albanese would steer a new course and reimplement strong protective measures. I fear, however, that he too has capitulated to business and the noisy minority. Ignoring rising case numbers has resulted in a crisis in all three care sectors. At the time of writing, hospitalisations of COVID patients are at a record high, healthcare workers are beyond the point of burnout, one-third of aged-care homes have been hit by infections and staffing shortages, and early childhood educators and teachers are leaving the sector in droves.
Once the envy of the world, Australia now has the third-highest per capita case and death rates. The previous government did little to create systemic changes to air safety - such as funding and installing HVAC in public spaces - which would protect us from both current and future viruses. For the Labor government to live up to their promise of care, they need to stop digging their heads in the sand and implement a population-level "Swiss cheese" model, incorporating vaccinations, mask mandates, air quality safety, sufficient and accessible testing, isolation and, most importantly, swiftly adapting to outbreaks and changing circumstances.
A hyper-individualistic response will only lead to worse outcomes for all. We are much stronger as a collective society than as atomised individuals - after all, this is the core ethos of public health. Time, however, is running out. As Australian Medical Association Vice President Dr Chris Moy observed, "we're ... like frogs boiled slowly and we're accepting this death rate, which has continued on. We're just about to enter a much worse phase." I just hope the government listen to expert advice before it is too late.
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