Hal Swerissen

Talk of post pandemic life is becoming more prominent, but is it sensible?

From the end of 2019 to the beginning of 2022 Australia could claim to have one of the best COVID results in the world – something that is no longer true. We now have daily case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths comparable to North America and Europe.

On May 1 Australia had about 320,000 active COVID cases with around 40,000 new cases per day. 3000 people were in hospital with 150 in intensive care. On average about 40 people a day die. These are numbers we are more used to hearing for the UK or the US.

To put it in perspective, the daily COVID death rate is now about 10 percent of all daily deaths. The equivalent of one major hospital for each capital city is full of COVID patients. Nearly 7000 people have died and at the current rate another 7000 will die by the end of the year.

At the beginning of May there were around a 120 active COVID cases in Hepburn with around 25 new cases each day.

Until late in 2020 these numbers would have been seen as a national catastrophe.

The media has moved on

But today there is little concern or coverage about COVID. The media has moved on. Daily commentary by premiers, epidemiologists and modellers is a thing of the past, replaced by optimistic political hype to boost the economy, community complacency and professional resignation.

Requirements for social distancing and mask mandates have been dropped in all but the most risky settings, QR check ins are no longer required and vaccination mandates are falling by the wayside. Isolation rules have been relaxed. Quarantine has been dropped. Crowds, socialising, travel and entertainment are back. Prudence and caution are out, exuberance and optimism are in.

Fortunately, vaccines made all the difference to hospitalisations and deaths. The unvaccinated are 20-30 times more likely to die if they catch SARS Cov 2. And omicron was not as dangerous as earlier variants. But the vaccines are not so good at reducing transmission.

But COVID is everywhere

COVID is now very common in the community. Many people have had it and most know someone who has had it. Hospitals remain under stress. Ambulance response times are way below par and residential aged care is still risky – overwhelmingly people who have died were 80 or older. Travel and you take your chance with disruption and having to isolate. Go out and you have about a 1 in a 500 chance of catching COVID on any given day.

Only Western Australia managed a smooth transition from COVID zero. The unseemly, pre Christmas rush to open up on the East Coast resulted in avoidable disease, death and hospital stress, mainly driven by New South Wales and the Commonwealth. This followed a long list of frustrating incompetence, mismanagement and poor coordination of quarantine, protective equipment, aged care, movement restrictions and vaccine purchase and roll out. Early on, that was understandable. But not after two years.

We might be tired of the pandemic and hoping to ignore it but we are not ‘post pandemic’. It is here. It is infecting people. Large numbers are sick. The death rate is high. Health and aged care remain under stress and COVID continues to significantly affect many people’s lives every day.

What is the future for COVID?

When will this all end? The short answer is – it depends. A new highly infectious, more virulent variant may come along. Alternatively COVID may wax and wane as a seasonal disease like influenza, better in summer, worse in winter. Either way, less than a quarter of the population has reported catching COVID It will take many more months to work its way through the rest of the population and winter is coming.

COVID is here to stay for a while yet and it can’t simply be swept under the carpet. Already, vaccine rates are beginning to become a problem. Booster rates are below 50 percent in a number of places. Only Western Australia is doing well, thanks to the recent tough vaccine mandate rules.

Without ongoing and sustained public health campaigns, increased funding and much better leadership, coordination and management, risks will only increase further, putting stress on the health system and disrupting employment, family and community life.

Unsurprisingly, the media and the community are currently focused on the election. More surprisingly, to date the future management of COVID has not become a major election issue. Most of the emphasis has been on past mistakes. The much hyped ‘road map’ to COVID normal is now an historical document lost in the mists of the past.

It is tough for governments to tell the community things we don’t want to hear. More vaccinations, ongoing use of masks, sensible restrictions in risky settings are not an easy sell.

But when the election is out of the way, it would be wise for Governments to quickly reassess what is needed to address COVID and put in place a plan to make sure we live with it as sensibly as possible over the next year or two.

Hal Swerissen emeritus professor of public health at La Trobe University and lives in Daylesford. He is a member of the Wombat Post editorial committee.