NOOSA – This week Queensland recorded its deadliest two days of the Covid pandemic so far
Nine deaths and 38,500 new cases of the virus. Nearly 600 diseased people, 40 of them in intensive care, straining the hospital system to its limit.
Chief health officer Dr John Gerrard says all the dead had “significant underlying medical conditions”. It sounded like an excuse. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Queensland is entering the eighth year of Annastacia Palaszczuk’s premiership, I cannot write 'leadership', with Covid tearing mercilessly through the State.
For nearly two years its citizens celebrated the government’s effective management of the pandemic. This included presenting Palaszczuk with a comfortable election victory in 2020.
The chief health officer, Dr Jeannette Young, justifiably won high praise for keeping Covid under control while the State economy remained active if subdued.
Then Young resigned to become Governor of Queensland in November. Since then, everything has fallen apart.
Upon getting the job (he was Palaszczuk’s second choice), Young's successor Dr John Gerrard wanted to implement his own ideas.
These seemed to consist mainly of adopting Scott Morrison’s policy of ‘push through and let Covid rip’. He did this just in time to catch the Omicron bus.
I note here that Gerrard is the only chief health officer in Australia who is able to overrule the Premier in being able to unilaterally impose public health restrictions.
But I don't let Palaszczuk off the hook, because Gerrard did not appoint himself and presumably the change in policy met with her approval.
“Not only is the spread of this virus inevitable, it is necessary,” Gerrard stated early in his stewardship and frequently since. “In order for us to go from the pandemic phase to an endemic phase, the virus has to be widespread.”
Experts say that SARS-Cov-2 viruses never become endemic, but it is the first part of the statement that is alarming.
Gerrard’s astonishing pronouncements of inevitability and necessity were seen to signal an abrogation of his responsibilities as a medical professional.
The change in policy soon came and was an unheralded, unplanned and unprepared 180 degree about face. It was also a disaster.
And now, we watch the virus running out of control in Queensland and the Sunshine State descending into a diabolical mess.
Gerrard himself has become a regular daily presence across the media, and seems to enjoy his role as unofficial doomsayer.
He rarely offers words on how he is seeking to manage the outbreak, and even fewer (to the point of no words at all) about his strategy to protect vulnerable members of the community.
His two major claims - that “the virus has to be widespread” and that it is “inevitable” that every person will get the disease - turn upside down every precept of public and preventive medicine. They are words without hope.
They are an absurd acceptance that a dangerous disease should be allowed to spread. Furthermore, Gerrard constantly fails to address the issue of what is being done to protect vulnerable people from getting the disease.
Nothing demonstrates this failure more than the repeated refrain that many of the Covid dead had “underlying medical conditions”. After spending a working life in journalism I can identify spin and propaganda when I see them.
And these words seem purposely designed to deflect responsibility for poor public health decisions from the government that makes them to hang them on victims who had other medical conditions.
Gerrard may equally have said, “Those who died, well, they had a foot in the grave anyway.” This is cruel and deceptive rhetoric which hurts most the people closest to the deceased.
All six of Wednesday’s deaths were said by Gerrard to be of people with “significant underlying medical conditions.” Male venisti ad me, mors tua non mea culpa est. You came to me ill, your death’s not my fault.
Five of the six were double vaccinated and one was unvaccinated. It was not a good batting average for the vaccine but Gerrard has often said since his appointment that people have two choices with Covid: to be vaccinated or to get infected.
On Wednesday’s numbers his pronouncement was a profound error: you could be both vaccinated and be infected. But at the time of utterance, it offered him some cover, however threadbare, for ‘letting it rip’.
It had enabled him to claim in December, that “we now have a largely vaccinated population and now we have to move to the next stage. We have to open up. We cannot keep the borders closed.”
But was the population “largely vaccinated”? Even as Gerrard spoke, Omicron was spreading rapidly and no longer did two jabs guarantee good protection.
To be effectively fully vaccinated required two jabs and a booster. However the Queensland government did not change its definition.
None of the five supposedly fully vaccinated people who died on Wednesday had boosters. They probably died thinking they were fully vaccinated. And the chief medical officer sloughed off responsibility by saying they had “significant medical conditions”.
But it was the Covid that killed them and the lack of the booster shot that denied them a better chance.
Government statistics don’t reveal how many Queenslanders have had the third (booster) that gives you much better prospects against Omicron.
I’d guess it’s less than 20% of the population. So that’s the proportion of Queenslanders who are really fully vaccinated. In its online numbers today, the government claims the figure to be a misleading 88%.
In December, Gerrard had told Queenslanders they had two choices: get the jab or get the infection. That was simplistic but what he didn’t say was that the Queensland government had many more choices when it came to keeping people safe.
Opening the borders on the pretext that Queenslanders were now fully vaccinated was not only deceptive, it was not even sensible.
It mattered how the opening took place - throw the gates open and let the virus rip or slide them shut with care with an eye always on containing outbreaks where they occurred, as Queensland had done so successfully before.
But in Australia (except for the West) it was ‘let it rip’ time – or, to use Scott Morrison’s euphemism, ‘push through’ time.
It always mattered that Covid needed to be under some sort of control and it mattered that Omicron was a more slippery customer than previous variants.
Delta was more severe, but Omicron could spread at warp speed. And it also showed a propensity to be able to ‘escape’ the vaccine.
Yet a more difficult virus has now been allowed to run free. Throwing open the door to a potentially deadly disease couldn’t have been a more dangerous combination. That was a choice made by health bureaucrats and their political masters.
It was a choice made by politicians who boasted of high percentages of the population being fully vaccinated at the same time as Omicron was there to say, ‘no you’re not’.
Omicron would, as forecast by the better scientists (whose voice in Australia is mostly sidelined by that of poorer ones), rush through the country to engulf medical services, get well ahead of the availability of tests and overwhelm disease tracking capacity even as most political leaders urged Australians to get back to normal.
It was a situation built for the chaos, sickness and death Australia is now experiencing.
And these scourges were to particularly affect poorer Australians – and more vulnerable ones.
There are many millions of Australians who can be classified as vulnerable. For example, half a million people are immunocompromised.
Very many more live with other ailments: 8 million are obese; 6 million have high blood pressure; 2.7 million have asthma; 1.8 million live with diabetes; 1 million with cancer; 600,000 with coronary heart disease; 250,000 with kidney disease.
You can add to this list the constantly waning immunity of elderly people, those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons and the folks who develop no immunity after vaccination.
There’s a lot of overlap in all this but it leaves a heck of a lot of people able to be dismissed by a lazy pronouncement that their death was accompanied by “underlying medical conditions”.
Queensland has a population of 5.2 million people of whom about 150,000 have caught Covid so far. So there are still plenty of lives for the virus to play with.
And plenty of Queenslanders with “underlying medical conditions”. I have a few myself.
Depending on how they are defined, there may be two million or more people in Queensland with underlying medical conditions.
So when chief health officer Gerrard refers to people who have just died of Covid having ‘underlying medical conditions’, he knows that the deaths were caused by Covid, not some underlying health condition. So why mention it?
The words partly minimise the responsibility of authorities for a death. It’s spin that suggests the deaths were not really the outcome of the authorities failing in some aspects of their job.
The suggestion is “they would probably have died anyway, it wasn’t our fault.”
Of course, Gerrard’s ‘underlying medical conditions’ is a term used by many politicians and health bureaucrats in Australia who have the task of announcing each day’s Covid casualties.
They are words that seek to pass responsibility to the dead. They are words that malign the vulnerable in an attempt to exonerate the culpable. They are unethical, abusive and harmful words.
They are part of the barrage of rhetoric that is constantly trying to push responsibility away from the people whose job it is to keep the community safe.
“That's what a pandemic is about, a very large number of cases,” Gerrard says matter of factly. “The number of people we expect to get infected with the virus is very large. We are not going to stop the Omicron virus.”
This, like many of the statements he makes with a strange look of satisfaction, leaves many people feeling hopeless.
They are attempts to diminish the culpability and accountability of politicians and their health bureaucrats for the management of the disease.
“We are not going to stop the Omicron virus,” Gerrard says, adding, “not only is the spread of this virus inevitable, it is necessary. The virus has to be widespread.”
And then pontificating about how people feel, “It is the anxiety of the unknown, and once you realise that, well, it’s just another virus....”
Really? Just another virus? What does that even mean?
Covid is ‘just another virus’ that leaves somewhere between 10% and 40% of those who catch it with symptoms that can persist for many months or more. It’s known as Long Covid.
Long Covid has lots of symptoms that can take you down, none worse than leaving you with damaged lungs, heart and brain as well as the risk of long-term health problems. It is similar in many respects to the neurological disease, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
The risk of Long Covid is alone a compelling reason why the virus needs to be resisted every inch of the way. If you didn’t have a significant underlying medical condition before catching the disease, there’s a 10-40% chance that Long Covid will give you one or two afterwards. Perhaps you’ll have them for life.
The truth about Covid in Australia today is that most people are not fully vaccinated as they confront a virus running free. In Queensland this is the result of a decision to let it in and not fight it strenuously.
It is killing many people and putting hundreds into hospital. It has made about two million Queenslanders medically vulnerable.
It triggers Long Covid where the virus leaves in its wake an array of serious chronic conditions.
And conjured up by incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, added to these problems is the scarcity and inept distribution of vaccines, test kits and safe masks.
Given all this, we don’t need Dr Gerrard and others like him to act as some sort of self-styled commentator on the passing parade of a serious disease.
Every day we need to know what is being done to address the serious issues raised in this analysis.
What is Gerrard and his political and bureaucratic colleagues doing to keep the people of Queensland and Australia safe?
That is the job they are charged to do and it is the job they are so obviously failing to do.