Worst public health disaster since World War II
03 January 2023
BRENDAN CRABB & MIKE TOOLE
"The nurses would spend hours sitting with their dying patients holding their hands
ensuring they weren’t alone in their final minutes of life" - Emma Reardon
MELBOURNE - The arrival just over a year ago of the new and different-looking Omicron variant of Covid-19 brought much hope that this would usher in the end of the pandemic.
That hope was based on two assumptions: that Omicron led to milder disease than earlier variants, and that its extraordinary capacity to spread fast would mean that the wider population would rapidly be exposed to this ‘milder’ virus and further boost the immunity that 95% of Australian adults already had through two doses of the vaccine.
And so the ‘hybrid-immunity’ strategy was born. The idea was that we could ease off public health measures that were perceived as restricting so much of society, and let widespread infection do most of the work.
The prime minister at the time, Scott Morrison, encouraged us to ‘push through’ the first Omicron wave, and Queensland’s chief health officer went as far as to say it was probably ‘necessary’ for us to be infected.
What followed was by far the worst public health disaster in Australia since World War II.
There are no flags at half-mast, however, for the approximately 15,000 lives lost in 2022 (compared with just over 2,000 in the previous two years), no national day of mourning, little empathising at the deep daily impact Covid has had on millions of more ‘vulnerable’ Australians, little concern over what chronic Covid disease might do and is doing to the wider population.
Since the election, prime minister Anthony Albanese and his advisers have simply said Covid is no longer exceptional and should be treated like other respiratory infections.
But a conservative estimate is that 500,000 Australians will suffer from long Covid, for which there is no specific treatment.
A still uncertain yet clearly major chronic disease burden will cause severe hospital and healthcare disruption and have an impact on the workforce and school attendance.
The gulf between Covid reality and the narrative from our leaders could hardly be wider.
The current wave is almost as severe as any of the other three waves we faced last year, with more than 100,000 reported cases a week.
While case numbers mean much less now that testing and reporting have dropped off so significantly, hospitalisation rates remain a reasonably reliable guide to the scale of the problem.
Almost 4,000 people are hospitalised with Covid, close to the peak of 5,500 in the July-August wave.
Emergency departments across the country are under strain.
Why the disconnect between Covid reality and the message Australians receive from our leaders?
Almost every Australian has been infected, many two or three times, and more than 17,000 lives have been lost to the pandemic.
That number grows when so-called ‘excess deaths’ - deaths more than expected based on the average in pre-pandemic years - are calculated.
These are people who would have otherwise lived.
In the blink of an eye, Covid has become one of the nation’s biggest killers, and because it is ‘additional’, life expectancy will start to decline, something that has not occurred for more than five decades.
There may be no reprieve in 2023.
The uncontrolled spread of the virus among China’s 1.4 billion people, with their poor vaccination rates and low natural immunity, creates the perfect setting for the emergence of new variants of unknown severity.
Their arrival in Australia will be slowed by the government’s new testing measures for travellers from China, but they will reach Australia.
And new variants, of course, can arise anywhere. The XBB.1.5 variant surging in the United States looks particularly concerning.
Put simply, the virus is winning.
So why the disconnect between Covid reality and the message Australians receive from our leaders?
Perhaps it relates to the biggest myth of all, the freedom fallacy.
This is the idea that to have an open, free society we can’t address Covid because we don’t want the ‘restrictions’ that come with it.
Equating controlling Covid to ‘lockdowns’, travel restrictions and school and business impositions continues to be a huge hurdle. But none of it is true.
It is much clearer now what can be done to control Covid, and it is not restrictive.
Higher booster vaccination coverage, investment in clean air, judicious high-quality mask wearing and widely available and encouraged testing are the tools we have available.
The latter is especially important, not just so those who are positive know to stay away from others, but so they can get treated if they are eligible.
Countries, such as Singapore, that apply these tools more effectively do better than Australia.
So, what’s next? It is our view that the most important change Australia needs to make is a strategic one. One that is explicitly anti-transmission.
But we realise that, as things stand, Australia is very unlikely to face Covid reality and to change tack.
What will it take for us to see that our strategy, one that promotes infection, is wrong?
A major new discovery about long Covid? Severe illness in a senior official or someone they love? A new variant of concern?
Is there anything? Or are we consigned to acceptance of this toll, to living with Covid and all its consequences no matter what?
We hope not. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Professor Brendan Crabb AC is CEO of the Burnet Institute and Professor Mike Toole AM was its deputy director. Both have connections with Papua New Guinea
I've always thought that common sense is bloody dangerous Paul.
Common sense is subjective, not objective. It's what you average Australian fuckwit believes.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 05 January 2023 at 01:13 PM
Let's scrape away the surface infection and actually take a close look at the disease. In one sense, this type of disease is really no different than any other disease that has leapt the species barrier and infected humans. These types of diseases have been around since we started living with domestic animals notwithstanding the diseases we also caught from hunting and eating wild animals.
The issue these days is one of understanding. Understanding the human ability to cope with something not easily understood that is.
In past centuries, before diseases were scientifically revealed to be from organisms humans couldn't see, the effects of disease were attributed to causes dreamed up in human imagination. Since no one could prove these imaginative ideas right or wrong, they inevitable took root in the local population and existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There are still people who will not believe in the conspiracy theories that are circulating right now. I ask you, how can anyone not know that it's actually the little green men from Mars that are the real problem?
If good hand sanitation, face masks and not going into large crowds that might be infected with a contagious disease is the way to stop the disease from spreading, why is not practised?
The answer is as old as the human race. People don't like being told what to do. If political leaders have already twigged to this known fact, coming up with draconian measures to stop this disease in its tracks will never work.
The political leaders have therefore collectively thrown their hands in the air and moved on. Why? 'Cos they know that if they actually try to take control they will lose control and the next election.
Even in dictatorships, no one can go against public opinion for too long. Xi has had to bow to public pressure and relaxed whatever went for disease control in China and release a potential new variant onto the world market.
We are our own worse enemies when it comes to Common Sense. It ain't common!
Posted by: Paul Oates | 05 January 2023 at 09:32 AM
The disconnect between the lived reality of the pandemic and the responses of all of Australia's governments, not just the Commonwealth, is a product of the underlying imperative to allow business to get on with making money and citizens having the freedom to live their lives with minimal government interference.
In short, this is a case of ideology trumping reality.
There are many examples of this phenomenon in history, and they almost all end the same way. That is, when the public finally wake up one day and realise that what they have been told is true is manifestly not true.
In this case, as mentioned in the article, I expect this moment will only come when it is young people who begin dying in significant numbers or, perhaps, some very significant political figure or celebrity succumbs.
Of course, I could be wrong. The disease may just slowly but relentlessly kill off the 80+ year old population causing hardly a ripple in the social fabric.
One thing is certain, those who lead us, who are generally neither stupid nor inhumane, have absolutely no idea what will occur as a consequence of their policies.
In essence, they are betting a lot of lives on the hope that, somehow, all will be well in the end.
We can only hope that they will be right.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 03 January 2023 at 08:57 PM
Wombat is a 'nom de plume' I have associated with the present Treasurer for a number of years?
However, what with the performance of Butler and the prime minister recently, and of course not forgetting the Commonwealth's Chief Health Officer's efforts.
It sounds like they have the former Northern Territory chief minister's spruiker advisor on board.
'Boundlessly possible' was one of his many, to me nonsensical, buzz words.
Pray, may I ask, Who will finish up as chief wombat?
Many like me are denied the fifth booster, which my GP's surgery has had for many weeks.
This leads to the question of how many vaccinations have been disregarded Australia-wide and or will be disregarded as having reaching expiry.
Whilst we elderly await the accelerated Grim Reaper.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 03 January 2023 at 01:33 PM