Five weeks into an election campaign, there has been nary a mention by either major party about the greatest public health crisis in our lifetimes. The COVID-19 pandemic is being presented to the public as something that happened in the past.
And this messaging is not just at the federal level; every state and territory is on board. But the reality is very different, the pandemic is still with us and is hurting us badly. On average, Australia is reporting an eye-watering 40,000 plus new cases every day. Australia now ranks second in the world for cases per million among countries with a population of more than one million. There is no sign of this slowing down.
COVID-19 is still putting huge strains on our health system.Credit:Getty Images
High case numbers matter to our health and to the functioning of our society. Ambulance ramping, emergency department and healthcare stress, travel chaos, general staff shortages, school disruptions, and a slow return to work are just some examples that tell a polar opposite story to the prevailing “live with COVID” narrative.
Three hundred and fifty thousand people currently have COVID in Australia, all are at home, more than 3000 are in hospital, and an incomprehensible 40 or so are dying each day. More than 5000 people have lost their lives in the last four and a half months, twice the number of flu deaths in the past six years.
As the Bureau of Statistics revealed, COVID-19 was the second most common cause of death in January, 2022. This is an extraordinary toll. Not to mention the looming threat of long COVID, which according to overseas data may affect up to 10 per cent of those infected. This syndrome, which is still poorly understood, can affect the heart, brain, liver and other organs and could cause high levels of absenteeism and place even further pressure on the healthcare system. Uncertainty in this alone is sufficient to adopt the precautionary principle.
It’s no accident that we have such high case numbers. It is more-or-less universal policy to release the brakes to such a degree that a large proportion of the Australian population has been infected in just a matter of months. Somehow, we have ourselves believing that almost unfettered COVID-19 spread is OK, that it’s a price worth paying to have our freedom, our businesses, social life, schools and society back to normal.
The widely expressed sentiment, from the top down is “we have a well vaccinated population that has reduced COVID to nothing more than the flu so let’s just get on with it”. But this misleading, and it’s an attitude that is costing us dearly.
So, what will happen as we enter winter when there will be a lot more indoor gatherings? Without mask mandates and inadequate attention to indoor ventilation, the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, and its evolved relatives BA.2.12.1, BA4 and BA5 that are now here in Australia, will inevitably spread widely leading to more cases, hospitalisations, and deaths. In addition, there are already signs of a significant influenza season.
What is of most concern is the emergence of a new variant of concern, a new curveball like Delta and Omicron were when they arrived, coinciding with winter; on average, a new variant has emerged every six months, so we are already overdue for a new one.
Is there a better way? The short answer is a resounding yes!
The most important thing is to change our collective attitude to one that says transmission matters, and then to base a response on critical interventions that we know are not onerous: vaccination, a clean air strategy, high-quality masks indoors and testing. Testing is crucial, both to surveillance as we are flying blind otherwise, and to individuals such as those who have COVID simply must know, so they can protect others by isolating.
As effective as vaccines are, and they are rightly the backbone of our response, the mantra that we are even close to sufficiently vaccinated is plain wrong. While two-dose coverage is high, we know that two doses is not sufficient to protect against Omicron. Only 70 per cent of eligible Australians have had a third dose, and many now need their 4th. What is even more worrying is that only 37 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 years have had two doses of vaccine. And of course, children under 5 remain unvaccinated as there is not yet a licensed vaccine for this group. We need to do much better.
The irony of all this is that high transmission is not a price we are paying for our freedom; it is robbing us of it.
As one of the countries with the worst transmission rates of COVID-19 in the world, we urgently need a change of mindset to one where reducing the number of cases matters. We must reduce transmission rates, and to do this with minimal disruption to normal life. It can be done. But we must want it. This simple message, delivered unambiguously from the top federally and in each state and territory, is more important that the specifics of how to achieve it. It’s the pivot we need.
Brendan Crabb is chief executive of the Burnet Institute. Mike Toole is a medical epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute.
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