Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin – PHAA CEO
We left 2021 exhausted, battered and bruised, but feeling optimistic. In Australia, we had largely weathered the COVID19 storm pretty well by international standards. With a lot of sacrifice and discipline, supported largely by strong leadership that followed the expert public health advice.
But a shift in the political wind saw a determination to “open up the economy”. An understandable desire to have a “normal Christmas” and allow long separated families to come together was a normal human and humane drive after a tough two years.
Unfortunately, that coincided with the spread of the most infectious version of the virus so far, cutting a swathe through the country with daily records being set for the number of infections. With that record being broken day after day.
Two extraordinary facts from the weekend. More than 10% of the total COVID19 case load in Australia was announced on the weekend just passed.
In addition, among people aged 20 – 29 (20 somethings) in NSW, 6.2% were diagnosed with COVID19 in the past four weeks.
My own family has been an all too typical example. I am one of seven and four of us have children, so quite a cohort of “twenty somethings”. I’ll protect their identities but tell their stories.
20something No 1
Travelled to Queensland for a new year’s celebration. Felt sick 3 January. Lined up for a PCR test on the Gold Coast two hours before the scheduled opening. Was told within 30 minutes of opening they would not have capacity to do a test. The friends of No 1 were panicked and did not want to be exposed, so No 1 had to find a hotel in which to isolate. Booked in for seven days. Feeling very sick, lay in a park for five hours awaiting access to the hotel room. Family sent them three Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) to hotel room on 4 January. Tests arrived 5 January and a positive was recorded. A retest today (10 Jan) was again positive. Extended stay by two days. Will test again on 12 Jan before booking flight to return to parents to extend isolation.
Positive not recorded in Queensland Health system. No support or assistance by QLD Health. Due to return to work today, will do what is possible via mobile phone, but in effect on sick leave for probably another week.
20something No 2
Travelled to Gold Coast for surf holiday with friends. Group of three 20somethings all got sick. Lined up and did PCR test. Isolated in hotel and waited five days for positive result, which arrived the day their room booking expired. Due to prior booking, could not extend stay. Decided to drive home to Sydney. Car broke down that night on NSW Mid North Coast. Late night decision to continue with journey, so caught a bus the rest of the way. Continued to isolate in friend’s family house while rest of family away on holiday.
Return to casual employment in childcare delayed by a week.
20something No 3
No3 and partner in country Victoria for new year celebration with plan to return to Melbourne to find work: One in hospitality, one in construction. They moved into inner city share house. Discovered within 24 hours that all household has tested positive either by PCR or RAT. Tried to isolate from housemates. No3 partner felt sick and both queued for PCR test. Later that day, both find RAT and partner came back positive. Later confirmed by PCR. No 3 tests negative.
Hospitality worker in isolation with relatively mild symptoms. Construction worker cannot begin contract work which was to commence today. Neither have income and eligibility for government support uncertain.
Two fewer workers able to participate in the economy during labour shortage.
20something No 4
Junior doctor in inner city teaching hospital who missed family Christmas for which they were originally rostered to be on leave, due to demands and staff shortages. Has worked extra and longer shifts in understaffed hospital with frequent outbreaks on the wards. Began feeling ill this past weekend. Stayed away from work and underwent test, which returned negative on Sunday evening. But, given exposure levels to untested patients who later test positive, “it’s only a matter of time,” according to No 4.
More pressure on public hospital system which is understaffed.
My family will be anything but atypical. These stories are undoubtedly playing out across Australia (with the exception of WA) last week, this, and probably next week. As a family we have the resources to step in where the government and public system fails. But not everyone is in that fortunate position. Over the coming weeks many stories will unfold of people doing it a whole lot tougher.
But so what? What should we learn?
Well, policy settings need to accept:
- We are pretty much now in crisis mode.
- It has become clear that policy settings that are driven by an “open up the economy, come what may” view, will harm both health and (therefore) the economy.
- The imperative to focus on limiting the spread of the virus needs to be reinstated as a matter of urgency. Mask mandates, density limits in public places, cancelling or postponing events involving large crowds are a fundamental start. South Australia has sensible restrictions in place, and seems to be benefiting as a result.
- Not dismissing sensible debate about other options and restrictions. Everyone thinks education is vital, but nuance about how and when to return to school deserves consideration.
- If health is not prioritised, the economy will inevitably be further damaged.
We were riding the “Open the Economy” train for too long. Clearly it is too late to stop the virus, but we can slow it down considerably. Control and contain measures are essential. If we “Let it rip” it will be a disaster from which no one will benefit.
Images: From left: PHAA, Maksym Kozlenko/Wikipedia, and Spelio/Flickr