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Look back at who we’ve left behind

  • 18 November 2021
The abrupt change in public attitudes to the threat of COVID calls to mind an earthy Cambodian proverb. It describes someone who has begged a boat ride across a river and then goes on his way without thanking or paying the boatman. Roughly translated the proverb says, ‘Flash your bum and say good-bye’.

Rivers, of course, need to be crossed. But human decencies also need to be observed. In dealing with COVID we have passed from restriction of movement and association, insistence on masks, closure of shops and focusing on testing, tracing and isolating with a consequent highlighting of the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. We have entered a world of enhanced freedoms and a focus on vaccination as a condition of participation in freedom.

This transition has been welcomed and is necessary. It corresponds to the effectiveness of vaccination. It will also lead to increasing economic activity and the opportunity for more people to work. The decision to change course was not taken with complete freedom. It became unavoidable in the larger states where the spread of the Delta variant, combined with an increasingly impatient and rebellious public response, outpaced the capacity of testing and tracing to eradicate it.

Desirable and inevitable as the change has been, however, it has also been disconcertingly abrupt in the way we have been encouraged to turn our backs on the attitudes and people that commanded our attention previously. Comment on the daily COVID statistics now highlights the percentage of the population vaccinated. This is the key to the further relaxing of restrictions. The number of cases receives less attention than they did in earlier coverage of the virus. Nor are the age, proportion of people infected, hospitalised and in intensive care in different parts of the State publicised.

These changes may seem insignificant, but their effect is to increase the anonymity of those affected by the virus. They make the faces of people more distant and less human, reducing them from persons to statistics. The lack of public concern at the number of prisoners who have contracted COVID, and at the mass infection of people seeking protection from Australia who have been locked up in a Melbourne hotel, confirms the impression that we have moved on.

Governments now emphasise how important double vaccination is for society and its health services as society becomes less restricted. They move to make full vaccination a condition of social participation.