Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Look back at who we’ve left behind


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. This is justifiable. Like social distancing and isolation in the earlier days of COVID, vaccination should be commended as an expression of decency and fraternity undertaken out of responsibility to others in society. It is now promoted, however, less as an act of benevolence to people who are vulnerable than as an entitlement to the expensive sporting events, to restaurants, to air travel and other privileges that only the relatively wealthy can afford.


'We should above all address the growing gulf between the very wealthy and the insecure poor.'


The risk inherent in such promotion is that it will create a further gap between the well off and the poor, between those to whom society has been kind and the alienated, between the able in mind and body and those with disabilities, between those in their own homes and those homeless or in institutions, and between those in majority and those in minority groups. The virus and the restrictions in response to it have already expanded this gap. In this context double vaccination certificates and vaccination passports risk being seen as certificates of merit that divide the worthy from the worthless.

When we turn away from the boat after it has crossed the river, as eventually we must, we owe it to those whom we are leaving behind to imagine their names and faces. At the beginning of the COVID crisis we held in our minds people in nursing homes and other institutions. We also honoured those working in health care and other occupations that put them at risk. We lived with the restrictions because we knew that carelessness could lead to the death of someone else’s grandmother. When Delta first came, we also saw the faces of people at risk. They lived in areas with limited government services, reliant on poorly paid and unprotected work, and with many people with immigrant backgrounds reliant on their community groups for news and support. They were more likely to be afraid of vaccination and less trusting of government advice. For these reasons they are also less likely to be double vaccinated.

For society to turn its back in scorn or condemnation on people who are vulnerable would be callous. It would also be self-destructive. They are canaries in the mine, witnesses to the divisions and vulnerabilities in a society that prizes wealth and status. We should not need them to remind us in another crisis that the most valuable work in society is performed by the least well remunerated and least securely employed people. Nor should we have to rediscover that they, together with people who are homeless, unemployed and forced to live in penury, are the most likely to be vulnerable to catch and spread disease.

To look back can also shape the path forward. It suggests that we should address the biases and the weaknesses that COVID revealed. We should ensure that the people on whom we rely to support society when it is under pressure have secure and decently remunerated work. We should also resource our health systems with an emphasis on the prevention of disease. We should above all address the growing gulf between the very wealthy and the insecure poor.

We may turn our back on those who carried us across the river without another thought. But they will catch up with us with gifts of health or illness.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Male nurse pushing senior man on wheelchair at hospital corridor (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Covid-19, public health, vaccination, wealth inequality



submit a comment

Existing comments

The playwright John Osborne transformed British theatre with his explosive play "Look Back in Anger". Osborne described his plays as "lessons in feeling" but critics were not always so kind. We are still living through the COVID epidemic although restrictions have eased. The virus did not discriminate; however the most vulnerable in society were certainly at increased risk and we learned the value of workers who are not remunerated properly. The most compassionate response is always to think about the most defenceless in our society and never to deliberately turn our backs but present ourselves to each other.

Pam | 18 November 2021  

Hi Andrew, we all deserve the protection of the Constitution. We all deserve the right to freedom of choice, to promote the societasl use of an unverified vaccine (generally takes 10 years to verify safe use) is a major concern, the ramifications for may be around for generations. Ultimately what is Covid 19? It is a real virus. It is a plethera of issues. But there was one man in Australia who could have closed that divide, Nikoli Petrovsky an Australian Giant of a man. Lost his position because he refused to take the Jab, how uttelry foolish and blind sided as a society have we become, and weak. Some details of a most admirable man.
"director of endocrinology at flinders medical centre with a conjoint position as professor of medicine at flinders university, nikolai petrovsky is also vice-president and secretary-general of the international immunomics society. active in diabetes, endocrinology and vaccine research, he is the founder of vaxine, a company funded by the us national institutes of health to develop novel vaccine technologies. in 2009 vaxine won the amp innovation award at the telstra business awards and australia's coolest company award from australian anthill magazine. nikolai petrovsky has developed vaccines against influenza, hepatitis b, sting allergy, malaria, japanese encephalitis, rabies and hiv, has authored over 90 papers and chapters and is a regular invited speaker at international vaccine conferences.

Bachelor of Medical Science (University of Tasmania), 1979
Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), University of Tasmania, 1982
Fellowship, Australian Institute of Company Directors (FAICD) 1990
Fellowship, Royal Australasian College of Physicians (FRACP) 1994
PhD, University of Melbourne, 1998
Graduate Certificate in Education Studies, University of Sydney, 2002" (Flinders University Web Site)

Peter Sumner | 19 November 2021  
Show Responses

And your point, Peter, is? Don't scientists sometimes, like everybody else, 'lose it'? The tide of epidemiological opinion, much of it as lofty as Nikoli Petrovsky's, disagreed with him. Where public health is concerned, as Andy is saying, its the most vulnerable (i.e. those in immediate or proximate danger of losing their lives) who should come first. Isn't that what the 'Preferential Option for the Poor' is? And shouldn't that principle require a sacrifice to be made by the rest of us?

Michael Furtado | 19 November 2021  

‘But they will catch up with us with gifts of health or illness.’

So, which is truer love, love before the Fall, when love is not a transaction because to love costs nothing (and the organism, although possessing the free will not to love, loves because there is no incentive not to love), or after the Fall when the incentive to love is a barter of love-for-safety because not to love costs something?

Is a love propelled by incentive really love? Is loving for its own sake a love which is propelled by the incentive of itself?

This goes to show that there must be an underpinning rationality that determines what love is, otherwise how can you say that love is shown by a specific stance on vaccination, or on a mode of sexual activity?

roy chen yee | 19 November 2021  

I like Cambodia, I didn't catch too many ferries there nor bare my bum afterwards but reckon the proverb conflicts with the caution of "burning bridges", also, today the ferry terminals are surrounded by spruikers with two way radios to alert that passengers are coming; you'll be paying the fare before you get on board...and paying extra if there's only one ferry and you're in a hurry. While I'm not an antivaxer I am inclined to observe Peter's comment how the vaccine approval was rushed and that the government also passed laws such that the individuals right to sue for malpractice or damages are similarly waived by those who receive the vaccine. We can see graphs every day demonstrating the percentage of vaccinated and draw some assumptions on who isn't or why they're hesitant. Perhaps the unconventional wisdom in hesitancy is them risking a period of unvaxed exposure but waiting for any side effects to become evident or waiting for the waiver to be tested or removed...or maybe its as simple as being given a free camper van to isolate in and drive around. You might get a lollypop when you get a shot but you could get a Winnebago if you don't.

ray | 19 November 2021  

Peter Sumner. Real doctors don't refuse to be vaccinated - their interests serve others not themselves - thank goodness. Covid vaccine has been developed by many very highly qualified and highly regarded medical scientists around the world who know the rules and the risks of what they are doing and were committed to balancing that against a deadly uncontrolled virus capable of wiping out millions of people. They have done a remarkable job and provided a great service to humanity, faithful to their shared covenant as doctors in the Hippocratic tradition.

john frawley | 20 November 2021  

You've got 'the right to freedom of choice' Peter but not the right to put the rest of us in danger. You want the benefits of living in a society rather than grubbing out your own existence in the scrub? Then think about your responsibility to society.

Ginger Meggs | 22 November 2021  

Similar Articles

Religious discrimination laws coming to the boil

  • Frank Brennan
  • 17 November 2021

It’s four years since the Australian Parliament amended the Marriage Act 1961 to provide that marriage means ‘the union of two people to the exclusion of all others’. The legislation followed the plebiscite on same sex marriage. To address the concerns of some religious groups, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull set up an expert panel chaired by long time Liberal Party minister Philip Ruddock to report on whether Australian law adequately protected the human right to freedom of religion. 


How the illicit drug trade helped the spread of Covid

  • Stephen Lawrence
  • 16 November 2021

A truth that virtually dares not speak its name is that the spread of Covid 19 into regional New South Wales was largely a product of the illicit drug trade. Understanding why and how this occurred points in the direction of much needed social policy.