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Soldiering on with COVID

Over the phone, the person from the Department of Health lists in a hurry all the scientifically documented symptoms of COVID. There is coughing, nausea, fever etc. I’m meant to say ‘Yes’ to those I’ve experienced. But melancholia or grief is not listed. I don’t tell him that three months ago I was standing in a church, feeling very cold even though it was summer. Antony, my 57-year-old cousin (not that much older than myself), was lying in his enclosed casket. The service was brief for a Greek Orthodox funeral. We were all socially distanced, wearing masks, unable to kiss or hug his mourning wife and children. Antony was double vaccinated. He was fit. A security guard who had his own company. He followed the rules. His ‘underlying health issue’ was bronchitis. He had never gone to hospital for bronchial problems, but that night his heart was palpitating, and his breathing was unsteady.

After the funeral, countless flashbacks of Antony standing at the club door with a smile as soon as he sees me, giving me a hug at his daughter’s wedding, small talk about parenting teenagers when we last caught up at our uncle’s 80th. He’s missed by many in the tight-knit Pontian community of Melbourne.

At the funeral, I didn’t see Antony’s wife, Christina. If I did, I may not have recognised her without her long hair and curvaceous body. She was in hospital dealing with Crohn’s disease and COVID. Hospitalised with her husband. She was dismissed after days of immense pain without visitors, after her hair fell out and her considerable weight loss. She used to be a hairdresser with a thriving small business.

This private suffering is in stark contrast to the media outpouring of celebrity gush when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were diagnosed in March 2020. Back then, COVID was considered untamed but now surely our vaccinations will kick in, especially if we’re boosted, right? There are so many of us triple vaccinated, including myself, there’s no denial of science here. However, what’s concerning is the sense of abandonment, or dare I say, neglect, for the masses who are expected to ‘soldier on’ now that we’re ‘triple vaxxed’. It’s as if the unspoken rule is, ‘we’ve armed you, get out there and get on with it’.

But there are still so many questions, including what is considered a mild case of COVID? Why does the impact of COVID still feel random? Why do some get it more than once while others in the same household never get it? Can you tell me whether the variant I have is Delta or Omicron? Do I definitely stop being contagious after seven days? What are my chances of getting long COVID? For these questions there will probably be a scientific answer, but reality for the every-day person is fear, anxiety or sufferance, hardly indifference.

At the funeral, some of my cousins were missing. They had COVID and were isolating. A brother and sister in their 50s. The brother, Mihali, is a bus driver for students with a disability. His symptoms were comparable to having a serious flu. He was bedridden for days and unable to work for over a month. His sister, Sofia, was also unwell but not as bad as the first time she got it in May 2020. This was before being fully vaccinated and when she needed to be hospitalised.

 

'Whether experts predict a plateau or a peak in the next coming weeks, has no bearing on the individual and collective experience of uncertainty, frustration and dread. There’s an injustice to so many who are in need of financial support, let alone psychological, to protect themselves from an unpredictable virus.'

 

The person from the Department of Health asks me whether I have the following pre-existing health conditions, then proceeds to list them quickly — diabetes, cancer, autoimmune deficiencies, lung disease… I can hardly keep up my ‘No’ to each. At the end, I truthfully say I have a neurological disorder, it’s called multiple schwannomatosis. I don’t think he notes it as he doesn’t ask for its spelling.

I don’t recall being asked by the Department officer how do you think you got it? There certainly wasn’t a list of places proffered: workplace, school, visiting, indoor event, outdoor event…Would this be useful to know? I think it’s worth documenting that most of the people I know who have COVID have children. The past two years, aged care settings were scenes of panic and drama. And now we have school principals informing us about the never-ending list of positive cases from every classroom, the constant rescheduling of exams and the scuffling to find casual teachers. It was despairing to virtually meet a teacher during parent-teacher conferencing who was suffering from long COVID. She said she was going to beat it and get back to school, but there was no confidence emanating from her.

Back at home, my oldest teenager is racked with coughing, feeling very tired and has ‘the shivers’. Not long after, my partner experiences the same symptoms, as do I. All three of us test positive, except for the youngest member of the family. The 16-year-old receives a negative and it is he who has severe asthma (in the past requiring hospitalisation). So, he remains locked in his bedroom for seven days, only coming out when necessary. We wear the N95 masks around him. Put on food handling gloves when making food.

Over the course of a week, the three of us with COVID go through various individual trials. My son battles night sweats and coughing that pummels his lungs. Although I’ve never used Ventolin in my life, one night I’m not breathing well. My partner hands it to me and I inhale 16 puffs. I sleep in a vertical position from then on. My partner finds it hard to get out of bed. There’s pain in his chest that stops him from sleeping.

Telling my parents that I can’t visit them takes its toll on their mental health and mine. My father has reached a point where he would choose a COVID infected visit from me and my children over another day of isolation. But I can’t live with the risk, so I stay away and hope his other carer can manage.

We are told by the government and associated authorities that these are times of ‘personal responsibility’. This is undoubtedly a major transition from the heavy regulated existence not that long ago when the collective good outweighed individualism. Juxtaposed with this ‘forging forth’ expectation is the significant, if not alarming, increase in infection rates — at 18 April 2022, active cases across Australia are 396,367, deaths 6,786 and hospitalised 3,150 compared to six months ago, 18 November 2021, active cases 17,335, deaths 1,907 and hospitalised 598. And yet, financial assistance such as the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment has been reduced and is becoming difficult to receive with ineligibility if one has ‘liquid assets’ greater than $10,000. It’s hoped that the Medicare supported telephone consultations with GPs and Other Medical Officer, and in-person visits to Psychologists/Counsellors are extended beyond 30 June this year.

Whether experts predict a plateau or a peak in the next coming weeks, has no bearing on the individual and collective experience of uncertainty, frustration and dread. There’s an injustice to so many who are in need of financial support, let alone psychological, to protect themselves from an unpredictable virus. Surely a middle-ground that steps in to support the most vulnerable as they remain in isolation is warranted. Messages of empathy, compassion and interest for the current impacts of COVID are greatly missing from the public sphere.

Note: names have been altered to protect the privacy of those mentioned.

 

 


 

Angela Costi is an essayist, poet and reviewer with a background in law, social justice and community development. Her fifth poetry collection is An Embroidery of Old Maps and New and with Angela Bailey, she co-authored the community book Relocated – a tribute to tenants, Kensington Public Housing Estate.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration. 

Topic tags: Angela Costi, Covid, Isolation, Uncertainty, Pandemic

 

 

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Existing comments

I'm glad you've voiced these concerns, Angela, because there seems to have been a deafening silence around the soaring statistics, a tacit agreement among those in authority to ignore them and hope they'll go away; which is in stark contrast to responses in the past, and is not anyone's idea of an adequate response to the present critical situation. It's not only the general populace that is feeling the heat, but the overworked and frequently overlooked frontline healthcare workers, who get no respite and bear the brunt of this protracted crisis in public health.


Jena Woodhouse | 26 April 2022  

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