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The return of the invisible worm


Over recent weeks many people have expressed alarm and despondence at the rising number of infections and deaths from COVID. Just as we were enjoying freedom from restrictions we found ourselves encouraged to work from home if possible and to wear masks. The crisis and the recommendations recall the first onset of COVID in Australia. Yet the response of Governments is much less forceful. The differences between the responses and the reasons for them merit reflection.

When COVID first began to spread rapidly the response was strong and peremptory. State Governments took control, passed emergency regulations, prescribed masks in most social situations, enforced quarantine and isolation, forced people to work from home unless in essential occupations, closed borders, promoted and in many cases mandated vaccination when it became available, limited travel from home and visits to people in nursing homes, and policed these regulations forcibly.

In acting so strongly State Premiers deferred to the advice of epidemiologists in their health departments service and gave them a public profile. They also emphasised that the virus posed to a serious threat to the health and lives of elderly people and that it endangered the health system.  For this reason they gave it priority over economic activity. They published the number of people who were in hospital and intensive care, and gave information about the age, gender and suburb of each person who had died from the virus. The choreography of the response to the virus represented the virus as a threat to each person, and especially to the elderly. It generally enlisted the whole population in self-sacrificing care for vulnerable members of the community, while also emphasising the penalties for non-compliance.

The response to the current spread of the virus has been far less dramatic. Governments have recommended but not prescribed working from home, wearing masks and serial vaccination. They have not restricted movement, visits to nursing homes, nor numbers of people in churches, pubs and public events. The police no longer enforce compliance but only peaceful conduct at protests. Police no longer enforce compliance with regulations except in response to violent protests. Premiers no longer stoically give daily press conferences accompanied by expert authorities; health departments give little more statistical information than the number of deaths. Medical doctors have been the ones to insist most strongly about the threat that the rapidly changing virus poses to human lives and to the health system. The choreography has represented an invitation to be ‘alert but not alarmed’ and to take modest precautions.


'As are people forced to live through prolonged wars we are weary and frustrated with the persistence of Covid. As it has been for them, too, the best response is to think of others.'


It would be easy to explain the difference in attitude and response to the virus either by blaming the earlier government actions for wrecking the economy by its over-reaction, or by blaming today’s governments for neglecting the life of vulnerable people in their search for economic growth. Such judgments, however, would neglect significant changes over the three years of life with the virus.

First, when the virus first began to spread we knew something of how epidemics spread and how to curtail the spread, but knew little about the Coronavirus and its behaviour. Nor did we have a guarantee of effective vaccines. Now we have learned much about the virus, have identified more precisely its threat to health and life and have developed vaccines against it. We have also learned how the virus can mutate to increase its capacity to infect and to evade vaccines. As a result we cannot hope to suppress it or to achieve group immunity. Vaccination, however, does seem to limit the severity of infection by the virus. In short the virus now presents a more defined threat, but this threat will be one we shall need and be able to live with. It will also change unpredictably as the virus mutates.

Second, we now appreciate more clearly the effects of our earlir response to the virus. Early warnings about the corrosive effects of isolation and the loss of income on physical and mental health have largely been substantiated. People in nursing homes, those who are unemployed and young people have been particularly vulnerable. The effects of home study on children’s growth and social development have also become evident. Many people also have expressed concern that the heavy reliance of on-line teaching will prevent hinder school and university students from reaching their educational goals and will leave them less prepared to enter the workforce. 

What we have learned about the virus and its effects argues that we should both encourage social connection and protect vulnerable people. These goals are in tension with one another.

Third, even though Covid is not over with us, the majority of the population is totally over with Covid. They no longer tolerate restriction. We want to be done with it, to be free from the lesser restriction of beathing through masks and the greater restrictions on meetings, on travel and on commerce, and on mixing with workmates and friends. Those entrusted with enforcing restrictions are also weary of the thankless tasks that take them from their proper work. To enforce restrictions on a sullen society would be laborious and would meet active and passive resistance.

Finally, the need for a strong economy is now evident. It is needed to provide employment and to meet the challenges of building a fair society. These include caring for the vulnerable and ensuring education, health and other programs. The economic challenge is intensified by the war in Ukraine and tension with China, as well as by the endemic debt and inequality. To give attention to the economy does not imply giving it priority over the life and welfare of vulnerable people, but setting economic relationships within the broader human relationships involved in seeking the common good. If Covid reigns unchecked both people and the economy will suffer.

I do not think that the current response of governments to Covid gets this balance right. They effectively get on with business to the neglect of people who are vulnerable. When lives are at stake, as they are when the virus spreads so rapidly, it is doubly important for governments to highlight the human faces of those affected by it. That is the human reality of the pandemic. They should at least present more details of people who die from Covid and are in intensive care, including their age and suburb or institution in which they live.

In the present and future crises caused by large numbers of infections and deaths governments should use the bully pulpit of exhortation and example to encourage people to adopt the normal precautions that lessen the rate of transmission and of the hospitalisation and death that go with it. These will include embracing the minor discomforts of restrictions such as wearing masks in public and working from home where possible, not because we are forced to do so but are invited to do so as self-sacrifice for the good of others. As are people forced to live through prolonged wars we are weary and frustrated with the persistence of Covid. As it has been for them, too, the best response is to think of others.     





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

Main image: A man wearing a protective face mask walks past an illustration of a virus.  (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Covid-19, Pandemic, Restrictions, Government



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Existing comments

I’m frightened, still, about Covid. Even with the intensity of response by governments over the past couple of years now less rigorous I continue to feel the death rate is too high to be complacent. Of course, we are tired of restrictions and want our ‘normal’ life back. However, the vulnerable are the ones who are paying for our freedom. I believe it is a small concession to wear a mask, to be fully vaccinated and to work from home if possible.

Pam | 28 July 2022  

I totally endorse your comments.I am a 70+ year old, who is currently undergoing Chemotherapy for Gastric Cancer . As such my Immune system is severely compromised. On the rare occasions I go out from the security of my residence, I see the individualism of people blatantly displayed in shopping centres and other venues where people gather to shop or meet socially.One would be led to believe from these observations that the Pandemic is over and we can return to "the good old days" of freedom and minimal restraint on what we wish to do. This is very far from the truth. As a former Army Medic, I was well educated in the risks of these pandemics, as we were operating in Vietnam where viruses were/are rampant, yet little was known about the full clinical nature of them 50 years ago.
I note with dismay the removal of public advice that was formerly dispensed by Chief Medical Officers almost daily in the early stages of the Pandemic.Now all we hear is the smoothing mantra of the politicians that all is well; we don't need mandatory restrictions any more. Reliance on Vaccines as some sort of panacea is sorely misplaced as more people of my age die from the Virus than any other age group and our medical and hospital facilities are overwhelmed.
Its time that politicians and vested interests, like businesses and other non medical operaters realize that a society's well being is vastly more important than a 'make believe' human invention called the "Economy"!
Lets see the CMO's appearing again at daily press briefings and ALL the data released plus a vigorous media bliz to inform society of the true state of affairs. Otherwise unnecessary deaths, trauma and grief for departed loved ones will continue to afflict those of us most at risk.

Gavin O'Brien | 28 July 2022  

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