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The return of the invisible worm

  • 27 July 2022
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