When it comes to Covid, Australia must confront reality – not choose between extremes – The Guardian

‘Post-pandemic’ life smacks of denial, but a practical approach means revisiting public health measures as well as investing in long-term change
It finally got me: double lines on a Rat, summoning 24 hours of denial and then a week of surrender to the global plague that has stopped the world in its tracks.
In my Covid fug I contented myself that I was not 10 years older, or immunocompromised, or a person with a disability, at the same time praying I would not become one of the one in 20 who draw the short straw in long-Covid Lotto.
As I gave myself over to the virus, the death toll in Australia jumped over the 10,000 mark, a remarkable increase of almost 8,000 since the start of the year, although a mere drop in the ocean compared with the official global death toll of 6.35 million.
Nine months ago, a death count at this level was considered overwhelmingly untenable and, according to the latest Guardian Essential report, Australians say they are still not prepared to countenance such loss of life.
And yet this is exactly what we are accepting.
While the Covid-zero mindset that the majority of Australians held in August 2021 has been mitigated somewhat, there are still only one in 10 of us who say we are prepared to accept the truth we now objectively confront.
This mismatch in what we say we are ready to accept and what we are actually confronting speaks to a broader ennui in our engagement with the most significant global event of our collective lives.
This silence is not just applied to the dead; so much of “post-pandemic” life smacks of denial – the city precincts open but empty of people, hospitals in terminal logjam, airlines operating but not really flying.
Much like my own Covid experience, we appear stuck in a dream-like state: somewhere between the fairytale that life will simply go back to normal and the nightmare of ongoing cycles of emergency lockdowns.
Surely part of the problem lies in the very extremes of these two totally unrealistic propositions: absolute freedom or ongoing state control of physical movement.
Of course, the only way to deal with Covid is to embrace the space between these extremes, otherwise known as “confronting reality”.
Reality not only requires embracing sensible and proportionate measures to slow the spread of mutations, it also demands us to confront our over-reliance on global supply chains, imported fossil fuels and an international labour market.
This is the challenge our new government faces, after watching from the sidelines as its predecessor dealt with the initial shock of a new pandemic and then the growing realisation that the virus was not something that could simply be wished away.
The former government was at its best when it chose to confront reality, closing borders, following public health advice, guaranteeing the incomes of workers, ensuring the most needy were not forgotten.
Where it crashed was when it started playing games, picking winners with vaccines, pitting states against each other and, most egregiously, jumping too fast to declare “mission accomplished” at the end of 2021, just as new waves of the virus were taking hold.
For the Albanese government, a reality-based approach starts with the basic public health measures that have served us well: revisiting the need for mask mandates in higher-risk settings, rolling out further vaccines and making clear that personal freedoms come with collective responsibilities.
A separate question in this week’s report shows the public is still onside with these approaches.
The majority of respondents support mask mandates and fourth boosters, though not in the overwhelming numbers that built a Covid consensus through 2020/21. We are concerned about our hospitals but conflicted about the severity of the virus.
The responses also show some fundamental inconsistency. Two thirds of respondents, for whom the current death rate is untenable, also believe that we just need to get on with life and treat Covid like another form of flu.
A reality-based approach to the pandemic goes beyond the public health measures; it also recognises that pandemics seek out and exploit other points of weakness and fairytales that we indulge in.
This requires long-term planning for our health system, our labour market, our border security and quarantine, recognising that the only way to avoid future lockdowns is to build more resilience into systems that have for too long worshipped the gods of efficiency.
Again, the politics of our times suit the project: Australians say they want more investment in health, they want local manufacturing and supply chains, jobs that are more secure and better paid, and a transition to renewable energy.
But the dream-like quality around these debates persists, with public discourse shackled to a neoliberal orthodoxy that prioritises “budget repair”, that casts taxes as a “burden”, that sees the economy as a series of levers to be pulled rather than more profound choices to be made.
Here lies our 2022 Covid challenge: having drastically changed our personal behaviour to deal with an external shock, can we change our collective baselines to ensure we never need to take such drastic, damaging action to protect ourselves from ourselves again?
This, more than anything, will determine whether we are really capable of living with Covid.
Peter Lewis will discuss the latest Essential Report with Guardian Australian political editor Katharine Murphy and Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett at 1pm today. Free registration here.


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