It’s been a little over two years since NSW, followed by Victoria, plunged into a bleak lockdown. Following an outbreak in Bondi, cases soon spread across Sydney and then the state, pushing leaders to implement 5km radiuses and the closure of retail and hospitality venues. For over three months, Sydney waited it out.
After the so-called ‘freedom day’, 11 October 2021, normality didn’t immediately return. There were mask requirements, border closures, and the looming threat of another lockdown. Many said we moved too quickly to ‘get back into the pub’, sacrificing the health of the community to stop the economy from tanking.
But, as time passed, the approach of ‘well, we’re all vaccinated, what more can we do’ eventually won out. People stopped tuning into the daily COVID case numbers, ignored warnings of new variants, and eventually left their masks at home. The big scary thing that dominated all of our lives faded into the background.
Two years on from those darkest of times, it seems like the pandemic was one bad collective fever dream. No one talks about COVID any more. No one wants to be reminded of mask mandates, social distancing, and the army rifling through the shopping bags of people in ‘LGAs of concern’. Even Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, set in the early days of COVID, was shudder-inducing. Any time ‘the pandemic’ is mentioned, there’s a collective nodding and a passing over in silence.
Disability researcher Auden Granger had a tweet go viral last year on the collective trauma of the pandemic that captures some of why we don’t simply want to not talk about this time — we want to erase it.
me in 2019: why did nobody write about the influenza pandemic in the 1920s? why don't we see anything about spanish flu in music and art and literature of the time? why is it like this unnamed, forgotten historical event not present in the cultural products?
me in 2022: oh, sure
— ok give me a second (@audendum) November 19, 2022
“Intellectually I understood the roaring twenties before, you know, everyone basking in glitz and celebrity and hedonism and fancy parties and living fast and risky, but I didn’t really understand it until I lived a pandemic and watched the weird trauma effects it has generated,” she wrote.
She’s not the first person to point this out. Authors like Nancy Bristow and Alfred Cosby have written on the seemingly ‘forgotten’ pandemic that the world went through in 1918. Far more deadly than COVID and with far fewer medical resources to draw upon, it’s no wonder that those people, too, simply wanted to forget it ever happened.
Author Brigid Delaney described it last year as the ‘social death’ of the pandemic, borrowing from medical historian Dr Jeremy Greene. She notes that people partially willed the pandemic away, shifting from fear to abandon “so very, very quickly.”
“[It’s] fascinating to watch from a sociological perspective (or horrifying, if you are vulnerable or immunocompromised),” she wrote.
COVID Is Still Here
But wanting and reality are two very different things. As we were warned at the start of the pandemic, COVID is likely to be with us forever. How we react, or not, to the virus, is what changes.
Just over three years after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the virus was no longer a “public health emergency of international concern.” It was a symbolic ending to the pandemic, although some described it as more of a surrender than a victory.
Between January 2021 and April 2023, deaths from COVID worldwide slowed from 100,000 to 3,500. In the past week, the WHO records just 147 deaths from COVID. This is far fewer than those who die from the flu, which many health bodies have started to bundle with COVID statistics.
“However, that does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat,” Tedros said.
Indeed, new variants are emerging all the time. The latest of these, termed ‘Eris’ after the Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord, has recently been labelled a “variant of interest” by the WHO. It’s thought to be more transmissible than other variants, including Omicron, but there’s no evidence to say it’s more deadly.
Eris will likely just enter the soup of COVID variants currently making their way around the world and being partly to blame for the reason why everyone seems to be ill at the moment.
Health authorities were warning back in May that this year’s flu season would be a particularly bad one, with COVID and RSV thrown into the mix for good measure. On Monday, Dr Norman Swan was on ABC News telling the nation that it’s not all in your head and that everyone really is sick right now.
With the current crop of COVID variants bringing on symptoms of a cough, lethargy, headaches, runny noses, and a general feeling of being run down, it’s incredibly hard to tell exactly what’s making us all ill. COVID, or at least the way we treat it, has just become like any other illness.
Can’t Tell If You Don’t Test
On average, Australia is seeing something like 700-800 new COVID cases each day. You probably didn’t notice it, but there was a small wave at the end of May where almost 6,000 new cases were recorded each day.
Accurate numbers are however hard to come by as, by and large, Australia has broadly stopped testing. Since the start of July, Victoria no longer records Rapid Antigen Test results. NSW also scrapped ad-hoc PCR testing entirely in April after Health Minister Mark Butler wound down testing in December last year. Currently, it’s only those admitted for in-patient care in hospitals, people in ‘at risk’ groups, and some in residential homes who are receiving tests, if a medical practitioner decides that they need one.
At our peak, during Christmas in 2021, Australia recorded nearly 300,000 PCR tests a day. Before we stopped making testing data publically available at the start of the year, we were only doing around 20,000.
These numbers are for PCR testing and, although we still have RATs, their effectiveness has been questioned. The latest Therapeutic Goods Administration review of 92 different RAT rests available in Australia found that 79 of those were able to detect Delta and Omicron variants. Given that most new variants, including Eris, appear to be in the Omicron family, RATs should still be effective at detecting COVID.
That said, there is international data that has shown that some RAT tests were unable to detect newer variants when viral load is low.
With a single RAT often selling for $10 or more at the local chemist, and very little incentive to test outside of general moral decency, it’s little wonder that people aren’t testing.
While much of the country has simply moved on, there are others whose risk profile means that they can’t just take it in their stride as the rest of us do. Indeed, such blasé attitudes to the virus are not only infuriating but downright offensive to those for whom the virus could still do serious harm.
In Australia, it’s estimated that roughly 3% of the population is immunocompromised. In addition, between 5 and 10% of people who caught the virus have gone on to develop long COVID. For these people, re-infection risks exacerbating their symptoms.
This adds up to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who will be living in fear of the virus forever.
One of those people, US novelist Madeline Miller, has recently written about the experience of trying to avoid COVID in a world where health authorities appear to have turned their backs on its impression. Having contracted long COVID, she talks of every day being a struggle to do basic tasks.
“Those of us who are high-risk or immunocompromised, or who just don’t want to roll the dice on death and misery, have not only been left behind — we’re being actively mocked and pathologized,” she wrote in The Washington Post.
“Acquaintances who were understanding in the beginning are now irritated, even offended. One demanded: How long are you going to do this? As if trying to avoid covid was an attack on her.
“How long am I going to do this? Until indoor air is safe for all, until vaccines prevent transmission, until there’s a cure for long COVID… The truth is that however immortal we feel, we are all just one infection away from a new life.”
During the pandemic, we all understood that lockdowns weren’t sustainable. At some point, we would have to emerge from them and learn to ‘live with the virus’. Just when that point would be was dependent on a state’s ability to sustain a lockdown.
Many countries, like our neighbour to the north, had no support in place for their citizens. People were locked down in Indonesia and dozens of similar countries with little to no government support. For them, lockdown and the real risk of starvation or long-term poverty were more of a risk than the virus, so lockdowns were quickly scorned and the virus did its worst. Other countries, like China, pursued ‘zero COVID’ policies long after the rest of the world, and the result was mass civil unrest that threatened to topple the government.
In Australia, we were able to maintain population protections for long enough to vaccinate the population — barring the false starts and lax hotel quarantine. Each state and territory set its own levels of vaccination it deemed safe before lockdowns could be lifted and it was a race to get to those numbers. Publically, we fought and admonished those who wouldn’t get the vaccine, blaming them for our continued imprisonment. On the other side of the debate, a new subset of people emerged, those for whom no level of risk was appropriate.
Just as there are still those fighting to be heard over the side effects of the vaccines, the COVID-cautious, COVID-conscious, or Zero-COVID people, are, for a variety of reasons, still operating personal lockdowns. Online, there are dozens of groups where people share tips, advice, and support for those seeking the best 3M nasal filtration plugs,
These are people who pour over scientific papers for validation of just how damaging COVID can be. They are quadruple vaccinated and mask up at all times. Their children are still homeschooled and they rarely meet anyone outside of the fellow COVID-cautious.
It’s hard to find accurate, up-to-date information on these people. The Zero COVID Community subreddit has 7,300 members while one study in the UK found that 13% of people classified as clinically vulnerable were still shielding in July of last year. Those people, the study found, were predominantly women, predominantly white, and had an average age of 40. They were also found to be twice as anxious as the general population and growing increasingly agitated about the virus.
“Fear is a rational response to a virus,” the authors of that study writes.
“Given the level of distress we’ve seen in our research, it’s important these groups are recognised and properly supported. Indeed, we know that the more a person avoids something anxiety-provoking (for example, having contact with others), the more distressing the prospect of doing it will be.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, few of us expected there would be a physically and psychologically vulnerable group still indoors two and a half years later, and bearing an incredible personal burden. But there is, and we must do better to address their needs now and in the future”.
What Happens to COVID?
Now that COVID has, in large part, become a little spoken about but constantly lingering part of daily life, the government is meant to be gearing up to reflect on how we dealt with the pandemic.
A COVID-19 inquiry was promised by Anthony Albanese when he was in opposition and yet he has been dragging his feet on such an investigation. It’s thought that neither side of the House want their actions scrutinised, given Labor controlled most of the states and territories and the Coalition led the national approach.
The results are also likely to be largely negative. One review into vaccine procurement found that Australia’s “Pre-pandemic structures and processes were not fit for purpose in an emergency context.” The recommendations of that review have yet to be implemented.
While we wait for a broad Royal Commission into the pandemic, we make do with a Parliamentary report, handed down in April, into long COVID. That report spurred the government to pledge $50 million in new support for long COVID research, but its key recommendation for a national inquiry is yet to materialise.
It seems as though the government, like most of us, is keen to forget the pandemic ever happened. But for many, it’s never going to be far from their minds. And COVID will not be the last major disease with a global impact we see in our lifetimes. As humans encroach further on natural habitat, bringing exotic animals into close quarters with ourselves, the threat of another inter-species transmission grows.
Although it’s easier to maintain sanity in forgetting, doing so is unlikely to bring us lasting comfort.