We have adjusted to pandemic normal
Paying people to isolate is a very expensive way to slow down a virus if far more basic precautions are not being taken. Yet there is no longer much public appetite for enforced mask wearing, far less a return to the interminable lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
Vaccination has changed the sense of personal danger for all except the very vulnerable.
Masks must be worn on international flights, but no longer at Sydney or Melbourne airports. Mask wearing is mandatory on Sydney’s trains and buses, but often ignored.
Objectively the infection numbers are grim. But the perception of risk among the public is changing fast, and the politics of the pandemic with it.
Eleven thousand Australians in total have died from the virus. Almost 9000 of them have died in the seven months or so since Christmas. That’s right in the period when lockdowns were being phased out, alongside the lionising of state premiers for slamming their borders shut at each handful of new cases.
The current daily average virus death toll of 60 would have caused waves of panic back in the time of daily press conferences by premiers. Now these individual tragedies pass with little public notice or drama.
During this time total cases have soared from 400,000 at the end of December – when the death toll stood at 2200 – to a staggering 9 million now, running at 44,000 a day.
Hospitalisations are surging again. Yet, although many hospital staff are undoubtedly struggling, the number of patients in intensive care at any one time is far below earlier peaks. The health system is not collapsing.
A silent killer that largely stalks the old
Vaccination has changed the sense of personal danger for all except the very vulnerable. COVID-19 has become a silent killer that largely stalks the old, like the heart disease that’s all around us.
But people are also now much better at recalibrating risks themselves, and that is critical. There are noticeable shadow lockdowns, where people stay away from city centres and entertainment without being told.
It is clear that mask wearing has become habitual for many, if not all. Masks do not prevent anyone from catching the virus, but they do stop those with asymptomatic infections from spreading the disease.
Many people are now set up to work from home and will do so as they feel the need. But it is not how humans are meant to operate, and fragmented and atomised workforces are not effective in the long run.
Many unions and big employers still feel they have to encourage people to work at home. But, significantly, the ACTU’s Sally McManus points out in AFR Weekend that there are downsides to seclusion at home, particularly for women.
As the virus has adapted, so has the public. Australians are now readier to take their own precautions, and forcing them is counterproductive. Where the government can act quickly is encouraging the 5 million Australians who have not had a third jab to get one. The third or fourth vaccinations offer significant added protection.
But there is no case – and no support – for a return to lockdowns. Even this omicron resurgence simply does not warrant it.