Australia's deadliest day and the death of caring

Why we no longer care about COVID-19 deaths

In the first year of the pandemic, 900 Australians lost their lives to COVID-19. Most of those lives were taken when Australians lacked the armour of vaccination, and 800 were from Victoria's second wave.

By early this year, the total deaths across the nation had risen to 3330.

It's unclear - and, indeed, it may never be known - how many of those people succumbed to the seemingly mild Omicron variant, which was unleashed on the community in the final weeks of the year.

What is known, however, is that in the first 26 days of this year, another 1095 Australians have died from COVID-19.

That's another 1095 grieving families, another 1095 lives cut short, they're individual stories abruptly ended, another 1095 people who would be alive, were it not for COVID-19.

On current estimates, COVID-19 could claim the final breath of another thousand, or more, Australians by February's end.

And yet, the mood is sanguine.

Where once as many five deaths was enough to unnerve the community, now more than 80 can be announced - along with a footnote that the figure marks our deadliest day ever - and we hardly blink.

Instead, we comfort ourselves when ICU numbers drop by 10, even if it owes to the overnight deaths of 20 people. We celebrate the availability of more beds, even though their most recent occupants are probably lying in the morgue.

What's changed? What accounts for the general sense of apathy within the community?

Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole said much of our seeming desensitisation to COVID mortality stems from the way in which government frames the deaths.

As a general rule, deaths are announced - if they are at all - according to number, vaccination status and age range. In the event a fully vaccinated person has died, health officials are quick to point out the person had "underlying health conditions" or, failing that, that they were in their late 50s or above.

"We're never told anything about who these people were - whether they were academics, plumbers, farmers, mothers, engineers," Professor Toole said.

"We're only told whether they were vaccinated or had underlying health conditions, which most of us have anyway.

"If my nephew, who's just tested positive, were to die, he would be reported as having an underlying health condition, because he's diabetic, and that's unfair and dehumanising."

IN OTHER NEWS:

Professor Toole said we shouldn't doubt the way in which officials frame the death toll was deliberate.

It was, in his view, calculated to induce a falsely comforting narrative that the virus only hunts and kills the old, the infirm, the weak or the unvaccinated.

The implied logic of this Darwinian narrative is that the virus is not something to be feared; that it's not something that strikes down healthy young people - those who make valuable, economically measurable contributions to society.

"The reporting around underlying health conditions must stop because it's giving people a wrong impression about how dangerous the virus is," Professor Toole said.

"The fact is most of those underlying health conditions, like heart disease or asthma, are all very well managed; these people would still be alive if they hadn't had COVID."

Indeed, contrary to the general tenor of COVID press conferences, one in two Australians lives with what would be classed as an underlying health condition.

The notion, therefore, that those who could succumb to COVID are not 'us' or 'you' or 'your closest loved ones' is as false as it is deceptively reassuring.

This reality is especially true in a country which, per capita, now has the third highest rate of infection in the world.

Nevertheless, the messaging sits well with a community weary with the unrelenting fact of the pandemic's continued existence.

Emergency doctor Mark Harris, who also serves as a Ballarat councillor in Victoria's Central Highlands, said it was the combined effect of these factors which explained the lack of community reaction to the climbing death toll.

"Our death rate is something that other jurisdictions, like Western Australia, would find difficult, if not intolerable," Dr Harris said.

Our death rate is something that other jurisdictions, like Western Australia, would find difficult, if not intolerable.

Dr Mark Harris

"But because we're deeply sick of the pandemic, we're more receptive to things that make us as individuals believe we're not vulnerable.

"But the reality is our death statistics are genuinely terrifying; if we had the same statistics reflected in other diseases like meningitis or gastroenteritis or measles, we'd be rightly aghast - we'd be looking for action."

So, why does it matter, this double standard in the way we treat COVID-19 relative to other diseases?

Professor Toole said this mentality of living with the virus or 'pushing through', along with its attendant consequences, was liable to stymie government preparedness for the next variant and result in a second-class public health outcome.

"There's no reason why another variant can't emerge and we need to be prepared," he said. "I'd like to see any old plan but I haven't seen any."

It's a view shared by Dr Harris, who said he feared government now lacked the political will to impose unpopular risk management tools even if they would protect the collective wellbeing of the community.

"We have governments that have committed to not having mandatory lockdowns," he said.

"It's still a pandemic but they're treating it like it's just endemic, now.

"They know we're all tired of the pandemic, and unfortunately they just reflect the worst in us sometimes."

The obvious irony which colours our existing circumstances, of course, is that in our determination to 'live with the virus', COVID-19 will remain the great anomaly: the only infectious disease with which we, as a society, tolerate an abnormally high death rate.

But behind every number, we should remember, was a person as incalculably valuable as we are.

This story Why we no longer care about COVID-19 deaths first appeared on The Courier.