Losing our way

I remember the early days of the pandemic, when we didn’t know whether bringing in packages from outside would give us covid. Some people left packages out in the sun for three days, others disinfected the hell out of them. Some people didn’t let anything into their houses. Some people started wearing masks early on, some thought it was pointless. Use the app/don’t use the app it’ll track you and achieve nothing useful. We just didn’t know, and the uncertainty was terrifying.

Gradually we settled into some kind of pattern. Numbers rose, we went into lockdown, numbers kept rising, we locked down harder. We knew what we needed to do, and most of us did it. Stay home as much as possible. Mask if you have to go out. Keep your distance. Get tested if you have any symptoms, or have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive. Check in with a qr code. Sanitise, sanitise, sanitise. Numbers went down, we let up a little, numbers went up, we locked back down. We knew what had to be done, even if we hated it.

There was a lot of screaming from the let it rip brigade, but at least in Victoria we sneered and largely ignored them. We made a lot of sacrifices, but we knew we were doing it for the greater good. Murdoch, Morrison, and the “die for the economy” brigade felt, for the most part, like they were safely outside our borders, which, by the way, were firmly shut. There was the odd glitch, like the rules being different for sportsmen, but we were largely hanging together and getting this thing done.

And we nailed it. Until Delta ripped through a NSW that thought itself invulnerable, and used them as a jumping off point. Things started to get a bit hairy, but we went back into lockdown, knew how to do this… here comes the new lockdown, same as the old lockdown. It didn’t work. The “let it rip” “live with covid” “we have to open sometime” brigade suddenly seemed in the ascendant. “Open up. It’ll be fine. We’re all vaxxed.” was the hymn of the day.

So we opened up. And it seemed… well… not fine, not for many people, especially the vulnerable, but it seemed like we were mostly going to almost get away with it. We were still checking in, masking (at least in Victoria), and playing it fairly safe. We knew that if we got sick we could get tested, and isolate, and keep everyone else as safe as possible. We watched the numbers (again). They were bad, but manageable.

And then omicron changed the rules of the game. And the political response, even in Victoria, was… nothing?

The silence was deafening. The only sound was the roar of the engines of people circling Melbourne, looking for a testing site that wasn’t closed because it was over capacity.

Occasionally there would be a brief announcement, like “close contact isn’t a thing except in the home for more than four hours”, which was bewildering since omicron spreads more easily than any previous variant.

Or “You don’t need a pcr, use a RAT” which certainly made us smell a rat, since rats were impossible to get.

Or “we’re all going to get it, and it doesn’t matter”, never mind the immunocompromised, the aged, the apparently expendable portion of the population with pre-existing conditions, or those who, for reasons no-one yet understands, will wind up permanently disabled by long covid.

Or “the health system is fine” while frantic messages from paramedics, nurses, and doctors online tell a wildly different – and utterly horrifying – story.

Things get rapidly worse. Businesses close due to staff shortages. Hospital staff work consecutive shifts and are still short staffed. Supply chains falter. Ambulance Victoria puts out messages saying “don’t call an ambulance unless you are dying, and even then you’ll wait an hour or more.”

Friends and family start getting covid. We leap into the struggle to access pcr tests, rats, healthcare, ANYTHING, and come up empty handed every time. We search in vain for evidence that we are doing the right thing. For government rules that will keep us, and those around us, safe. We wait for policy announcements to fix this, and watch the numbers tick up even though no-one can get tested anymore. I personally know of many cases of covid not included in the official numbers, yet I still watch the official numbers, feeling ill every time they are announced.

The refrain from my friends is eerily in tune: We’re sitting ducks. We’ve been hung out to dry. We’re fucked.

Normally, when things start to fall apart, governments do something. We might not like what they do, but they’re visible, they’re at least doing something. But now, they seem bewilderingly, appallingly, callously absent.

It’s surreal. If you wrote a film script like this it would be laughed out of the room for being wildly implausible. It feels like the end of the world, and we’re not even trying to stop it. Do we stay in? Do we go out and pretend nothing is happening? What happens now? Who knows? Certainly not the people who are supposed to be in charge.