HAL SWERISSEN. The New Normal: how we’ll live with Covid-19

May 13, 2020

The Covid-19 restrictions are painful, but they have worked. Some restrictions will soon be lifted. But what will the ‘new normal’ look like?

In the middle of March, the number of Covid-19 cases was doubling in Australia every two days. If that had continued, we would have had about 30,000 cases a day in Australia by the middle of April, and the health system would have been overwhelmed. Deaths would have gone up to as many as 300 a day.

Everyone could see what was happening in Italy, Europe, and then the US. No one wanted that in Australia.

Dramatic action was required and supported. Spatial distancing rules, combined with efforts to test, contact, and isolate anyone with the virus have been spectacularly successful, at least for now. Australia now has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in the world.

But the virus has had a huge impact on our social and economic life. For more than a month, we’ve been told to stay at home. Children are learning at home. Parents are working remotely – if they haven’t lost their jobs.

Recreational, cultural, and sporting activities have come to a halt. Eating at restaurants is a receding memory.

Older people, people with compromised immune systems, and people who live on their own have been hit particularly hard. Reports of loneliness, anxiety, and mental health problems, have gone up sharply.

The economic impact has been severe. The hospitality, recreation, arts, and sports industries have been smashed. Tens of thousands of people in these industries are now unemployed or under-employed. Many businesses are closed, at least temporarily.

But because of our success in reducing the spread of the virus, some restrictions will soon be lifted. Soon, more children will be in class. More of us will be travelling, at least within Australia. More workers will be back in offices, shops, and factories. Australians will start to go out again.

That may all come as a relief, but is also comes with risks. There could be a second wave of infections when restrictions are lifted. There could be more clusters of cases, in individual schools, workplaces, hospitals, and aged-care homes. In small rural towns, whole communities could be affected. If cases cannot be contained, there would have to be a second wave of restrictions.

To stop the chance of ‘second waves’, some restrictions will need to stay in place. They will become the ‘new normal’ until an effective treatment or vaccine is discovered – and that could be years.

What will Australia’s new normal look like? Some things are clear.

Testing, tracing, and isolation for people who are infected will become the first line of defence. Clusters will be isolated. If that doesn’t work, wider restrictions will be back.

People with symptoms and those who have had contact with people who are infected will have to continue to isolate themselves. We will all have to go on washing our hands, watching what we touch, and avoiding physical contact with people outside our family and very close friends.

Some spatial distancing restrictions and infection control measures will have to stay in place indefinitely. There will probably have to be limits on the number of people in shopping centres, concert venues, churches, and sporting stadia, and at weddings, funerals, and parties. Large crowds and international travel are not likely any time soon. Hand sanitizers will become part of the furniture. Masks may yet become a fashion item.

Working from home and telecommuting will become part of everyday life for many of us. Start times and breaks are likely to be staggered. New ways of blending virtual and face-to-face meetings, consultation, supervision, and training will emerge. Physical spaces in offices and other workplaces are likely to be rearranged. No more hotdesking – at least not without cleaning.

There will be more online shopping for groceries, take-away food, books, games, and so on. More health and social care will be delivered via telephone or video, rather than in face-to-face visits. COVIDSafe is just one sign of the times.

Outdoor activities – bushwalking, swimming, organised sport, playing in the park – are likely to be more popular. Gardening and growing your own food are already more popular than pre-Covid. It’s a good time to run a nursery!

We will have to learn to enjoy more things virtually — sport, music, theatre, religious and cultural events. New ways of putting on local festivals and community events will emerge. Drive-ins may make a come-back!

More support will have to be provided for the vulnerable, particularly people with chronic health problems. We will need better ways of using technology to ensure disadvantage people can still participate in social, recreational, and cultural activities.

We will also have to make sure people on tighter budgets don’t have to work when they are sick, just to make ends meet. Casual workers, in particular, will need more secure incomes.

Governments will find it difficult to impose this ‘new normal’ on citizens. Federal, state, and local governments will have to work together, while taking the community with them. They will have to discuss and debate the new normal with residents, businesses, workers, schools and community groups. Voters will mark down politicians for bickering, point scoring, or ideological posturing.

Australians have worked together to contain the spread of Covid-19. We should now work together to make the ‘new normal’ as safe and enjoyable as possible.

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