Learning from Covid-19: A call for collective reflection

Jul 4, 2022
Omicron variant Covid
Image: Pixabay

With the end of vaccine mandates for teachers and public servants in sight, it is an opportune moment for collective reflection. What can be learned from Australia’s management of Covid-19? What lessons can be applied to future challenges?

The emergence of Covid-19’s “omicron” variant in early 2022, with its high contagion and low hospitalisation, initiated an endemic stage of the virus. As vaccine mandates ease, it’s a good time to reflect together on the last two years. What can we learn from Australia’s management of the pandemic? How can we apply these lessons for a more caring future?

What we did well

Australia’s early lockdowns diverted covid-infected tourism, preventing many deaths from the earlier more life-threatening Covid-19 variants. Most states in Australia were Covid-free without lockdowns for months while the rest of the world stayed home, fighting to protect their health systems from being overrun. Keynesian spending on JobKeeper and the doubling of Newstart allowances (now JobSeeker) helped keep our economy going and prevented many from losing their jobs and income.

Globally, scientists were listened to in ways that we haven’t seen for decades. Politicians made unpopular decisions in the interests of the public good. Billions of dollars were invested in solutions. There was a moratorium on travel that was difficult for many, particularly those trapped overseas and families that were separated, however as a side-effect carbon emissions went down. We heard stories from across the world of people in communities supporting each other and pollution-free skies and oceans glistening in relief.

What we would do differently

Globally, the rich continued to get richer and the poor got poorer. Schools closed down, children suffered. Pressure on families went up along with stress, mental illness and domestic violence. Cancers went undiagnosed. Lobbyists and opportunists pushed their agendas. This is the tip of an iceberg.

In Australia we made mistakes. From debacle such as the Ruby Princess outbreak, turning vaccines into a political blame game, R.A.T. shortages and not learning from the experiences of other countries sooner.

In many ways we repeatedly failed to recognise the changing nature of our situation, including our understanding of Covid-19, its variants and vaccinations, and to respect the particularities of personal and community contexts.

One-size-fits-all

Australia’s responses were often applied blanketly with little attention to exceptions, implementation and continually changing circumstances. For example, $1.7 billion of JobKeeper payments went to companies whose turnover had tripled, while casuals and migrants among others missed out on support altogether.

The Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package provided “free” childcare for parents, and financial relief for many childcare centres experiencing fluctuating demand. However, the policy almost halved the income for Family Day Care educators and community run childcare centres. The gap fee waived for families was not reimbursed to centres, and while JobKeeper was intended to cover staff costs, many childhood educators such as those in Family Day Care were ineligible.

A one-size-fits-all approach to vaccines is another example. This may have seemed necessary in the context of a more deadly Delta variant, but in hindsight there may have been better ways to protect our population. Vaccines come with risks (as do all medicines) and a COVID-19 Vaccine Claims Scheme is now actively compensating people who suffered a moderate to severe vaccine injury. The 5-year data or research into intersections with other illnesses was (and is still) not yet available. Yet at the time, GPs were allowed to give medical exemptions to “almost no one”. The blanket approach to vaccines mandates was a source of ““resentment and mistrust in government and public health agencies” Affording citizens and doctors more discernment over whether or not to take the jab, without the threat of losing their jobs, would have been a more dignified and democratic approach to vaccine rollout.

Anxiety and polarisation

The media’s hourly reports on Covid cases, Covid deaths, single vaxed, double vaxed and boosted, fed into society’s soaring levels of anxiety and vulnerability.

Misreporting and information wars fed into a polarisation of the unholy “unvaccinated” and holy “vaccinated”, fueling feuds between friends and families. To be against vaccine mandates was deemed “anti-vax” and to even question the risks and benefits of Covid vaccines was social taboo.

Changing contexts

Vaccine mandates are beginning to be revoked in different states – including South Australia police in March, and mandates on teachers in Victoria ending last week (with New South Wales and Queensland set to follow next term). Teachers previously dismissed have to reapply for jobs. Should public servants and others who, for whatever reason, chose not to be vaccinated in a temporary pandemic, should have faced a permanent dismissal at the time?

The trade-offs between risks and benefits of any vaccine must continually be re-evaluated, in changing and specific contexts. People who are elderly or vulnerable to omicron variants may wish to be vaccinated, while for children and people with natural immunity it may no longer be necessary or advisable. A more multi-dimensional approach is found in Denmark, where vaccinations have been suspended at least until autumn following a “thorough professional assessment of who and when to vaccinate and with which vaccines.”

Wherever we held our views as fixed and unchanging in a situation that was constantly changing, we can do better. Wherever we have imposed one-size-fits-all rules, without properly attending to exceptions and personal contexts, we can do better. Wherever we have polarised and demonised others, we can do better.

Lessons for other challenges

Doubling JobSeeker is as necessary today as it was a year ago – the new Government could raise the rate of welfare permanently to support all Australians. The argument that this is ‘too expensive’ has been dispelled.

Practices of deep listening and responding to expertise from lived experience (from GPs to Family Day Care representatives), and provisions for agency and exceptions in policies, vastly improve policies and their outcomes.

The media would do citizens a service to report the threats and complex challenges with a sense of perspective and in a manner that empower their viewers to act for change. For example, the media might report the aims and achievements in tonnes of greenhouse gases emissions reductions, as they did vaccine doses, to enable and empower citizens in their countdown to net-zero.

Our experiences with Covid-19 show that vast changes can take place in a short space of time, changes that prior to 2020 people would have considered impossible. Reversing global warming requires further unimaginable changes. People are willing to make great sacrifices when they know it will actually make a difference.

What next?

Two reviews are now underway to assess Australia’s handling of Covid-19. The Sydney Policy Lab’s Open Society, Common Purpose Taskforce 2.0 will launch its report on 25 July 2022. An Independent Panel inquiry funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Minderoo Foundation and the John and Myriam Wylie Foundation, invites short submissions until 31 July 2022. The author’s reflections here are her own, and has been independently submitted to these inquiries.

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