Since then, the restrictions have been progressively removed. Then, earlier this month, Victoria’s acting health director, Professor Ben Cowie, recommended that mask mandates be reinstated for retail and hospitality workers, in schools (except for third graders) and in a couple of other situations.
Cowie said the proposed new orders, as well as more people voluntarily wearing masks, “would directly reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.”
It also “strongly” recommended that during July and August, when the pressure on the health system was anticipated to be worst, “people work from home where it is practical to do so.””.
This advice, if adopted, can mean harsh reminders of the dark days of lockdown, but it should not be confused with a return to it.
While it’s entirely understandable that people are traumatized by the lockdowns, or fear that a new rule could be the thin end of the wedge, it can’t be too hard to see that the sacrifices being asked of Victorians now are small by comparison. with what we have endured. Before, when businesses were destroyed, schools were closed and families were separated.
One of the key problems is that very early in the pandemic, much of the public came to believe that public health measures should only go one way (outwards) and the COVID-19 problem would do the same.
This idea has never been backed by science, as epidemiologist Tony Blakely explained to me in February, saying that while he supported easing some restrictions on that moment, there needed to be plans to reinstate the measures if there was a new variant, for example. It would have been better to explain things like wearing a high quality mask as a winter coat, you can put it on and take it off when needed.
There was a good opportunity to address this gap in public messaging this year, between the Omicron wave in January that brought the health system to its knees and the current one we find ourselves in now, which could be worse.
More time could have been spent explaining why boosters are so important, why masks work (plus which ones are best and how to use them), while adjusting people’s expectations of what normality looks like in the middle of a pandemic.
As others have noted, the pandemic issue was largely absent from the federal election campaign. Opposition political parties also needed to be more constructive.
We recently learned that Victoria’s new Health Minister, Mary-Anne Thomas, chose to reject public health advice and not make any changes to the mask mandates, saying it was “not the most effective way to get the message across” and “We need to empower Victorians to make their own decisions.”
Epidemiology professor Catherine Bennett agrees with this decision, saying that although masks work, there is no “good science” that mandates that more people wear them now.
When it comes to a highly infectious disease, it is always the case that the individual decisions we make will affect other people. Shattered frontline health workers have been reporting dire conditions for months. Things have been so dire that triple zero calls have gone unanswered.
Maybe you think none of this matters. After all, the more than 11,100 Australians who have died so far were mostly of retirement age or older, and maybe that’s not you. But you should also hope that you are not one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian doctors who could have long-term COVID symptoms in the coming months, or suddenly need emergency care.
I can almost guarantee that we will never return to the miserable park, it has had its time and place. But I can still remember where we came from when I choose to make small sacrifices that can help stop the spread of COVID-19.