Pandemic – what kind of society?

(The following article by Paul Komesaroff appeared in The Age on 15 January. I’m running it here without permission in order to promote further discussion. Please read it at the original AGE site and make comments there too)

January 15, 2022

Now that the disaster is upon us we can start to analyse how it happened.

I am a frontline health worker, lying listlessly in bed battling an infection with the Omicron variant. My illness has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on our current predicament and what lessons can be learnt from it.

Healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit by the crisis.

We do need to be clear, however: this is a true disaster. Unprecedented numbers of people have been admitted to our hospitals, which are now full. Deaths are mounting rapidly. Ambulances sit in line for hours waiting to discharge their sick patients to overrun emergency departments. Patients with serious non-COVID illnesses, like heart attacks and cancers, struggle to find doctors to treat them.

In the health services up to 10 per cent of workers are away sick, and many, unable to cope with the stress, have given up and resigned. Food and other essential services are failing. The frantic determination to avoid lockdowns has produced a de facto lockdown, more intense than the official ones because of its unplanned, chaotic nature and the absence of safety nets.

Admittedly, not all the news is bad. Even if the vaccines are imperfect at preventing infections and hospitalisations, they do greatly reduce the risk of death – and they may well have saved my life. Healthcare staff – doctors and nurses, young and old – are working tirelessly, often to the point of exhaustion, in heroic efforts to keep the system going.

But it is still a disaster. How did we get here? For nearly two years we had struggled to work together and protect each other. In Victoria, respected political and public health leadership provided reliable information and a determined and clearly argued plan. There were lapses – like hotel quarantine – that were subjected to ruthless public scrutiny, but overcoming the challenges and setbacks heightened the sense of solidarity and mutual caring.

But then it all unravelled. It seemed quick but in reality the forces had been in play all along. An unrelenting campaign to undermine the collective purpose, to oppose all restrictions, had worn away at confidence in public health measures. Campaigns of disinformation and conspiracy theories stimulated the rise of fringe Trump-like groups. The incessant talk about how injunctions to support the vulnerable were in reality a device to undermine prized individual “freedoms” hit home.

A concerted effort by the federal government, supported by the NSW government, attacked the few strategies that had been shown to work. Ballooning numbers in NSW quickly led to the spread of infections across the country.

Then, exactly as Omicron emerged, as health workers looked on with incredulity and horror, even the most minimal remaining restrictions were lifted.

It was widely acknowledged that this decision would produce disastrous consequences and would need quickly to be reversed. And it was true: the disaster happened and the restrictions were reversed. But the damage had been done and the effects were irreversible.

The policy that produced this decision was not the result of simple incompetence. It embodied a fully coherent, and carefully articulated, ethical world-view, on which we as a society now need to make a decision.

The “let it rip” strategy is a potent statement that health and human life should be held to be of little value; that individual “freedom” is directly opposed to collective action and mutual care; and that our society is richer and better if we and our governments repudiate responsibility to weaker members, to those fleeing persecution, and to future generations.

Through the clouds of my delirium I fancy that this understanding of society as a war of all against all had long been discredited. I imagine that most of us have become aware that freedom is enhanced when the structures of mutual support and opportunity remain intact. I muse that there is abundant evidence that the safety of our children and grandchildren can only be assured if we work collectively and co-operatively to protect and care for each other and for our planet.

The reality is that we are in the middle of a war – not just against the “invisible enemy” of the virus but also a new culture war, or more precisely, an ethics war. What is at stake is the vision we wish to have for our society: is it that of a collection of individuals opposed to each other, where security is limited to the powerful and the privileged?

Or is it of a world of shared values, where collective resources can be applied to those in most need, where each of us is prepared from time to time to defer our own comfort to assist and care for our fellow citizens?

In my fevered state, waiting for my clearance from infection control to return to the fray, I try to remind myself of the heroism of the young doctors, nurses and other essential workers. But I am not confident about the outcome.

Professor Paul Komesaroff is a Melbourne physician, ethicist and writer.

5 thoughts on “Pandemic – what kind of society?

  1. Another great article by Eric Topol
    https://erictopol.substack.com/p/where-do-we-stand-with-omicron
    It is based on data, unlike much of the moronic commentary from social media. Some points with factual or ironic comments added by me:
    – A booster vaccination (3rd shot mRNA) does make a big difference to hospitalisation rate (evidence provided)
    – New, more durable vaccines and anti-covid pills now exist or will be here soon but production has to ramp up (Paxlovid was approved in Australia last week but only through doctors due to shortages)
    – Too early to say it’s over (another article said 50% of the world would have Omicron by March, which would mark the end of the pandemic phase) since we haven’t been able to accurately predict the virus trajectory so far (would it be rude to argue that the virus is more intelligent than the collective intelligence of the human race?)

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  2. An earlier article (Feb 2021) which outlines how future pandemics can be prevented by development of variant proof vaccines:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00340-4
    (this won’t happen soon unless government’s make it a priority, of course our government won’t do that, but maybe somewhere out there there might be a government smart enough to do it, here’s hoping)

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  3. Very powerful article this. May well we ask about, what kind of society?

    Globally the world has struggled in dealing with this pandemic. I’m not aware of too many ‘success’ stories. Possibly the authoritarian regime in China has handled it best, but we only know what they let us know.

    Australia, in spite of the Federal Government, has generally done fairly well, with a quite low overall mortality rate. The Federal Government apart from reasonably early closures of international borders has been inept. The Vaccine rollout, quarantine, boosters, RAT’s, all of these areas so much better could have been done.

    The Federal Government has had a veritable ‘Trojan Horse’ in the NSW Government. Loosening of restrictions, freedumb actions, these have led to the rapid spread of firstly the Delta strain, now the Omicron strain. Along side of this the ‘Let It Rip’ mindset has us in our current predicament, Paul Komesaroff may ask what kind of society we are, what sort of world we are? We are where the last few decades have taken us.

    The commodification of many if not all our aspects of our lives, the fetish with the hegemony of the ‘Market’, the growth of precarious employment, the privatisation/corporatisation of so many services have wiped out so many of the gains won in the post-war compromise. Like Thatcher once said, ‘there is no such thing as society’, as individuals are left to their own devices to get through this pandemic. We see this with the Australian roll out of the RAT’s. In many parts of the world they are recognised as a public health measure, here we see them given free to the ‘deserving poor’ the rest of us have to buy them from commercial providers.

    This society that Komesaroff questions is the one that saw the horrors of Victoria’s Second Wave where precariously employed staff travelled from nursing home to nursing home to get a livable wage. Whilst doing this they carried the lethal virus with them. The society that saw an Australian manufacturer of RAT’s ignored by the Federal Government with that manufacturer exporting the products overseas whilst Australia subsequently grappled with a severe shortage of RAT’s.

    I don’t know what world/society can currently address Komesaroff’s questions. With no Left, let alone a Revolutionary Left out there. It’s going to be a hard struggle to build the world we need. Looking at what’s out there I think of what Gramsci said: The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

    Glen!

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  4. No vaccine equity
    It’s an equity virus. We can keep the refugees out but no chance of keeping out new variants which arise in under vaccinated low income countries. Omicron started in South Africa. Next time we might not be so lucky as to get a less lethal strain from the one before

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