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Who is that unmasked man? Covid-19 and the politics of fatigue

Today, associate editor of The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray on Covid-19 and the politics of fatigue.
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As Covid-19 hospitalisations break records in almost all states, there is a curious absence of political leadership.

Frontline workers wonder why there is no greater attempt at community mitigation. What has shifted? Why are politicians no longer following the health advice, at least on masks?

Today, associate editor of The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray on Covid-19 and the politics of fatigue.
 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram

Guest: Associate editor of The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray

 
Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.

As Covid-19 hospitalisations break records in almost all states, there is a curious absence of political leadership.

Frontline workers wonder why there is no greater attempt at community mitigation. What has shifted? Why are politicians no longer following the health advice, at least on masks?

Today - associate editor of *The Saturday Paper* Martin McKenzie-Murray on Covid-19 and the politics of fatigue.
It’s Wednesday, July 27. 

[Theme Music Out]

##RUBY:
Marty, there's one moment which in retrospect seems to have been a critical moment when it comes to understanding the situation that we're now in. And that is, just before Christmas, when New South Wales changed its approach to the pandemic and a national cabinet followed. So, can we go back to that time? Can you tell me about those changes? 

##MARTIN:
Sure, it was, it does in retrospect, even at the time, I think seemed quite significant. The New South Wales Premier quite dramatically relaxed restrictions, about the same time that there was the emergence of the Omicron strain. So this is just about a fortnight before Christmas. 

##Archival tape  – Channel 9 reporter:
*COVID case numbers in New South Wales have jumped to a two month high overnight, the state recording 1,360 new infections in just 24 hours and one death. Despite this, a raft of restrictions have been eased today.*

##Archival tape  – Sunrise reporter:
*South Wales this morning, with virtually all restrictions scrapped just as the state sees an explosion in cases.*

##Archival tape  – Sunrise reporter:
*Let's discuss this with the president of the….*

##MARTIN:
The National Cabinet met the following month in January, and redefined close contacts. 

##Archival tape  – Scott Morrison:
*That's Delta. That's in the past. Close contact is if you are living with someone in an accommodation type environment and you're in that situation for that protracted time - that's if you're a close contact.* 

##MARTIN:
And at this time, Scott Morrison, then prime minister, was also sort of redefining the scope or the sense of urgency or vigilance that we might take. He was kind of urging - or promising - a return to normality. 

##Archival tape  – Scott Morrison:
*I mean, we all know what it's like with kids and flus and, and other things. You know, they bring it home and then the whole family has to stay home and can't go to work. So that rule is becoming, we believe, as leaders, redundant.*

##MARTIN:
And I think, for almost the last six months, there's been this strangeness where we've barely talked about it. Morrison's change of rhetoric was prelude to a long federal campaign in which it was conspicuously cleansed as a topic in the election campaign. We barely mentioned it, if at all.

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. And I mean, you're alluding to this, but the reason that this change was so important, was because it showed that the way that politicians were approaching the pandemic was changing. ‘Cause early on, when we had those press conferences, it was health officials standing next to politicians every time, and health advice was being followed very closely.

But it seemed like at this point in time, six months ago now, things changed and the advice became, I guess, a bit more filtered.

##MARTIN:
Yeah, there was this significant divergence, and I think the political calculus had changed and we were now deferring to community fatigue.

Initially, it made sense principally for public health, but I think also politically, to defer an appeal to community sacrifice. That started waning after a couple of years, understandably. And for me, fatigue is probably inadequate a word, it was more than fatiguing, for many people it was torturous and destructive. 

So the political calculus changed at some point, and compliance with restrictions cannot exist indefinitely. But unfortunately, in deferring to our fatigue, we stopped paying attention. 

And this is what medics are screaming at the moment, is that whilst we might not have wanted to talk about it or think about it…the virus didn't go away. 

##RUBY:
And so as we've stopped paying attention, what's, what's happened? 

##MARTIN:
Right now in Queensland, WA, the ACT and Tasmania, they're all currently experiencing record numbers of COVID hospitalisations. South Australia is very close. Here in Victoria, since June 22, COVID hospitalisations have increased by 99% and ICU admissions have increased by 60%. So we're seeing record hospitalisations. 

And also, the forecast for most states is that for this third wave of Omicron, which is a really sticky mutation - its vaccine evasive - the peak won't be reached for probably another four weeks. The projections for at least, until the end of winter, are really grim. 

##RUBY:
Can you tell me a little bit about what you're hearing in terms of the day to day experiences of people who are on the front lines of the pandemic?

##MARTIN:
I spoke with Brett Simpson, who is a paramedic in New South Wales, about his day-to-day. 

So he says on a typical day, he'll roster on, he'll check the status board...which shows him where the other crews are…

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*Generally at the moment. You know, we'll look at that board and we'll find them sort of stuck at the local hospitals waiting to offload their lost patients from the night shifts.*

##MARTIN:
So he'll have to go over there and relieve them because they're still with patients. Patients that can't be offloaded. So effectively, that hospital room is still the ambulance and they could have been there for hours. 

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*What we're seeing at the moment is where, you know, we're approaching record numbers of COVID patients, taking up beds in hospitals and, you know, intensive care resources and that type of thing. So there's just no room in emergency departments or even in hospitals for those patients to move through the system.* 

##MARTIN:
So that takes paramedics off the road. And then you have this spill-over effect where non-covid cases, people requiring medical attention, are affected and compromised as well. 

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*It could be people with, you know, their normal chest pain, heart attacks, or shortness of breath or, you know, broken bones after a car accident or something like that. You know, everyone turns up to emergency departments and unfortunately has to wait for a treatment space in the department to become available.*

##MARTIN:
What he described to me is a Sisyphean challenge to acquit caseloads. There's a status three alert in New South Wales which declares a point at which the paramedic service is overwhelmed, and that will trigger surge measures, like pulling instructors out of classrooms and putting them onto the street. 

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*You know, a status three emergency, I think it happened once in 20 years. And those emergency procedures are designed for things like, earthquakes where towns have been flattened or, you know, major, you know, disasters or incidents and that type of thing.* 

##MARTIN:
That used to be incredibly rare.

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*Now it's happening almost weekly.* 

##MARTIN:
So that's the divergence that they speak to. You had us approaching another, and quite dramatic wave of infections. And yet this inability to even almost acknowledge the existence of the virus.

##RUBY:
Mm.

##Archival tape  – Brett Simpson:
*I don't know. It's a frustrating one for us, because for us, now on the frontline of the pandemic, it's never gone away.* 

*You know, the Covid numbers and the hospitalisation numbers and, you know, the daily deaths, it's, it's not something that we've ever, that we've ever stopped looking at.* 

*It's something that we've kept track of and keenly kept an eye on for a long time. So it's no surprise to us, certainly in the ambulance service or in the emergency departments, it's no surprise to us…*

##RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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##RUBY:
Marty, the wave of COVID that we're currently in, it's different to what we've seen in the past in many ways. Can we talk a bit more about the impact of the rising case numbers that we're seeing? And, as you say, predicted to continue to see over the coming weeks? 

You've been talking to frontline health workers. Can you tell me about what they’re saying? 

##MARTIN:
Incredible burnout. See, there are a number of consequences to this. I spoke about paramedics being taken off the road because they're stuck in hospital corridors. We're also seeing huge numbers of furloughed medical staff. 

So, they're off because they're symptomatic or have tested positive for influenza or for Covid. So we're saying, depending on which state, near record, or record numbers of medical staff being furloughed time and time and time again. I heard people very angrily relaying to me how profoundly exhausted and burnt out staff are. They've been asked to go above and beyond for a very, very long time. And I think what's really frustrating, and one recurring theme in all of these discussions, whether it's with health unions, or the AMA, frontline medics - is masks.
 
So, we can't click our fingers in any state and suddenly double the number of hospitals, or nurses, or ICU units or paramedics, or ambulances. What we can do, however, is further encourage or mandate, what they call community mitigation. And a big part of that is masks. 

No one was asking for a return to lockdowns, I hasten to add, but medics were feeling not just burnt out, but insulted. Insulted by the fact that these public discussions and encouragements, and education, which had defined the early part of the pandemic, have been abandoned. And so these kinds of basic community mitigations, which might not seem like much - but it's continuing washing your hands, it's wearing masks in public indoor spaces - were not being encouraged anymore. 

We'd seen politicians stop wearing masks. The prime minister was vaccinated just a couple of weeks ago without wearing a mask. That sent a message, medics told me. So profound exhaustion, but also a feeling of being insulted, that we're not doing the basic small, not-onerous behavioural changes that would help mitigate hospitalisation numbers. 

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. And so just to be clear, we've got health professionals, paramedics saying that people need to be wearing masks. We've now got chief health officers in various states echoing that message. Yet, politicians are refusing to make that a mandate. 

##MARTIN:
Yeah, and there should be some distinction here. Mandates exist in certain places, like certain specific locations within certain jurisdictions. So in Victoria, masks are still mandated for public transport, for hospitals, for aged care. 

But, what's being asked for from the Chief Medical Officer, the acting officer in Victoria, as federally - Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer - federally has recommended broadening the expansion of mask mandates to basically anywhere inside public places indoors. 

What's happened politically, though, is a deference to the community. Prime Minister Albanese has said people have looked after each other until now, and he expects them to continue to do that. And he also sort of hinted in a press conference recently that mandates might not work; that the New South Wales Premier has told him that while we've got a mandate for public transport, we've seen massively declining figures. And anecdotally, I think compliance when I'm out on the tram is probably 50 per cent, if not a little lower… 

So Albanese might make the point that mandates in theory might be a good idea. But two and a half years in, you're going to see wavering compliance and then it's a strain upon the state because you've got to enforce those. Regardless, every medical expert I spoke to: masks kept coming up.

##RUBY:
Is the situation that we're seeing now then, really just about the limits of what's actually possible because there is no perfect response? We know that so many different things have been tried over the last few years. So, is what we're seeing now, essentially a political response and a cultural response to the pandemic? Is that what we've landed? 

##MARTIN:
It's really difficult to reconcile perfectly, right? And I think, what I heard…the word fatigue, I want to stress that, like, there's profound fatigue…and you're going to see very naturally, a decline in compliance with certain restrictions. 
I think the sense that I got in the discussions I had this week, was that there was too profound a jump between extreme vigilance early on, and high compliance/high trust in government. 

And that we've gone from that, to these past six months - to almost a failure to even acknowledge the existence of the virus. So that whiplash was a source of enormous frustration. There’s been too great a gap between how we dealt, thought about… talked about the pandemic in the early days, and where we've ended up more recently. 

And then you get very muddled and contradictory advice. So if you simultaneously have a rampant virus that's still mutating with confounding ingenuity and you have a political desire to be more gentle almost to a point of complacency, almost to a point where you don't even acknowledge the virus, then you're going to have very strange, weird, contradictory, muddled public health advice. And I think that's where we've ended up now. 

##RUBY:
Marty, thank you so much for your time.

##MARTIN:
Thanks. 

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[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today:

As the new parliament sits, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, has indicated that the Climate Change Authority will act as a voice to the parliament, advising the government on targets in an “open and transparent way”. 

Ahead of a vote on legislated emissions reductions, Greens Leader Adam Bandt said he looked forward to negotiation but believed Labor’s target was too weak.

And airport ground crew and baggage handlers are threatening strike action over pay and working conditions. The industrial action would further increase the long queues, flight cancellations and baggage delays, already impacting thousands of travellers across the country. 

[Theme Music Ends]

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