The Politics    Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Living with COVID

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison following a national cabinet meeting last week. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison following a national cabinet meeting last week. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

In its eagerness to “live with the virus”, did the government anticipate this many Australians dying from it?

Australia has experienced its deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 77 deaths recorded. NSW and Queensland have tragically recorded their highest daily death tolls, 36 and 16 respectively, while Victoria, at 22 deaths, has declared a “code brown” for hospitals amid crippling staff shortages. Those figures, representing real people with real families and friends, are expected to rise in the coming days, and epidemiologists warn we will need to rely on hospitalisation data to know when the peak has truly passed, whatever government leaders might say about plateauing case numbers. In 2022 to date, more than 460 people have died in Australia from COVID-19, with deaths caused by the virus now occurring at triple the pace of the Delta wave, putting to rest the idea that Omicron is a “mild” variant. Was all this part of the national plan for living with the virus?

“Living with COVID” was always going to entail some death; it was considered, at various levels, in the much bandied-about Doherty modelling. But the actual, anticipated death toll was something that the federal government – in its insistence that we couldn’t “stay in our caves” – always seemed to skirt around. Back in September 2021, when Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was criticised for scaremongering through her “selective misuse” of the Doherty figures, I questioned whether Australia needed to be having a conversation about what the acceptable death toll actually was, so that we could implement the appropriate measures to keep it there. It’s worth noting that Palaszczuk’s 2021 tweet warned of 80 deaths per day, six months into an outbreak, in a scenario where our testing regime was only partially able to keep up. Today’s figure of 77 falls just short of that prediction.

The Doherty Institute modelling that underpinned the national plan didn’t make forecasts; rather, it laid out scenarios. The number of deaths in the first six months of “living with COVID”, according to the modelling, could be anywhere from 13 to 1457, depending on inputs – including the ability of the TTIQ (test, trace, isolate and quarantine) system to withstand pressure. But what was the national cabinet actually anticipating here? What was it planning for? It’s clear that the federal government, in its eagerness for us to open up, didn’t bother to account for the increased testing capacity this would require (despite warnings), and it didn’t consider the flow-on-effects on hospitals and supply chains. Did it even bother to consider the death toll, and what might have been worth sacrificing to minimise it?

There’s no doubt that at least some of the current deaths could have been prevented had the government been better prepared with adequate testing capacity, had it not been so insistent on a full relaxing of restrictions over Christmas and on prioritising an economy that has ended up being seriously damaged anyway. 

“Living with COVID” was always going to mean that some would die from it. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the federal government didn’t really care how many.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


The Politics

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Palmerston, near Darwin, today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Alpha-beta soup

A toxic op-ed about Morrison being an “alpha male” fails to grasp why women are abandoning the Coalition

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison after the Liberal Party campaign launch in Brisbane yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The loosest unit

The Coalition doesn’t know how much its superannuation housing policy will raise prices, nor does it care

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Beveridge Community Centre north of Melbourne today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Bulldozer or bullduster?

Scott Morrison’s promise to change is his most sinister lie yet

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at a press conference in Melbourne last week. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Buried treasurer

With Morrison having sold out his treasurer, will Frydenberg turn on the PM to save himself?

From the front page

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!