“You’ve got two choices here. You can push through or you can lock down. We’re for pushing through,” the Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, as the country he has led through this pandemic reached 500,000 active cases of covid in the community.
It’s a neat soundbite and a convenient false dichotomy. ‘Push through or lockdown’ very handily overlooks the valid alternative between those options: to live – push through, if you prefer – safely with the virus.
It is entirely possible this oversight is deliberate because the PM can hardly point to many triumphs in Australia’s pursuit of safely living with Omicron.
Not on the same day that long-awaited vaccination appointments for children aged between 5-11 are being cancelled and postponed due to inadequate supply. Not when record numbers of early learning services are closed. Not when supermarket shelves are empty. Not when 30-50% of workers in any number of sectors and roles have been struck down with the virus. Not when rapid antigen tests remain virtually impossible to procure. Not when hospitalisations are rapidly increasing at precisely the same time hospitals are struggling with their own workforce shortages due to the virus. Not when teachers and principals and parents are begging for clarity and planning around a safe return to school.
Against this backdrop it’s easy to see why the PM wants to frame our choices as ‘push through or lockdown’ and gloss over the shortcomings. It’s also easy, and entirely reasonable, to reject outright.
For almost two years, millions of us ordinary Australians did what was asked of us – even when it was very hard. We stayed home. Wherever possible we kept children away from early learning and school and attempted remote learning. We isolated from friends and family. We got tested. We waited and waited and waited, and as soon as it was possible, we got vaxxed. We checked in. We wore masks. We exercised an abundance of caution – in and out of lockdowns – to minimise the risk of inadvertently infecting anyone at the whiff of a sniffle or a tickle in the throat. We kept working and we even kept spending and saving.
Throughout, early educators and teachers kept turning up to work, notwithstanding the risk, to ensure that the children of nurses and retail workers and drivers and pathologists and doctors and other essential services the community cannot function without, could go to work. Despite finding themselves on the frontline of the pandemic, early educators and teachers had to fight to be prioritised for vaccinations. So did too many other essential workers. They got jabbed. They got tested. They kept showing up.
“Are we there yet?” played on a silent, monotonous loop in my mind for almost the entire second half of 2021 as NSW battled the Delta outbreak and the lockdown it necessitated. The elusive “there” I longed for was the state reaching the magical vaccination rate that would enable schools to return, case numbers to fall and lockdown restrictions to ease.
Like so many Australians I was willing to do the right thing to get us to that “there”. To say getting “there” was hard is an understatement. Great chunks of 2020 and 2021 were hellish for millions of Australians with very real adverse social, health and economic consequences suffered. The safe haven of “there” was enough, however, for most of us to persevere notwithstanding the cost.
None of us did those things because they were easy. They were hard, but at every turn Australians overwhelmingly chose the right thing. The things, we were told, that would keep us all safe. That would limit the spread of the virus, reduce its severity and that would ensure our hospitals and health system weren’t overcome. We did what we were told. We did what we were asked.
And we did it because collectively we value one another and we value our freedom. We were, overwhelmingly, willing to trade in some of our freedom temporarily, not because we wanted families separated by hard borders or children unable to attend school or households pushed to a psychological breaking point.
We hated it. We cried. We yelled. We felt despair and loneliness and overwhelm. We hobbled through. We reassured, we distracted, we cajoled. Children, partners, family and ourselves. We apologised to our bosses or our colleagues. We turned to walking or baking or zooming or Netflix or scrolling: anything to pass the time.
We hated it but did it because we trusted that if we did the right thing, fewer people would get sick and die. We trusted that if we did the right thing, the uncertainty and fear and anxiety that has plagued us since early 2020 would ease. We trusted that if we did the right thing, eventually, we could safely livewith the virus.
And what have we got in return?
We got queues miles and miles long to get the PCR tests we needed in order to finally visit family members when borders opened. In the days and weeks before and around Christmas we stood in the heat, or sat in cars, in gridlock, with little children and elderly family members, for hours and hours, in a bid to get the ticket we needed to be free in the time frame that was dictated.
We got weeks-long delays in receiving the results.
We got SMS messages advising that PCR test results that we stood in line for hours and hours to obtain are being discarded.
We got a chronic shortage of the rapid antigen tests that we all know are absolutely essential to keep ourselves and others safe. Tests that are widely abundant and free in other countries attempting to safely ‘live with the virus’.
We’ve got supermarket shelves that are empty because the rates of infection have skyrocketed to the extent that there just aren’t enough virus-free Australians to maintain the ordinary supply chain.
We’ve got hospitals terribly short-staffed, with nurses and doctors called back to work early from leave. We’ve got healthcare workers being deployed to different wards and roles to try and keep hospitals running and patients safe.
We’ve got cases ballooning, exponentially, every day.
We’ve got cancelled vaccination appointments for our children aged between 5-11 just days out from them finally being eligible because there isn’t adequate supply.
We’ve got early learning services closing right around the country because they don’t have enough educators and staff virus-free to remain open. We’ve got early learning services unable to obtain the RATs they need to ensure that the workforce and children are kept safe. We’ve got families being charged the gap fee for childcare they cannot use because their service isn’t open.
We’ve got families looking down the barrel of the return to work without necessarily being able to access the early education and care they – and their children – rely upon because services are closing at a rapid rate. It’s 2021 all over again without the promise of “there”, instead the dread of being HERE.
We’ve got parents and teachers and school children in a state of stress and anxiety and uncertainty about the return to school in the midst of the Omicron peak without the protection of much vaccination among students, without access to RATs and with staff shortages.
We’ve got parents and teachers being wedged into a false dichotomy that our only options are to “home-school” or let it rip, when what every child, teacher and school staff member around this country deserves is the peace of mind that every measure necessary to ensure the return to school is as safe as possible has been taken. Measures like ventilation and vaccination and RATs that health experts have been expounding for almost two years.
We’ve got individual families and parents and kids and teachers and principals stranded, a few weeks out from a new school year starting, flailing without certainty, asking for a national plan.
How the collective goodwill and great sacrifice of Australians led us here is an abomination of leadership.
Not enough tests. Not enough vaccines for children. Not enough support for early education and care, for schools, for teachers, for kids. Not enough virus-free workers to keep supermarkets stocked. Not enough virus-free healthcare workers. Not enough masks. Not enough leadership.
So, no, Mr Morrison, our choice is not to ‘push through or lock down’. The choice Australians deserve is what we all thought we were choosing by virtue of doing all the hard things we were asked, was that we would open up safely. That we wouldn’t just walk away from every sensible precaution and let the virus rip.
We thought by getting vaccinated and being diligent about testing and isolating we would be able to live safely with the dreaded virus. We believed we’d have access to the tests and services we’d need to live safely. We believed that our healthcare systems, our hospitals, our schools and all of our essential services would be supported to support us all to live safely.
It seems it was only us doing the hard things. What were you doing?