What’s happened? We were the envy of the world when it came to Covid-19 prevention and now we have lost 11,000 lives. What we’ve done too little of and what we now need to do much more of is to marshal the persuasive power of local communities. We must do this if we are to respond to the pandemics effectively and in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart.
Covid has been the greatest disruption to our lives and the greatest challenge requiring collective effort since the world wars. How have we done? And how are we better able to meet challenges in the future? These are questions that are asked routinely by groups from corporations to sporting teams. But, as a country, as States, as cities and local communities we really haven’t asked those questions in any systematic way. So in the absence of such a review I would like to advance some reflections of my own. And based on those reflections I’d like to suggest that we start to empower local communities to step up and take a leadership role.
In a nutshell, we have faced and are still facing a contagious viral pathogen which results in serious long term physical damage and all too often death. It affects some people more than others and it is transmitted through unprotected human to human contact. We prevent its transmission through restricting our movements, sanitizing surfaces and deploying barriers such as masks, gowns, goggles and Perspex shields. We also make ourselves stronger and more resistant to infection and less likely to be contagious by looking after our immune systems and stimulating them with vaccines. We do these things to reduce our risk of infection from an unidentified source and we do them with greater care when we know that someone is carrying the virus.
In order to know the difference between a possible source of infection and a known source we rely on information such as symptoms of illness and a person’s exposure to a known case. But we have also developed tests that can tell us ahead of time who is a source and that can exclude people with symptoms that are not due to Covid. We can also tell through measures such as sewage testing when possible sources of infection are in the vicinity.
When people are infected we can use vaccines and other treatments antivirals ventilators to minimize the impact of the infection.
OUR PERFORMANCE SO FAR
This is what we can do and it is also what we have done to a greater or lesser extent. But how successfully have we been and are we more or less able to do it in the future with a similar threat?
We now have vaccines for Covid and as a result of global efforts we are also now better at developing vaccines. We have more experience in establishing mass vaccination programs and we have mistakes we can learn from but we have arguably also galvanized opposition to taking vaccines that is greater than ever before.
We have developed technology for individual testing and for tracking our movements so that cases of infection can be identified, isolated and avoided but we have also found that when infection rates rise these systems are ignored and seem unlikely to ever be as effectively enforced or complied with in the future. As we have moved from centralized testing to home self testing our surveillance data has declined in its accuracy and usefulness.
We learnt to socially distance but when the option of wearing masks was introduced we lost that ability. We learnt to wear masks but when vaccines became available we lost that ability as well. Lockdowns and restriction of movements are now resisted with militant and often violent force. Technologically we have advanced but in relation to the social and interpersonal ability to utilize those technologies we have gone backwards.
We know that the burden of Covid is not limited to the physical effects of infection. The measures we have had to implement in response to Covid have costs and potential benefits associated with them as well. At first we heard of lockdowns bringing a new appreciation of life outside the routine of work and consumption. Pollution was curtailed and the environment showed signs of improvement. We learnt the difference between luxuries and necessities. We learnt to care for and support those who were forced to shoulder a disproportionate share of our collective efforts; those such as medical personnel and those unable to work. If we didn’t learn how to ask better of each other we certainly got more practice at it.
Then we learnt that what we thought were luxuries are actually necessities because our economy can’t function without them. We also learnt that, like a game of Simon Says if the government doesn’t say we have to do something we shouldn’t do it.
Now it would appear that companies such as Amazon and Uber are free to profit from the pandemic while individuals suffer and other areas of activity such as the performing arts have been decimated. The direct human contact we know is psychologically and spiritually essential for a social species such as ours has become less common and less necessary for the business of everyday life.
Of just as great concern is the effect the pandemic and our response to it has had on individual mental health and on the cohesion and positivity of our communities. While responding to a common threat had the potential to bring us together and in many ways did for a time, the overall effect has been to drive us apart with bitter disagreement. Responding to contagious diseases requires teamwork and collaborative action but we have come to settle on individual choice.
Perhaps our performance could be described as;
“Did well early. Still haven’t won a decisive victory. Technological advances but socially and psychologically seriously compromised in meeting the continuing threat and even less able to meet future threats. With time we are becoming even less able and yet we are resorting to more of the same.”
WHAT WE HAVEN’T TRIED YET
So what else can we try? And what have we been doing that we could do better? Local communities should always be our staging post for community action but our response so far has been in terms of directives from government and expected compliance by individuals. The middle has been neglected.
It is time to take a good long look at ourselves and our efforts so far and to at least try to support local communities in owning this challenge and mobilizing a response. Who knows more about local conditions than local communities? When it comes to what are acceptable ways to behave, who would we rather listen to; governments or respected members of our own local communities?
The sad reflection is that we seem to have all assessed our personal risk and decided that because of vaccines we are much less likely to die or have our health ruined either in the short term or the long term by Covid. This is correct but consequently we are doing less than we ever have to halt or even slow the spread of the virus. While a smaller proportion of infected people are dying a far greater proportion of our community is becoming infected and hence our community as a whole is suffering more death and ruined health than ever before. We are buying our own individual convenience with the suffering and deaths of our fellows.
We are now offered a clear choice between our own freedoms and comfort and the welfare of our community. In most cases these freedoms and comforts are as trivial as not wearing a mask at the supermarket or opening our mouths to say “excuse me I need some space to get through”. Individuals have learnt that we need only do things if the government says so and even when they do we should get away with whatever we can – sort of like a child or teenager.
It would appear that we need to at least consider doing something differently. Perhaps we need to do something like what we did to control HIV/AIDS and for which we were also the envy of the world. Mobilise local communities through their natural leaders. Help them involve community members in coming up with a local Covid prevention strategy. Support them with; financial resources, technical expertise and creative ideas like: how to redesign or reorganize public spaces, how to keep businesses and the arts patronized, how to look after the vulnerable, and how to identify and mobilize persuasive community influencers. They will speak amongst their own people, people they know personally. And they will think of approaches that are locally relevant, approaches that centralised governments can’t be expected to come up with.
Health experts would agree that we know what we have to do. There have been a clear guidelines set out for this sort of thing since the Ottawa Charter was put together at the first International Conference on Health Promotion in 1986. We just have to get everyone working on the same team again. And we know that involving people in decision making, planning and implementation fosters teamwork and will bring us together.
This is a suggestion to use a proven approach, one that has been proven right here in Queensland. We have a duty to at least try it – a duty to the 11,000 who have lost their lives and duty to their families, friends and local communities – a duty to each other.
This is an opinion piece, if you wish to engage with Adrian about the issues he raises, you can use the comments box below.
For the latest information on COVID please see the Queensland Health site here – https://www.qld.gov.au/health/conditions/health-alerts/coronavirus-covid-19
See more COVID related stories here – https://westender.com.au/discussing/news/covid-19/
Cover image, Shutterstock.