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Price of ‘living with COVID’ must be understood before its paid

The supposed upside is “freedom”. But if there is one thing we have learned about this disease, it has never failed to disappoint on the downside.

By October 2020, the mobilisation and commitment of the Australian people, public health advisers along with the premiers and chief ministers delivered a sustainably COVID-free Australia. Most Australians therefore enjoyed a long and remarkably prosperous golden summer that lasted from October 2020 until June 2021.

The freedoms of zero-COVID Australia disappeared when inexcusably lax NSW government administration of Sydney Airport quarantine let Delta into an almost unvaccinated country.

The Federal government now insists that this hard-earned status be traded-in for a much less satisfactory future of “living alongside COVID”.

Like the generals at the outbreak of the First World War, Australia runs the risk of responding to last year’s COVID, not this year’s Delta, and what will almost certainly be next year’s new variants.

Chieu Lim, 81, receives a vaccine at Cabramatta in Sydney’s west.

Chieu Lim, 81, receives a vaccine at Cabramatta in Sydney’s west.Credit:Dean Sewell

Delta, which can be transmitted by the fully vaccinated, is trashing the optimistic assumptions made by countries that believed some elevated level of inoculation coverage would put the worst of the pandemic behind them. Delta is driving a global resurgence of cases and deaths, with a worsening situation emerging even in the United States and some European countries with much higher vaccination rates than Australia.

The almost certain consequence of allowing fully vaccinated Australians to travel abroad before Delta-proof quarantine is built and all Australians are fully vaccinated will be to import a significant and ineradicable caseload of Delta with increased numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths. No restrictions, including lockdowns, can be ruled out if things deteriorate.

The inability of the NSW government to bring the current Delta outbreak under control is an ominous portent of what might happen in 2021 if we open too soon and without adequate measures in place.

The Doherty Institute modelling details the health, economic and social consequences of accepting “living with COVID” has been published. Its underlying assumptions and scenarios should now be subject to the most rigorous and searching debate and analysis by other academic institutions, the Australian people and their Parliaments.

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The aspiration of the Australian people is not to “live with COVID” but to protect themselves, their families and communities from the worst effects of the evolving and worsening global COVID pandemic.

In their wisdom, a fully informed Australian people may conclude that the price of committing to Christmas with COVID is not worth paying.

Bill Bowtell is an adjunct professor at the University of NSW and a strategic health policy adviser.

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