HISTORIANS of the future may find Australia’s 2022 election campaign somewhat puzzling.

They’ll see lots of talk about the cost of living – and fair enough – as well as plenty of chest thumping about national security. Climate change is there too, although I’d be prepared to bet our future commentators will be appalled at the lack of serious action on that front.

What I suspect they’ll find most surprising, though, is a very obvious elephant in the room.

I imagine them cross-checking their dates to make sure they haven’t got it wrong. “There was a global pandemic happening then, right?” they may ask.

At a time when Australia is jockeying for top spot in the list of countries with the most new COVID cases per capita, we have pretty much stopped talking about the biggest challenge our health system has ever faced.

At the time of writing last week, Australia had an estimated 350 000 active cases, 57 000 of which had been reported in the previous 24 hours.

By the end of December 2021, just over 400 000 Australians had contracted the disease. The cumulative total is now more than 6.45 million.

That’s more than 5 million people in 5 months, and it’s bound to be an underestimate given the move to reliance on self-testing.

Thanks largely to high vaccination rates, the disease is a lot less deadly than it was at the start of the pandemic (though several dozen people are still dying each day).

The reduction in mortality is no doubt one of the factors in our loss of interest, but a more compelling reason I suspect is that we are all simply exhausted.

The disease has taken an extraordinary toll on frontline health workers, but none of us have been entirely spared. After 2 years on high alert, plunging in and out of isolation, starting at every stranger’s cough, sanitising our hands like there’s no tomorrow, we just don’t have the energy anymore.

“Everybody’s so heartily sick of COVID-19 and all that’s gone with it,” CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia Terry Slevin told the MJA podcast last week, lamenting the lack of emphasis on health during the campaign.

Our apathy could have real-world consequences, Professor Slevin suggested:

“Already we’re seeing a fight for people in public health to hang on to what resources they’ve got.

The all-important focus groups must be telling our politicians we don’t care about this stuff, because otherwise they’d be talking about it.

So morally and intellectually impoverished is contemporary Australian politics that prospective leaders speak only about matters they believe offer direct electoral advantage.

There’s no vision for the future, no big ideas, no long-term thinking, just a whole lot of sniping, along with behaviour that would see a primary school kid kept inside at playtime until they learned the basic rules of social engagement.

Perhaps it’s understandable the government doesn’t want to remind us of their comprehensive mismanagement of last year’s vaccine rollout. It also seems likely advisors are telling both sides voters will disengage at the first mention of COVID-19.

But I imagine those future historians shaking their heads at the lost opportunities here.

COVID-19 has raised profound questions about pretty much every aspect of our society, from the nature of work to the difficulty of achieving a balance between individual rights and collective responsibility.

Are we really going to pretend the whole thing didn’t happen?

As global populations continue to rise, as climate change and other environmental damage increasingly make their presence felt, we are going to experience more health crises in coming decades.

Regardless of who wins this week’s election, the very least we should expect of our politicians is that they use everything we have learned over the past 2 years to prepare us for future challenges.

That means strengthening our health systems, our research capacity and our social support structures. It might even mean lessening our reliance on overseas technology and supply chains that are easily disrupted during a crisis.

Perhaps the work is happening behind the scenes but, if it is, we’re not hearing much about it.

Back in 2020, in year one of the pandemic that won’t go away, Labor did announce plans for a National Centre for Disease Control, but they haven’t elaborated much since.

A national body along those lines would be something, but it’s only a start.

We need to have hard conversations about the kind of society we want to build, and the health and other systems we would have to put in place to achieve that.

Who’s going to lead the discussion? Sadly, the current crop of politicians don’t seem to have it in them.

Jane McCredie is a science and health writer, editor and public speaker.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

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The ALP's plan to invest $970 million in general practice care and strengthening Medicare is a good one
  • Strongly agree (58%, 148 Votes)
  • Agree (17%, 44 Votes)
  • Neutral (13%, 33 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (7%, 17 Votes)
  • Disagree (5%, 12 Votes)

Total Voters: 254

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3 thoughts on “COVID is the invisible elephant in the election room

  1. Pierre Sands says:

    Australians don’t really care about COVID-19 anymore. There’s a reason politicians are not talking about it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    No politician in Australia has anything to be particularly proud about in relation to COVID.
    I’m not surprised in the slightest that they don’t want to open up that conversation.
    But then they’re not alone in that: many media, health bureaucrats and assorted commentators are in the same predicament.
    Because everyone is quietly asking themselves the same question: if we can manage like this now, why couldn’t we have managed like this all along?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the politicians from the major parties are not keen to answer questions about alleged Australian covid vaccine injuries and deaths, the economic suffering due to mandates, and legal cases ?

    I heard about a protest against vaccine mandates in Melbourne on Saturday, but saw nothing in the media.

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