THE English word chaos derives from the ancient Greek “khaos”, meaning a vast chasm or void, at times designating the emptiness of the universe before creation, at others the abyss of the underworld.
It was the Roman poet Ovid who brought the term closer to its contemporary meaning, seeing chaos not as a formless void but as a jumbled, disorganised mass.
As we enter our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of those meanings might apply.
How has Australia gone in a few short weeks from having some of the tightest disease control in the world to the chaos we’re now living through?
The highly transmissible Omicron variant is obviously part of the answer, as is a general weariness with restrictions after 2 years of on-and-off lockdowns.
But the far bigger problem is various governments’ adoption of what has been called a “let it rip” strategy. It seems the politicians, too, are tired of having to deal with this pesky virus.
“Increasingly, the pronouncements coming from government are completely politically driven and … not health based,” Professor Paul Torzillo of Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital told junior doctors in an internal video obtained last week by the Sydney Morning Herald.
The hospital was now filtering statements from state and federal health departments to determine what was appropriate to communicate to staff and patients, he said.
As frontline health staff in many parts of the country reel under the impact of growing hospital admissions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told us last week we should respect Omicron “but not fear it”.
After being told for 2 years to be afraid of this disease, many of us are finding the sudden shift in rhetoric hard to swallow.
Just about everybody I know is frightened, whether of the disease itself, of their job or business finally succumbing to the ongoing disruption, or of being unable to care for sick family members if they themselves are in isolation.
On top of that, to continue the classical theme, there are the Herculean efforts required to even find out if you have the disease.
In my home state of New South Wales, mass emails have been sent out telling us to only to get a PCR test if we fit a few narrow criteria, such as being more than 20 weeks pregnant, unvaccinated or immunosuppressed.
Otherwise, we should use a rapid antigen test.
It’s no secret these are harder to find than a politician who’s prepared to take responsibility for their mistakes.
Pharmacies post signs saying they have none, while some unscrupulous businesses profit from the mayhem by illegally breaking up multi-packs to sell individual tests at scalper prices.
Forget jewel robberies. In a very 2022-style heist, four men were arrested last week after the alleged theft of 42 000 tests, valued at more than half a million dollars, from a Sydney freight depot.
The federal government appears not to have foreseen or prepared for a likely increase in testing demand as the country opened up, a strange echo of its failure to secure adequate vaccine supplies earlier in the pandemic.
The difficulty of getting tested means official case numbers now represent, at best, a baseline, leaving all of us, including those modelling the disease’s behaviour, without accurate and timely data. Hospital and ICU figures may be more reliable but take longer to appear.
“I feel as though we’ve been abandoned,” one friend says to me.
When NSW abruptly removed all restrictions in mid-December just as the Omicron variant surged, some critics described it as “putting the economy before people”.
But it was stupider than that.
What the politicians apparently failed to recognise was that the economy is people.
Without actual humans to produce and transport the goods, to stock the shelves, to patronise the businesses, there is no economy.
Businesses that have weathered 2 years of pandemic disruption are now struggling, some shutting their doors for good, under the combined onslaught of supply difficulties, labour shortages due to illness and isolation requirements, and customer reluctance to venture out in public as many of us enter a self-imposed lockdown.
The impact of the crisis has perhaps been at its most cruel in aged care, where residents are repeatedly plunged into isolation, denied access to family and friends, when a staff member or fellow resident is exposed.
How do you explain to somebody with dementia why everybody they care about appears to have suddenly abandoned them?
Drastic action that made sense in earlier phases of the pandemic is harder to understand, from either a scientific or humanitarian point of view, now that the Omicron horse has bolted. Is it possible at this point to keep the virus out of aged care, short of turning residences into virtual prisons?
In the face of these multiple crises, Melbourne physician and ethicist Professor Paul Komesaroff reflects from his own COVID-19 sickbed on the paths that led us, after early success against the disease, to what he calls a “true disaster”.
“The ‘let it rip’ strategy is a potent statement that health and human life should be held to be of little value; that individual ‘freedom’ is directly opposed to collective action and mutual care; and that our society is richer and better if we and our governments repudiate responsibility to weaker members, to those fleeing persecution, and to future generations,” he writes.
“What is at stake is the vision we wish to have for our society: is it that of a collection of individuals opposed to each other, where security is limited to the powerful and the privileged? Or is it of a world of shared values, where collective resources can be applied to those most in need, where each of us is prepared from time to time to defer our own comfort to assist and care for our fellow citizens?”
Our high rates of vaccination, the willingness of most of us to comply with restrictions designed to protect others, give hope that we will choose the second path to better confront the future crises that undoubtedly await us and find a way out of chaos.
Jane McCredie is a science and health writer based in Sydney.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.