This week Australia became a world leader.
But it wasn’t a feat of engineering or some sort of sporting achievement — it was an unwelcome title.
According to global databases, Australia led the world in per-capita COVID infections (if you ignore the tiny islands of Montserrat, Anguilla and The Falklands).
On Friday 54,591 cases were reported across Australia, on the back two consecutive days of about 58,000 cases, with Western Australia bracing for new infection records.
Saturday’s numbers moved the official seven-day average to above 48,000 daily cases, putting Australia behind only Germany and the US in total new daily cases recorded.
Some countries, such as Denmark, have scraped COVID-19 testing recommendations, and others have scaled back testing regimes, meaning getting like-for-like comparisons across the world is now more difficult.
However, in Australia, hospitalisations and deaths are also tracking upwards, with the average number of COVID-related daily deaths hitting 40, doubling since March.
But with the country in middle of an election campaign — in which COVID barely gets a mention — a war raging in Ukraine, the cost of living rising and following more than two years COVID restrictions, the virus has, understandably to some, dropped off the radar.
And the experts understand.
“I’m over it,” Burnet Institute chief executive Brendan Crabb said. “We all are.
“But the numbers we are seeing in Australia are extraordinary. So many people are very, very sick.
“Yet, there’s a massive disconnect between what’s happening with these disruptions to our lives and why it’s happening.”
For Professor Crabb, the “disconnect” comes back to what he describes as a fear of “COVID of the past” and “COVID now”.
He said after two years of extreme impacts, governments and politicians were now afraid to talk about COVID. Instead, he said, they had removed mask mandates and kept their “heads in the sand”, ignoring the key element of why cases — and hospitalisations — had now increased: transmission.
And “COVID now”, he said, was having a massive impact on society.
“Remember, lots of COVID is bad for business,” he said. “We can’t ignore that. We’ve been seeing that for months.
“And as a nation, we’re also ignoring the health impact. How many of the 350,000-plus active cases in Australia right now will have chronic impacts? Overseas data suggests 10 per cent of them. And that will impact your heart, impact your lungs, organs and brain.
“It’s not nothing.”
According to University of Melbourne epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, the numbers may “get worse”.
“We’re at a point where COVID is now one of the major killers of Australians, and probably by the end of the year is going to be one of the top three,” she told the ABC.
“And with increasing case numbers, new sub-variants [will be] coming in. This may drive it even further, which would have a bigger impact.”
Cases ‘will go up’
As Professor Baxter suggests, the emergence of new Omicron sub-variants in Australia is complicating matters.
Experts suggest the variants may lead to people becoming reinfected, leading to another rise in cases, as is being seen in South Africa and parts of the US.
Westmead Institute virologist Tony Cunningham, who has studied the evolution of viruses for more than four decades, said the continued emergence of alternate variants across the world was “worrying”.
“The problems is we don’t know enough about them yet,” Professor Cunningham said.
“We don’t know if one of these new variants will acquire the capacity to infect the lungs at the same degree that, say, Delta does.
“There’s COVID all around. And where there’s more virus in the community, there’s more likelihood of variants emerging.”
University of South Australia epidemiologist Adrian Easterman said cases “will go up” across Australia.
“And hospitalisation will continue to go up as cases go up,” he said.
“And cases are going up, and they’ll go up even further once the new sub-variants of Omicron take over, which they will do.
“Our governments are giving out the messages that it’s all over. It’s not over, yet.
“We are at the end game. We have reasonably good vaccinations, good treatments and at least a reasonable chunk of the population that is immune.
“But it’s not over.”
One sector of the community acutely aware that COVID is “not over” is the country’s healthcare workers.
This week The Royal Australasian College of Physicians reiterated its call for urgent action over burnout and exhaustion in the sector, saying “there is no respite”.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said healthcare workers felt there was “a deliberate glossing over” of the ongoing challenges that COVID-19 was putting on the healthcare system.
“We’re a bit stuck,” he said.
We’re treating COVID as if it’s a cold, and saying no masks, play on.
“But there are still a lot of people coming into hospitals with COVID, and of course there’s no staff,” he said.
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He said healthcare workers were fed up, particularly around the messaging from politicians that the pandemic was “over”.
“In Perth [we’re I’m based], they’re saying it could be 20,000 to 25,000 cases a day soon,” he said.
“And we have had a lot of anecdotal reports of people not testing themselves, or when they get a positive test not recording the result with the government.
“And, of course, that is impacting healthcare workers. For example, just in WA alone, we have about 2,500 healthcare workers off at the moment.
“We feel as if there’s been no notice paid to the plight of our public hospitals. Our workers can’t understand it.”