After two years mostly keeping COVID-19 at bay, the Omicron variant swept over Australia like an incoming tide. But there are lessons to be learnt from the response for when the next variant inevitably comes along.
Despite repeated warnings that new variants would emerge, the Australian government seemed caught off guard by the arrival of Omicron in late 2021.
The timing could not have been worse, as New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria were all preparing to open up ahead of Christmas after spending most of the year battling the Delta variant, with the associated restrictions, rising case numbers and deaths.
The prime minister, along with state leaders, was determined to press ahead with the reopening plans regardless. Public opinion in the eastern states also reflected a desire to get back to normal.
So press on they did. The pressure placed on the public health system was felt instantly. Ambulances queued outside Sydney hospitals while the health service in Victoria entered a “code brown” scenario, cutting off all elective surgery to preserve capacity.
The ‘test and trace’ system that had been so successful earlier in the pandemic was now completely overwhelmed. Members of the public were reporting wait times at testing sites of more than 12 hours.
Thankfully, the Omicron wave seems now to have passed its peak. But inevitably more variants will pop up in future, so how can we be better prepared?
Be more realistic
Much of the frustration felt by everyday Australians during the pandemic has related to reality often not matching the expectations set by our leaders.
What were initially two-week lockdowns became four weeks, then eight weeks, then were extended indefinitely. We were told the hospital and aged care systems were robust and holding firm, when nothing could have been further from the truth.
Advising the public of the bad details is just as important, if not more, than keeping attitudes positive.
So far, COVID-19 vaccines have proven very effective at preventing severe symptoms but not as effective at stopping transmission, particularly of the Omicron variant.
The effectiveness of the current vaccines also seems to begin waning after around six months. New vaccines will need to take this into account and aim for an extended coverage period.
There are number of vaccine candidates promising longer protection, including the COVAC-1 vaccine being developed in Germany.
COVAC-1 is a multipeptide vaccine that attacks the T-cells of the virus, rather than the B-cells targeted by the first round of vaccines.
Clearer vaccine communication
The initial message to go out and get vaccinated was loud and clear. But what wasn’t so clear were the details: where to get your vaccine, which vaccine to get and how many doses you would need to be considered ‘fully vaccinated’.
At first it was two, but now a third booster dose is strongly recommended. There has even been talk of redefining the fully vaccinated definition to mean three doses, or even more.
This fuels vaccine scepticism in the community and undermines faith in our medical professionals. Being more upfront with the public about what vaccinations will be required will go a long way toward reassuring people.
Rethink business supports
The extended lockdowns have taken a sledgehammer to the economy. While large corporations may have had enough cash on hand to weather the storm, Australia’s small businesses were not so lucky.
Even in this post-lockdown period, people are still wary of going to high-risk settings and businesses. This has in turn caused what is being referred to as a ‘shadow lockdown’, where despite being legally allowed to open, businesses are still not being patronised.
Accessing financial support during this time has been a confusing task, with squabbles between state and federal governments over who would foot the bill delaying the delivery of crucial support.
When new variants hit, a streamlined nationally consistent support system will need to be in place if businesses are to avoid the same fate.
Are you worried about any potential new variants? Have you had your third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine? Let us know in the comments section below.
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