Hal Swerissen

It is an oddity that that we have just had two weeks of mourning for a dead monarch in a distant land and almost no recognition or commemoration of the loss, sacrifice and pain experienced by Australians for the three years of COVID as the end of the pandemic comes into view.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor lived a long, disciplined and carefully managed life amongst wealth and privilege as a fading symbol of a time when Britain was a dominant colonial power, complete with a ‘Commonwealth’ of dominions and the capacity to determine the lives of 10s of millions of people around the globe from Westminster. Remnants of its institutions and cultural and religious practices remain enduring reminders of the colonial past across many nations including Australia and New Zealand.

Australia’s public mourning of a distant dead Queen had a sense of unreality that is ambiguous and hard to pin down. It felt staged, something we ought to do, rather than something that comes from deep inside. Unlike real personal loss, this period has passed quickly with little genuine grief. For many, Elizabeth’s death heralds a new beginning and soon the time will come to reflect on reconciliation with the past and a new course for Australia’s future. Constitutional recognition and a voice for indigenous Australians are a step in that direction.

By contrast for Australians COVID has been by far the most disruptive and traumatic experience in the 70 years Elizabeth reigned. The pain and loss COVID has caused vast numbers of Australians is deep and enduring. More than 10 million have caught the virus and nearly 15,000 are dead. 10s of thousands of health workers have cared for and comforted COVID patients on respirators as they died, too often with only gut wrenching FaceTime and Zoom to connect them with those they loved. And for the many husbands, wives, partners, sons, daughters and grand children left behind there is real pain in the memory of COVID. Very few of us have not been deeply touched by anxiety, loss and grief from COVID.

Who will forget the images of family and friends outside residential aged care facilities unable to visit, often desperate and worried, not knowing what was happening, watching staff staff in full protective gear coming and going? How many had to make calls to frail and immune compromised friends and relatives to tell that they now have COVID and may have inadvertently infected them? How many holidays, weddings and birthdays were postponed? How many funerals were unattended? How many had to adjust to working and studying from home? The list goes on.

On the front line, pressure on the health care system has surged. Health care workers learnt to live in protective gear. Whole staffing patterns were reorganised. Elective procedures were delayed. And for years health workers feared bringing the virus home and many lived separate lives from their families to protect them, particularly before vaccines were widespread.

More generally there was the collective stress and anxiety about lockdowns, isolation, community outbreaks and contagion before vaccinations were widespread. In those unvaccinated days the chances of dying were around 1 in 100 if you caught COVID. Communities, business and families had to learn to adapt and cope. Many of these changes are enduring.

And yet, as with the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed about the same number of Australians as COVID so far, there are no public commemorations to recognise the disruption, pain and sacrifice COVID has caused. In part this is because although, like military conflict, pandemics last a long time unlike most military conflicts, pandemics end gradually and ambiguously. Australia has a long record of commemorating the sacrifices made in war. Commemorations help individuals and communities come to terms with loss and grief, to make sense of our shared history and to learn from it.

But apart from health workers and those at high risk, the public mood is increasingly for putting the masks, social distancing and vaccinations in the past. Admonitions to relax restrictions slowly and cautiously have fallen on deaf ears. The public and political mood is to forget COVID.

So where are we? Has the pandemic ended? Technically, no. While the data shows falling infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths, deaths remain well above those for the flu at around 20 deaths a day. It’s too soon to tell how that will play out over the next year. There may be a winter surge or new strains of the virus.

Health, disability and aged workers and those at high risk still practice infection control, but the public is increasingly for putting the masks, social distancing and vaccinations in the past. Admonitions to relax restrictions slowly and cautiously are falling on deaf ears.

For politicians it’s now a balancing act – drop restrictions too soon and risk a new wave or lose the public and have restrictions ignored anyway. It would have been unthinkable argue for normalisation with 20 deaths a day a year ago, but times have changed. Even the World Health Organisation thinks the end of the COVID pandemic is in sight.

So, if for all practical purposes the public is moving on from COVID, is it time to begin thinking about how we should commemorate the sacrifices and the loses experienced during the pandemic?

Unlike the recent monarchical commemorations, a public commemoration of the pandemic would serve several important purposes. It would allow public expression of the grief and loss for those who have died, recognise of the sacrifices made by the community and particularly health workers and it would remind us to be humble and vigilant about the dangers of widespread infectious diseases.