Australia became world leader this week.
But it wasn’t an engineering feat or some sporting achievement – it was an unwelcome title.
According to global databases, Australia led the world with per capita COVID infections (if you ignore the small islands of Montserrat, Anguilla and the Falklands).
On Friday, 54,591 cases were reported across Australia, after 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 more than 48,000 daily cases, leaving Australia behind only Germany and the US in all-new daily cases.
Some countries, such as Denmark, have dropped recommendations for testing for COVID-19 and others have scaled back testing regimes, meaning it is now more difficult to make comparable comparisons around the world.
In Australia, however, hospitalizations and deaths are also following up, with the average number of COVID-related daily deaths reaching 40, doubling since March.
But with the country in the midst of an election campaign — in which COVID is barely mentioned — a war raging in Ukraine, the cost of living soaring and after more than two years of COVID restrictions, the virus has, understandably to some, fallen off the radar.
And the experts understand.
“I’m over it,” said Brendan Crabb, chief executive of Burnet Institute.
“We are all.
“But the numbers we see in Australia are extraordinary. So many people are very sick.
For Professor Crabb, the “disconnect” comes back to what he describes as a fear of “COVID of the past” and “COVID now.”
He said that after two years of extreme fallout, 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 why cases — and hospitalizations — had now increased: transmission.
And “COVID now,” he said, had a huge impact on society.
“Remember, a lot 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 implications. How many of Australia’s more than 350,000 active cases at this point will have chronic effects on your lungs, organs and brain.
“It’s not nothing.”
According to University of Melbourne epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, the numbers could “get worse”.
“We are at a point where COVID is now one of the leading killers of Australians, and will probably be one of the top three by the end of the year,” she told the ABC.
“And with increasing case numbers, new sub-variants [will be] This could push it even further, which would have a bigger impact.”
Cases ‘will rise’
As Professor Baxter suggests, the emergence of new Omicron subvariants in Australia complicates matters.
Experts suggest the variants could lead to people being reinfected, leading to another rise in cases, as 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 alternative variants around the world was “worrying.”
“We don’t know if any of these new variants will acquire the capacity to infect the lungs to the same extent as, say, Delta.
“There is COVID everywhere. And where there are more viruses in the community, the more likely variants are to develop.”
Epidemiologist Adrian Easterman of the University of South Australia said cases across Australia “will increase”.
“And hospitalization will continue to rise as cases increase,” he said.
“Our governments are relaying the messages that it’s all over. It’s not over yet.
“We’re at the endgame. We’ve got pretty good vaccinations, good treatments, and at least a decent portion of the population that’s immune.
“But it’s not over yet.”
One sector of the community that is well aware that COVID is “not over” is the country’s health professionals.
This week, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians reiterated its call for urgent action against industry burnout and exhaustion, saying “there is no reprieve”.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said health professionals felt there was “a deliberate cover-up” of the ongoing challenges COVID-19 posed to the health care system.
“We’re a bit stuck,” he said.
We treat COVID like it’s a cold, and say no masks, play on.
He said health professionals were fed up, especially around reports from politicians that the pandemic was “over”.
“In Perth” [where I’m based]they say it could soon be 20,000 to 25,000 cases per day,” he said.
“And we’ve had a lot of anecdotal reports of people not testing themselves, or when they get a positive test, not taking the result to the government.
“And that obviously has implications for health workers. For example, in WA alone, we currently have about 2,500 health workers.
“We feel that the plight of our public hospitals has not been notified. Our employees cannot understand it.”
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