My PhD is motivated by action to mitigate climate change. Ironically, my work toward resolving one global disaster is being continually hindered by another.
In December last year, as the rates of vaccination in our city reached the highest in the world, my PhD supervisor recalled our team to return to our university offices. Despite my reservations that the vaccine would be a final ticket out of lockdowns or working from home, I did let a little hope in, and I reset my mind and my office space for a fresh start to PhD work this year.
Not four weeks later, now in January of 2022, case numbers of Omicron are spiralling out of control and we have again been urged—both by universities and state government—to work from home. In the same 24 hours as I contemplate my ‘return’ to work this year, I have learned of two lines of personal exposure to COVID-19—an event that was rare before the unfettered reopening of Australia amidst the outbreak of Omicron. Despite the obvious risks, social restrictions remain at bare minimum.
As a PhD student staring down the start of a last chapter to my thesis, I find myself torn. I don’t want to see extreme lockdowns or border closures that would again impact my PhD work: restricted access to my field sites for data collection, work from home, isolation from peers and academic community, etc. That said, I do want to feel that the government is taking measures to protect my future. I am investing hugely in my education, to the benefit of Australia. In return, I want to feel safe and, at a minimum, I want to feel that whatever sacrifices present today, are the cost paid for a better tomorrow.
But I don’t feel that way about the management of Omicron.
In the advent of an election year, on the promise of a golden vaccination ticket, the Australian government has let Omicron—remember, just one variant of a rapidly mutating virus—run loose in our community. I am furious and disillusioned about the ease with which governments have sold the Australian public on this ‘learning to live with it’ pitch.
As argued in a recent Politico article by Emil Bergholtz, Nele Brusselaers and Andrew Ewing, the ‘learn to live with it’ approach represents a pathetic lack of political will. It relies on false assumptions about mutual immunity (i.e. that vaccination and/or Omicron infection will give us immunity to future strains) and ignores issues of tipping points, including that ‘letting COVID rip’ in our communities dramatically increases the probability that new variants will emerge.
And then we get a few weeks breather until the next variant swoops in from unvaccinated Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Unless of course the G7 leaders snap out of their coma and start helping us and other developers of low cost, safe, easy to scale, and administer covid vaccines— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) January 10, 2022
Another bottom-line is that there is still so much we don’t about the virus. While the prevalence of COVID in our lives might give the impression of familiarity, new studies are continually emerging about the virus’s long-term effects, effects that we should all be seriously alarmed about.
One in 20 people who contract COVID-19 have not fully recovered 6 weeks post-infection and a report published September of last year found that as many as one in seven children who catch COVID had not fully recovered 15 weeks later. There is also increasing evidence to suggest inducement of other disease following COVID infection. A report published just days ago suggests that children who have contracted COVID-19 are more likely to develop diabetes, although the mechanism of association between diabetes and COVID remains unknown. As such, we are now seeing the first suggestions that COVID could represent a huge future chronic disease burden.
Despite this alarming reality and the sweeping proliferation of the Omicron variant, we are still being sold on the story that we should ‘learn to live with’. At surface it feels sensible, even inevitable. At heart it establishes a brutal and false dichotomy to choose between jobs and a functioning economy, or preventing deaths and an unknown future burden of disease.
If we really want life to go on, which means having safety and security, then we need sensible social restrictions in place for the foreseeable future. Restrictions that can curb the spread of the virus while we race to develop low cost vaccines, and better vaccines, and administer them globally (as Professor of Paediatrics and Molecular Virology Peter Hotez and others have frequently argued). Restrictions that would give us a better chance of stepping into a COVID-free tomorrow. That would give me—and other students like me—some small relief.