Crispin Hull / The Case of COVID


The pizza was the triumph of the week. Salami, zucchini, Chinese mushrooms, a best-before-expired can of tomatoes and an assortment of left-over cheeses, none of them parmesan or mozzarella. It was the fifth day of isolation.

The week, as a whole though, was far from a triumph.

Friends had offered to deliver, but I did not want to add to their risk, and I had done a shop the day before testing positive.

I have had virtually no symptoms. The only reason I did a RAT was because my wife had tested positive. I had taken her to hospital the day before with what appeared like a lung infection not related to Covid because she had tested negative on a RAT.

A PCR test at the hospital the next day, alas, was positive. She spent a week in hospital with Covid-induced pneumonia.

That is the nature of the disease. Some people get seriously ill; others are almost completely unscathed.

It is a bit like car crashes. Some people get seriously injured, maimed or even die while other walk away without a scratch.

And our response to Covid should be the same, too.

The Covid statistics are alarming. Even more alarming is that few people seem to take much notice or care. Anyway, just so you know, three and a half times more people have died of Covid this year than in 2020 and 2021 combined.

In 2022 so far, 8088 people have died. In 2020 it was just 909 and in 2021 it was 1103.

We are running at 15 times the death rate as we were in 2020 and 2021. Yet we are taking fewer precautions, not more. Madness.

What happened with road deaths? Well, 1970 was the horror year in which 3798 people died on Australian roads, more than ever before or since.

Collectively, we did something about it. In 1971 seat belts became compulsory. The toll dropped. Then random breath testing (1985) and speed cameras (1989) were introduced. Roads and car designs were improved. Crash and road safety research was ramped up.

The road toll now is one tenth that of 1970 at four deaths per billion kilometres travelled, compared with 44 then.

The raw toll in 2020 was 1103, less than a third of the 1970 peak.

The measures were not especially onerous nor expensive compared to the saving of lives, medical costs and general economic loss.

At the time, of course, a vocal minority ranted against compulsory seat belts and random breath testing. They ran the usual “slippery slope” argument that all civil liberties would be destroyed if people were made to wear seat belts or stopped to provide a breath sample.

Sure, there is a slope, a grading of measures. But it does not have to be slippery. There comes a time when the measures become counter-productive. You just have to apply a common-sense balance of convenience, costs and benefits. No-one is suggesting speed limits be reduce to 5km/h to eliminate all road deaths. That would be economic suicide and might cost as much in lives and money as it would save.

But we did reduce the built-up area speed limit from 60km/h to 50km/h and we created some 40km/h zones. And we continue to take sensible road-safety measures.

hands with latex gloves holding a globe with a face mask

But we are not doing the sensible stuff with Covid. Health ministers and officials are recommending mask wearing, but not mandating it. In other words, they are scared of their voters, not leading them with evidence and education.

It is not a big ask to make people wear masks inside public spaces, particularly shops and shopping malls.

“Recommending” them is hopeless. The day I came out of isolation and went to the supermarket I was the Lone Ranger, the only person with a mask.

There is a case for vaccine mandates, particularly in health and education facilities. Lock-downs, however, are a bridge too far because our 2020 and 2021 experience tells us that they cause a lot of mental-health problems aside from the economic loss.

There is a strong case for pouring more money into the health system, which was stretched before Covid. We should pay our health workers more and give them more holidays lest we lose them as they resign in despair.

But to do next to nothing in the face of this appalling and climbing death toll should be unacceptable.

Nonetheless, a lot of media, particularly the Murdoch press and Sky News, is singing the “freedom” song, unnecessarily fearful that mask mandates would be the top of a slippery slope that would lead to lock-downs and hurt them and their business mates. This is unlike the media in the 1960s which was wholeheartedly in favour of road-safety measures.

I have a theory here, which I hope is wrong. Young fit men were hugely over-represented in road deaths in the 1960s, and still are. Whereas with Covid, the elderly, frail and people with pre-existing conditions are over-represented.

Are we saying that the old and frail are so expendable that we cannot take a few, cheap, non-onerous steps to reduce their exposure to what for them is a deadly disease?

I am for mask mandates and some level of vaccination mandate. The omicron variants have shown themselves too adept at adapting and dodging our immune responses. The theories that viruses get steadily weaker till they pose no substantial threat is not bearing out with omicron. Neither is the theory of herd immunity.

Herd immunity works with diseases like polio, diphtheria and the like, but not the omicron version of Covid. Mask mandates and greater vaccination rates would give us a chance to cut the infection rate down from as high as 3.5 (higher than Ebola or SARS) to say a little over 1, the level of seasonal flu.

Then we might be able to live with Covid, instead of allowing too many people to die of it.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 12 July 2022.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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