In the Old Testament, the Bible recounts the 10 Plagues of Egypt, disasters inflicted by God to force the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. In the past few months, Australia has been forced to endure plagues of its own, afflicted with terrifying bush fires, drought and smoke pollution that choked the skies. Now, the emergence of a global pandemic feels very much like another plague lapping at our shores after the summer that destroyed so much.
As of Thursday, there were 5,133 confirmed cases of covid-19 in Australia. Most cases have been in returned travelers — people who have traveled by plane or been passengers on cruise ships — rather than from pockets of local transmission. Just two weeks ago, it was predicted that by April, Australia would run out of intensive care unit beds. But the rates of infection have not yet been racing away as we have seen overseas.
Despite this apparent good fortune, it is far too early to make predictions for the coming months. The disasters of the past few months, though, are still very fresh in our minds, as the country braces itself for what is yet to come.
The damage left by the bush fires, which decimated vast swaths of the east coast of Australia, not only included countless losses of wildlife but also devastating loss of human life, property and local economies. The efforts to rebuild communities and businesses, which had just begun, are already at risk from the coronavirus outbreak, as people are unable to travel to inject much-needed spending into affected areas. Questions have even been raised as to whether funds raised to rebuild after the devastating summer can or will be repurposed to tackle covid-19. The economic and psychological scars left by the summer’s catastrophes are far too fresh for us as a country to have to bunker down for yet another wave of destruction and angst.
In the face of this, scrutiny of the role of our elected leaders is especially sharp. Particular scrutiny has been paid to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose handling of the bush-fire crisis drew intense criticism. As the bush fires took hold, Morrison continued with holiday plans to Hawaii, leaving behind a country suffering and aching for leadership. As the pandemic unfolds, the prime minister has found himself in the unenviable position of navigating us through it, a gargantuan task. He is having to do so in a country that has not yet forgotten his missteps of recent months.
The government and our chief medical officer have found themselves lambasted for perceived slow reactions to restrictions on non-essential activities, for not closing schools quickly and for offering confusing and conflicting advice. Australians — including doctors like myself — have been unflinchingly critical of any lost opportunity to stop the march of covid-19 on our shores. Errors such as the bungled release of a cruise ship’s passengers in Sydney or the last-minute cancellation of the Melbourne Formula 1 race, where a member of McLaren’s team tested positive and the Ferrari team had recently arrived from virus-ravaged Italy, have been viewed in a much harsher light.
For Australians, the timing of this threat could not be worse. We have endured a summer of disasters on a biblical scale, and the loss and grief that this has brought upon Australia have been agonizing. Australia is often referred to as the “lucky country,” a land of great beauty and abundant resources that regularly outshines larger nations. We need this luck more now than ever before.
After a cataclysmic summer of loss, it feels very much that our luck is running very low. But rather than see this as yet another inevitable disaster in the making, Australians must dig deep to stop the spread of this virus. We must all adhere to stringent public health measures such as social distancing, rather than flocking to beaches in droves. And we must take any opportunity possible to shield our country from the spread of yet another plague.
Nikki Stamp is a heart and lung surgeon in Perth, Australia.