customers stand by empty supermarket shelves
(Image: AAP/James Gourley)

What happens if we keep reporting COVID-19 the way we are? Take these headlines, published yesterday:

  • “Over 100 forced to isolate after second hotel quarantine worker tests positive for COVID-19”
  • “Hotel worker tests positive for coronavirus”
  • “Sydney and Melbourne on alert over COVID cases as Australian Open begins”
  • “Quarantine crackdown”
  • “One positive case after leaving NSW quarantine”
  • “UK passengers could have to take FOUR coronavirus tests — and pay for them all”
  • “Extra troops on their way to Victoria to help bolster hotel quarantine.”

Two issues should leap out at all of us. Firstly, the absolute lack of humanity that now dominates coverage focused on international deaths, tests, air-conditioning systems and quarantine breaches.

Where are the people at the centre of all of this?

The face of the young medico in the US who has worked weeks straight before succumbing to the disease she was desperate to stop?

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The condition of the Victorian hotel worker confirmed to have the UK strain?

The Sydney school teacher who spends his day calming the fears of 10-year-olds, who don’t know how to live with certainty in an age of uncertainty?

The Adelaide mother who can’t access a psychologist because, despite more funding, slots are filling up months in advance. What is she doing, in this moment? Who is supporting her?

Ironically our national debate has lost the emotion so important to how we must respond moving forward. It’s now become a contest of state v state over borders and tourism numbers and local government areas and quarantine rules.

The risk is that — especially if this continues on for much of 2021 — we forget the heartache behind those figures and quarantine breaches. We see a story about numbers and not people’s lives; a story about the UK and America and Europe and not our own backyard.

A few short months ago we were lining up to pay for the coffee of the nurse standing in front of us. We were routinely paying for the groceries of the elderly man struggling with his mask. Good people handed their toilet paper purchase to those less able to fight someone in a supermarket aisle.

Evidence of that kindness is now harder to see, and rarer to read about. The risk in all that is in how we treat each other, how we calm the fears of our children and deal with those isolated from their work colleagues.

But the second issue that deserves attention is the ratcheting up of alarm.

Troops rushing in. Mutant UK strains. Snap restrictions. Dangerous air-conditioning. We are privileged, so far, not to have this pandemic take the number of lives we’ve seen elsewhere; a combination of our geographic isolation, local decision-making and perhaps even a dose of good luck.

But we can’t afford the daily pandemic news to become like political wallpaper on our radios and mobile phone feeds. If we continue to fill our discussion with national alarm, we risk people turning off when it counts.

How our leaders handle this is paramount. How we respond is even more important.