The alternative world is the 17th-century world, one where vaccines did not exist, or – in the 2021 version of such a world – where many people are not vaccinated. In this world, the virus will spread, and spread exponentially.
More and more people will be infected, and they will infect other people. This is the world that the United Kingdom, the United States and most of Europe is living in, a world of thousands of new cases a day, hundreds of deaths, and overrun hospitals.
It is also the world NSW is living in today – where the virus is spreading among the unvaccinated.
In this 17th-century unvaccinated world, “living with COVID” means living with the reality that some of those infected will end up dying with COVID. And the ones most likely to die are the unvaccinated, and the vulnerable: older people, people with other diseases, and First Nations Australians.
The current reality is that about one-quarter of the Australian population is living in the 21st-century world, but everyone else – everyone unvaccinated – is still living in the 17th-century world.
At the political level, there are two contrasting “living with COVID” narratives in play. One is urging us to stay the public health course until all – or rather, at least 80 per cent – of the whole population is vaccinated.
The other narrative is suggesting we throw in the towel and condemn the unvaccinated to the 17th-century world. This fatalistic narrative suggests that nothing can be done to stop the spread of COVID, a reality fortunately belied by the experience in all states other than NSW.
It is also no surprise that this approach is being suggested by those whose failures have left so many Australians unvaccinated, and thus exposed to the ravages of the virus.
COVID is a nasty disease. It can kill. It can cause debilitating symptoms – even in those who have recovered from their initial symptoms.
We should not be complacent and ignore the benefits of science.
We should demand that political leaders lead us into a 21st-century world of living with COVID safely, not into the 17th-century world of living with COVID dangerously.
Stephen Duckett is director of the health program at the Grattan Institute.