Happy 2022 – there’s good reason to hope it will be

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On the face of it, there seems little reason to be optimistic about the year ahead. COVID-19 cast a pall on New Year’s celebrations for the second year in a row and the risk of infection and isolation makes it hard to plan for next week let alone for the rest of the year. The sense of a never-ending crisis is unsettling.

The hospitality and entertainment industries are worried that the recovery in their sector will again be delayed as people opt to stay home. Frontline workers in hospitals, general practice, testing facilities and aged care will be considering the coming 12 months with heavy hearts as they prepare for a possible new wave of serious cases.


Without denying the significance of these concerns, The Age urges readers to look beyond the present anxieties to signs of a gradual improvement coming over the horizon. This year might not be too bad. Thinking the issues through dispassionately can help dispel anxiety and produces a plausible scenario that is far from bleak.

First, this is not the same as March 2020. The deployment of vaccines to more than 90 per cent of the population aged 16 and over has reduced the risk of severe disease, and scientific evidence suggests that protection will increase dramatically once the third booster shots are administered.

Already over 2.3 million people, a significant proportion of whom are in the most vulnerable categories, have had more than two doses. There will certainly be hundreds of thousands more cases, but thanks to the vaccines the health threat is far less than it was two years ago.

The next month or two still poses significant risks. Chief among them is uncertainty over how effective the vaccines will be against the Omicron variant. Most early studies suggest they do the job pretty well, but more corroboration would be reassuring. Evidence in the next few weeks will show more clearly the extent to which cases translate into serious illness in Australia’s well-vaccinated community. In other highly vaccinated countries it has surprised on the low side.

If early results are borne out, there should be relatively few deaths and cases of serious illness without the sort of prolonged lockdowns Melbourne and Sydney suffered through last year.

Another worry is that even if Omicron is indeed mild for the vast majority of people, there will be a burst of hospital admissions from the huge wave now sweeping the country, making it hard to give proper care to those who do fall seriously ill.

That is why it is crucial to flatten the steep curve of rising infections. People should show personal responsibility by isolating when required and reducing social contacts. Masks indoors and social distancing remain important. Improving ventilation needs to be a priority.

Yet the dark clouds could well disperse quite quickly. It should be possible to complete the task of giving booster shots to all high-risk sections of the population in the next month. New treatments by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology that can reduce the severity of the disease have just come online and will become more widely available in the next few months. The current shortages of rapid antigen tests will hopefully be solved soon.

There will be political arguments and no doubt the handling of the crisis will remain a major issue in the federal election. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said Australia was now paying the price for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s lack of leadership. Mr Morrison has said he “changed gears” as soon as new evidence about the Omicron outbreak came to hand.

There are no guarantees, but things could look better by Easter than they do now on New Year’s Day. The peak of infections may well have passed and the booster program will be almost complete. All the interstate borders – even Western Australia – may well be open and the country once again united, with Australia fully open to the rest of the world.

The Omicron wave will probably hurt consumer spending in some areas such as hospitality, and the economy could struggle in the first quarter of this year, especially since governments are reluctant to offer more emergency assistance. But the Reserve Bank has said that the positive momentum from last year’s stimulus will carry the economy through. Most important of all, in a few months we should have more confidence that the risk to our health and the health of our loved ones is under control.

It is not the best start to a year, but the country may get through this in good shape with low deaths that are the envy of the world. Our community and fundamental values will be intact. We will be proud of our resilience and public spirit and strong institutions. Happy New Year.

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