Protecting Essential Workers

anesthesia-4677401_1280.jpgEssential workers are just that. Desperately needed, whether their job is cleaning the beds or intubating victims of this virus.

Nobody depends on them more than the disabled. And, almost inevitably, they’re also those most at risk of infection. The problem is we still don’t know exactly what factors determine how the virus is passed from person to person or why some categories of people are more at risk than others.

A couple of years ago a reputable study from Oxford suggested that far more people have actually been infected with the virus than we thought. That was the original way the UK was going to combat COVID-19; rely on so-called ‘herd immunity’. If the study is actually true, as it might be, then the mortality rate from the disease isn’t nearly as bad as feared and we may as well just go back to living normally. If, on the other hand, the study is wrong and we relax restrictions too early, then, Houston, we have a problem.

In other words, although we know a great deal about this virus there are still a few critical and essential elements of the puzzle that we don’t, actually, have a clue about. That’s why, when NSW opened the floodgates because Covid appeared to be in control, it began spreading like wildfire.

It’s also been a critical factor explaining why the ACT and Victoria – unlike New South Wales – are so hesitant to re-open schools.

Scott Morrison’s urging schools to reopen so that the ‘essential workers’ can return to work – even though these are exactly the people who are most at risk of catching (and passing on) COVID-19. As we’ve seen from the number of infected hospital staff (who you’d expect to be practicing the very best risk management procedures), preventing the virus from jumping from one person to another is incredibly difficult. This includes the death of the original whistleblower, a doctor from Wuhan who first became aware of the deadly nature of Coronavirus.

A couple of years ago a worker at the Dorothy Henderson aged care home in Sydney tested positive to coronavirus. She hadn’t travelled overseas and had no known connection with anyone who’d had Coronavirus, thought she’d go to work as usual. This home has now become a hotspot, with the death of two (including a 95-year-old woman) and others in isolation. The worker is, understandably, devastated.

But the critical question is, how did she come to be infected? The answer is we just don’t know. That’s exactly why many experts believe it’s vital that schools don’t reopen.

Scott Morrison correctly insists, “there is no health risk to children going to school or going to childcare. The health advice is clear: children can to to childcare and children can go to school”. This is, in fact, one of the key mitigation strategies. The hope is that children will, in fact, spread the virus amongst themselves, conferring immunity on a large sector of the population without us having to do anything at all. For kids, catching Coronavirus is just like the flu. Bad, but not debilitating. That’s fine. The problem occurs when children pass the virus to their parents.

This certainly isn’t common. In fact, a worldwide study from a medical research Institute in Western Australia demonstrates this has only been found to occur, at most, about once in every hundred cases. The problem is, however, Australia has at least a hundred thousand essential workers.

Many of these people work in close proximity to vulnerable people – the very sort of people who can’t care for themselves. Residents in aged-care homes, people with disability, patients in hospitals, and these are exactly the last sort of people you’d want exposed to the virus, because of the potential for a sudden, catastrophic blow-out of cases.

And this is the critical reason that schools are remaining closed.

The PM is urging people to send their children back to school even though he has absolutely no idea – not the foggiest – how Coronavirus managed to enter and kill a resident in an aged care facility in Sydney.

There may be other explanations, but one possibility is that the worker was infected by a child who showed no symptoms other than the normal flu, and that’s critical to the decision of public health experts in the ACT and Victoria.

Currently, Australia’s escaped the worst of the virus and that’s why every decision about how the country shifts back to normal is so vital. A sudden outbreak, before full testing has been instituted, could still threaten to send the infection rate spiraling upwards and reset the clock back to the beginning again. This is why some public health analysts remain privately fearful that sending the children of essential workers back to school may prove to be the biggest blunder in Australia’s handling of the crisis so far.

It would only need one case of unknown transmission from a child to their essential care worker parent to destroy all the careful work of the past month.

Morrison seems determined to push towards re-opening the economy without waiting for the results of tracing every outbreak of Coronavirus. His bullish words demonstrate he’s completely confident of a positive outcome. It would be nice if everyone could be so certain.

Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: