Beyond death

We’re coming to the end of the acute end of the pandemic. The end of the beginning, perhaps.

It occurred to me today as I giggled over the two monikers ascribed to the concurrent protests in Wellington and Canberra, Dumbkirk and Dumbernats, respectively, that there’s a likely outcome of these protesters’ actions.

We’re no longer concerned with mass death, or tanking the health care system due to the unvaxed. We’re also disabused of the notion that vaccines will prevent widespread transmission of omicron, although certainly they inhibit it significantly. I’m not broadly in favour of our state government, in that they’re incontrovertibly a shiny-arsed bunch of carpet baggers, but in terms of the pandemic, it appears the NSW state government has broadly applied the general maxim first articulated by Guru Dolly – “You’ve got to know when to fold them”.

Public health measures chew through political capital at a rate of knots. The cost of vaccine passes and mandates was high. The vaccine pass system lasted for approximately two months. It was punitive rather than practical, a hat tip to all the people who got vaccinated to protect the healthcare system, and to ‘open up’. Very few people actually wanted to get the vaccine, and many more thought it was probably unnecessary for them personally. But, they did it, swayed, as they were, by the compelling set of apocalyptic graphs trotted out by bespectacled public servants in ill fitting jackets. And, of course, the images floating in from media and also loved ones overseas.

A reckoning with those who wouldn’t get the vaccine was popular, and the mandates and passes were it. By mid December, with a vax rate of approximately 95%, and with protection against the circulating Delta strain holding firm, it was no longer necessary to preserve passes etc.,. for the sake of the health system.

And then came omicron.

It’s not my intention to recap our rather dull Hot Vaxed Bummer.

What I wanted to talk about is the long term. It’s now pretty clear that having Covid, without the benefit of pre existing immunity through a vaccine, can leave a person with some longer term problems. To be sure, this can happen to the vaccinated too, but, as more data emerges from the unvaccinated (pre vaccines) cohorts, we’re starting to realise that there’s something more nuanced that death on the table.

Vaccination prevents severe illness and as such, circumvents one of the key paths to Covid associated chronic illness, everything from heart and lung damage to thrombotic issues to liver and neurological damage. As I watched the cheerful, marching freedom warriors gaily burning a deep shade of puce under the clear, hot skies of a Canberra summer, I realised that these are the people who always end up with the shit end of the stick. Rheumatic fever, shingles, retinopathies, diabetes….the list goes on. These are diseases of poverty, both economic and intellectual.

Let me tell you a story.

I have a friend who is an anti vaxer. Her theory is that children don’t need to be protected from diseases such as diphtheria or measles because children have an immune system that takes care of these things for them. Vaccines only exist because adults need to stay in the workforce and can’t take time out to care for sick kids. Also, she (being my age) experienced diseases against which we now vaccinate – measles, mumps and chicken pox. She did not, of course, experience diphtheria or tetanus, or polio all of which are truly terrifying diseases. This was because her parents, being sensible New Zealanders, took five minutes out from worming everything in sight to vaccinate her.

This is not one of these stories where I tell you that one of her children died. Her kids are alive. However, as teenagers, they acquired German Measles. What followed was a quite severe illness, which was a bummer for sure, but again, not life threatening. And then, after that, followed a cascade of really interesting and quite devastating mental health problems for one of the children. I’m not talking about depression, or ‘feeling like totally not like getting out of bed’. I’m talking about severe mania, a disabling set of problems that ruined the child’s life. This was a consequence of German measles – just bad luck, and something that was once more widely known. Indeed, it was so unusual it took a bit of sleuthing to work out the root cause. And it wasn’t the parents who sussed it out, it was the child, who took herself off to the doctor, where, unfettered by the hovering anti vax parents, diagnosed the problem.

Perhaps you’re thinking – phew, she got treatment, and everyone learned a lesson. No harm no foul.

Well, lessons were learned, but there was no effective treatment. The mental problems continued, and continue to this day, years later. Perhaps what is more surprising, but shouldn’t be, is that the daughter sees the illness as a turning point in her life (which it was) and, quite rightly, laid the blame firmly at the feet of her parents. The parents dismiss this, and claim that she was probably ‘going to go mad anyway’ as one other member of the family suffers from schizophrenia, which makes sense because this relative also liked hats (suffice it to say that this is some of the most egregiously stupid fucking rubbish I’d had the poor fortune to encounter). The illness was the complete and irrevocable ending of the family relationship, all for the sake of a vaccination.

We have completely lost sight of the established consequences of serious illnesses, consequences that were once commonplace and well understood.

Which brings me to Covid19. The unvaccinated will acquire the virus, along with everyone else. Those who are healthy and younger will probably recover well. But a quick eyeballing of the assembled masses at DumberNats does not inspire confidence in their rude good constitution. Their encounter with SARS2 will likely add to their already comprehensive list of physical shortcomings, with long term complications.

We’re not paying enough attention to the general, long term implications of illness. Take one simple example, HTLV-1, which is a retro virus, an immunodeficiency virus. Most people have never heard of it, and yet, in some First Nations communities in Australia, it is endemic. It’s spread through sexual contact, needle sharing and breastfeeding, and predisposes people to a range of problems down the track, one of which is an aggressive form of leukaemia. It’s Bad News.

Each time we load a novel disease into our systems, it has a look around and gets busy rearranging the chairs. Usually, if we are robust, this happens without incident. But in others, those already at capacity with Harvey Norman sofas with those built in cup holders, this can be quite devastating.

And this if how I see the burden of Covid19 playing out in ‘rich’ countries – a disease whose consequences are borne by those with the least capacity to deal with them.

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