Dear New Zealand,
I guess by now you have received Omicron, the unwanted visitor that we in Australia hosted over the Christmas season (and beyond â€“ the guest that stayed all summer!).
No doubt you have been busy preparing for this guest â€“ extending your isolation requirements, promoting booster shots and tightening restrictions. But a crucial form of preparation is the one you do in your head.
Going from having very few Covid cases to thousands of cases a day in the community is a mental shift that is hard to prepare for â€“ but having just had a summer of Omicron, Iâ€™m writing to tell you what may await.
Iâ€™m not writing to instruct you â€“ just to offer some solidarity, the advice I wish Iâ€™d been given, a glimpse from the immediate future.
The first thing that happens is that you start to know people who become contacts. They get pinged after checking in somewhere where there was a Covid case and suddenly dinner plans or a weekend away is cancelled. Then itâ€™s your turn. Youâ€™ll probably get an alert from somewhere unmemorable â€“ like the time you ducked into the supermarket for a carton of milk. And then quite dramatically, a week after the first ping â€“ your phone will go nuts with contact alerts. At least thatâ€™s what happened early on in Sydney.
Hopefully youâ€™ll be able get tested if you get pinged, but if you are unlucky, youâ€™ll be in a situation where itâ€™s difficult to get tested. This is the first mental challenge: the possibility of exposure to the virus and then the inability to get tested and know if you have it or not. In Australia, when Omicron arrived, the politiciansâ€™ mantra was â€œpersonal responsibilityâ€. This can add to the mental load of dealing with the outbreak. How can you take personal responsibility if you canâ€™t get tested? How to keep yourself sane, and others safe, if the state is unprepared? This virus is wildly infectious â€“ and personal responsibility is not going to cut it.
The next challenge is how to carry on your daily life when you and everyone you know is getting pinged. In Australia the settings for isolation were in flux. But you should be prepared to exit society for a period of time due to health orders. For us, this meant the possibility of missing Christmas or being unable to travel in the summer holidays to visit friends and family in parts of the country that were previously off limits. You may have dropped your guard and are just wanting to return to normal after almost two years of the pandemic. We understand the pain of uncertainty over here. After long lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney, and children denied almost two full years of education, we crave certainty more than ever. But sadly this summer has not provided it.
This phase of the virus is far from normal. Itâ€™s hard. Your friends and family will all have different levels of comfort being in the community around this time. Do not be surprised if your social life evaporates. People will go into self-imposed lockdown, preferring to wait out the Omicron wave in their homes rather than risk catching the virus. Be understanding and without judgment if somebody has a different capacity for risk than yourself. Keeping sane in this Omicron summer was different for everyone. Some people felt more secure withdrawing and keeping socialising to a minimum, others cancelled holidays and trips away. I moved the bulk of my socialising outside. It didnâ€™t feel quite normal â€“ but what does?
This summer we occupied the strange twilight world of not-quite-lockdowns: takeaway food and picnics in the park, food shortages and cafe closures, empty supermarket shelves and scary headlines about case numbers and overstretched ICUs. But there was also the beach, and hot nights in Melbourne drinking in outdoor bars. It was all a bit surreal, to be honest.
The third mental challenge is actually knowing people who have it.
Like us, youâ€™ve probably gone from being able to name many of your countryâ€™s Covid cases (we had â€œbarbecue guyâ€, the â€œSydney removalistsâ€ and the â€œlimo driverâ€) to people you know testing positive for Covid. Six months ago this would have been very dramatic â€“ but Omicron is not particularly exclusive and at its peak, many thousands of people a day catch it. But the first case among your circle can cause alarm. Will they be OK? What should you do to help? Have you caught it from them?
The best thing to do here is not to freak out and help them through their illness by getting them groceries and helping them (via phone/text) monitor their symptoms. At the start of January, a wedding I attended turned out to be a super-spreader event. We all thankfully recovered. Much of the stress of this week while sick was being unable to secure a Covid test. Hopefully your government has used the extra time theyâ€™ve had to ensure that everyone who needs a test has one.
The next mental challenge is when cases really begin to multiply and you see the effects of isolation and illness on broader society. Who really holds our society together? Omicron will tell you. Itâ€™s our hospital staff and paramedics, and people who work in supply chains, warehouses, abattoirs, on the docks, in restaurants, cafes and supermarkets. One day your town will be business as usual, and the next, after a wave has swept through, shops and cafes will be shut, supermarket shelves will be empty or sparse, local flights will be cancelled and you wonâ€™t be able to get an Uber for love or money. This is alarming because the disruptions allow you to actually see Omicron, and the havoc it creates. Just keep calm, donâ€™t stockpile more than you need, and adapt to the new circumstances. It lasts no longer than a few weeks.
The next challenge is when you wake up with a scratchy throat and a dry cough. After playing dodgeball with the virus for all these years, suddenly you think you might have it. But unless you have an underlying health issue, for the majority of vaccinated people this is also no cause for alarm. Stay home unless youâ€™re going out for a test, and look after yourself. For many people, the worst passes within a week. But as we are seeing in Australia, hospitalisations and deaths do rise with the increase in cases. The reality is not everyone recovers quickly.
So be calm, kind and try not to panic. This too shall pass.