No, it’s not a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’. It still threatens us all | Kate Hennessy

Two phrases stood out at the start of the American summer. On social media it was “hot vax summer” while in regular media it was “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, the latter coined by President Biden and CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

The second phrase caught on in Australia too. ​​“Biden’s right,” Westmead Institute for Medical Research virologist Tony Cunningham told the ABC on 17 August, “it’s becoming a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’.”

When I got my second jab in mid June – in “limo guy” week in Sydney – I hadn’t heard the phrase yet but similar ideas were brewing in my group chats as we began to grapple with the anti-vaxxers popping up; not in anecdotes from Mosman or Mullumbimby but in our own personal and professional circles.

Their spurious reasons to stick a spoke in the wheel that society was collectively rolling back to normality were infuriating. Stay calm and show them official information, experts said. But our trust in that information apparently made us brainwashed sheeple who believed everything the lamestream media said.

As lockdown lengthened, the task of converting those faithful to dodgy internet sources felt too big at a time when our energy was too low. “Pandemic of the unvaccinated” was an attractive outlook because implicit in the phrase was the corresponding comfort that “the vaccinated” were safe. It’s not our pandemic any more; it’s theirs. Here was an “us and them” narrative I could get behind.

Only it’s not true. First, there is the fact that Covid needs unvaccinated bodies to brew up new variants. Second, there is breakthrough Covid, with the potential to make some vaccinated individuals very sick, as well as those who can’t get the jab. Then there are the interconnected tendrils of the healthcare system, which my friend and Melbourne-based writer Bunny Bunyai perfectly summarised: “The choice not to vaccinate impacts every single person requiring healthcare, which is fucking all of us!”

During lockdown, I faced my own anxieties on this front. My dad called at the end of June to tell me he needed a heart bypass. He was pretty shocked and talked about how they’d have to pry his breast bone open. His operation was scheduled for mid September however, far enough away that we assumed we’d be able to see him first.

It was a long cold winter in my “LGA of concern”, Canterbury-Bankstown. Melburnians said the same of 2020. Only our numbers refused to drop, giving no unifying sense of pain for gain. Just fury from other states that we were doing every inch of it wrong.

Interstaters who were not themselves in lockdown fumed at Sydneysiders who were. Where was our ring of steel? Our crush and kill? They rage-shared photos taken using lens compression of people exercising at Bondi beach, hellbent on reinforcing the myth that the entire city was a reckless buffoon that was sun-baking and Bunnings-browsing through lockdown-lite. “It sounds like people aren’t taking it very seriously down in Sydney,” said a festival organiser from Alice Springs. I didn’t reply.

The stories about the struggling hospitals started early. The first one really scared me but it got much worse. Weeks of it, then months, with Dad’s operation in a western Sydney hospital drawing closer. It seemed that no matter how much attention the media shone on the struggling ICUs, the government line stayed the same: the system is under stress but it is coping.

What was the truth? What situation, exactly, was my 77-year-old dad going into for the operation of his life? Not being able to see him made it harder to wrap my head around.

I decided I’d get a compassionate exemption to visit. In an ideal world I wouldn’t drive up alone and our family would gather in the kind of warm ritual of togetherness that makes you feel everything might be OK. But this was no ideal world. I told a friend of my plan and she replied: “You’re lucky you’re in the same state”. Lucky? I wished my dad lived in literally any other state in Australia at that point so he could access a hospital system that wasn’t “under enormous pressure”, “on its knees”, “at breaking point” or under “hellhole conditions”, as the headlines blared.

I developed a new anxiety condition. Each night a feeling of unpindownable dread would descend after 9 or 10pm, when it was too late to talk to my partner about it. As a special education teacher getting mandatory Covid tests twice a week to leave our LGA to work, he had his own worries. Everyone did. I had plenty on top of Dad’s pending surgery myself.

The reports continued. Elderly Australians in NSW dying seemingly every day of hospital-acquired Covid and ICU nurses increasing sedative doses for patients they didn’t have time to properly care for. My dad’s hospital went into “emergency operation” mode and my sister’s (elective) surgery there was cancelled.

Meanwhile, I reached peak dread. I started to feel angry about the constant stream of dire articles. But then, action. On 31 August, NSW halved its number of international passengers to redeploy health workers from hotel quarantine to hospitals. I snatched the good news like the tail of a kite and hung on, aware it was not good news for people trying to return to Australia.

My compassionate trip to see Dad faded into impossibility. The lead-up to a heart bypass involves weeks of scans, X-rays, tests and a three-day period of washing with special soap and changing your sheets daily. Even if I was vaxxed, tested, masked and pre-isolated, I couldn’t enter that delicate equation.

Roger Hennessy in ICU after his triple heart bypass during Sydney’s lockdown Photograph: Roger Hennessy in ICU after his triple heart bypass during Sydney’s lockdown

After Dad went in, I drove to the family home to be with Mum. The morning after his operation, a front-page Sydney Morning Herald article reported that “a dozen of the state’s top cardiologists were forced into isolation and multiple urgent heart procedures cancelled after two unvaccinated nurses worked while infectious with Covid-19 at a major Sydney hospital”.

It wasn’t Dad’s hospital. His triple heart bypass had been a success and his quality of care was exceptional. Though not without a Covid scare, which apparently saw the rest of his surgeon’s operations cancelled for the day. Had Dad not been scheduled early that day would he have remained shaved of his body hair and awaiting his life-saving surgery? Would he have stayed longer and been exposed to an unvaccinated nurse, like other patients had been?

He was in ICU for four days and in hospital for seven, with the deadline for healthcare workers to be vaccinated still two weeks away. I felt like my family was living out the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Luck, luck, luck.

Two days before Dad’s return, I met an old school friend in a park. He was unvaccinated and upset it had been made mandatory by his employer. His body, his decision. “You know that your decision affects other people too, right? In a life and death way?” He looked at me curiously, so I told him this story. “They’re saying it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” I said. “But it’s not.”

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