No mandates, but authorities still ask people to think about COVID safety

As an “eighth wave” of COVID-19 emerges, it’s very much business as usual for most Australians.

The disease is now very much part of life – the World Health Organization ended its public health emergency declaration half a year ago, and Australia recently withdrew COVID-19’s Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance status.

Most people have contracted the virus. Almost everyone has received the initial vaccine protocol.

But the disease, caused by variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, continues to circulate. Australia’s chief health officer Dr Paul Kelly has noted an eighth wave is currently underway, led by infections with the XBB and EG.5 variant, nicknamed ‘Eris’.

Eris is the most prevalent variant globally and throughout Australia – accounting for nearly half of cases across NSW and Victoria, the nation’s most populous states.

While trends suggest an increase in case numbers nationwide, Kelly last week noted progressive waves of infection have been “less and less severe”. Weekly COVID-19-associated deaths and hospitalisations currently remain low, relative to previous waves in June and January this year.

While week-to-week reporting shows cases are jumping 15.8% in Victoria to around 45% in WA and the NT, these are from low baselines, though true case numbers are likely much greater. Australians are no longer compelled to report a positive test to a health authority, nor are there requirements to wear a mask in public or to avoid other people.

Instead, authorities are recommending that people take a common sense or ‘good citizen’ approach to the disease, should they test positive. And it’s likely to stay that way, with public health education and communication now the primary tools used by health departments.

“Public education is critical,” says Dr Diego Silva, a bioethicist at the University of New South Wales.

“It is a necessary component… in terms of promoting people get vaccinated in a timely fashion which means getting consistent messages across the place.

“There’s a huge communication role that a government has to take on as well, not just the education.”

Silva studied the interventions adopted by governments during the pandemic. Like many health experts, he expects measures like lockdowns and restrictions on movement are a thing of the past.

All Australian states and territories continue to ask positive cases to stay home until symptoms clear and avoid vulnerable people and places like hospitals and aged care facilities. If a person should leave the house, most authorities recommend wearing a mask, particularly indoors and in crowded public places.

And while government guidelines are now shifting responsibility to individuals to care for their own health (and that of others), Silva says governments still have a role to play.

“One thing that was front and centre during the pandemic, that’s taken a backseat now that we’re no longer in the pandemic phase, is thinking about what we owe individuals who are susceptible to infection,” he says.

“There’s a question about not only what we owe each other, but what we owe those who are most vulnerable.

“That is actually beyond the eighth, ninth, tenth wave of COVID, that then goes onto people who are susceptible to COVID, are probably going to be susceptible to influenza or other respiratory viruses. That’s one big thing.”

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