opinion

'I’ve written about the COVID-19 pandemic for 345 days. Here’s what I’ve learnt.'

I start my work morning the exact same way. I consume as much Australian and international news as I possibly can, and then I curate the morning news article that you see splashed across the Mamamia homepage at around 8am every morning. 

From there, I try to figure out what news angles our readers will be most interested in. Is there a widespread mood? Do they need something explained or investigated? Is there a certain group of people who need to feel heard; teachers, nurses, parents? I sit on Twitter threads and scour through news updates from around the world.

For the past 19 months I've written at least one article a day about the COVID-19 pandemic, but I've consumed at least 10 times that, trying to determine what's most important for our audience. 

Right now, as Australia goes through another wave of lockdowns, pretty much everything I write is COVID-19 related. This pandemic has dominated my work life, and unfortunately doesn't end when I shut down my computer for the day. 

I can rattle off case numbers, facts and stats effortlessly because it's become pretty routine in my world. Same script - different number. I am also getting pretty good at predicting how our premiers and chief ministers are going to react to any given situation. 

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As a news journalist, I don't get to turn off when the pandemic gets a bit much. Thankfully, my on-the-road reporting days are behind me, so I don't have to attend the press conferences and the protests in person. But I do have to immerse myself in people's grief, fear and anger. I have done endless interviews with Australians (both here, and stuck abroad) who just want you to hear their COVID-19 story.

So, what have I learnt?

From the start, the experts have been two steps ahead. Listen to them. 

I have interviewed dozens of doctors, epidemiologists, biologists, and science experts. Their predications have always sounded scary. Apocalyptic. Other-worldly. Especially in the early days. But the thing is, they've always been right. What's tricky is, they predict and advise from a medical and science perspective, but that's not the only thing we have to worry about. 

It's why our politicians haven't always followed their advice to a tee. They've had to balance the economy with the health priorities. They haven't always got that balance right. 

Let me give you an example. In May 2020, I asked University of Sydney Faculty of Science Associate Professor Timothy Newsome, "Is there a chance we won't develop a vaccine? What happens if we don't?"

"I am optimistic that we will develop a vaccine. In the event that a vaccine is unobtainable, I think a way forward for society will be through increased testing, contact tracing aided by smart phones, and identifying antiviral drugs and treatments that can alleviate the symptoms of COVID-19 cases. Our way out of the current pandemic is through herd immunity, ideally achieved through a vaccine, but these measures could save many lives in the absence of a vaccine. Over many years, I am hopeful that COVID-19 will be relegated to more mild seasonal illness from its current pandemic status," he told me. 

His solutions sounded a bit bizarre back then, but they were spot on. That's exactly what we've done while we wait for the vaccine to be injected into enough arms. 

My point is, listen very, very carefully to the experts. When they say "it's a race" - listen. When they say vaccines are the only way out - listen. When they say a lockdown is a current necessary evil - listen. 

Politicians have other priorities. Scientists focus only on health and fact. And in my experience they're always two steps ahead. 

Anti-vaxxers aren't listening.

I've dealt with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists long before the COVID-19 pandemic. There was one Saturday a while back where I was bombarded with about 45 emails because I wrote an article about 5G. I eventually had to take my name off the article to stop the barrage of abuse. 

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Something similar happened when I wrote about the need to get our children up to date with their vaccinations. Again, that was pre-pandemic. 

These Australians don't listen to logic. They've got their truth and they just want to spew it at you, often rudely, and there's literally no point arguing with them. Trust me, I've tried. 

But there is another cohort of Aussies out there who do listen, and it's for them that I write articles like the above. They're the ones who get swept up in the clever way conspiracy theorists spread their theories via social media. All it takes is a seed of doubt and they feel uneasy about something that was never true in the first place.

Let me give you an example. You've probably heard "we don't know how the COVID-19 vaccine impacts fertility."

This is a conspiracy theory. It's completely untrue. We do know how it affects fertility - it simply doesn't. It's a theory that was created to scare women out of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. I know this because I have asked multiple doctors and scientists. 

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I see it as my job to help debunk and show these theories for what they are - misinformation. 

Everyone is fumbling their way through, and it's really confusing. 

It's easy to criticise when things turn to sh*t. Heck, I've done a lot of criticising of our Federal Government in particular, because it's important that our leaders know from us - their constituents - what is and isn't working. 

However, Australia isn't the only country fumbling in the dark here. That word 'unprecedented' is a new regular in our vernacular for a reason; what we're going through is brand new. There's no rule book and every single country is making mistakes as they try to ride the COVID-19 wave. 

Right now the French are protesting on the streets every weekend because thousands disagree with the government's COVID-19 'health pass' which requires people to be vaccinated to enter certain events. 

The United States completely stuffed up their COVID-19 response in 2020 under President Donald Trump, but have managed to turn it around with their vaccination response in 2021. 

We've done the opposite. We kept the virus mostly at bay last year, but our vaccination schedule is the worst in the OECD. 

No one is winning this game right now, and that's an important point to make because we keep expecting our leaders to get this 100 per cent right from the get-go. 

The run on effect of that, however, is that everything COVID related is really bloody confusing. Even I am confused, and I am basically sitting on top of this story. What that leads to is panic, distrust and this constant blame-game that we see our politicians participating in. 

It's the perfect petri dish that allows anti-vax, conspiracy theories and even just hesitancy to fester and thrive. 

The rest of the world is our most valuable tool.

That brings me to my next point. We have a literal crystal ball; the rest of the world. 

We can see what it looks like to have hospitals overrun by the virus. 

We can see what's worked and what doesn't work inside those ICUs, and ready our own emergency departments accordingly.

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We know what incentives have and haven't worked when it comes to encouraging large populations to line up for a vaccine. 

These are the kinds of learnings our politicians are taking on board, but I've noticed that lots of everyday Australians aren't tuning into the international news and can't understand why we'd lock down entire economies for a 'handful of cases.'

But I've followed China, India, America and England's virus spread closely. I've been reporting on COVID-19 since it first popped up in Wuhan. It's why I am so vigilant with the rules. I am quite literally terrified of getting this virus. 

Here's a reminder of what was happening in India back in April. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia News.

But I actually learnt this lesson early on in my news career. There are a large proportion of Australians who don't consume international news. I know it sounds absurd, but it's true. We have analytics that show us what people click on.

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"Syria feels too far away for most Australians," I remember my first news editor telling me when I asked why we weren't reporting more on the refugee crisis. 

That same logic is true here. There are lots of Australians who aren't watching the rest of the world. When you're tucked away at the bottom of the Earth, you can get away with that to a point. 

It explains why there are groups of Aussies finding many of the restrictions and rules being enforced on us bonkers. 

If I hadn't seen what a worse case scenario could look like, I might think they were bonkers too.

Even when it sucks, we are lucky.

It's easy to get caught up in our own bubble. 

Those of us in Sydney right now feel pretty miserable about a minimum nine weeks in lockdown. We'll have clocked up 63 days by the end of August, coming up closely behind Melbourne's record of 112. 

It's heartbreaking talking to Australians who can't get over borders to say goodbye to relatives. Or who haven't seen their children/partner/parents in years. I've told dozens of their stories myself. 

It's horrible and unfair and we're allowed to say that. We're allowed to challenge our politicians to bend and reshape the rules. But at the end of the day, like I pointed out above, we're still lucky. 

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We haven't lost thousands or in some country's circumstances, millions. 

We aren't burying our dead in mass graves and dying on the street outside hospitals because they're full. 

Our doctors aren't choosing which patients will live and die because they don't have the capacity or resources to treat everyone. 

As someone who has covered more than 345 days of this global pandemic for Mamamia's news output, I can't express how unbelievably lucky I feel. Pandemic fatigue is real, I have it too. I am tired about writing about COVID-19 every day. I can't wait until I don't have to anymore.

But I spend every morning reading about how the rest of the world is coping before turning to tackle Australia's latest updates. 

I've learnt that perspective and context is everything. 

For more from Gemma Bath, keep up to date with her articles here, or follow her on  Instagram.

Feature image: Mamamia/Gemma Bath.

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