health

On Tuesday, we recorded 36,000 new COVID cases nationally. So, is it time to reintroduce mask mandates?

Listen to this story being read by Gemma Bath, here.


Look, I get it. Talking about COVID-19 in 2022 is... boring. 

It's been around for so long now, can't we all just forget about it and move on already???

You and me both. But unfortunately, this isn't a two-and-a-half hour movie that has a beginning, a crisis, and an end. Annoyingly, our friend, the pandemic, doesn't appreciate the simplicity of a narrative arch. 

On Monday in Australia, we recorded 30,000 COVID-19 cases nationally and 25 deaths. 

On Tuesday, it was 36,440 cases and 44 deaths. 

We recently just surpassed the grim 10,000 deaths mark, and every single day we're losing more and more people to this insidious virus. 

Watch: A thank you to masks...


Video via Mamamia.

Sure, we're not losing as many as we would have done in a pre-COVID vaccine world with case numbers this high. 

But our numbers are starting to climb, and climb, and climb. As of Tuesday, there were 3,740 people in hospital with the virus, with 123 of those in intensive care - the highest levels since February during the height of the Omicron wave. 

'Living with the virus' was always the goal, and in 2022 we're well and truly doing that. We're back travelling, attending concerts, and doing all the things we were deprived of for so long as we raced to vaccinate the nation. It's bloody glorious to be out there enjoying ourselves again.

But would it really be so bothersome for us to pop on a mask while we're doing so? 

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Hear me out.

As much as we'd like to squeeze our eyes shut and pop our fingers in our ears, we are still living in an active pandemic situation. That declaration put in place by the World Health Organisation in March 2020 still stands, and right now in Australia we're experiencing a surge thanks to the Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5 that's expected to peak in late July, early August.

Griffith University infectious diseases and immunology program director Nigel McMillan told AAP there would be around 14,000 COVID-19 deaths in 2022 if the trend continued.

"That will make COVID the number-two or number-three killer in the country of all causes of deaths," he said.

We're also currently in the middle of winter, and as well as COVID, the flu has well and truly settled in. And boy, is it a doozy this year with data from the National Influenza Surveillance Report to June 2022 showing there's been almost 150,000 flu notifications - which is higher than the five-year average.

I am not suggesting we go back to restrictions, border controls, and lockdowns. But doesn't 'living with COVID' mean taking simple precautions - like wearing a mask - to help ease the spread when we're in a situation such as this? 

This is the dilemma our governments are currently wrangling with. 

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Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard told 4BC on Friday there is a view that mask mandates should be reimposed across Australia, which is something he personally doesn't want to see. But he also lives in a state that is lagging behind on their COVID-19 booster uptake, so... there's that. 

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant has told media this week the spike in cases is "concerning" and she's encouraging eligible people to get their booster shot, and mask up in crowded spaces. 

Victoria has just extended its pandemic declaration by another three months, with Premier Daniel Andrews convinced COVID-19 still poses a "serious risk."

To me, there are certain situations where it makes complete sense to pop on a mask; like in airports, on public transport, and walking through busy shopping centres. Basically, anywhere where there are large crowds of people in transit. 

We're already being asked to do it on airplanes, but doesn't it defeat the purpose if we're allowed to go through security, follow the masses of people to our gate and then only cover-up when scanning in our ticket? To me, masking up at an airport just feels like the right thing to do in our current reality... but right now, in Sydney, at least, it's not mandatory. So people aren't. 

The thing is, if we were all already using this logic of - 'Oh look heaps of people, I better mask up' - there would be no need for a mandate. In countries like Japan, they do this pandemic or not. They do this in the face of the regular yearly flu. 

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So why, in the middle of winter, while COVID-19 cases and flu are rampant, can't we? 

Didn't COVID-19 teach us to look after those more vulnerable than us? To be aware of how we are moving around society? Those lessons seem to have gone out the window thanks to the tediously long time we had to spend indoors over the past two years.

This is not our forever. COVID will eventually become endemic - it's just not quite there yet. 

Thankfully vaccines have given us our lives back, but they weren't a bandaid fix for everything - we always knew that. We should be grateful that our leaders are only having to discuss mask-rules. We know it could be much worse.

So while we're still riding the waves of an active pandemic, is it really too much to ask to pop on a mask in a crowd of people when we see spikes in case numbers?

It feels like a no-brainer. It's a shame we'll need a mask mandate to enforce it. 

You can keep up to date with Gemma Bath's articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @gembath.  

Feature Image: Hu Jingchen/Xinhua/Getty.