To date, 103 people have died of coronavirus in Australia, none of them under the age of 40, and only 3 under the age of 60. While every death is a tragedy, it is a hugely reassuring fact that the mortality rate from this virus is so low.
It is very easy to measure the direct cost of the virus in terms of infections and deaths –- measures which are graphic and alarming –- however, the cost from the lockdown is harder to measure. We are all having to sacrifice due to these government restrictions but some are clearly affected more than others. There may come a point we realise that our own assessment of the risk should govern our personal interactions and that we are best placed to decide our own priorities. For each of us, that calculation will be different. Below are only seven examples of people who came to the local medical centre in the last two months. Their stories deserve to be told.
Handre is an African man and his wife died after a long illness relating to her kidneys. In many ways, he feels better because he knows she’s not suffering any more. He came to terms with this knowledge long ago but the reality of it still shocks him. He believes in God and this has given him some solace. It was just him and their son at the funeral. It was a bleak day as her coffin was lowered into the earth and both Handre and his son struggled to deal with this. Their world had been turned upsidedown but everyone else was expected to ignore that. It didn’t seem real that a woman who had loved so much and given so much to the world could be sent off with so little a fanfare. They told each other they would organise a proper commemoration with all her friends there after government restrictions ease, but it’s difficult to know if either of them believes that will actually happen. They couldn’t even shake hands with the priest at the funeral.
Terry is in his 90, a DVA Gold cardholder who remembers Kokoda. He’s proud of this and it doesn’t take much for him to tell you about the Pacific theatre. He speaks very highly of Americans except for MacArthur and doesn’t talk about the Japanese at all. He’s been doing his part to self-isolate but is increasingly starting to realise his last years on earth will be seen from the inside of his supported accommodation. He feels very alone these days.
Moheed is 68 years old and he’s recently had a recurrence of bowel cancer. It was surgically resected four years ago, but at the end of 2019 he was losing weight and a CT scan showed another mass in his colon. A second scan demonstrated a number of metastases in his liver and lungs. This isn’t something which can be cured and he was started on a chemotherapy regime to try and extend his life. Since Christmas, he’s known the prognosis isn’t good and he’ll likely be dead within the next year –- two at the most. In January he and his wife booked a holiday to Pakistan, Britain and the United States. The plan was to revisit the sights of their childhood, family in the UK and then return to Australia via the Grand Canyon and California. It doesn’t really bother him that he won’t get the refund from that trip as the money seems paltry in comparison to the loss of his freedom and the last year of his life. It will now be spent in his apartment block from which he was planning to move. He won’t see either his childhood home or the friends he still has in Pakistan. He and his wife won’t be able to visit the US. It’s not clear that he’ll ever see his brother again, who lives in London and has four children.
Flora is 29 and he was recently diagnosed with an invasive malignant melanoma. She noticed it several months ago, but events of COVID overtook her and she put off seeing a doctor since the start of the year. Her nearest dermatologist was 250 kilometres away and she didn’t know if she could travel. What is more, she’s been unemployed since her job as a receptionist became untenable after the hotel she worked at closed due to government measures. She didn’t want to spend $300 unnecessarily. There’s a 10 per cent mortality rate for it being caught at this stage, but had she gone earlier that might be much less. She feels the helplessness every person feels with such a diagnosis, but more so now as she doesn’t have a job to distract herself. Queuing at Centrelink doesn’t help her self-esteem.
Gladys is in her 70s. Her husband died 10 years ago and she’s lived by herself for the last decade. She has two daughters, one lives interstate, and the other is currently working in Germany. She’s started coming to her GP practice twice a week with anxiety because she’s not coping at home – she has never felt more alone. When caught crying, she tells people it’s because her cruise was cancelled and she can’t get the money back. She’s not really upset about the money, but rather the fact she is so alone. Her daughter can’t come to visit as transport is difficult and expensive within Australia, and she doesn’t know when she’ll see her other daughter again. What is more, she used to go to the RSL once a week to meet with friends, her church is closed and she’s afraid that if she meets with her one close friend — a woman in her forties who normally drops–in on Gladys a couple of times a week and looks after her — they will be arrested by the police. The friend won’t come to visit her because they “need to isolate”. It’s not clear Gladys even knows how to use the internet in any meaningful sense. It seems like she is more scared of the police than she is of anything else.
Orsini is a nurse in the hospital. He came to Australia for the job opportunity and works hard at what he does; he always has a smile on his face and is liked by the other staff. His father had brain cancer and died last week from this, in his homeland. Orsini came to work every day as he was rostered and has never complained about it. He wasn’t able to say goodbye to his father because there are no flights and the borders are shut. It’s also not clear he would be allowed back into Australia. Orsini is in his twenties and doesn’t have any other family in Australia.
Tony is an Indigenous man who owns a restaurant near the waterfront and his business is what keeps him occupied. He’s well-known by the locals and just six months ago he employed over 20 people. Not only did he start the restaurant, but he’s the head chef as well. This week he came to the emergency department after dropping a pot of boiling water and burning the skin off his left arm. He’s very stoical about the injury, but when asked about his restaurant, he goes quiet. Everybody knows you can’t run a restaurant with the current distancing measures in place.
These are a handful of examples from a small segment of society. These stories will be replicated the world over. To many people, mortality from COVID isn’t the only negative factor in this equation, and government action may be worse than the disease itself.
The author is a hospital doctor. A pseudonym has been used to protect their privacy.
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