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What the worst park in Melbourne says about our pandemic sacrifices

This is a piece about the pandemic and our expectations of normality, but before we get into it, I want to tell you about what is quite possibly the worst park in Melbourne.

It sits next to a main road busy with trucks. It’s mostly dirt. From a distance, it looks like there is a passable circular patch of grass. Move closer, and you’ll find it’s 100 per cent weeds, hiding broken beer bottle shards and potholes.

Is this the worst park in Melbourne?Credit:Google image

An independent online review describes the ageing playground as “dismal” and notes the surrounding area is “mainly mud with a few wood chips thrown in”. It gets one out of a possible five stars.

It therefore might surprise you to learn I have spent many hours, possible weeks all up, at this pitiful patch of land. Lockdowns make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise.

The park had some surprising advantages. It was within our legal radius for exercise. It had a fence around it, perfect for toddler twins with minds of their own. And finally, the playground structure is so awful, it wasn’t hard to get the kids not to play on it.

Over time, we convinced ourselves the park wasn’t that bad at all. We had golden moments amid the greyness that is living in a city shutdown.

Aisha Dow with her son at the park.

I raise the park for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it highlights how far we have come and how relatively little is being asked of most of us, now we are not trying to tame an outbreak but, at least in theory, soften the blow. For most of the time we were frequenting the park, many Australians weren’t eligible to be vaccinated, meaning a gigantic COVID-19 outbreak like the one we are currently experiencing would have had far more devastating consequences.

During lockdowns, my family couldn’t see our in-laws across town. We were indefinitely separated from my parents interstate. My brother and best friend overseas seemed hopelessly unreachable. This is part of my experience, and it goes almost without saying that others suffered far more.

Since then, restrictions have been progressively wound back. Then, earlier this month, Victoria’s acting chief health officer Professor Ben Cowie recommended mask mandates should be reinstated for retail and hospitality workers, at schools (barring students below grade three) and in a couple of other situations.

Cowie said the proposed new orders, as well as more people wearing masks voluntarily, would “directly reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19”.

He also “strongly” recommended that during July and August, when the pressure on the health system was anticipated to be its worst, “people work from home where it is practical to do so.

This advice, if adopted, may mean difficult reminders of the dark days of lockdown, but it should not be confused as a return to it.

While it’s completely understandable people are traumatised by lockdowns, or fear one new rule could be the thin end of the wedge, it can’t be too difficult to see that the sacrifices being asked of Victorians now are small in comparison to what we have endured before, when businesses were destroyed, schools were closed and families separated.

One of the key problems is that from quite early in the pandemic much of the public came to believe that public health measures should only go one way (away) and the problem of COVID-19 would do the same thing.

This idea has never been backed by science, as epidemiologist Tony Blakely explained to me in February, saying that while he supported easing some restrictions at that time, there needed to be plans to reinstate measures if there was a new variant, for example. It might have been better to explain things like wearing a high-quality mask as like a winter coat, you can take it on and off when needed.

There was a good opportunity to address this gap in the public messaging this year, between the January wave of Omicron that brought the health system to its knees and the current one we are in now, which could be worse.

More time could have been spent explaining why boosters are so important, why masks do work (plus which ones are best and how to wear them), while adjusting people’s expectations about what normal looks like in the midst of a pandemic.

As others have observed, the issue of the pandemic was largely missing from the federal election campaign. Opposition political parties also needed to be more constructive.

We recently learnt that the new Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas chose to reject the public health advice, and not make any changes to mask mandates, saying it was “not the most effective way to get the message out” and “we need to empower Victorians to make their own decisions”.

Epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett agrees with this decision, saying that although masks do work, there is no “good science” that mandates will get more people wearing them now.

When it comes to a very infectious disease, it’s always the case that the individual decisions we make will affect other people. Shattered frontline healthcare workers have been reporting terrible conditions for months. Things have been so dire, triple-zero calls have gone unanswered.

Maybe you think none of this matters. After all, the 11,100 plus Australians who have died so far have mostly been retirement age or older, and maybe that’s not you. But you also have to expect that you won’t be one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians doctors say could get long-term COVID symptoms in the coming months, or that you won’t find yourself suddenly needing emergency care.

I can almost guarantee we’ll never go back to the miserable park, it’s had its time and place. But I can still remember where we have come from when I choose to make little sacrifices that can help stop COVID-19 spreading.

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