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COVID-19 Condolence

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Tags: COVID-19, Condolence

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I move -

That the House -

(1) Expresses its sincere, heartfelt condolences to family members, friends and colleagues of the 201 Tasmanians who have died with COVID since the start of the pandemic.

(2) Recognises these Tasmanians were loved and valued members of their families and communities, whose lives were tragically cut short.

(3) Acknowledges with sadness:

(a) 188 of these preventable deaths have been recorded since 15 December 2021, when Omicron arrived in Tasmania; and

(b) the thousands of Tasmanians who suffer from or at risk of disabling, longterm health consequences from COVID infection or reinfection.

(4) Further recognises the removal of mandated protections, necessary to reduce mass COVID infections, has severely restricted the lives of many vulnerable Tasmanians, including the elderly and clinically vulnerable, and people with disability.

(5) Accepts the scientific evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne pathogen with potentially fatal consequences and well understood, debilitating impacts on immune function.

(6) Notes with real concern stagnating vaccination and booster rates, particularly amongst children and young people.

(7) Agrees the trajectory of Australian governments' COVID management, which facilitates constant reinfection, is untenable for individual and population health, as well as social and economic wellbeing.

(8) Resolves to work cooperatively to educate, promote and model increased vaccination and booster uptake, indoor mask wearing and ventilation.

(9) Calls on the Government to prevent further disabling illness and loss of life, and urgently adopt evidence-based policies, practices and communications that better protect Tasmanians from COVID.

I can indicate at the outset, Mr Speaker, that we will not be calling a division.

It is time for Tasmania's parliament to honour the lives of the 201 Tasmanians who have been lost to COVID-19. We bring on this condolence motion to try to ensure these Tasmanians are not forgotten and to let their heartbroken families, friends and colleagues know they are remembered.

Dr Woodruff and I grieve this tragic loss of life. It is a heavy toll: 201 Tasmanian lives lost since COVID-19 arrived, and 188 Tasmanians lost since the border was opened on 15 December 2021. So many lives cut short by this lethal and dangerous virus. Nationally we have hit the grim milestone of 16 000 Australians dead due to COVID 19. That is a staggering toll.

This Sunday in Canberra at 2 p.m. there will be a vigil against COVID-19 organised by people whose lives have been deeply affected by the failure of government policy and unchecked community transmission.

Mr Speaker, who were these Tasmanians who have been lost to COVID-19? We do not know their names or where they lived. We do know that they were mums, dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters and friends. We know they were loved and that they loved. It has saddened me that we know so little about these Tasmanians. They are not reported. We do not hear their stories but each week as the weekly surveillance report comes out we understand that the toll continues to increase.

So what do we know about these 201 Tasmanians? What we know according to the weekly surveillance report up to 12 November this year, is that of the 186 Tasmanians who were recorded as dying since 15 December last year, one was between the age of 30 to 39, three were between 40 to 49 years of age, and 11 were between the ages of 50 to 59. At these ages, people should be able to look forward to many more years of enjoying life. Between the ages of 60 to 69, 26 lives were lost; between 70 to 79 years of age, 39 lives were lost; between 80 to 84 years of age, 28 deaths; and the highest toll amongst our oldest citizens, the 85 plus cohort, where 78 people have died, many of whom would have been in aged care.

What else do we know about these Tasmanians who are lost to us now? If you have a look at the weekly surveillance report, we know that of the 186 deaths recorded in the report as at 12 November - and I might note that the weekly surveillance report due on 19 November is not yet out - 37 of the deaths were people who were unvaccinated, five of the deaths were one dose vaccination, and people who had two or more vaccinations were represented by 143 of those deaths. We also know that of those lost to COVID since 15 December last year, 49 lived in the north of the state, 39 in the north-west, and 97 lived in the south.

The loss of life to COVID 19 nationally and in Tasmania is utterly heartbreaking. Each day as I read information about lives lost to COVID 19 interstate and here, I am more and more broken inside about how, as a society, we are prepared to allow this to happen. It is very important that we acknowledge these lives, as they were our fellow Tasmanians.

I also acknowledge that many thousands of Tasmanians are now suffering from, or are at risk of, disabling long-term health consequences from COVID 19 infection or reinfection. Indeed, when you look at the data, to date there have been 258 000 reported cases of COVID 19 in our community. We know that is an under-representation of the true case numbers as some people will not be testing and some will not be reporting. At least half of the Tasmanian population has been infected with COVID-19 and the data tells us that of those many, many Tasmanians, between and 10 per cent and 20 per cent will suffer from what is termed long COVID, but long COVID is COVID. The acute infection is one thing, but the after-effect, long COVID, that is the disease. Long COVID is COVID.

I know a number of people and many of my constituents who live with a disability or who are clinically vulnerable and are living shadow lives at the moment. They live in fear of infection or reinfection. Many are dependent on support workers or carers and, because as a society, we have prioritised individual freedom over community health and wellbeing, we have created a circumstance where the lives of many of our fellow vulnerable Tasmanians, including the elderly and clinically vulnerable and people with disability, have become severely restricted. I know people who barely leave their homes. As a society, that is not something we should be prepared to accept. In fact, it is in direct contravention of the protection of the rights of people with disability and marginalised people.

Mr Speaker, we know that the removal of mandated protections by all Australian governments, Commonwealth and state, has led to an increase in the rate of infections and reinfections and has led to increases in hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths. If you are infected with mumps you are required to isolate for nine days. If you are infected with COVID 19 in Australia today, you are not required to isolate at all. It is a lethal disabling virus and somehow we have arrived at a place where we are prepared to let this virus spread unchecked; we are prepared to let it win and claim lives.

Even though there has not been enough honesty from political leaders and their public health advisors, we know that SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne pathogen, with potentially fatal consequences that are well understood along with the debilitating impacts on immune function.

We now have an avalanche of studies on COVID-19, on long COVID-19, on vulnerability, on the impact of COVID-19 on the immune system, on the brain, on the heart, and on the vascular system. This avalanche of studies tells us that COVID-19 poses a major threat to our health, our lives and our sanity. The latest studies tell us, basically, that there is no returning to pre-COVID-19 normal. We know that there is no permanent immunity from COVID-19. Each time we catch it, this virus attacks our system. It attacks our heart. It attacks our brain. It weakens us and it is trying to kill us. It imprints on us so a future variant can have a better shot next time, and because we are not reining in transmission, the virus is mutating rapidly.

You can catch COVID-19 multiple times. There is no such thing with COVID-19 as hybrid-immunity. People are getting infected three, four and five times in a year. People are being re-infected within a month. Re-infections are common, not rare. Two months ago, the data was telling us in Tasmania that re-infections of total reported case numbers were sitting at 27 per cent. If you go to the COVID-19 weekly surveillance report, in total of the reported infections between 15 December and the 12 November, there were 8340 re-infections. Most troubling when you look at the re-infection data is what is happening to young people.

In the data, in children between the ages of 0 and 4, who are not vaccinated, there has been a total of 12 082 reported cases up to 15 November of SARS-CoV-2 in Tasmania. Of those babies who are infected, 329 are re-infections. Between the ages of 5 and 11, 25 099 children have been infected; 777 of them are re-infections. Remember, we are talking about cohorts of Tasmanian children who are either unvaxxed, or under-vaccinated. Between the ages of 12 and 15 the data tells us there have been 15 185 reported cases and of them 429 are re-infections. Between the ages of 16 and 19 there have been 13 701 total reported cases; 591 are re-infections. In that most vulnerable group, young people who are socialising and trying to live good and happy lives, between the ages of 20 and 29, 41 032 reported infections and of them 2192 are re-infections. Remembering that this cohort of young people are not yet eligible for booster shots.

What we also know is that vaccination provides some protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death, but it has waning efficacy. We also know that COVID-19 can take your life months after you have been in the acute phase of the infection and you think you have recovered. The studies tell us it can cause brain damage. It can cause blood clots and heart attacks. It does not spare children. Masks work. Cleaning the air helps. Everyone is made vulnerable by this virus. Every single one of us.

When Paul Kelly, the Chief Health Officer, as part of his advice to government advised National Cabinet that it would be okay to remove the bare minimum of five day isolation period, he talked about high vaccination rates in the Australian community and a high level of infection. He suggested that we had a level of hybrid immunity in the community. The only way to keep hybrid immunity is to keep getting infected, keep risking death and long COVID and keep being part of that chain of transmission. When those chains of transmission continue unchecked, people die.

We want to see a reset on COVID-19 policy. We look at the vaccination rates across the population. Vaccination and booster rates are stagnating. Access is too restricted. When you look at vaccination rates amongst children and young people, only half of Tasmanian children under 11 have had two doses. Forty per cent of Tasmanian children under the age of 11 are not vaccinated at all, and that data has sat at that level for months. There is a whole range of things that government could be doing, and at the moment is not doing. At a bare minimum, to be promoting vaccination and to be making it accessible should surely be a priority for government.

Young people under the age of 30 have not had their boosters. We want young people to live healthy and happy lives. We want young people to be socialising and connecting, but the choices that we are giving them now are socialise and run the risk of catching COVID or being re-infected, or live the life of a near hermit. What we want to see from our political leaders is advocacy at National Cabinet for a vaccine-plus strategy, which Dr Woodruff will talk about in more detail shortly. That does not just rely on vaccines to prevent hospitalisations and deaths, because we know vaccines are not preventing infection. We want to see National Cabinet start making vaccinations much more accessible across all age groups, and boosters. The US administration has just approved a fifth booster. Why is it so hard for people to take personal responsibility by organising a booster? We do not understand. We have governments telling us to take personal responsibility and you are not giving us the tools to do so.

Again, I ask: how does someone who is carer dependent, who lives with a disability take personal responsibility when they are so dependent on the care and support of others? Disability Voices Tasmania made a statement when the mandatory isolation periods were removed on the basis of zero good public health advice. DVT said:

We have grave concerns regarding the removal of the mandatory isolation requirement. We assert that this decision puts the Tasmanian disability community at great risk, not only of infection with COVID 19 but, for many, of long-term and potentially fatal health consequences.

The spokesperson Vaughn Venison, the executive officer, says:

Removal of the mandated isolation period leaves the responsibility on the infected individual who may not be aware that they are working closely with someone who may be prone to infection and at severe risk of long term health problems as a result. This puts people who are immune compromised at severe and unacceptable risk.

We wanted to be able to always stand by Public Health advice. For the first two years of the pandemic, our political leaders and Public Health served us really well. Something happened after 15 December and the arrival of Omicron, where we had political leaders not been honest about risk, political leaders removing protections, not modelling the behaviour, bowing to the business lobby that wants to pretend things are normal so that they can keep people eating at restaurants and shopping.

We also had such a failure on Public Health. The sign put up by the Tasmanian Government Public Health 'Keep on Top of COVID-19' is still around shops all over nipaluna/Hobart. There are five things they tell you to do: •

wash your hands.

That is called hygiene theatre. Of course it is good to have clean hands, but it will not stop you catching COVID-19. •

keep your distance.

Yes, tick. •

stay home if you are sick.

Yes, tick. Many people do not, as we heard in Dr Woodruff's question this morning. Employers are making sick people go back to work where they would infect others in unmasked workplaces, childcare centres, and on Metro buses. •

if you have COVID-19 symptoms, get tested. •

follow restrictions.

Well, they are not restrictions, they are protections but there are not any. There are not just any.

What is the missing piece here? The missing piece is masks. Somehow or another, the wearing of a mask, which is one of the most effective ways of preventing infection and transmission has become politicised to the point where it is a dirty word. Sometimes you hear Public Health people talk about face coverings. Just say the word, mask. There is nothing in this advice, which is on windows in shops all around Hobart, to say get your vaccinations updated, update your boosters.

At the moment, even though reported cases in Tasmania have tripled in as many weeks, Public Health's advice still is to Tasmanians that the risk is low to moderate. There has not been an update to this advice for some months as far as I could tell looking at the website today, last week and the week before.

I understand that ultimately Public Health can only advice political leaders. We have seen in Victoria what a gutsy public health chief officer can do. Brett Sutton provides daily updates to the people of Victoria on the pandemic response. Daily or near daily he encourages COVID-safe behaviours including mask-wearing. He is open and public about waves and surges of the virus, so people can take steps to protect themselves.

We are now on the rise of the fourth distinct COVID 19 wave to hit this island since 15 December last year. We cannot as a society, and we certainly as a parliament should not accept this. We cannot accept that we are going to do nothing except occasionally vaccinate people when we have bought enough supplies in, or have decided to make them available and make the Tasmanian people live through wave after wave of COVID-19. We cannot accept a soaring death toll.

Imagine if the road toll was 188 people this year. There would be changes to laws and regulations; there would be more traffic stops on the road; and there would be more police on the road. We would rightly go all out to prevent more deaths on the road. Why is there this double standard? I cannot understand how governments are so willing to bend over to monied interests at the expense of the lives of our fellow citizens. I cannot understand how we have a situation in Tasmania where people are being sent into their workplaces infected.

Everyone has a right to a safe workplace, but people are being failed now. Dr Woodruff and I would like to work cooperatively across this parliament to model good behaviour, to educate and to promote increased vaccination and booster uptake, indoor mask wearing and ventilation.

Mr Speaker, I am hearing a lot of coughing in this Chamber and it makes me feel incredibly sad. I do not want anyone in this place who has had COVID-19 to get it again.

There is a whole lot of evidence-based policies, practices and communications that can be put in place by the Government that better protects Tasmanians from COVID-19, restores trust in political leadership and Public Health advisers, but we need leadership. I am certain, knowing the Premier and Health minister as I do, that he feels sickened by the reality of what is happening with this virus. This is an opportunity for our Premier to show national leadership on COVID-19. Not to accept the deaths of so many Tasmanians and take some action, start listening to the experts and start acting to prevent further loss of life in future. Every death to COVID-19 is an absolute tragedy to our community, to the people who love them. We have to do better.