Australians must change the way they live and accept the threat from COVID-19 and other viral infections will persist, a leading epidemiologist says.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, who leads the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute in Sydney, says people are wrong to think the pandemic is over.
“The counter-narratives that are flying around, ‘Let’s get back to normal, take off your masks’, it’s denial,” she told AAP.
“Societally, we’re grieving for the lives we had in 2019 before COVID.
“We haven’t come to that stage of just accepting it and saying, ‘OK, this is here to stay and if we want to have a reasonable quality of life and not end up debilitated with chronic diseases, we’ve actually got to change the way we live’.”
Professor MacIntyre said Australia must begin addressing the built environment, building design and how we live in apartments, and how to mitigate the risk and make it safer.
The comments came after the professor gave a presentation to the AFAC emergency management conference in Adelaide on Tuesday where she outlined key strategies to navigate a better future in the COVID-19 era.
She told the conference the virus was not going anywhere and Australia needed to be smarter about minimising the effects, both acutely and for the longer term.
Epidemic waves would continue while more emerging infectious diseases would pose a threat to health security.
She said Australia needed to think more about preparedness, including the development of early warning systems and the stockpiling of vaccines and other viral medications.
That work should include training exercises to ensure health officials and others are better equipped to work together.
Prof MacIntyre also advocated an increase in local manufacturing of protective equipment, vaccines and other medical supplies.
She told AAP the idea of waiting two or three years for the situation to improve would result in a future where virtually everyone had been infected and Australia faced a substantial burden from the chronic complications of COVID-19, including heart failure and dementia.
“This is not a flu or a cold, this is a virus that persists in the body in a number of people after the acute infection,” she said.
“So we can’t keep ignoring it because then we’re going to put a massive strain on the NDIS and we’re going to have a huge tranche of people who are disabled and unable to work.
“The longer we ignore it and hope for the best, the bigger the burden of chronic diseases that we’re going to have to deal with.”