‘Freedom day doesn’t include me’: for some, the end of lockdown will be a time of fear

“In the roadmap to freedom, I hear nothing about people like me, other than as a qualifying postscript to the Covid deaths: ‘But they had an underlying health condition’,” says Racquel Sherry.

“Freedom day doesn’t include me.”

Sherry, 49 and based in Sydney, is immunocompromised and afraid.

Millions of people who have been living for weeks under harsh lockdowns on Australia’s east coast are counting down the days to restrictions easing quando 70% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated – and further lifting at 80%.

But Sherry is one of a number of people for whom the prospect of reopening is more nerve-racking than exhilarating, either due to underlying health conditions, age, work or living circumstances, or simply because the prospect of more Covid in the community is scary.

Sherry was diagnosed with kidney cancer at 18 months of age, leading to chemotherapy and radiation. After kidney failure at 24, she underwent dialysis and needed an urgent transplant. Quindi, 15 anni fa, she survived cervical cancer without chemotherapy, which would’ve killed her. She was told at the time she had 12 months to live.

Referring to herself as “the girl who refused to die”, Sherry says: “My Grandpa used to say, ‘if you were a racehorse, I wouldn’t bet on you’.”

Survival against the odds felt particularly poignant in a pandemic. “I did not come this far to die of Covid," lei dice.

But today she feels less levity.

“I’ve lived with lifelong chronic illness. There are few times I’ve felt discriminated against, but this is one. Immunosuppressed people work, contribute to society, yet the roadmap to freedom excludes us," lei dice.

“How do you open the state when there’s a whole cohort of people we don’t know how to protect?"

Under advice from her health specialist, Sherry will continue to isolate, especially as the city reopens.

She has had two Pfizer vaccines despite specialists saying they probably won’t work well on her.

“For my body to not reject a foreign organ, they gave me tablets to suppress my body’s immune response. Covid vaccines rely on your immune system," lei dice.

“I got vaccinated anyway. I’ve got someone else’s kidney inside me, I’m unafraid of putting things inside my body. That tiny bit of protection is better than not having it, but I’m eagerly awaiting research findings on a third vaccine shot for people like me.”

The risk to Sherry now comes from others leaving lockdown.

“Immunocompromised people like me can be hospitalised from head colds and gastro, so when people were at supermarkets in masks and with sanitiser etcetera, I ironically felt safer than ever. Suddenly everyone was in my world," lei dice.

“At first, with our low Covid numbers, ho pensato, ‘thank God I live in Australia’. When the second wave hit I got anxious, thinking, ‘this’ll blow up’.”

That anxiety is now intensifying as reopening inches closer.

“Previously, if someone coughed on a train, I’d move seats. Catching it could give me pneumonia. Adesso, my sickness radar no longer helps me. Vaccinated people might have Covid with mild or no symptoms – I won’t know who’s sick and who isn’t.”

Sherry isn’t the only one who’s concerned. Even though she is doubled vaccinated, 92-year-old Val Fell from Wollongong has no intention of going out into the world any time soon.

“I worry the already stretched hospital system will buckle if we open too soon," lei dice.

She is also worried that the slow vaccine rollout means she will inevitably come into contact with people who haven’t yet been immunised.

“Once we reopen, I’d come across a whole bunch of unvaccinated people – especially younger people still waiting for their jabs who could pass on the virus," lei dice.

Even those in states not currently locked down are fearful.

Mo Ors* is 75 and lives on the Gold Coast with a home aged care package. She now never leaves the house, not even to shop for food.

“The pandemic made me a recluse," lei dice.

“Since the start I’ve been very apprehensive about catching this bloody thing. For people like me, it’s a killer.”

Ors lives with autoimmune problems and anxiety. She’s also acutely aware of her advancing age.

“Age gives you hindsight. I now realise life’s too precious and fragile to play around with. This thing is lethal. It’s serious," lei dice.

Although desperate to see her grandchildren again, Ors doesn’t plan on leaving her house until 90% of the eligible population is vaccinated.

“In addition to being worried, I’m angry," lei dice. “We were in a terrific position in Australia. It’s been a complete botch up because Scott Morrison’s government didn’t procure enough Pfizer.”

Dr Nienke Zomerdijk says immunocompromised people will need to continue staying home and minimising contact with family and friends due to the life-threatening possibility of contracting Covid.

“And that’s hard for them – there’s a concerning impact on their mental health,” Zomerdijk, a psychosocial oncology researcher from the University of Melbourne, says.

“Their bodies produce lower antibodies so they don’t respond as well to two vaccine doses.”

Zomerdijk is watching the UK closely.

“When they reopened, cases skyrocketed. They’re about to administer booster doses and will prioritise immunocompromised people. Even though there’s continued uncertainty in the efficacy for these people, we should adopt that here. It’s a matter of time till that new wave of concern reaches Australia.”

Forty-three-year-old James Cullen, from Kallangur in Queensland, says he’s “extremely apprehensive” about the nation reopening due to his hereditary type 2 diabetes – and his living arrangement in a shared house.

“My housemates are as concerned as me, but one works in a high school and they’re usually great sources of whatever cold or flu is going around. So that particular housemate has a higher chance of actually getting it," lui dice.

Commuting also causes him stress.

“I travel by train, and while most people wear masks, there’s still plenty who keep them on their chin unless they see someone of authority," lui dice. “Idiots talking about their rights not to wear one clearly shows how much they care about people like me who are terrified of this virus and most at risk.”

Zomerdijk stresses the need to raise awareness that ‘freedom day’ isn’t fully inclusive. “It’s another reason vaccination is so important: to accelerate normality resuming for everybody.”

Studies the University of Melbourne conducted this year show blood cancer patients are the most at risk of Covid mortality, a 34%.

But they showed they are also most at risk of psychological damage.

“The difficult question is, does the risk of getting the virus outweigh the benefits of seeing loved ones or going to work for those who can’t work from home?” Zomerdijk says.

Racquel Sherry is philosophical. “Whilst I am frustrated, I’m vicariously happy about restrictions lifting for people I know it needs to happen for: small businesses, those whose livelihoods are reliant on reopening," lei dice.

“I’m very aware of the sacrifices they’ve made.”

* Name changed for privacy reasons

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