This time last year Victoria was enduring its long winter of Covid isolation. Other states were cautiously loosening restrictions. Most Australians were clinging to the assumption that the pandemic would end, sometime. Vaccines would be developed and, once we’d all got them, the threat would be over. We just had to hang in there until it was done.
Now the idea of a neat end point is far less certain because mutated versions of the virus keep slipping through our defences and closing down our lives again, just as we dare to make even the most modest of plans.
The “end” we once banked on is not only delayed by the federal government’s mishandling of the task of securing vaccine supply. If variants keep coming and outpace vaccines, the idea of a final conclusion to this ordeal could be a mirage. The UK’s arbitrary end point – the so-called “freedom day” when restrictions were lifted – came as the country was still recording almost 50,000 infections a day and with a warning from 1,200 scientists that the move could lead to the emergence of vaccine resistant strains.
Because of Australia’s laggard vaccination rates we haven’t yet faced decisions about the trade-offs between freedom of movement and inevitable ongoing outbreaks or the level of risk we are prepared to take. We’ll eventually open up again, for sure, but a return to a pre-pandemic idea of normal may be a delusion.
Trudging through another locked down winter, Australia seems tired and tetchy. The prime minister seeks to shift blame. The premiers are under pressure, residents of states and suburbs point fingers at one another and reporters try to turn press conferences into performative displays of aggression. The national resolve, the “all in this together” commonality of purpose, is holding, but barely.
Around us, the pandemic rages. Four million deaths, 50,000 cases a day in Indonesia, just 0.06 % of the population vaccinated in PNG. The full social and political consequences are yet to unfold.
At the same time an even more terrible subplot, the undeniable consequences of global heating, is playing out just as scientists foretold.
Floods in Europe, fires in Canada, droughts in the US, our own black summer and 2021 floods; what we still refer to as “once in a lifetime” events are happening every other year. Scientists warn that the “tipping points”, the ecological moments of no return, are almost upon us. According to a leak, the forthcoming IPCC report says bluntly that global heating is going to reshape life on Earth.
But still Australia’s ability to commit to greenhouse gas reductions even at the accepted global minimum for developed economies of net zero emissions by 2030 rests on the whim of a minor party that got 4.5% of the vote in the last federal election and whose leader likens committing to climate action with lunching on sautéed gherkins and sashimi tadpoles for reasons no one really had the patience or the will to decipher.
Instead of admitting the threat global heating poses for the Great Barrier Reef, the federal government embarks on snorkelling diplomacy to try to convince the world the reef is not, in fact, in danger.
Like the pandemic, global heating is changing our lives so profoundly things can never return to what we once perceived to be normal. Even if we succeed at mitigating greenhouse emissions, the heating already in train will cause enormous disruptive change.
And the democratic institutions that are supposed to help societies navigate these upheavals are themselves under enormous pressure.
To report on all of this is a challenge and an immense responsibility.
Readers need facts and information and explanation and we must appreciate that the impact of these forces of change is often profoundly unequal.
We also need to comprehend and reflect fear and loss and pain and uncertainty. More than ever, we need to listen and engage.
But we can’t succumb to the toxicity of cynicism and hopelessness, which can also become reasons to do nothing. Even now, especially now, we have to report on ideas and solutions and the possibility of positive change. As editor in chief Katharine Viner wrote in an essay to mark the Guardian’s 200th anniversary in May: “Our mission is based on a moral conviction: that people long to understand the world they are in, and to create a better one. To use our clarity and imagination to build hope.”
That purpose has guided us during the eight years since we established Guardian Australia, it is guiding us as we expand and find millions more readers, and it will continue to steer our reporting.