Finance Michael Pascoe: The COVID disconnect of little old ladies locked up en masse
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Michael Pascoe: The COVID disconnect of little old ladies locked up en masse

aged care
Politicians are hoping to avoid a repeat of the gruesome first wave of COVID-19, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND
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Here is the COVID policy disconnect: While it’s “let it rip”, “personal responsibility”, “everyone’s going to be exposed so take your vaccinated chances” for most people, there are thousands of little old ladies and men being locked up to avoid political embarrassment.

After the gruesome aged-care scandals of the first COVID-19 wave in New South Wales and Victoria, no politician wants to be held responsible (not that any were) for a repeat.

So while nearly all preventative restrictions have been dropped for the general population in NSW, the residents of old people’s homes are being jailed when the virus raises its ugly microscopic head.

And it certainly is.

On December 3, there were 28 active outbreaks nationally in aged-care facilities.

On December 10, there were 36.

On December 17, there were 54.

You get the inevitable picture, but you won’t on the news any more – it doesn’t rate.

As cases in the community skyrocket, the virus inevitably finds its way into aged care despite ongoing restrictions on residents’ movements.

And when there’s an outbreak, the current restrictions turn into a complete lockdown.

On Monday, my mother-in-law became one of the jailed again, restricted to her room after a staff member tested positive on Sunday after working on Friday.

On Tuesday, Day 4 of how the outbreak is counted, a NSW Health team is scheduled to arrive to swab everybody. They will be back on Day 7 and again on Day 12.

If anyone in the home tests positive in that time, the clock resets again to a 14-day lockdown.

If nobody tests positive, they will be allowed out of their room, a community again, on New Year’s Eve.

In any case, there will be no Christmas at home with family this year, no outings, no visitors allowed. Christmas lunch will be eaten alone in their individual rooms.

The staff do what they can – schedule FaceTime and WhatsApp calls, as they did throughout the long lockdown.

But my mother-in-law is quite deaf and couldn’t stand the fiddliness of hearing aids. In person, she gets by with some lip reading on her part and a lot of shouting on ours.

Neither works very well at all on an iPad.

Combined with senile dementia worsening during the long lockdown, the FaceTime calls can be depressing rather than comforting.

She will be 98 next month.

At this stage, it is our physical presence that has her smiling, getting into a car that delights her, that sets off the telling of somewhat confused oft-recounted stories of childhood.

The virus might not get her, but loneliness and depression will.

And then there’s the extra strain on staff after a severely strained 18 months.

There is a growing shortage of carers and nurses in this poorly paid industry.

It’s one thing to legislate a requirement for a registered nurse to always be on duty – it’s another to create them. Consequently there are RNs regularly working double shifts.

Staff at my mother-in-law’s home have been placed on 12 hours on/12 hours off shifts – removing one shift from the day reduces the coming and going and the inherent risk.

There has been burnout – there are much easier ways to earn better money.

The RNs and carers are working in PPE all day, replacing it after entering every resident’s room. They are dealing with lonely people, some of them with complex needs, difficult complex needs.

So that’s the disconnect. Having made the decision at 90 per cent-plus vaccination to let the virus have its way with the population, to stop fighting the overwhelming, governments are not game to extend the same risk decision to those who need aged care.

As the community cases surge, staff and visitors will inevitably bring the virus into many more aged-care centres. Homes will cop repeated outbreaks.

We’ll eventually find out how much protection full vaccination and boosting provides for the elderly.

In the meantime, lock them up, hide them away, as the rest of us go to our Christmas parties and plan New Year’s Eve.