Australian Economy

As COVID fades into the background for most West Australians, it still weighs heavily on some

For many, the hallmarks of the pandemic – masks, social distancing and mandatory isolation – are quickly becoming distant memories.

Thoughts of everything unusual that became normal over the last two-and-a-half years, like snap lockdowns, vaccination mandates and border restrictions, are racing away in life’s rear-view mirror for most.

But for others, the effects of the virus still hang heavily over their heads, despite WA reaching a significant milestone in its path out of the pandemic on Friday with the state’s highest level of COVID alert officially over.

It marked the state’s first day out of its coronavirus-induced state of emergency in more than two-and-a-half years.

Over that time, 4.6 million PCR swabs were taken and 68,000 stays in quarantine hotels completed.

Like clockwork, a succession of Emergency Services Ministers had, every fortnight, signed a declaration that “extraordinary measures” were necessary to avoid loss of life, or harm to the health, of West Australians.

Friday marked the first day where those measures were not needed, taking away the government’s ability to close borders, order lockdowns, and require people to check in to their favourite café.

It means only the lightest of restrictions remain – in hospitals, for example, to protect the most vulnerable.

Not everyone comfortable with eased restrictions

And while many West Australians would welcome the return to normal that had been dreamt of for so long, others like Sarah and Hannah Davis are more concerned.

Sarah and Hannah sit side by side in a living room
Sarah and Hannah Davis are immunocompromised and are still cautious about coming into contact with COVID. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The mother and daughter are both immunocompromised, and fear what would happen to them if they were to contract COVID.

“A lot of people can live with COVID, so they’ll catch COVID and come through it and be OK,” Sarah said.

“But for people with conditions like us, there’s a much higher possibility that we wouldn’t live through it so it’s not over for us.”

Earlier this year those worries prompted Hannah to leave school part way through Year 11, where she had been studying in preparation to go to university.

“I was quite isolated from my friends, it was not a fun time,” she said.

Instead, she is now going to TAFE where she feels better able to manage the risk of contracting COVID.

A brunette and red haired lady put on their masks in front of a mirror
Sarah and Hannah Davis still wear masks when they leave the house as they are immunocomprimised. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Both now make daily decisions about where to go based on their risk of contracting the virus, choosing to meet friends outdoors wherever possible and planning medical appointments around the risk they’ll be near COVID-positive people.

“We don’t want to be stuck in a bubble,” Hannah said.

“We want to go out, we want to live the freedom that everyone else gets.”

They are also frustrated at what they feel is a lack of empathy for their circumstances.

Sarah sits at a table working on her laptop
Sarah says they are risking their lives for their freedom.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“If I’ve made a comment on Facebook about, for instance, rolling back one of the safety precautions, there’s been replies like ‘it’s nature’s way, survival of the fittest’,” Sarah said.

“So basically, we’re exchanging your lives for our freedom, and that feels pretty awful.”

Like many, Sarah and Hannah have been watching WA’s COVID case numbers carefully.

Cases climbing across Australia

With the number of reported infections steadily climbing, including by 18 per cent over the last week alone, they are now considering whether they need to be more cautious.

The steady rise was not ringing alarm bells for the state’s Chief Health Officer though when he advised the government to bring the state of emergency to an end.

“WA’s recent experience of a high caseload setting provides confidence that any anticipated rises due to the currently circulating subvariants will be within the capacity of the WA health system to manage,” Dr Andy Robertson wrote at the end of last month.

Jaya Dantas from Curtin University’s School of Population Health agreed there was little cause for alarm, particularly with good protection from vaccination.

Woman with grey blazer stands in front of manicured lawn and well kept bushes.
Professor Jaya Dantas believes the state is well placed to handle the easing of pandemic powers. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“In the last six months or so … nearly 75 to 80 per cent of our population has also had COVID, so we also have immunity that comes from having COVID,” she said.

The remaining “sensible, cautious” measures that remain are an appropriate way of managing the pandemic, Professor Dantas said.

Building crunch still hurting

Basil Schuitema is one of many West Australians caught up in a housing boom the state didn’t have the capacity to handle.

He signed a contract to build his Cockburn Central home in March 2021, but it took more than a year for the brickwork to be completed.

Now, a year-and-a-half since signing on the dotted line, he’s stuck feeling the pinch of rising rent and mortgage repayments, while the timber to build his roof sits on the ground beside his future home.

Basil Schuitema in front of unfinished buildings and a pile of slats
Basil Schuitema is building a house in Cockburn Central, but is facing long waits because of COVID.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“They can’t give you an answer on when it’s going to finish because they blame labour shortages, materials [shortages],” he said.

“I’m not asking them to rush the job, just an answer on when it’s going to be finished.

“The sooner I can get into my house, the sooner I can stop paying rent.”

But Mr Schuitema is likely to be paying rent for some time, with an end to the state’s building crunch a way off still.

A mid-shot of a man standing inside a house under construction.
Mr Schuitema has been forced to pay rent for a lot longer than he expected.
 (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The overheated marked was partly fuelled by state and federal government grants, which were pumped into the construction sector early in the pandemic to help keep it afloat.

Despite the issues it has since created, Premier Mark McGowan stood by those decisions made in the early days of COVID.

Premier points to successful economy

When asked if those stimulus measures should be included in a looming review of the state government’s handling of the pandemic on Monday, Mr McGowan only pointed to WA’s many successes over the last two-and-a-half years.

“We got the best economic outcomes in the world, best economic outcomes in Australia by a long, long way,” he said.

There was also the government’s ability to pay down a record amount of debt, record low unemployment rates, and an eye-watering $6 billion surplus, he recalled.

“Why would I object to them looking at the economic outcomes, because the economic outcomes were very strong,” he said.

“But I think [the review is] more about the lessons learned as to how to manage a pandemic in a health sense.”

Shadow Treasurer Steve Thomas said while wisdom was always easier to find in hindsight, he expected warning bells to have been ringing when the grants were devised.

South West MP Steve Thomas
Steve Thomas says construction grants “overheated” the building industry. (ABC News: James Carmody)

“What people didn’t expect, that I suspect treasury and the government should have predicted better, was with the lockdowns, people couldn’t go overseas, they couldn’t travel, they couldn’t spend a lot of their money that way,” he said.

“People had money to spend and so they spent it, they also upgraded houses, they did renovations.

“It’s easy for me to say in hindsight that it should have been seen, but certainly the impact has been that all this extra cash has overheated the construction marketplace in a big way.”

Dr Thomas said he remained concerned about the government’s infrastructure pipeline putting additional pressure on the sector and extending the current pain.

A doorway inside a brick house under construction.
Mr Thomas is worried the government is putting even more pressure on an overheated construction market.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The government has repeatedly denied that idea, insisting its works are well-timed to keep industries busy as work on new homes starts to dry up.

Getting that balance right will be one of many challenges ahead as WA enters the ‘recovery’ phase of the pandemic.

Managing long COVID – in whatever form that takes – will be another.

And there are still roughly 45 million rapid antigen tests sitting in the government’s stockpile, with the first due to expire next month.

Fears over commissioner’s power

Concerns linger too over the new COVID management framework, which leaves the decision to bring back many of the government’s extraordinary powers solely in the hands of the police commissioner.

Liberal leader David Honey continued to raise concerns about that legislation, saying it “completely undermines our normal democratic checks and balances”.

Those worries have been frequently dismissed by the government, who have described the laws as a “backup measure” which are watered down and won’t be needed unless something unforeseen happens.

Despite the challenges, there’s no doubt West Australians will find some comfort in the state’s transition into its recovery phase.

But even though the emergency is over, the scars of the pandemic are still a long way from healing.

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Mutations in the COVID-19 virus continue to pose a risk.

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