Are we scared of getting sick or sick of getting scared?

ACM journalists Tom Melville and John Hanscombe.
ACM journalists Tom Melville and John Hanscombe.

It's a fine line - we know that. How are you handling the latest, most pervasive, COVID wave?

Are doing your best to float serenely in the shallow end or have you put your metaphorical hard hat on and are paddling into the pandemic line-up?

Journalist Tom Melville and John Hanscombe share their respective internal dialogue as the nation prepares to enter its third year of living underneath a cloud of COVID.

I went to the pub a couple of weeks ago. It was quieter than usual, but it is that time of year when almost everyone you know is somewhere else. Half a dozen of us had a couple of schooners each and then left.

Two days later one of my friends text us about his positive test for SARS-CoV-2.

None of us were surprised or upset with him. He'd followed the rules, so had we. We're all double jabbed but the virus seems to be circling. What more could we do?

We all became "moderate contacts" - which in the ACT means we had to get a rapid test or a PCR test immediately then isolate until it came back negative. As we only found out two days after exposure, another test would be required on day six. I decided to play it safe and not go out. I'm not a nurse or a freight worker, I can afford to stay home. Plus, there was a Test match on.

I didn't catch COVID-19 from that trip to the pub, two RATs confirmed that on day two and day six. But by the time I exited isolation I was weirdly disappointed.

I'm worried about getting sick - I have been since very, very late 2019 when the first reports of a strange pneumonia afflicting people in Wuhan trickled into the BBC newsroom where I was working at the time.

It's never been clear to me, though, how worried I should be. We've been encouraged to take the virus seriously, if not for our own health then for the health of those around us. And I don't want to get sick, but if I have to - and with nearly a million active cases around the country it does seem inevitable - surely now is as good a time as any.

I'm double jabbed and hospitalisation rates in Australia are at about 0.5 per cent. I'll probably be fine. The doubt nags, though: "29-year-old with no comorbidities dies with COVID". Could that be me?

It seems unlikely, just as unlikely as riding the Omicron wave without getting dumped. Perhaps.

With all the sickness around us, I think what I'm most sick of is being scared. I'm in a privileged position, of course, I can "live with COVID" in a way people with chronic illnesses - who should be the focus of our efforts as a community - can't.

I don't want to get sick, who does? So I guess I'll keep being cautious where I can, trying to balance the risks inherent in life - something we're all doing all the time anyway. But if (or could it be when?) I do eventually catch the dreaded lurgy, mixed in with the fever and sore throat - symptoms everyone says only last a few days and aren't really that bad in most people - I'm sure there will be relief.

- Tom Melville

Can't sniff out a RAT, this test will have to do

"What? Wasn't me." Billy the Border Collie, whose emissions let his owner know he probably doesn't have COVID. Photo: John Hanscombe

"What? Wasn't me." Billy the Border Collie, whose emissions let his owner know he probably doesn't have COVID. Photo: John Hanscombe

In this Omicron summer, even the weather feels like fever. Rain. Humidity. Hot, sleepless nights. And the sweaty worry that arrives like clockwork at 4am: Do I have COVID?

Neighbours have it. Friends have it. And often in this confused hour before the dawn, I'm convinced I have it. Then Billy the Border Collie stirs in his bed next to mine and farts.


The sense of smell still works. I give myself the all-clear. We'll call it the Rotten Aroma Test.

It's unscientific but it's the only test available. Like millions of Australians. I'm often unsure whether I'm symptomatic or lapsing into hypochondria.

There's the headache, which could be the virus or just the result of doom scrolling social media for the latest news or caustic opinion. There are the itchy eyes, again possibly from too much screen time.

The queasiness, just as likely from anxiousness about the virus and the clubfooted way it's being mishandled than from the virus itself.

The tickly throat, possibly from yelling at the daily procession of politicians ducking and weaving, dodging responsibility for this unfolding disaster.

And the fatigue. After two years of fires, floods, pandemic, the unholy trinity of disaster is taking its toll. The other day, I retrieved from a drawer some N95 masks, bought in 2019 to deal with the bushfire smoke. The fact they're useful again in this time of Omicron, adds to the sense of Groundhog Day. Only a couple of weeks in and 2022 already feels like it's outstayed its welcome.

Self-diagnosis is never foolproof and all these "symptoms" could well be a mild case of Omicron.

Finding it impossible to sniff out a RAT, and not wanting to add myself to the PCR burden unnecessarily, I'm relying on the dog's emissions (and, to be fair, a host of other odours and fragrances) to let me know I'm probably okay.

Nonetheless, I've self-imposed a lockdown of sorts. Socialising is limited to the small group of fellow dog walkers who gather on the beach in the morning. Visits to the shops are strictly for essentials and timed for when there are few people. Empty supermarket shelves aren't a problem yet - the freezer is chock-full of goodies after COVID forced the cancellation of the family Christmas.

I've become part of the great, unofficial Australian shutdown.

One thing I'm not doing is subscribing to the notion that catching COVID is inevitable, Omicron is mild, so I might as well get it over with.

I know of one young person who was seriously thinking about deliberately exposing himself and getting infected so he could begin his academic year without disruption. That's a gamble no one should be willing to take.

On Wednesday, NSW's chief medial officer Kerry Chant said about 90 per cent of all cases in that state were Omicron. Alarmingly, of those in intensive care, she said 67 per cent had Omicron.

So with no rapid antigen tests on the horizon, I'll continue to monitor my hypochondria, keep my social distance and rely on the sniff test.

Oh, and ponder a great mystery: Why do dogs' paws smell like corn chips?

- John Hanscombe

This story Are we scared of getting sick or sick of getting scared? first appeared on The Canberra Times.