By Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

As a psychotherapist specialising in grief and loss (and the depression and anxiety that accompanies such adjustments), we have all endured a range of losses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us continue to struggle the adjustments of responsible social distancing directives, which has resulted mostly as inconvenience — our inability to eat in restaurants; go to theatres, sporting events or entertainment venues; or even attend group or family gatherings of more than 10 people. The adverse impact on education or the potential loss of employment, and the larger ramifications on our national economy resulting from the pandemic is yet another layer of grief and loss. The inability to attend funerals for the loss of loved ones who have died from this virus is perhaps among the most compelling trauma that families have endured.

Without question, and rightfully so, there has been widespread anxieties resulting from the coronavirus. The impact of COVID-19 has been omni-present. Everywhere you turn it is the hot topic. It is such a news sensation that it sometimes seems as though there is no other news occurring. It also has a pervasive prevalence trending on numerous social media platforms. In my therapy sessions, a significant amount of the session content is often focused on coronavirus anxieties and the adverse impact it is having on their circumstances. Many of my WSU students convey examples in their written and verbal reflections of their now fully online course work — about how the coronavirus effects their studies and University experience this semester.

All things considered however, Australia (and New Zealand) appear to have responded to this pandemic far better than many countries in the world. A little less than 7,000 cases in the entire country, and fewer than 100 fatalities (93) is rather remarkable in contrast to so many other countries who have taken on much larger catastrophe and carnage. This is no doubt attributable to a quick and decisive response; available testing and contact tracing; and significant shelter-in-place strategies. Moreover, the results of these public health interventions have contributed to the flattening of the curve of this pandemic — to the point that it may not be too much longer before consideration can be given to a gradual relaxing of some these measures.

The one disconnect for me however, which is currently hotly debated, is the mounting pressure for kids to return to school — in the context of clearly successful shelter-in-place directives in most other domains. One argument that is being touted is that the evidence suggests that children are less likely to contract the virus in school environments. This appears to be generally true of other potentially spreadable health-related conditions as well. This is further supported by the initial characterisation that COVID-19 is more likely to be contracted by older individuals with compromised health issues.

However in my view, this appears to be selective evidence at best. In fact, there are still so many things we do not know about this new coronavirus. Initially thought to be risky only for the elderly and other vulnerable people, the virus is now known to be deadly even for young, physically fit individuals. Recent reports note increasing numbers of younger people contracting and even succumbing to this virus. There are emerging reports of blood clotting, thought to be contributors to increased incidents of strokes and neurological symptoms. Beyond the initial pulmonary features of this virus, there are some indications that it may also contribute to cardiac issues. And even if children in general are more resilient, and may not seem to exhibit overt symptoms, how do we know that they are not carriers of the virus infecting their teachers in the classroom or their families when they return home from school?

My suspicions are that this debate is less about issues of education, and more about the indirect aspect of schools providing a structural mechanism of child care for our societal way of life. It can be challenging for “essential” workers to maintain their work-related duties and adhere to their parental responsibilities in these trying times. Yet, I note that child-care centres made adjustments that enabled them to continue to operate, as our police officers, fire-fighters, and health-care workers on the front lines still needed such resources in order to continue their service to us. Overall, a return to school initiative would certainly alleviate such circumstances in a fairly dramatic way. But at what cost? Ultimately, such an approach may be premature, and perhaps unnecessary.

After the collective sacrifice that Australia recently endured in order to be on the verge of securing control of this virus, why would the Government want to risk a set back of secondary outbreaks that could potentially result from such action?

Based on the data reported in the news it would seem that after perhaps after another 30 days of caution, we may be in a better position to consider a return to school for students, as well as beginning to gradually relax some of our social distancing with an increased degree of confidence. This timeframe seems to be in-line with the federal governments recent incentive of providing billions of dollars to schools that commit to reopening by June 1st.

The unavoidable reality is we are currently living in interesting times. We will not be able to realistically return to normal until we have either developed a vaccine or achieved herd immunity as a nation. Until then, as we contemplate and envision what the future holds after coronavirus, it is clear that we will be embarking on a “new normal”. Other countries that have been successful in this fight are already experiencing this (i.e. South Korea). But hopefully, the actions taken by our Government will soon result in our being able to responsibly consider further relaxation of social distancing measures — including children returning to schools.

Adelaide has now reported 8 consecutive days without confirming any further coronavirus cases and is approaching the possibility of eliminating the virus. Other states are showing similar results as well. Perhaps we should all follow their lead, and do what they do, a little while longer.

Viewing this through the lens of a grief framework, my observation is we have largely been successful in our avoidance of responding to these issues via of denial. (After much success, let’s hope we do not revert to denial to justify an ill-informed and political agenda over a public health focus). However, as our economy is being strained and we become understandably restless, this has given rise to a certain level of anger. The recent school debate reflects in my view a nation’s attempt at bargaining. If such an effort is unsuccessful or futile, it could underscore a depressive response on the national mood. However, all indications are that we are on the verge of being able to gradually and responsibly relax some of these measures which I hope will put us on a footing of acceptance.

The motto for the recently honoured Anzac holiday is … “Lest we forget …”

Likewise, it is important to emphasise that Australian’s willingly made COVID-19 sacrifices today … so that we could enjoy further freedoms tomorrow.