Who decides what deaths we deem to be important? As our current response to COVID shows, it’s complex and arbitrary.
To the surprise and frustration of many health experts, epidemiologists, and ordinary Australians who continue to face heightened and serious risks from COVID, we appear collectively to have decided to move on from the pandemic despite deaths averaging above 50 a day — a level lower than in February, but steadily rising since April.
The current level of deaths per day is far above that during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 — two or three times higher. Yet there isn’t even a mask mandate in most places, let along restrictions or lockdowns. It’s an astonishing backflip in terms of both political response and media attention. Politicians, journalists, editors and producers have decided that COVID is no longer worth worrying about. But nor is there any widespread public clamour for action.
But the backflip in just a few months is only the most extreme example of just how weird policymakers, the media and we ourselves are about causes of death. Despite rhetoric about how every life has equal value, every life does not have equal value for us. Deaths in residential aged care — and not just from COVID — receive far less attention from politicians and the media because, as Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt put it so callously last year, they are going to die anyway. Indigenous causes of death now receive far more attention from policymakers than they used to, but most of the mainstream media pays less attention to Indigenous deaths than those of white Australians.