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The number of Australians who have died from Covid is expected to pass 10,000 this weekend.
While the country’s death rate is substantially lower than many other developed nations, it is nonetheless a staggering figure that represents the heartache of so many families, and omits many deaths that were linked to the pandemic in other ways.
As Guardian Australia looks back at how we reached this grim milestone, here are just some of the people behind the numbers.
James Kwan: the first Australian fatality
James Kwan was on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan with his wife Theresa, son Edwin and daughter-in-law Gillian, when he contracted Covid. He was flown back to his home state of Western Australia for medical care, but died in Sir Charles Gairdner hospital on 1 March 2020, the first known Australian victim of the pandemic.
Kwan was a pioneer of Asian inbound tourism to Australia, founding Wel-Travel in Perth in 1988. The company paved the way in developing inbound tourism markets including from Malaysia, Singapore, China, India and Indonesia.
He was a golf fanatic, playing regularly with his wife at The Vines Resort & Country Club in Perth. In a tribute to Kwan written for Australian Golf Digest, his friend Brent Siroen said Kwan had “a very good sense of humour”.
“He was a very well-mannered person, very well-spoken,” Siroen said. “He was certainly very much loved around the golf club. He kept to himself a little bit. He wasn’t really an outgoing person; he just loved his golf and loved his friends and the camaraderie around the club.”
Kwan sponsored the annual Asian Connection Day at the club, where Asian food and karaoke were key features.
The Kwan family made a significant contribution to WA’s economy before expanding their travel business nationally, according to the managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council, Peter Shelley.
“James was a measured and pragmatic man and was held in high regard by the inbound industry, particularly in his beloved home state of Western Australia,” Shelley said.
“James was always willing to share his knowledge and help others in the industry grow, he often mentored young and aspiring members of the tourism industry. He was the life of many industry functions, very entertaining with his sense of humour.
“We all miss his wry jokes and quick wit.”
Linda Lavender: ‘the trip of a lifetime’ on the Ruby Princess
About 40 years after they first met, Steve Lavender and his wife Linda retook their wedding vows. They were on the trip of a lifetime to New Zealand on the Ruby Princess cruise ship.
A month later, in April 2020, Linda died. She was 62, and South Australia’s second Covid victim.
In those early days of the pandemic, the bungled handling of the cruise ship led to Australia’s first big Covid outbreak. At least 850 infections spread from the ship, after passengers with symptoms left the ship in Sydney. At least 28 people died.
Linda had started feeling sick after getting off the ship, but at first dismissed her symptoms as the flu – not least because a test told her that was the case.
But she deteriorated, and eventually died in the Royal Adelaide hospital.
“Linda to me was always an angel,” Lavender says. “I had incredibly intense feelings for her.”
After she died, she was “missed so much” he says. By three children (one from Steve’s former marriage) and four grandchildren – and by her colleagues at Bunnings. She worked there for Dulux, and Steve says even people who had met her only once or twice would remember her.
The Lavenders met on a blind date in Sydney all those years ago, set up so that one of Steve’s friends could go out with Linda’s flatmate.
“We spent a lot of time having drinks in a bistro, in Sydney, and we were looking at people through our [drinking] straws, having fun, that’s how we headed off so well, doing something silly. I’d never done that before in my life,” he says.
“That was it,” he says. “Everything grew from there.”
From Sydney they eventually moved to Adelaide, had children, then started planning the next stage of their lives – with home improvement, their grandchildren and travel.
Now, Steve keeps what he calls his “contemplation corner” in the bedroom.
“With the photos of us on our wedding day, and our day on the cruise, that we retook our vows. It was a day short of a month later she passed,” he says, when a wave of grief hits him.
He says it can strike at any time.
“I do this going down the supermarket aisle, and see something she used to buy a lot.”
He talks some more about his children, Jaime, Matthew and Corey, about Corey’s wife Deborah, and the grandchildren.
“We’ve been pretty lucky in life,” he says.
Sybil and John Beardon: the virus overruns aged care
Liz Beardon endured the unimaginable during the pandemic: losing both parents within one day to Covid-19.
Their deaths came in August 2020 as the virus swept through Victoria’s unvaccinated, underprepared aged care homes.
“I felt very heavily when my parents were sick, and when they died, and after they died that no one wanted to know about them,” Beardon says. “They were just a number. They didn’t have a name. The richness of their lives, the importance of their lives, was lost.”
John Beardon, 86, died on 17 August 2020, and Sybil Beardon, 87, the following day, both at Cabrini hospital in Malvern.
John was remembered as a lovely ballroom dancer, with a lifelong love of jazz, and an avid record collector since childhood.
He worked for the state electricity commission from 1950 until retirement in 1989.
Throughout his life, he was interested in world events and politics, and studied subjects including archaeology, history, anthropology and astronomy.
Liz Beardon says her father also loved “any subjects related to nature and science, engineering, technical gadgets and equipment and computers”. Later in life, he discovered and became obsessed with golf.
He was a member of the Labor party, and was awarded a lifetime membership in 2018.
“He not only always believed in fairness, honesty, equality and justice, but actively and passionately worked for it,” Beardon says.
Sybil grew up in Carlton, Victoria, through the years of the Depression and the second world war. Beardon says her mother’s difficult childhood shaped her “kind, caring nature”.
As a child Sybil and her three siblings often went hungry, so they would sneak into the Melbourne cemetery and steal the food members of the Chinese community would lay as offerings to their departed. “They were particularly fond of the delicious sweet roast pork,” Beardon says.
At 13, Sybil left school to work as a seamstress, becoming the breadwinner for her family.
“Her colleagues were a youthful and vibrant mix of hard-working young women, many from backgrounds that were described back then as ‘New Australian,’” Liz Beardon says. Here Sybil met many lifelong friends.
Sybil and John married in 1961 and had two children. They later also cared for Sybil’s mother Elizabeth, who moved in with them. Beardon remembers her mother caring for her own mother “with such love and devotion, patience and self-sacrifice”.
“She was an open-hearted, fun-loving and gregarious person, she adored catching-up with her girlfriends, and her beloved sister Donna-Bette, who lived close by,” Liz Beardon says.
Following a period of ill-health, Sybil moved to Menarock Rosehill aged care home in Highett in February 2015. John visited her most days, until he moved there too in 2016.
“Because of Covid restrictions we couldn’t have everybody attend their funeral, or that ritual where you invite everybody to remember these wonderful lives, to celebrate those lives and to mourn,” Liz Beardon says. “But their lives were rich, and they were loved, and they deserve to be remembered.”
Katie Lees: a rare death from AstraZeneca
Katie Lees tried to be sensible, once. She thought about teaching.
“Then she said nup,” her dad, Ian Lees, says.
The actor and comedian – who liked to tell unhappy people to quit their jobs, who inspired people to follow their dreams – instead took up performing arts. She performed Shakespeare for schoolchildren in Italy, brought joy to camps full of Syrian refugees, and was building a career in comedy in Sydney.
She was “incredibly creative”, Ian Lees says.
“Katie was a writer, an actor, a comedian … she was a deep and thoughtful person. She felt existence deeply, as people in that line of work do.”
The 34-year-old also wanted to do the right thing by her community. So, in July 2021, as her hometown faced pandemic lockdowns, she went to get vaccinated. She got the AstraZeneca jab, the only one she was eligible for.
First the headaches came, then the rash, then the pain. On 4 August, Katie Lees died of a rare blood clotting disorder caused by the vaccine.
“She felt very passionately about community and society, which is the reason she got the vaccine,” Lees says. “She wasn’t worried about getting Covid herself … but she was concerned about the mental health and the impact on the community [of the lockdowns].
“Katie’s reason for getting vaccinated speaks to her as a person. The last time I saw her conscious was the morning before she went to get her vaccine. She said: ‘Dad, I’m so proud I’m getting to do my bit for the community’.”
Ian Lees describes a vibrant young woman who would corral local children into doing home video performances. A passionate vegan (who would make an exception for a block of Cadbury); someone who made people feel safe (even as she escorted them on Sydney Harbour Bridge climbs for her day job); a strong feminist (“As her father, I can tell you I was corrected a number of times”).
“We’re five mates now,” Ian Lees says. Him, his wife Penny and their other children Hamish, Jonathan and Annika.
“But it was like six mates.”
Health authorities knew about the real, if rare, dangers of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In April, Atagi had advised people under 50 to get the Pfizer vaccine. Case numbers were low then, so the judgment was that it was safer to get Pfizer than AstraZeneca – but there wasn’t enough Pfizer to go around.
By July, Scott Morrison was under pressure over the slow rollout of the vaccination program.
Morrison said rising case numbers had prompted him to call for the advice to change, for more people to get AstraZeneca.
So they did, and some died. The death rate was extremely low – but low is not zero, and those numbers are not just numbers. Katie Lees was not just a number.
“Let’s absolutely acknowledge Covid deaths,” Lees says. “But let’s talk about all pandemic deaths, not just Covid deaths.”
In the febrile environment of a pandemic, his family was wrongly associated with the anti-vaccination movement when they talked about what had gone wrong with the rollout.
“Losing a perfectly healthy daughter is shattering, then feeling utterly alienated and marginalised in society rubbed salt into the wound,” he says.
“What we want is just an acknowledgement. This happened. They knew.
“We know sometimes governments have to make hard decisions, but pick up the phone and say we know the sacrifice your daughter made. She did it for the good of the community.”
The people who loved Katie Lees want the AstraZeneca deaths to be acknowledged in parliament. They want more monitoring and transparency on adverse events, and a royal commission into the federal government’s pandemic response. Most of all they want recognition of what happened.
“We’re all one community,” Lees says.
“One of the things we would love to have would be memorials. I’m not religious but I think there’s a spiritual opportunity to say “hey, we went through some shit together’.”
The family has created the Katie Lees Fellowship, and is collecting tributes while calling for action. And they keep discovering her impact all over the world. Lees tells the story of a young English guy who met Katie.
“He was aspiring to be a writer. She lent him a book about writing. He got his novel published, thought he’d better return it. He looked it up, and she’d just died,” he says.
“Katie had a great line – quit your job. If people complained, if they wanted to do something else – quit your job.”
Or, as Katie herself wrote in her show Temporary:
“Ironing boards are surfboards who gave up on their dreams. Don’t be an ironing board.”
Patricia Woods: a victim of the pandemic’s most deadly year
After Patricia Woods died earlier this year, her granddaughter Paige Carter dressed her in her favourite “going out” outfit..
“A red shirt that she always wore when she went out, and a black coat with a dolphin brooch, and these red shoes,” Carter says. “Pink lipstick. And her hair had to be in the perfect perm with the rollers.”
Carter couldn’t visit her nana as she lay dying in an Adelaide hospital. It was January 2022, and 95-year-old Woods was in hospital after a fall – while there, she’d tested positive to Covid.
Omicron was raging through the nation, and in South Australia that meant Carter wasn’t allowed to visit. She railed against that decision, but had it overturned too late.
So she didn’t get to say goodbye to the woman who had looked after her as a child, and who would slip her $50 with a playful smack on the bum as an adult.
“I lived with Mum, but nana looked after me because Mum was a single mum,” she says.
“Nana dropped me to school every day, picked me up every day … on the bus. She made the best roast I’ve ever had. The best traditional peppery gravy. And the roast potatoes? Wow.
“I watched her make it countless times, I can’t make it like she did.”
Woods had “all the patience in the world” and would sing Carter nursery rhymes, she says. Their special bond lasted until Woods died, although Carter nurses some guilt about not seeing her as much as she got older. Carter’s son has autism, and she knew that would confuse Woods, so she had to juggle her loves and her time.
Woods’s husband died when he was 40, leaving her with nine children. There wasn’t much about that time she’d want to discuss, except her fondness for the town of Kapunda, where she went to school.
“She used to love when we took her for drives. We’d go that way and there used to be a little old cafe where you’d get a roast lunch and have scones,” Carter says.
Carter is still furious about what happened when Woods died. After making a tearful plea to then premier Steven Marshall to be able to see her grandmother, she was eventually granted an exemption on a Friday night, but Carter was told she couldn’t go in until Saturday morning.
Woods died at 3am.
“I’ll kick myself for that [not pushing to go in on the Friday night] for the rest of my life,” Carter says.
“I would have told her that we didn’t abandon her, that we were fighting for her … I’d have said I’m here, I love you, I’m sorry you feel like we abandoned you. I would have just laid on that bed and hugged her.”
Carter says she still feels that bond with her nana, through their “special necklace”.
“She had it before I was born, I remember I used to run my fingers though it, I used to just play with it. As I got older I’d buy her charms to go on it and she’d always promised me I’d have it, and now I’ve never taken it off,” she says.
“I feel like she’s with me.”