News Coronavirus It’s not too late for Australia to change course and aim for coronavirus elimination
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It’s not too late for Australia to change course and aim for coronavirus elimination

Australia finds itself in a tricky virus situation, having already locked down once. Photo: Getty
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The World Health Organisation warned on Monday morning that coronavirus cases have hit a record global high, rising by 230,370 in the past day.

That’s almost 10,000 people being diagnosed every hour. And 5000 people die each day.

In other words, the fight against COVID-19 is far from over.

And in case anyone in Australia thought it was, the weekend’s events should be enough to prove that this is no time for anyone to be complacent.

But it’s not too late for Australia to change course and effectively rid itself of the scourge of COVID-19 – and the answer is just across the ditch. More on that later.

No time for complacency … but time for the footy

Just last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared “we are all Victorians” as he expressed solidarity with the state in the grips of a second surge.

Photographs from the weekend, however, showed him in stark contrast to locked-down Victorians. And not just because of his choice of scarf.

Mr Morrison had asked for understanding as he took time off to have a break with his wife Jenny and their children. Then he went to a NRL game, without the family, where he was photographed relaxing with a beer.

Cue social media outrage as “PM showed his true colours”.

PM Scott Morrison at Saturday’s Cronulla Sharks game. Photo: AAP

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews refused to weigh in, saying he had better things to be doing than comment on other people’s free time.

A well-timed pinned tweet from his wife Catherine showed how differently Mr Andrews spent his Saturday.

It came as the state grapples with a continuting rise in virus cases, with fears for healthcare workers – who Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, warned are our “last line of defence”.

The death of a Victorian man in his 70s took the national toll to 108 on Sunday. A further 279 infections were recorded in the state that day – including in aged-care homes, hospitals and public housing towers, where residents were forced back into apartments.

NSW has also recorded more cases, with nine linked to the Crossroads Hotel in Casula, in outer Sydney, including an 18-year-old employee.

Elsewhere in NSW, residents acted as if there was no global pandemic  underway, with photographs emerging of packed pubs, and crowds at a rugby game in Bellevue Hill.

Those venues are being investigated by police.

While, in the locked-down city, many Melburnians wore masks in public as others risked lives – prompting police to fine 1119 people in 24 hours.

It’s not too late for us to choose a different strategy

Elimination, rather than suppression, is the winning coronavirus pandemic strategy from a public health and economic perspective, epidemiologists and economists say.

That’s what New Zealand, the “poster child” for the best pandemic response, has been championing with great results.

There are other examples of the elimination strategy’s success, too, in South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

In stark contrast are countries that failed to go “hard and fast” with coronavirus control measures, including Sweden, the US and Brazil.

While Australia has done relatively well, aiming for elimination from the start could have averted Victoria’s second-round lockdown, experts told The New Daily.

Instead of elimination, Australia’s strategy has been “suppression”, which focuses on controlling and managing outbreaks.

The suppression path lets the virus simmer away in the community, but keeps infection levels low enough that the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed.

As case numbers continue to rise in Victoria, it’s not too late to change course and shoot for near-eradication of COVID-19 nationwide, UNSW epidemiologist and World Health Organisation expert adviser Mary-Louise McLaws told TND.

 

“When the authorities first told us they weren’t going for elimination, I don’t think they appreciated that the numbers would get so high,” Professor McLaws said.

Victoria’s second lockdown offered another opportunity to aim for elimination, she said.

Economist Tom Kompas, a professor of biosecurity and environmental economics at the University of Melbourne, agreed.

In a research paper, Professor Kompas and colleagues examine the health and economic costs of early, delayed, and no suppression of COVID-19 in Australia.

The researchers conclude “that in high-income countries, like Australia, a go early, go hard strategy to suppress COVID 19 results in the lowest estimated public health and economy costs”.

Australia had a second chance to go hard and eliminate COVID-19, Professor Kompas said, “and if we fail we’ll continue to go on with perpetual lockdowns and disruption to the economy”.

How we get there

Australia moved too early in easing restrictions, Professor Kompas said, and just one extra week of restrictions in June would have given the nation “a really good shot” at elimination.

“We opened a bit early. We all know about the pressures on the economy, but it’s much better in my mind to go early, go hard, hibernate the economy and then try to open fairly quickly once the infection has been controlled,” Professor Kompas said.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation we have, I’m sympathetic with the government, but we’ve got to get it under control now and at least have a shot at elimination.”

The Northern Territory reopened pubs and dining venues in May. Photo: Getty

Then there are the issues of hotel quarantine failures and social distancing complacency.

“Those things have caused trouble, and now we have to be even stricter perhaps than we were initially,” Professor Kompas said.

“We’re in a pickle. Now we have six weeks of stage three restrictions, which will hopefully purge the infection.

“But I would do as much as I could to get rid of COVID-19 before I transition back to an economy that looks reasonable.”

Western Australia, South Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, ACT and Tasmania were “effectively very close to elimination”, Professor McLaws said.

“That’s the level that I believe NSW and Victoria should aim for, so that we have a homogeneous pattern of infection, and the fear of having hotspots again, if it does occur, will be at a much smaller level.”