five minute read
According to Australian Department of Health, the total number of coronavirus diagnoses in Australia now exceeds 2,000. Over 1,200 of these cases are in New South Wales alone. The growth rate, in looking at this chart, shows that its current growth rate is exponential:
You can view more details via Health.gov here
The mantra chanted from our more experienced northern hemisphere neighbours – Italy in particular – was to try and flatten the curve, asap. Italy, which had recorded only three infections on 15 February, now has over 54 thousand. Let that sink in: in less than six weeks, they went from three reported cases to almost 55,000. The message coming out of Italy and other European countries was clear: Get ahead of this thing. Once it catches up, it will be impossible to outrun. It becomes an exponential tsunami that will have to cause its destruction and leave more in its wake. But tsunamis generally cannot be prevented; this could have been.
First, let’s acknowledge the Chinese model for containment*. We can’t compare our management of this to that of China’s, due to one little obstacle: Hellooo, democracy! Western countries simply do not have infrastructure or levels of the governmental control that a country like China does. Generally, this is a very good thing. But during this pandemic, the trade off means that we don’t have the capability to just whip up a batch of ventilators in our factories, or construct purpose-built hospitals in a week, nor are we able to just second people from one government role to another, and order them to work on the front lines of containment.
But back when Italy’s exponential rise began at the end of February and into early March, we did nothing. Let’s not forget: We Are An Island. Theoretically, at least, we could have stopped the spread in Australia right there, simply by not allowing flights into the country. Now, I realise that this is an oversimplification of a confluence if contributing issues, but it was still a possibility. But, in true Aussie spirit: yeah, nah. Instead, the government’s stance seemed to be one of she’ll be right, mate. But the Lucky Country can’t stay lucky forever, and certainly not in the case of a pandemic.
The other problem we’re still battling is Slo-Mo, oops, I mean Sco-Mo, and all the conflicting government advice. I would describe the current stance as being only quarantine-curious. Not fully committed. Just progressively dabbling.
Let’s start with the Bondi-gate incident of last weekend. Throngs of people flocked to Bondi Beach, a hotspot for backpackers, locals and tourists alike, and understandably so. First, it had been a long, draining week for everyone, as everything was starting to gather some momentum (albeit with mixed messages: ‘have a couple of weeks’ worth of basic supplies on hand’ followed by ‘STOP with the un-Australian panic buying!’) on the coronavirus front. There was beautiful autumn weather, and it is very nearly the end of the beach season for many.
Let’s remember, at this stage, the official government advice was little more than avoid gatherings of more than 500 people and maintain social distancing. Hardly a Code Red warning. Also, to give the beach goers the benefit of the doubt: Yes, it was definitely a poor choice in hindsight – especially since there have been almost 100 new coronavirus diagnoses this week, just from among the beachgoers.
But at the time, there was certainly no way of knowing exactly how many people were actually going to be there – unlike at, say, a footy game or concert. And it can be quite easy to maintain social distance on a large beach such as Bondi. So, for most, it would have been an innocent mistake – a consequnce of inconsistent messaging from the top down.
Meanwhile, on the Thursday before Bondi-gate, just a few kilometres away at Circular Quay, over 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark from a floating petri dish in the form of the Ruby Princess. Their instructions were to self-quarantine, a situation the BBC has since labelled ‘a debacle’. Wait, what? Let’s chide the beachgoers, but ignore this? Now, is this something Slo-Mo could have easily contained? Perhaps. But, yeah, nah. Since then, over 190 people from aboard the cruise ship have tested positive for the virus. In response, the federal government trotted out a well-worn phrase of this being a state issue. Really? That’s not good enough.
At Sco-Mo’s next press conference on Sunday 22 March, he openly rebuked Australians – and the beachgoers in particular – for not taking the coronavirus threat seriously. Here it comes, I thought. Finally, some more proactive approaches: school closures, work from home directives, non-essential services closures. But no. Instead, Morrison maintained that keeping a safe social distance still the ‘most important weapon’ in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, and ‘non-essential travel’ was banned. The latter leaves much room for interpretation.
And the vagueness continued. With regard to new more restrictive measures that would be soon implemented, Morrison said that the aim was to be ‘as consistent as possible between state and territory jurisdictions. What that means is that what may be necessary in a part of Sydney may not be necessary at all in rural New South Wales, or indeed in Perth…’ Slo-Mo continued, ‘So if you see [measures] happening in one part of the country, it doesn’t mean [they have] to happen in yours.’ Confused yet? Good. Me too.
Later that evening — after another meeting of the National Cabinet — pubs, clubs and other places of public gatherings such as cinemas, were directed to close. But the biggest germ factories of all – schools – were still not on the list. This, despite Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy admitting that ‘we don’t know whether children have a significant role in transmission’. Sheesh. That inspires a lot of confidence around the decision to keep the schools open.
So where to now? While the wartime parallels continue, the landscape changes hourly, it seems. Being the PM during the most challenging health crisis in modern history is no easy task, and there is no play book for this one. But the time for faffling about and indecision needs to end. Pull off the Band-Aid. Please. Shut It All Down asap. Before we miss the window, and become the Italy of the Antipodes. The drip-feed approach to lock-down will not stop this quickly enough.
To cite a few more clichés: You can’t jump off a bridge half way. You can’t have chlorinated and non-chlorinated sections of a swimming pool. No point in closing the barn door once the horse has bolted.
And, to quote another old Aussie chestnut: Go hard or go home. How about for coronavirus: Go hard and STAY home. C’mon Scotty, where the Bloody hell are ya on this one?
*This is a fascinating read: A New York Times interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, of the World Health