Covid-19 in Australia Update

For largely good reasons, international coverage of the covid-19 pandemic is not currently focused on Australia. However, the dusty continent is where I keep my body, so I pay a bit more attention to it. While New Zealand remains almost virus free (the exception being people returning from overseas), Australia has low numbers of new cases but there remain a persistent number of cases apparently from community transmission.

The main attention is on the state of Victoria that has had a spike of 41 new cases on Saturday. New South Wales has much smaller numbers but there are still cases that appear to be community transmission (i.e. not people in quarantine who have recently returned from overseas). Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Western Australia has been able to further ease restrictions with pubs and nightclubs opening fully.

One geographic/demographic aspect of Australia that is relevant to WA opening up is the degree to which each state can restrict travel between states. This has lead to some tension between New South Wales and Queensland which still retain some border restrictions.

Things have otherwise pretty much relaxed into a new normal. Cafes and restaurants are sort of open, the roads are busy again but public transport is less crowded. Most people who can work from home (those that work in the great Excel and Microsoft Word mines churning out documents) still are.

Schools have been open for time. Post-pandemic there will be a lot of discussion about schools. As a policy intervention, school closures has been one of the most erratic i.e. there are countries with quite strict lockdowns that have left schools open or partly open and countries with less strict lockdowns that have kept schools closed. Overall, it does look like children aren’t a major source of transmission but it is also clear that the social logistics of closing schools was a genuine challenge. In future pandemics we might not be so lucky (yes, I can’t say anything about this feels lucky except in the sense of it really could have been even worse). A different disease might have more aggressively affected children and governments really need to start planning for ways of closing down schools in a sustainable way.

I travelled into Sydney CBD the other day and there was a normality to the city. The streets were busy with cars and people again. I wore a mask but most of the other people I saw wearing masks were ethnically Asian. Mask wearing hasn’t become habitual here and Australia didn’t have a ‘wear masks at the shops’ level of eased-restrictions mainly because the number of cases fell pretty rapidly (we got to skip that step). Australia likes to boast about itself as part of the Asia-Pacific region but it would do well to adopt the habit of major cities in the region and make mask wearing the norm.

There were Black Lives Matter protests here but so far there have been no recorded covid-19 cases that appear to have originated with the protests. Of course, protestors were generally very good at wearing masks and other PPE (police…not so much).

The shortages in various goods experienced in April had largely been forgotten, aside from some shops being overstocked with off-brand toilet paper. However, the small but scary surge of cases in Victoria has led to supermarket chains imposing restrictions pre-emptively.

The big difference with this new upswing in cases is that testing is now widely available and the infrastructure for contact tracing exists. The contact tracing app doesn’t look like it has had enough people downloading it and using it to make a big difference though.

I think it is still too early to draw any clear conclusions about policy responses to covid-19 other than ‘do not have Boris Johnson or Donald Trump as your national leader’. Mask-wearing? It looks like it works but to have really made a difference to the covid-19 outbreak, people needed to be wearing the masks before they knew about the pandemic. That’s not absurd so long as people in major cities just start adopting that as a habit, particularly if they have the sniffles. Panic-buying of PPE would have been a potential disaster for health workers in the early weeks of the pandemic. However, if people habitually wear them then people will have supplies in and ready. In Australia we may need them anyway if we get another bad fire season (oh, yes that was still this year even if it feels like it was decades ago).

Above all, Australia was lucky rather than smart. Our national government isn’t particularly competent but they managed to step over the low bar that the UK Tories and USA GOP failed on. As I have suggested before, I believe the PR disaster that befell the PM (Scott Morrison) because of his woeful handling of the bushfire crisis resulted in the federal government fearful of a repeat performance.

6 thoughts on “Covid-19 in Australia Update

  1. Out of curiosity, how restrictive was Australia’s “Lockdown”? Obviously the US’ lockdowns, even when they were all in full effect, were very limited in effect and were very rarely actually enforced, despite republican bitching. Did you guys have severe restrictions on movement and was that enforced?

    Obviously the US has none of that now, which is why mask wearing has become a major cause for rational people here, because when you’re not doing anything else, that small step is kind of important, even if it may not have been necessary in Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At the most severe, cafes etc were closed except for takeaway food and only if they could do so safely, travels was severely restricted, schools were closed (sort of – it was a bit of mixed bag), churches were (are still?) closed. Gyms are still closed I think. Supermarkets etc were open but trips to them were discouraged. You weren’t supposed to have people round to your house (with exceptions). Many elective surgeries were cancelled.
      So strict but less strict than the (shorter) measures used in New Zealand that went full-on in an elimination strategy.

      The measures have been gradually reduced so that sizes of gatherings were increased. Cafes are open again (but with limited seating) etc.


    2. I don’t think it is only about getting rid of the infection and stopping the spread. It might also be about stopping the *severity* of the spread.

      Sweden is starting to see the same situation as in Italy. More and more people survive ICU with no major difference in treatment. As if the disease had become milder. One possible reason might be that the initial viral load is smaller now when people social distance more and are more careful, compared to at the start when people could stay in the same closed room for hours.

      So just keeping enough distance most of the time might have a very good effect, even if spread doesn’t go down.


  2. Sounds like your restrictions were like California’s.

    We were about to open up further, but a surge in cases (many along the border with Arizona, which is Fox News territory) has quashed that for a bit. Disneyland was going to open (modified) in a couple of weeks, but has pushed that back again. Many businesses are saying they aren’t opening till the Mouse Kingdom does, trusting their decades of expertise in crowd dynamics and crack legal department. Of course Disney World is open, because Florida.

    Some places are opening up in modified form, but the bars are still closed because they’ve been proven to be major Petri dishes in other states. They still haven’t decided when schools will reopen, but that wouldn’t happen for a couple of months in normal times.

    Last time I was out, I noticed traffic is up to maybe 75% of usual, and that was 3 weeks ago. My county is still requiring masks most places, and you can’t set foot on a medical campus without one. I was finally able to see the clinician I’d been unable to visit, and there are social distancing stickers in the waiting room, plus you have to have a temperature check and wash your hands before they let you into any of the buildings.

    I luckily bought some masks when they were back in stock after our wildfires (from an Asian-owned store) and before Covid happened, and have been very grateful to past me for doing that. Particularly for getting the kind with nose wires so my glasses don’t fog. Also grateful to our pizza place staying open for takeout, because our weekly pizza is normalcy.

    The BLM and related protests here have been very good about wearing masks, because they’re sympathetic to the collective good. People exerting themselves in summer heat to tear down statues of racist genocidal men are even masked.

    @Cam, Phil: more like a crack in the sidewalk. Except instead of breaking your mother’s back, they killed her with a virus.

    Liked by 1 person

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