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Australia has almost eliminated the coronavirus — by putting faith in science
Source: | Author:pro01a30d | Published time: 2020-11-06 | 352 Views | Share:

SYDNEY — The Sydney Opera House has reopened. Almost 40,000 spectators attended the city's rugby league grand final. Workers are being urged to return to their offices.

Welcome to Australia, a pandemic success story.

The nation of 26 million is close to eliminating community transmission of the coronavirus, having defeated a second wave just as infections surge again in Europe and the United States.

 

No cases were reported on the island continent Thursday, and only seven since Saturday, besides travelers in hotel quarantine. Eighteen patients are hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. One is in an intensive care unit. Melbourne, the main hotbed of Australia's outbreak which recently emerged from lockdown, has not reported a case since Oct. 30.

 

Meanwhile, in the United States, 52,049 people are hospitalized and 10,445 are in an ICU, according to the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer effort to document the pandemic. America's daily new cases topped 100,000 on Wednesday, and its death toll exceeds 233,000, a staggering figure even accounting for its greater population than Australia, which has recorded 907 deaths.


"I never thought we would really get to zero, which is amazing," said Sharon Lewin, the Melbourne-based director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, which provided forecasts in February that formed the basis of the Australian government's response. "I've been going out nonstop, booking restaurants, shopping, getting my nails done and my hair cut."

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As North America, Europe, India, Brazil and other regions and countries struggle to bring tens of thousands of daily infections under control, Australia provides a real-time road map for democracies to manage the pandemic. Its experience, along with New Zealand's, also shows that success in containing the virus isn't limited to East Asian states (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) or those with authoritarian leaders (China, Vietnam).

Several practical measures contributed to Australia's success, experts say. The country chose to quickly and tightly seal its borders, a step some others, notably in Europe, did not take. Health officials rapidly built up the manpower to track down and isolate outbreaks. And unlike the U.S. approach, every one of Australia's states either shut their domestic borders or severely limited movement for interstate, and in some cases intrastate, travelers.


Perhaps most importantly, though, leaders from across the ideological spectrum persuaded Australians to take the pandemic seriously early on and prepared them to give up civil liberties they had never lost before, even during two world wars.

"We told the public: 'This is serious; we want your cooperation,' " said Marylouise McLaws, a Sydney-based epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales and a World Health Organization adviser.

A lack of partisan rancor increased the effectiveness of the message, McLaws said in an interview.

The conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, formed a national cabinet with state leaders, known as premiers, from all parties to coordinate decisions. Political conflict was largely suspended, at least initially, and many Australians saw their politicians working together to avert a health crisis.

"Regardless of who you vote for, most Australians would agree their leaders have a real care for their constituents and a following of science," McLaws said. "I think that helped dramatically."


Heeding medical advice


Australians' willingness to conform — especially in Melbourne, where residents endured a lengthy state-ordered lockdown — reflects political attitudes that differ from those in parts of the United States. In a nation where compulsory voting produces conventionally center-left or center-right political leaders, governments tend to be regarded as the solution to society's problems rather than the cause.

Australia's national response was led by Health Minister Greg Hunt, a former McKinsey & Co. management consultant and Yale University graduate. Hunt and Morrison worked with the state premiers, who hold responsibility for on-the-ground health policy, to develop a common approach to the pandemic.

The government closed Australia's borders to travelers from China on Feb. 1, the same day as the Trump administration in the United States. But unlike the Trump administration, which has criticized its primary infectious-disease adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, Hunt relied heavily on health experts from the start.

"In January and February, we were focused on containing the risk of a catastrophic outbreak," Hunt said in an interview. "We had a clear strategic plan, which was the combination of containment and capacity building."

The secret to Australia’s success in beating the coronavirus? Being an island helps.

"We closed the border and concentrated on testing, tracing and social distancing," he added. "We built up our capacity to fight the virus in primary and aged care and hospitals. We invested in ventilators, and vaccine and treatment research."

Hunt's department oversaw the purchase of huge amounts of protective equipment and clothing, including masks, which became mandatory on Aug. 2 in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located.


After a sick doctor in his 70s treated more than 70 people in the city before being diagnosed, Hunt accelerated a 10-year plan to phase in video consultations with physicians. Within 10 days, almost anyone in Australia could see a doctor over the Internet under Australia's highly subsidized health-care system, including psychiatrists.

The coordination was not always smooth, and lapses did occur. Federal officials were uncomfortable with Melbourne's extreme lockdown and felt the state border closures went too far. Hunt, Morrison and federal health advisers tried to criticize the rules without undermining overall confidence in the response.

While polls show strong support for the tough measures, many people have been badly affected. Australia entered its first recession in 29 years, small businesses have closed, and reports of depression are up. On Tuesday, an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne turned violent. Police arrested 404 people.

Melbourne lifts one of world’s longest lockdowns after 111 days

And for a time, it appeared Australia's early success was imperiled, after lax security at hotels in Melbourne that were housing returned travelers led to a second outbreak in July. By August, more than 700 cases a day were diagnosed. It looked like Australia could lose control of the virus.

Almost all public life in Melbourne ended. After 111 days locked down, the number of average daily cases fell below five. On Oct. 28, state officials allowed residents to leave their homes for any reason.

Australia currently bans its citizens and residents from overseas travel, a decision that has been particularly tough on its 7.5 million immigrants.

On Oct. 16, Australia opened its border to New Zealand, which, despite limited outbreaks, never experienced a full second wave. The government is awaiting results of four vaccine trials in which it has invested.

Most Australians will have access to a vaccine by the middle of next year, Hunt said, a major step toward allowing them to travel.