It has been a while since we’ve last provided a coronavirus update. Still, considering all the changes to rules in Australia, which have taken place, or are about to take place, we thought it was an appropriate time to take stock and assess the landscape.
Let’s begin with the raw numbers. Since January, Australia has had 6,964 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which there have been 97 deaths.1 As of the morning of the 13th May, there are currently 735 ‘active cases’ of the disease in the community.2
Australia has been hugely successful in ‘flattening the curve’ and significantly reducing the spread of the disease in the community. South Australia has only reported a single case since 23rd April,3 Western Australia has had one case since 29th April,4 and Northern Territory confirmed its last case at the beginning of this month.5 All new infections in Australia are found in its eastern states, the majority of which can be traced back to the Victorian abattoir at the centre of a small outbreak.6
In no small part because of this success, the Federal Government, after agreement from the National Cabinet, has announced a ‘three-step plan’ to restart the economy and reopen the community.7 This plan covers a wide range of topics from businesses, restaurants and cafés to interstate travel.8 Each state and territory is responsible for implementing the project individually. As the Prime Minister said, different states will move at different paces depending on the activity of the virus in their jurisdiction.9
Although many are excited about the relaxation of restrictions, it is key to remind ourselves why the restrictions were imposed in the first place. As Australia’s Chief Medical Officer said a month ago, Australia’s strategy is, and presumably remains, not to aim to eradicate the virus, but “hold infection rates at close to one – that is, so each infected person on average infects only one other. It’s the “Goldilocks strategy” .10
This plan was put in place to buy Australia time and prepare its health system, health workers, and policymakers, for the health and economic consequences of the virus.
As states and territories begin to reopen, we should expect to see an uptick in the number of cases in the community. An increase is expected because as more people move around their city or town, there are increased contacts between people who may inadvertently spread the virus, especially if they are asymptomatic. This has been the South Korean experience, where, after restrictions were eased, one nightclub patron passed the virus on to around 30 other people.11
The challenge going forward is identifying these small outbreaks early so that they do not snowball and spread rapidly in the community. This was the purpose of the Australian Government launching the COVIDSAFE app. It is hoped that because many have downloaded that app, and the community is familiar with social-distancing, good hygiene, and are getting tested at a large scale, any increase in the number of cases can be controlled effectively.
Although Australia has been very successful, and its people should be proud of its efforts to beat the virus, it is not out of the woods just yet. The country’s next big challenge is managing the delicate task of reopening the economy and the community while keeping the virus in check.
Till next time.
1 Australian Government Department of Health, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers’, accessed 13 May 2020, last updated 13th May 2020 <https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-current-situation-and-case-numbers#current-status>.
4 Peter de Kruijff, ‘No new coronavirus cases reported in WA but Health Minister Roger Cook says we should brace for more’ Perth Now, 11 May 2020, accessed 13 May 2020 < https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/coronavirus/no-new-coronavirus-cases-reported-in-wa-but-health-minister-roger-cook-says-we-should-brace-for-more-ng-b881544349z>.
5 Northern Territory Government, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’, accessed 13 May 2020, last updated 12th May 2020 <https://coronavirus.nt.gov.au/current-status#section1>.
6 Michael Fowler and Richard Baker, ‘Cedar Meats outbreak reaches 75 as authorities investigate animal cruelty’, The Age, 10 May 2020, accessed 13 May 2020 < https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/cedar-meats-outbreak-reaches-75-as-authorities-investigate-animal-cruelty-20200509-p54rer.html>.
7 Prime Minister of Australia, ‘Update of Coronavirus Measures’, Media Statement, 8 May 2020, accessed 13 May 2020 <https://www.pm.gov.au/media/update-coronavirus-measures-08may20>.
10 Prime Minister of Australia, ‘Press Conference – Australian Parliament House’, Transcript, 8 May 2020, accessed 13 May 2020 <https://www.pm.gov.au/media/press-conference-australian-parliament-house-08may20>.
11 Alex Ward’ South Korea’s new coronavirus cases show the perils of reopening’, Vox, 11 May 2020, accessed 13 May 2020 <https://www.vox.com/2020/5/11/21254451/south-korea-nightclub-outbreak-coronavirus-infections-reopening-dangers>.