By Siri Gamage –
Once the Coronavirus started to appear in Australian soil in February and the authorities got their act together to combat it including the establishment of a National cabinet including State premiers and Territory leaders, the real battle was fought in March after announcing the emergency plan on 27th February. Initially, travellers from China and Iran were banned. Later travellers from Italy were added. Others arriving in Australia were required to self-isolate in their own homes for two weeks. Later all arrivals from overseas were required to self-isolate in hotels provided by the government. Managing those who arrived from cruise ships was less than ideal as the now infamous Ruby Princes produced more than 600 infected people and several deaths. Passengers were let loose by the authorities even when the ship doctors knew some had flue like symptoms.
The twice weekly news briefings by the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer emphasised the need to flatten the rising curve of infections if the country is to gain normalcy. In the meantime, various restrictions for people movement were imposed including the closure of schools, cafes, restaurants. The latter were asked to turn to be take away shops. People were able to go out of homes to go to super markets, visit hospitals or medical practitioners, exercise and work. If people were found loitering or coming to towns with no acceptable reason they were fined. As things turn out many employed people-other than in essential services- stayed home and started working online. Children stayed home and some got home schooling online. Social distancing measures were introduced which meant that two people had to be apart 1.5 meters in public spaces. This applied in super markets, parks, walking or cycling, shopping centres and so on.
Initially people viewed such measures as draconian. But as the events unfolded and the media reporting on what’s happening in the US and some European countries became frequent, people accepted the need for physical isolation and following the rules. Many adapted to life at home by gardening, doing exercises, reading, cooking and engaging many other homely activities. Businesses started to offer services online. Though there were panic buying from supermarkets in the early stages, things settled down as time passed.
Many people lost employment as a result of the Corona spread and closing down of businesses in order to meet the strict rules imposed by the government. About one million became unemployed. Government doubled the unemployment benefit. It also introduced a Job Keeper Allowance of $1500 a fortnight. Employers could apply on behalf of employees. Similar packages were introduced for businesses and the domestic airlines also. Though curfew was not introduced the net effect of all the measures amounted to a countrywide lockdown.
By now the curve has been flattened. The daily number of infections has come down below 20. In some states such as Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Northern Territory the number is either negligible or zero. Medical scientists dealing with the virus and infections as well as political leaders are relived with this result. So are the people. However, there are two areas of concern for the foreseeable future. 1) the possibility of a second wave, 2) economic impact and how to revive the battered economy?
In order to combat a second wave, various measures are being employed. One of them is the introduction of a tracking app in mobile phones, i.e. COVID19Safe. By now over 5 million people have downloaded this App. It can track those who come into contact with an infected person via Bluetooth. No doubt this App is able to accelerate the tracking capacity from the manual process practiced thus far. The other measure is the substantial expansion of testing capacity. In New South Wales(NSW) alone over 7000 tests are conducted daily. Apparently, these tests can detect asymptomatic cases (though some doubt exists about this?) and more importantly community spread. Once the airports and ports were closed, infections from overseas arrivals diminished. However, community spread continued. Government decided to expand testing to combat this aspect. Nonetheless, in some places like schools, age care facilities new cases have emerged. Government believes that these episodes can be managed.
By now restrictions are being relaxed step by step. This is in contrast to the situation in the US where people have taken the law into their hands and demanding the states re-open. For example, in NSW, from last Friday two visitors can be welcome. This means parents and children or grandparents who could not see face to face can now visit each other. Schools are to be re-opened too. Initially one day a week face to face and the rest by online teaching. Gatherings of 10 people will be allowed. If these measures do not produce more infections, government will relax further restrictions. Next Friday, the national cabinet will decide which other measures to be taken to relax restrictions. In any case, it appears that we have to live with some number of cases –up and down- for some time to come. Even after reducing new infections, social distancing will continue until a vaccine or a drug that can treat the virus is found.
Economic dimension is the other key area of focus. Areas such as international education, tourism, and trade have been severely affected due to the spread of Corona virus and closure of airports etc. Profits in many ventures including in the banking sector are affected. Government had to take measures to address this situation. Banks have taken measures to correct the impact as well to address declining income. Some travel companies have laid off staff as are the two main airlines. Virgin Australia is in the hands of an administrator.
How to reinvigorate businesses and find employment for those who lost jobs are key considerations. Government has appointed a high-level committee to explore this dimension and coordinate with the business sector. Already, some politicians are talking about reducing immigration levels and giving priority to Australians who lost jobs. This is understandable. The other talking point is about the need to reduce dependence on countries like China and re-start manufacturing locally. There are some examples of this happening even now but more attention will be paid by those responsible in days and months to come. The Prime Minister’s view is that we cannot go back to isolationism. Any manufacturing has to be competitive.
United efforts by the political leadership, the medical profession and other health professionals have made the situation promising at present. Hospital facilities have been strengthened to face expected future rise in infections, especially during the winter months. Supplies of Personal protection materials have been secured. Research in finding a vaccine or other treatable drugs continue. A sense of optimism is emerging nationally and locally. People are learning to appreciate what we have rather than chasing unrealisable dreams while questioning the pre-corona paradigm of so-called development. Country had to go back to the basics in a way and look to each other for comfort when the infection rate was rising.
Australia is also pushing for an independent investigation to find out the source of corona virus in China. A proposal to this effect submitted by Europeans will be discussed by the health ministers around the middle of this month. Such a proposal, supported by the US also, has angered China. If China failed to report early cases to WHO in January-February this year, it will come as a significant blow to China’s international reputation. Furthermore, many thousands of deaths could have been avoided if worse affected countries had advance knowledge about the spread of the virus.
Australia’s next focus will be on flattening the unemployment curve.