opinion

Australia's response to COVID-19 isn't perfect. But here are 3 things we're getting right.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia climbs, it’s understandable that things may feel out of control. In a matter of just eight weeks, the situation has gone from one we watched with horror from afar to one we’re right in the thick of.

Listening to the experts, it’s clear we’re not dealing with that perfectly.

There are loud, urgent calls from the medical and research communities for the federal/state governments to enforce a strict lockdown that would largely confine us to our homes. There are also criticisms over confusing public messaging about school closures, plus the lack of rent relief available to Australians left out of work by mandatory shutdowns. And plenty more.

Watch: Your COVID-19 queries, answered.

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Of course, this is a large, fast-moving emergency and we won’t truly know how effective — or ineffective — Australia’s response has been until we’re out the other side.

But in the interests of maintaining a little bit of optimism, there are signs of a few things we’re doing right.

Australia’s testing rates are among the highest in the world.

There have been a lot of calls for Australia to test more people for COVID-19.

But with a global shortage of kits, Australia has had no choice but to adopt a targeted program that screens only the most at-risk of infection, including returned travellers with symptoms and people who’ve been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19.

That criteria was expanded this week to include those who experience acute respiratory symptoms and/or fever IF they live in a COVID-19 hotspot or work in health care or aged care. (See our previous article for full details: The facts about who can and can’t get tested for COVID-19 in Australia.)

That criteria may still sound narrow, but compared to the rest of the world, Australia is among the leaders in testing.

According to the Department of Health, Australia has performed “over 181,000 tests”. That’s (very roughly) 705 tests per 100,000 population.

The US and UK, meanwhile, have performed roughly 157 tests per 100,000 population.

One of the only countries ahead of Australia by this measure is South Korea, which has performed roughly 712 tests per 100,000.

More good news: 500,000 test kits are due to be distributed across Australia next week. These new finger-prick tests are capable of returning results in as little as 15 minutes.

Physical distancing appears to be having a positive impact.

On Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised Australians for observing physical distancing; that is, remaining in their homes as much as possible, avoiding gatherings with people not in their households, and keeping 1.5 metres distance from others. As a result, he told the press conference, the number of people “moving around places, like Melbourne and Sydney” has fallen by two-thirds in the last week.

Just hours earlier, the Premiers of both New South Wales and Victoria reported a drop in new case numbers.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told media there were 46 new cases on Thursday, down from 65 the previous day. On Sunday, there had been 80 new cases.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said her state had recorded two consecutive days of lower numbers: from a high of 211 on Wednesday to 190 on Thursday and 186 on Friday.

It’s crucial, however, that strict physical distancing continues, as there are 145 cases of COVID-19 in NSW acquired from an undeterminable source (in other words the patients have no travel history or contact with a confirmed case): “That means the virus is started to spread in the community without us knowing exactly where, and that is a concern,” Premier Berejiklian said.

Still, there’s optimism in modelling from the University of Sydney published this week that suggests that if eight in 10 Australians follow strict physical distancing (remaining at home and cutting off all in-person interactions with people they don’t live with), then the virus could be brought under control in as little as 13 weeks.

Australia closed its border to travel from China relatively quickly.

On February 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposed a ban on foreign travellers entering Australia from or through China.

Only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members were permitted entry, and all were forced to self-isolate for 14 days following their departure. The decision stemmed from the fact that all of Australia’s first cases — nine, at that point — were among people who had travelled from or via China.

At the time, the move ran counter to recommendations from the World Health Organisation, which just two days prior had deemed travel restrictions unnecessary. It was also heavily criticised by the Chinese Government as “extreme” and an “overreaction”.

Locally, there were some shaking their heads, too. Much discussion was had about the economic fallout, particularly in relation to the tertiary education sector — the ban left an estimated 100,000 students who’d travelled back to China for new year celebrations in limbo.

While it’s too early to assess the benefits of any prevention strategy — we’re still well and truly in the thick of this crisis — experts say that travel bans can help limit or delay the spread of disease when implemented early.

As biosecurity expert, Professor Raina MacIntyre of UNSW’s Kirby Institute, wrote in the journal Public Health Research & Practice,”Travel bans and quarantine are proven interventions, and especially critical for infections with pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic transmission.”

Once a virus reaches pandemic levels, however, it’s about stopping the spread within the community.

In other words, (as with all aspects of disease control) it’s a good thing to act early.

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To protect yourself and the community from COVID-19, keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

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The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It’s okay to feel this way, but it’s also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus – How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

Image: Getty.

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