Time to shift from containment to elimination as the answer to the Coronavirus

By Joe Montero

It is obvious that Australia is heading into a new Covid-19 outbreak. This may have begun in Victoria. It is now raising its head in New South Wales, and it is highly likely that other states and territories will soon follow suit.

A new outbreak has in part been inevitable. The virus is raising its head around the world once more. But the way in which the pandemic is dealt with, by a government and the community, is also important and determines how far it will spread.

The track record is that those countries using a combination of high level of community engagement and strict measures, have done much better than those that have not.

Australia sits somewhere in the middle. There was a lockdown. But there was minimal community engagement. We were fortunate to have the advantages of distance from the rest of the world. Half the population clustered in two cities made it easier to control. The initial outbreak did not happen during winter, where people have a higher chance of being infected, was fortunate.

The latest outbreak is forcing through a reality check. Just weeks ago, too many thought it was all over and relaxed precautions. Now we are paying the price.

The emerging new wave has added fuel to the debate over whether the strategy should be one of containment or elimination.

So far, the national strategy employed by the Australian government has been containment. This is what flatten the curve is all about. the goal is to get it low enough to get the economy at full steam ahead, as soon as possible and minimise the impact on business is the goal.

The alternative is to the get the curve down to zero. This is based on the view that looking after the health of the citizens is the number one priority, that even one infection, let alone one death is too high a price.

Coronavirus brings a human toll

The second argument for elimination is that containment will bring a greater economic cost in the end. The experience is bearing this out.

Restrictions were lifted too soon. This provided the best conditions for a return of the pandemic. The United States and United Kingdom have been doing worse. But this does not mean Australia couldn’t be doing better. New Zealand has.

Although there is a special national cabinet, it has not really developed a coherent enough national strategy. Too much is being left to the states and territories, which is getting in the way of coordinating what is a national emergency.

Another problem has been the tendency to rely too much on commanding citizens and ignoring consultation, and enlisting their active involvement. It has caused some resentment and got in the way of of involving the broad community. On top of this, there has been too much inconsistency in the messages coming out.

If there had been a more intense and longer lockdown and distancing, backed by a community effort to raise a spirit of solidarity and ensure everyone was looked after, Australia would be in a better position today. Containment is failing.

Containment means that business has been put above the health of the citizens. A level of infections and deaths has been accepted as collateral damage to get the wheels turning again.

Elimination starts from the premise that people must be put first. It means getting rid of economics and politics not geared to this principle. Neoliberalism and the ideology of individual selfishness must give way, to working together and sharing.

It means an end to looking after the big end of town and making everyone else pay the price. A good example has been JobKeeper. Little of it went to small businesses. Quite a bit was not passed onto workers. The list of emerging legal cases is testimony to this. The portion of the allocated money not spent, has been handed over to an authority made up of representatives of the fossil fuel industry.

The longer Clovid-19 goes, the more we are learning of the longer term health impacts. Covid-19 is not like the flu that you get over with no lingering effect. It can cause ongoing difficulties with breathing, headaches, ack of energy, concentration difficulties and more. This suggests neurological effects, organ damage, or impacts on the immune system.

To the already serious economic impact, this adds the further cost of loss of capacity to work and health care.

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