What we've learnt about beating Covid

The coronavirus has provided many learning opportunities over the past 18 months.

The coronavirus has provided many learning opportunities over the past 18 months.

Australian scientists and public health professionals (from doctors to nurses to planners and administrators) have done an amazing job in coming to terms with a global crisis which is unprecedented in our lifetime.

We were told a COVID-19 vaccine could take 10 years to develop. Within a year, clever, hard-working people, often in the public sector in different countries, devised a handful of different formulas.

In Australia, life for the first year of the pandemic often continued with a semblance of normality compared with the disruptions in other places.

Broadly, we have learned - and learned quickly - that:

  • Fast and hard is the best response to an outbreak - close it down before it spreads;
  • Vaccination is an imperative; and
  • People need to do the right thing - for their own sake and for the sake of the rest of us.

We may also be learning we will have to live with the virus and its variants. It will not be eliminated; only tamed for the moment. How tamed it can be will depend on how many of us get vaccinated and how well we obey lockdown and distancing rules when outbreaks do occur.

Go hard and go early

When the pandemic started just over a year ago, it took months to put restrictions into place.

The first inkling of the problem ahead came on January 30 last year when the head of the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak was a "public health emergency of international concern" - the WHO's highest level of alarm.

At that stage, there were no cases in Australia but the infection had spread out of China to Germany, Japan, the United States and Vietnam.

The Australian border was closed on March 20. It's clear the authorities didn't realise what was heading our way.

Experts may have realised but that didn't translate into effective action for nearly two months.

And the authorities didn't realise just how virulent the virus was and how it could sneak in through the slightest gap.

The first outbreak in Sydney happened in March when the Ruby Princess cruise ship docked and 2650 passengers, some of them infected, got off untested. The ship was ultimately linked to at least 900 infections and 28 deaths.

Testing and isolation are now at the core of a response.

And the states and territories?

Melbourne was an early epicentre. The virus escaped from hotel quarantine last year, carried out by staff.

The authorities locked the city down and seemed to contain the outbreak. The restrictions were then relaxed, but too early, said Dr Jason Thomson of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.

"We got ahead of ourselves with opening up before we had put the last nail in the Covid coffin - and it lurched out.

"Unfortunately cases increased and Victoria ramped up restrictions again, slowly. First by geography with local lockdowns and then using less restrictive restrictions across the state.

"We chased Covid instead of getting ahead of it and it soon got away. By then it was too late and stricter restrictions came along with a bang. Now our leaders know better. We know we need to head off rampant community transmission as soon as we realise we don't have full control."

And, human beings need to control urges to make intimate contact with strangers.

"It looks like it all came from one hotel, and a few security guards having a good time," the ABC's chief political correspondent, Laura Tingle, said at the time.

But it's horses for courses

Our federal system has been a help.

Though there are frictions between the states and territories, on the one hand, and the Commonwealth government, on the other, the decentralised system has meant the particular conditions of an outbreak can be addressed locally.

At the moment, for example, the regulations in the ACT differ slightly from those just over the border in New South Wales.

People commute between different rules on masks.

In Sydney, the lockdown is set to run for at least another two weeks. In Melbourne, the initial period is five days.

The Victorian government has been much more controlling when it comes to who is allowed to go to work, confining it strictly to "authorised essential workers".

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it was "so difficult ... to have a precise rule".

She would "rely on people to respect the intent of the health orders as well as the letter of the health orders."

Ethnic minorities

One of the lessons of the first Melbourne outbreak a year ago was communication on health advice with ethnic minorities needed to be better.

William A Heseltine, who was a professor at Harvard Medical School, said one of the things Australia got right was the way remote Indigenous communities were treated, so infections were kept low.

"When COVID-19 struck, they insisted they run their own response and the government listened for once and provided resources," he wrote. "Remote communities were closed to outsiders, food was supplied to limit travel, and information campaigns were full of Indigenous humour and values."

Panic buying?

When the outbreaks spiked two months ago, there were reports of panic-buying. Have we learnt that we are not about to run out of toilet paper?

This story What we've learnt about beating Covid first appeared on The Canberra Times.