Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Is Covid-zero a viable long-term strategy?

Simon Cowan

14 August 2021 | Canberra Times

On Thursday, the ACT became the latest jurisdiction to enter a snap lockdown at just a handful of cases; the latest domino to fall to Delta COVID.

Whatever the previous rhetoric about lockdowns being a ‘last resort’, they are clearly now the first response to any outbreak, and this is showing the flaws and challenges of this COVID-zero strategy.

It is starting to feel like Australia is just plugging an ever-increasing number of leaks from the dam.

Since the start of June, Melbourne, which was already in lockdown at the time, has locked down twice more, with the latest one extended for another week this week. Greater Sydney entered lockdown in late June and is unlikely to emerge for months. Since then, this lockdown has expanded to five regional centres.

Queensland locked down the south east of the state in late June and again in July / August, and recently introduced a lockdown of parts of the north. Western Australia, South Australia and even the Northern Territory have all also had lockdowns in this time.

One of the important positives to the COVID-zero approach is that it is supposed to allow periods where life can return to normal between lockdowns. Yet these normal periods seem to be getting shorter and far less predictable.

Right now the COVID-zero goal looks further from being reachable than it did at any point since May 2020.

Optimists might suggest this is a temporary setback — a combination of a particular virus mutation and winter conditions that increase transmission — that will be contained by harder lockdowns and eventually banished an accelerated vaccine rollout.

But there are three big problems with this narrative.

The first is that the delta outbreak in Sydney doesn’t appear to have peaked, despite seven weeks of lockdown. Not only that, officials are warning cases will continue to rise in the near term.

While some caution should be exercised when comparing the Sydney outbreak with Melbourne’s second wave last winter, some milestones should cause concern. First, although Melbourne’s second wave began around a similar time in June, Melbourne locked down almost two weeks later.

On the day Sydney locked down it had 30 cases, Melbourne had 149. It took four weeks from the Melbourne lockdown on the July 9 to reach the peak (just three days after the introduction of ‘stage 4 restrictions’ for those who might claim this was the catalyst).

Sydney’s lockdown was tightened twice on July 17 and 19, and again in late July early August in a number of Local Government Areas. Despite this tightening, new daily case counts rose past 200 in late July and 300 in early August.

Sydneysiders are becoming increasingly sceptical that the current outbreak will peak in the near term and could instead rise until case numbers are in the thousands. Facing more or less indefinite lockdown, it’s hardly surprising the focus has begun to shift away from elimination being the trigger for the lockdown ending, towards a vaccine threshold.

This presents some problems for other jurisdictions; especially the ACT.

No doubt Victoria, Queensland and the ACT would prefer Sydney to stay in lockdown, regardless of whether the lockdown can succeed or not, because it makes their own fights against delta easier. Some politicians have already attempted to assert some imagined authority from National Cabinet to enforce this outcome.

But for months, New South Wales has put up with other states putting their interests ahead of the national interest, with returning Australians’ quarantine being the obvious area where Sydney has carried most of the national burden.

It is hard to see Sydney accepting lockdown until other states not only meet their vaccine targets but shift away from the Covid-zero mindset.

A thoroughly cowed populace is being told by authoritarian lockdown supporters that any shift from Covid-zero is ‘surrendering’ or ‘capitulating’ but this mindset is going to have to change if we want to return to any semblance of normal.

As Professor Andrew Pollard, who led the team that produced the AZ vaccine, made clear: the delta variant can still infect vaccinated people. That means transmission will continue despite high levels of vaccination.

This is also clear from the Doherty report, which modelled a number of vaccination scenarios. It suggests that unless testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine are ideal, lockdowns similar to the current Sydney one would be needed regularly to maintain control of the virus until an 80% vaccine threshold is met.

Even at that level, the report predicts, in the first 180 days, thousands of vaccinated people would be admitted to hospital and hundreds of them would die; including between 60 and 115 vaccinated people under the age of 60.

Many in the community, especially our political leaders, are wholly unready to accept this outcome.

Yet the constant yo-yoing lockdowns are causing ever-increasing fatigue in the community. People in Melbourne and Sydney are clearly starting to struggle with mental health and social issues exacerbated by extended lockdown.

As more families are kept apart for major life events, as more people are denied the ability to farewell loved ones — or even just spend time with them — it becomes harder to expect compliance.

Nor is it just about families. Young singles can’t meet new partners. Older divorcees and people who have lost their partners are isolated, dependent for human contact on technology they may neither understand nor be comfortable with.

The original debate over lockdowns was focused on whether governments and individuals could bear the economic cost, but that debate is being swept away by the reality that the social burdens are growing more onerous with each lcokdown.

All of which suggests Australia — which has been a country to envy for most of this pandemic — may not emerge from this experience as unscathed as we once may have thought. Lockdowns and other measures have merely delayed the extraction of the price of Covid, not eradicated it.

The ACT government might be seeking praise for the ‘tough’ decision to go into immediate lockdown, but the truly tough government decisions are yet to come. Soon we will have to shift away from the lockdown-first approach. From here on in it can only be a short-term stop-gap, not a long term strategy.

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