Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

It's time for states to learn from pandemic management successes

Simon Cowan

30 January 2021 | Canberra Times

Some had predicted that the outbreak, which began in mid-December, could spiral to over 3000 cases by early January. This led to calls to shut all the borders, lock down greater Sydney, and even cancel Christmas.

In other words, NSW had to abandon its approach of managing the outbreak through testing, contract tracing and selective restrictions and get on board with the policies of the other states: broad-based lockdowns imposed hard and fast at the first sign of any possible community transmission. This manifested in the deeply unedifying sight of many on social media, particularly Dan Andrews partisans, effectively cheering for the ‘NSW approach’ to fail.

Yet by Christmas week, new cases had basically stabilised at less than 10 a day and NSW saw its first day of zero new cases on January 4. NSW beat these clusters without a state-wide – or even city-wide – lockdown, without the imposition of a curfew, and in spite of lockdown-happy commentators on social media.

Far from NSW learning from Western Australia, as its Premier recently suggested, perhaps the time has come for other states to learn from NSW.

Although no two outbreaks are the same, there are some interesting commonalities between the outbreak that led to the second wave in Victoria, the Avalon cluster and the Crossroads cluster in July, that are worth comparing in more detail.

The first point of interest is that in in June, in the lead-up to Victoria’s second wave commencing in earnest, Victoria had been recording continued low levels of community transmission. There were 17 new cases recorded on June 17, 21 new cases on June 20 and then 18 new cases on June 24 (after which the cluster rapidly rises to 70 new cases on June 29).

NSW saw a similar pattern a fortnight later, hitting 11 new cases on the July 14, 16 new cases on both July 20 and 23, and then 18 new cases on July 31 and August 11. Yet this is the peak from which the anticipated wave recedes. The Avalon cluster represents a different pattern that more closely resembles the late June spike in Victoria. In the two months prior to the first notification of new cases on December 17, NSW had only seen 22 cases total.

Yet on December 19 there were 23 new cases, and 30 new cases on December 20. This was the highest daily increase since April, making it understandable why this might have caused concern that a second wave was again imminent, even if it didn’t eventuate.

NSW has now successfully managed two clusters that covered the most likely transmission paths for another wave.

The first, in July, was the risk of continual low level transmission creating so many potential contact vectors that they eventually overwhelm contract tracing efforts. The second, in December, was the risk of one or more super-spreader events spiraling out of control too quickly to stop through tracing and isolation.

If both types of risk can be managed within a framework of relative normality for the vast majority of people in the state, that framework should be the primary management tool for pandemic control. This stands in contrast to the draconian approaches favoured in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia in particular; where border closures and city-wide lockdowns were implemented after just a handful of cases.

Indeed, each time NSW deals with an outbreak, the case gets stronger that the more flexible, less authoritarian approach of the NSW government is the best method of controlling the pandemic.

It is important to understand that this approach has nothing to do with denying the potential health risks of the pandemic, but a recognition that the choice is not between letting the virus run rampant or sacrificing all our freedoms. A responsible middle path exists: one that encompasses all interests – including economic and social – not just minimising COVID-19 transmission at any and all cost.

Lockdowns may be an effective tool at suppressing cases, but their social and economic costs are immense. Shutting the border to a state is an extreme measure – or at least, it used to be; back when we considered ourselves Australians first and residents of our state second.

It is one thing to resort to these measures when the number of active cases is in the thousands and the daily increase is approaching 100, yet these severe tools have become the primary method of dealing with even a small number of cases of coronavirus. In some states they appear to be the only policy in the toolkit.

In one respect, it is perhaps understandable that partisans and others who had suffered through repeated lockdowns would want to believe it was the only choice. The alternative is perhaps too difficult to contemplate: that the harsh measures that saw people prevented from seeing dying family members were ultimately unnecessary.

In truth, it is hard to see how states like Queensland and Western Australia can back out of the corner they’ve put themselves in. They’ve established a precedent that says even one case of COVID-19 justifies complete lockdown and retrospective imposition of quarantine on travellers.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism wasn’t far short of 10 per cent of the Queensland economy. Yet the current policy leaves tourism at the mercy of the winds of fate. Are visitors expected to play Russian roulette with their business or holiday plans indefinitely? Will they still come?

Even with the global vaccine rollout gathering pace, it’s difficult to see complete elimination of COVID-19 in the medium term – if it ever happens. The vaccine rollout does create an opportunity, and hope; although it may be better to think of the various COVID-19 vaccines as an additional weapon in the toolkit, rather than a miracle cure.

The best option for the states dependent on lockdowns may be to use the vaccine to reassure the public it’s okay to transition to an approach more like the NSW tracing and isolation system.

Learning from the successful approach in other states is a key benefit of federalism: maybe it’s time we remembered it.

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