Australia’s early decision to try to isolate the country from COVID-19 was quick and correct. This was the phase of banning arrivals from the earliest virus hotspots – China and Iran. But once outbreaks emerged in South Korea and Italy and beyond, Australia’s isolation policy faltered. The national security committee of the Morrison cabinet weighed the economic cost of continued isolation against the health risk. It decided to compromise on isolation in order to limit the economic damage.
As Morrison said on February 28, “the suggestion that when it gets to a global pandemic phase and even more serious than it is today, that, you know, that Australia would be able to completely lock itself off from the world, that wouldn’t … that is not a realistic scenario”.
Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:
This was an acceptance that the spread of the virus was inevitable. It was the point where Australia moved from a policy of attempted isolation from the virus to one of attempting to manage the virus.
In retrospect, this was a mistake. Australia now has decided it must “lock itself off” after all.
But in the interim the virus has established itself in community transmission. So we have both economic shutdown and a fast-spreading epidemic. Like most of the world.
Australia’s authorities are now racing to bring it under control, to maintain a functioning economy and to keep social order. As of this week, the authorities expect that the rising number of infections will peak in late April or early May.
It will be an even more sombre Anzac Day than usual, a moment to reflect on the centrality of national resilience – how much we’ve retained and how much we’ve lost.
On the current trajectory of growth, the authorities anticipate that Australia’s intensive care hospital system will reach capacity around that time and remain at, or beyond, its current limit for about two months. This is the chasm opening up in the health system.
There is a twofold effort now under way to prevent such a calamity. One part is the public effort to clamp down on new transmissions – closing the border, limiting mass gatherings. Morrison has been announcing new tightenings almost every day this week. On Friday he introduced the four-square-metre rule.
These controls on people’s movements will continue to tighten until the authorities are satisfied that the pace of new infections is slowing – “bending the curve”.
If necessary, the authorities are prepared to implement “shelter in place” orders where people are required to stay home for all but essential outings. This is the phase that China was first to apply with its controls in Hubei province, and the phase that France, Italy and Spain now occupy.
The other part is not so public. There is a quiet, concerted effort under way to build the capacity of the intensive care system before infections can reach an overwhelming level.
Perhaps the single most critical pressure point is the number of mechanical ventilators in the hospital system. For acute cases of the disease – the 5 per cent or so of COVID-19 infections where the respiratory system fails – ventilators are critical to saving life.
Australia, like countries everywhere, realises it needs many more. So the NSW government, for example, this week announced $700 million for upgrading its health systems including the number of ventilators. But this is tricky because Australia relies on imported ventilators. None are available.
Countries everywhere are scrambling. Italy has one manufacturer. Its government has sent army technicians to its factory to help it meet a directive to quadruple output, for instance.
In Australia, the federal health department tasked the federal industry department with finding companies in Australia that can convert manufacturing plants from other uses to make ventilators, test kits, masks and other medical supplies.
Officials were delighted when ResMed, a specialist manufacturer of respiratory equipment, stepped forward and offered to convert some facilities to make ventilators. ResMed is a global innovator and success story founded in Australia in 1989 by Peter Farrell, a noted hero of Australian innovation, but now headquartered in the US. It’s best known for its devices to treat sleep apnoea.
Many other unpublicised efforts are under way. The Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, brought Australia’s intensive care specialists together in early February in an ongoing effort to plan an expansion of the system. State and federal efforts to convert other wards to intensive care uses are under way. So are plans to create sufficient back-up or “redundancy” levels of medical staff to cope with the expected surge.
This twofold effort – to slow the rate of new infections while adding capacity to the intensive care system – is the bridge being built to carry as many Australians as possible to the other side of the chasm.
How many would be left behind? The federal government this week released its estimates. The range was wide. The number of infections is estimated to be anywhere from 20 per cent of the population to 60 per cent. Assuming a fatality rate of 1 per cent, that would equate to between 50,000 dead and 150,000 dead.
“There will be significant loss of life,” says a senior participant in the national crisis response. “We are going hard, not quite early enough. We are trying to get the number of fatalities down from six digits to five.”
The authorities continue to announce new measures to protect aged care facilities from infection, and on Friday Morrison announced new funding to keep them staffed and keep them in business.
Another element of the bridge-building is distribution of food and pharmaceuticals. After consulting all the major supermarket firms, the authorities are working on a plan to get food and pharmaceutical supplies delivered directly to the elderly, a very vulnerable cohort. This would spare older people the difficulty of lining up in the early hours to buy their supplies and guarantee them sufficient essentials. It would also spare them the risk of picking up the virus while they are queueing and shopping.
A broader system of direct deliveries from retailers to customers is another possibility in the event that tougher controls are imposed on public movement.
Related to this is the problem of bulk-buying of food and pharmaceuticals by profiteers. Above and beyond frightened people who have been “panic buying” are the organised groups who swoop on shops including regional stores, buy as much as they can, then send them overseas for profit.
The federal authorities have spoken to the retailers and examined the movement of parcels. They have concluded that this is a highly organised effort. Plans are under way to disrupt these groups before the surge in new infections can peak. This is what Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was referring to when he said “we are going to come after those people” and “it won’t be pretty”.
Then there is the income and economic bridge. A few sectors will thrive. But for much of the economy, business has just halted and income has simply dried up. Hundreds of thousands of casual workers already have lost their shifts and their income. Thousands of businesses have closed their doors.
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The authorities have announced a range of measures – one-off payments to people on support payments, rental support for tenants, government-backed bank facilities to allow small and medium businesses to stay afloat.
Last week’s measures – the $17.6 billion in federal government stimulus, the $2.6 billion in extra federal funds for health care, and billions more in state government stimulus packages – has so far amounted to a tad over 1 per cent of GDP.
The next phase, due to be announced on the weekend and legislated on Monday, will need to be vastly bigger to bridge the yawning and fast-growing economic chasm confronting Australia. The consultancy BIS Oxford recommends support payments and commercial guarantees equal to 4 per cent of GDP merely to avoid recession.
The good news is that Morrison’s initiative last week to put aside petty differences between the national and state governments to form a unified “national cabinet” is an effective mechanism to co-ordinate a national response.
The other good news is that, so far, co-operation between the authorities and the business sector – airlines, banks, supermarket chains, manufacturers like RedMed, and beyond – has been joined with goodwill and ready co-operation.
The chasm is big and the bridging effort required is vast. Australia’s national resilience is tested.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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