The cruel dilemma at the heart of WA’s success at flattening the COVID-19 curve

The cruel dilemma at the heart of WA's success at flattening the COVID-19 curve

It could mean fewer deaths. Mercifully, Australia has so far been spared the grim numbers of other nations. Coronavirus caused 599 deaths yesterday in New York alone.

So Mr McGowan is right. Seven new cases is a great outcome.

But there is a cruel dilemma at the heart of WA’s success at flattening the curve. So few infections means the restrictions that are crippling our society could go on longer than the six months foreshadowed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. They could go on until we have a vaccine, which could be well into the new year.

If there is not enough immunity built into WA’s population, any easing of restrictions will just see fast moving outbreaks and we would, quite literally, be back exactly where we started.

On the other hand, keeping the restrictions – the social distancing and the tight travel bans – means the jobs which have evaporated won’t return anytime soon, if at all. It means guaranteed economic pain across the state.

How long could WA’s partial lock down last?

It’s a question WA’s politicians are reluctant to answer precisely, mostly because predictions about this coronavirus pandemic, even by the world’s leading epidemiologists, have often been wrong.

…we really need to just understand that this is going to be a long winter.

Health Minister Roger Cook

Few foresaw how fast COVID-19 would rip through populations, or how successful WA would be in locking it down. This is the heart of the dilemma.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Health Minister Roger Cook said yesterday.

“Some people have had the misapprehension that this is just a matter of weeks, it’s not. It’s going to be a matter of months and we really need to just understand that this is going to be a long winter.”

Curtin University epidemiologist and pro-vice chancellor of health science Archie Clements said WA’s strategy had been containment and suppression of the epidemic rather than building up immunity.

“And so of course if we continue to be as successful as we have been in squashing the epidemic, or flattening the curve, it will mean that very few people in Australia, and WA in particular, will have been exposed, which means there will be very low levels of immunity,” he said.

“That means we’re really relying on the emergence and availability of a vaccine.”

A vaccine is the best way to create enough immunity in the state to prevent outbreaks once restrictions are lifted.

If a pathogen is introduced or reintroduced into the community, there aren’t enough susceptible people to propagate an epidemic.

In WA, Professor Clements said it was possible social distancing restrictions could be lifted before the travel bans if there is no evidence of widespread community transmission.

“[This means] things like students going back to school, universities having students back in the classroom, some of the business shut downs,” he said.

“The international and interstate travel restrictions and the testing and contact tracing, those are going to be the key strategies in maintaining the very fortunate position we’re in.”

What does the ‘secret’ coronavirus modelling say?

A model describing how the virus will move through WA is driving a lot of the decisions about restrictions, but so far it has stayed under wraps.

Mr Cook said he would consider releasing it once he had seen the national modelling.

But the state’s modelling would be rejigged given the low rates of new infections.

“Under a range of modelling, you see different levels of outbreak in the community,” he said.

AMA(WA) president Andrew Miller says he wants the ‘secret’ WA coronavirus modelling released so the community knows what it is up against.Credit:Lauren Pilat

“What we now see is a very low incidence of infection in the community and indeed you’ll note that from today none of those people were actually close contacts of people who have come from overseas, they are all from overseas.

“That means we’ve got some very low infection rates indeed and that will influence our modelling and our understanding on how the disease is making its way through the community.”

AMA(WA) president Andrew Miller urged the government to release the modelling, which was always going to differ from the rest of the country.

He expected each region would also require different modelling, given the vast size of WA.

Dr Miller said doctors were worried they were relying on optimistic estimates of what the system could cope with.

“We don’t think that they’re doing such a great job that they can do it in secret,” he said.

“Tell us what the plan is. What are the milestones? This is about the future of our entire society.”

What are the economic costs of pandemic restrictions with no end in sight?

WA’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry has predicted a six month partial lock down would deliver a $15 billion hit to the state’s economy.

That’s about 5 per cent of the state’s economy and would cost 100,000 jobs. But this forecast also included a six week full lock down.

The CCI (WA)’s chief economist Aaron Morey said big spikes in infections – a failure to flatten the curve – could be worse for the economy.

“What we’re observing is that those economies which fail to control the spread of the virus, they end up being forced to implement really, really tight, draconian restrictions and then the economic dislocation becomes enormous,” he said.

“And what we’ve learned from previous economic crises is that it takes a long time to stitch back the economy.

“It’s not just the economics, it’s the social aspect as well. What we often find in these sorts of crises is that if someone loses their job they may never get it back again, or it may take them a very long time.”

UWA professor of economics David Gilchrist says businesses are adjusting to a new normal.

Mr Morey said the CCI(WA) backed a staged, prudent approach to both ramping up measures and eventually de-escalating them on the other side of the pandemic. This might mean first opening up of those sectors of the economy servicing local consumers, such as restaurants and cafes.

UWA economics professor David Gilchrist, a former assistant WA Auditor General, said there was hard evidence of the economic costs of the pandemic including a collapse in consumer and business confidence and growing unemployment, but there would be some good news amid the bad if a partial lock down continued into 2021.

“We are fast coming to a position where a lot of organisations are settled into a new way of working,” he said.

“One would hope that over the next six months we start to look at reconstruction after this process and we start to look at how we build resilience over the 12 months period, learning from the experience we’ve had up until this point in time.”

Professor Gilchrist said there was opportunity for WA’s service based businesses to re-examine some of their physical cost bases.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t return to how we did business in February, 2020, but we probably have a more disciplined capacity for working as geographically dispersed businesses,” he said.

“With the discipline of having to keep the business going in this particular period, I think it means that we’re really tackling seriously the issues of maintaining our productivity, which will hopefully be a lesson we learn in the long run.”

Nathan is WAtoday’s political reporter and the winner of the 2019 Arthur Lovekin Prize for Excellence in Journalism.

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