It’s time to celebrate (privately, while social distancing), because the worst of the epidemic seems to be over, at least in Australia. Reported new cases of coronavirus topped out on March 29 and have been falling ever since. Given that an infection usually has to become symptomatic before it is detected as a ‘case’, this implies that actual new transmissions of the coronavirus peaked the week of March 23, just after the notorious Bondi Beach backpacker parties and the Ruby Princess fiasco.
As Winston Churchill said after the Battle of El Alamein, ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’. For Australia, the beginning of the beginning was in late January, with a trickle of cases spilling over from China before travel restrictions took effect on February 1. Now our coronavirus ‘war’ is about to enter its second phase. First came the seemingly irresistible onslaught. Now begins the period of managed disease. Final victory may still be some way off, but it is in sight.
Yet most people (dare I add: most politicians) still do not understand the nature of the war we are fighting. Either they want to save lives at any cost, embracing a permanent lockdown, or they want to save the economy at any cost, throwing the elderly under the coronavirus bus in a vain attempt to save their superannuation balances. Even as Australia shows success in its public health war, both sides in this secondary policy war are flat-out wrong.
We’re not in self-isolation to save lives, whether our own or those of the people we might meet in the grocery store. If we were, then young and invulnerable Bondi backpackers might as well party it up, while the sick and elderly stay home to avoid infection. That’s the Sweden model: let the healthy catch the virus, since it probably won’t hurt them anyway. The problem with that approach is that it can strain the healthcare system to breaking point.
The strange fact is that we’re not in self-isolation to save lives, but to save hospitals. When hospitals are overwhelmed with infectious disease patients — as they have been in New York and northern Italy — they can’t treat anyone else. Even during a public health emergency, people still give birth, have strokes, need chemotherapy, fall off roofs, and all the rest. Chronic diseases like diabetes and schizophrenia don’t just go away because all our attention is focused elsewhere. Most people who die this week won’t die of coronavirus.
Of course, saving hospitals also means saving lives. Unless we’re willing to let victims of car accidents bleed to death on our motorways, we have to keep our emergency departments open for new patients, not clogged into the hallways with coronavirus patients. But that doesn’t require the full elimination of the virus, which experts assure us is only possible with a vaccine that may be 18 months away, or never appear at all. It only requires that new infections be capped at a manageable level.
In Australia, we now seem to be approaching that level. Once we reach the point where every new case can be quickly identified, tracked, and quarantined, it will be time to bring the economy out of ‘hibernation’, to use the prime minister’s metaphor. At that point, we don’t have to self-isolate from coronavirus any more than we have to self-isolate from car accidents: going out always means taking risks. Even staying home can kill you. When we can be sure that every new coronavirus case will receive first-class medical care without unduly endangering hospital staff or other patients, it will be time to get back to work.
And play. Lately it seems as if our politicians are ‘half in love with easeful Death’ — and half in love with the new police powers and unlimited spending authority that the electorate’s fear of easeful Death has given them. They seem especially gleeful whenever they have the opportunity to punish people for having fun. They seem almost to suffer from ‘coronavirus envy’, wishing that things could be worse so that they can credibly play the role of latter-day war leaders.
With any luck, Australia’s lockdown lite should be over by the end of the month. The Commonwealth should declare a day of thanksgiving on May 1, and ask everyone to self-isolate for one final celebratory long weekend. Then, assuming that things are under control, we should sensibly resume normal work life on Monday, May 4. Bars and banquet halls may need to stay closed a little longer, and the travel industry will have to settle in for a long war. But most economic activities should be able to resume in May, with little risk of sparking a secondary epidemic.
The coronavirus lockdown may have to stay in place for the rest of April, but the lockdown mentality must end. Come May, widespread, continuous testing should take the place of keeping everyone home ‘just in case’. No one but columnists, catastrophists and politicians will benefit from keeping people home longer than is absolutely necessary. The columnists can always find something else to write about, and the catastrophists can go back to worrying about climate change. As for the politicians … a few more months of self-isolation might not be such a bad idea!
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney