As calls for opening up and getting back to business grow louder around this nation, it is well worth examining the situation in Europe, where lockdowns that began in March in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, France and Germany ended in May and June.
Last Saturday, Italy – where the first wave of the virus killed more than 30,000 people – reported more than 1700 new cases of COVID-19 recorded in the previous 24 hours, the highest level since early May. Greece, which avoided such a dire initial experience of the pandemic, was inviting tourists back in June but is now struggling to contain outbreaks on holiday islands.
On Monday, Spain became the first country in western Europe to register 500,000 infections. Last Friday, France recorded 8975 new cases, having reached a low of 272 new cases at the end of May.
In Germany, where the COVID-19 death toll has not yet reached 10,000, more than 1000 cases a day are being recorded after numbers dropped to an average of fewer than 500 in July and August. But the government's handling of the crisis there through targeted lockdowns has widespread public support, despite a series of high-visibility protests.
All of these countries are resisting a return to nationwide lockdown, pointing to the importance of getting children back into education, businesses back into operation and tourists back to restaurants and beaches (Britain even ran a scheme in August that subsidised diners' bills). One oft-cited difference between this second wave of infections and the first in the northern spring is that death and hospitalisation rates are lower, as those getting ill tend to be younger people who have returned to an active social life.
The rhetoric of "living with the virus" rather than seeking to eradicate it has been taken up by many politicians, leaving health experts increasingly isolated. Spanish physician Daniel Lopez Acuna, a former director at the World Health Organisation, said this week that assessing the gravity of the situation only in terms of hospital saturation was dangerous as the effects of community transmission may be delayed.
This was followed by an even blunter warning from England's deputy chief medical officer that people had "relaxed too much". Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said that "where case numbers rise initially in the younger parts of the population they do in turn filter through … and we know that then becomes a serious public health problem". Where Dr Lopez Acuna argued for localised lockdowns to fight spread, Professor Van-Tam pointed to "a more general and creeping geographic trend across the UK that disease levels are now beginning to turn up".
In all of these cases, as in Australia and particularly locked-down Victoria, the political challenge of asking people to put significant parts of their lives on hold in pursuit of a wider health objective depends heavily on public trust that the measures being taken will prove effective. Failures such as those involving the Ruby Princess cruise liner in Sydney and hotel quarantine in Melbourne carry a double penalty, fuelling outbreaks but also eroding that trust.
At the end of March, Paul Kelly, then Australia's deputy chief medical officer, expressed the hope that we would avoid a Spanish or Italian-type crisis. But noting a barrage of opinions on tackling the pandemic, he said: "No health experts dispute what the problem is nor how to address this outbreak … the only dispute is how hard to go imposing measures, and when to impose them."
With the finishing line for Victorians receding into October, it is essential that government engages in good faith with critics of its approach and that federal and state officials remain publicly supportive of each other's efforts. But it is also important for all of us to remember that COVID-19 is not a national or a state phenomenon; it is a global one. Europe's experience shows us the need for caution.
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