Major decision that ‘saved’ Australia

By | April 30, 2020

A leading infectious disease expert has praised Australia’s rapid response to coronavirus, claiming our death toll could have spiked to devastating heights had the decision to block flights from China not been made early on.

Professor Sharon Lewin this week shot down claims that our success in the battle against the deadly infection was merely due to “good luck”, attributing our low fatality rate to the Government’s decision to bar or quarantine travellers from China in early February.

It comes as the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to be free of all known cases of COVID-19, South Australia boasted a week free of new infections, and the Northern Territory reported just three patients left to recover from the virus, with the rest of Australia not far behind.

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Prof Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, spoke as part of a COVID-19 webinar held by the Australian Academy of Health and Medical science on Wednesday, where she rebutted claims by a contributing expert that Australia was “lucky”.

Touching on the decisions to be made surrounding the economy as Australia continues to crush the curve, Australian National University economics professor Warwick McKibbon commented that we were “lucky” to be in a position where such conversations could start.

“I think we’re in a very good place,” Mr McKibbon said.

“We’re in a place where almost no other country is in except for New Zealand and South Korea, so I think the luck was there but I think it’s overplayed. I think it’s overplayed by the people who made the wrong arguments at the beginning.

“We had some bad luck – where we had a couple of cruise ships that were let in, and that was bad luck but we managed it,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s luck,” Professor Lewin responded, going on to refute other widely held claims that Australia escaped the virus relatively unscathed due to geographical or seasonal factors.

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“I hear this often – you know ‘Australia has done OK, because it’s an island, it’s summer,’ but actually, in mid to late March when the epidemic was taking off, at the end of our summer, the doubling time was every two days,” she said, pointing out that the outbreak was spreading at the same rate as the rest of the world.

According to Prof Lewin, had immediate action not been taken at this time, our fate could have mirrored that of the hardest-hit countries such as Italy and the US.

Part of the reason we acted so quickly, she explained, comes down to how attuned we typically are to what’s happening in Asia.

“Australians are very conscious about what’s happening in Asia,” she said.

“In early January, across the world, no one was really thinking about (coronavirus). But in Australia everyone was thinking about it. They were designing tests and everyone was very worried about it coming here.”

As the crisis escalated over the month of January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that foreign arrivals from mainland China would not be allowed entry into Australia from February 1st.

The government also raised the travel advice warning to level four, recommending that no Australian travel to mainland China following the spread of coronavirus beyond Hubei province.

In addition, Australian citizens arriving from China were forced to quarantine for two weeks.

Prof Lewin said the call was “brilliant timing”, although she admits she was sceptical at the time.

“For me, I thought that was a terrible decision, I’ll say honestly, and the World Health Organisation, too, said that blocking flights was the worst thing that you could do for a global health crisis, but it saved Australia, because it actually stopped seeding at the very beginning.

“At the time, Europe had not stopped flights. The US did, but the US was still getting people from China coming from other places,” she said.

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A few days prior to Mr Morrison’s announcement, the Trump administration had announced its own suspension on the entry of foreign nationals from China, though it made a handful of exemptions.

Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were not included, and US citizens and permanent residents could still travel from China but were subject to screening and possible 14-day quarantine. Some flights were immediately suspended, but others continued for weeks, at the discretion of the airlines.

The exemptions were largely because of fears over the economic impacts of a full ban on flights from China, the Washington Post reported.

On March 2, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the stae’s first coronavirus case in a 39-year-old healthcare worker who had recently returned from Iran – another country that becamse an early hotspot for the virus.

While most of Europe hadn’t placed any flight bans at this time, Italy – which along with the US has been hardest hit by coronavirus – imposed a full ban with no exemptions on flights from China on January 31st, immediately after a Chinese couple in Rome tested positive for the virus.

It was the first and only European country to have a flight ban, ignoring the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice at the time.

A month later, on March 9, the Italian government under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed a national quarantine. New York City – now the epicentre of the virus – went into lockdown on March 22.

According to Prof Lewin, as devastation began to unfold in New York and Northern Italy, Australians were “begging” for stricter lockdown measures of our own, which could explain why we’ve been so successful in flattening the curve.

“(Australians) were looking around thinking we were going to be like New York or Italy, so when we had to go hard at the end of March, we were ready to do so.

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“I absolutely don’t think it has anything to do with us being an island or it being summer, because it would have taken off here as well,” she concluded.

Assistant Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne Professor Shitij Kapur, who led the panel, agreed with Prof Lewin’s statement, comparing Australia’s result to those of Canada.

“For the first 16 days of this pandemic we were within 10 cases of each other … And then something changed in late March,” he said.

“The speculation is that it was kids who had come back from March break in Florida who brought the infections, and particularly seeded the aged-care homes.

“Today Canada has 45,000 cases, and we have 6,000. Just a month ago we both had 4000, so that tells us how quickly all of this could have changed.”

The discussion, titled ‘Where to from here? Charting a course for resilience and recovery’, comes amid state-by-state success stories and gradually loosening restrictions.

Outdoor weddings, funerals and even playgrounds will soon be back in business under a “new normal” strategy being prepared in every state and territory across Australia.

In the Northern Territory, where there are just three people infected with COVID-19, the state government today released a full exit strategy from restrictions — including to allow pubs to reopen with conditions in two weeks.

Meanwhile, South Australian health officials have praised residents for playing their part in controlling the coronavirus pandemic as the state reported no new infections for a week.

SA, which is being described as one of the “safest places in the world”, introduced tough border measures on March 24, has only 14 active cases remaining.

And after a total of 106 diagnoses and three deaths, the ACT has become the first Australian jurisdiction to be free of all known cases of COVID-19.

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