Fighting COVID-19: Australia’s (Largely Untold) Success Story

Fighting COVID-19: Australia’s (Largely Untold) Success Story

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann
7 min read

On Friday, May 15th, pubs around Sydney re-opened after being closed for two months, a development that caused one delighted Sydneysider to observe: “Clinking that first glass… felt like I’d sloughed off a thousand years of sadness.” In fact, it had been roughly two months—a period during which 24 million Australians, myself included, observed a lockdown on all non-essential services.

There are still many restrictions in place. And it will be months, if not years, before all aspects of society return to business as usual. But overall, the easing of restrictions has come faster than many Australians expected, in large part because the lockdown policies worked. The country has witnessed only about 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 103 deaths. Daily new cases spiked in late March in the low 400s, but then plummeted rapidly, and now are typically within single digits. It was once believed that, absent a vaccine, long-term herd immunity might be the only way to stop this pandemic. But examples such as Australia show that many countries may be able to suppress the disease—especially when testing and contact-tracing technologies are scaled up while becoming more precise and sophisticated.

Australians know that other countries are still suffering under lockdown, and that even within Australia, some regions are still suffering terribly. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have vanished, and many small businesses will never recover. When I visit my usual shopping district, I am struck by how many shopfronts have been vacated. The experience of “slough[ing] off a thousand years of sadness” shouldn’t be confused with an attitude of celebration. Many of us remain sobered and saddened.

Yet we also are curious as to why the world hasn’t paid more attention to our success story. Like New Zealand, we are also essentially COVID free. Albania, Norway, Vietnam, and Barbados, and many other small nations have witnessed great success. Dystopian scenes from deeply afflicted countries such as Ecuador, the United States, and Brazil understandably generate more dramatic news footage than scenes of pubs coming back to life in Sydney. But the relentless focus on bad news has obscured the progress being made in other societies.

And ironically, the one country whose policies have been frequently lauded in the international press—Sweden—isn’t exactly a public-health exemplar. Just the opposite: The Swedes now are afflicted with the highest per-capita daily COVID-19 fatality rate of any country in the world. Sweden’s population is less than half of Australia’s, yet its death toll is 40 times higher. Put another way: If Australia had Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate, about 10,000 more Australians would be dead.

However, many of the international observers lauding Sweden’s example seem less interested in the concrete numbers, and more interested in abstract public-health philosophy. Writing in the Lancet, Swedish physician and Professor Emeritus at the Karolinska Institute, Johan Giesecke, explained this attitude as being based upon the grim presumption that “everyone will be exposed to [COVID-19], and most people will become infected… our most important task is not to stop spread, which is all but futile, but to concentrate on giving the unfortunate victims optimal care.”

This kind of fatalism wasn’t entirely baseless in the face of a new and unknown virus. Back in March, some experts did argue that containing the disease was most likely an impossible task, and that most of the world’s population would get sick, no matter how much social distancing we practiced. Sweden has operated around this assumption, keeping children in school and refusing to shut down restaurants and other retail businesses. As a result, the Swedes were cast by some as unsentimental realists who resisted the draconian methods imposed by other nations while protecting their citizens’ natural right to go about their lives freely. Writers in conservative publications such as the Telegraph and Spectator suddenly became Swedophiles. And the Wall Street Journal editorial board urged state governors to “study the Swedish model as they begin relaxing state-wide lockdowns.”

In formulating policy, we should study all models, of course, but in comparing them, the most important criteria to examine are how many citizens live and how many citizens die. Denmark and Sweden are similar societies. Yet the Danes have died from COVID-19 at a per-capita rate that is roughly one-quarter that of their Scandinavian neighbours to the north-east.

Those who argue in favour of the Swedish approach might wave away short-term fatalities, on the supposition that since we’ll all be exposed to the virus eventually, aggressive public-health measures merely delay the pain. If we’re all eventually going to get sick, what’s the point in destroying the economy? Best to get the inevitable pandemic over with quickly, achieve ‘herd immunity,’ bury the dead, and get on with life in a post-COVID-19 world.

The problem with this attitude is that one of its key presumptions is questionable: Even with no vaccine, limited testing capacity, and highly imperfect contact-tracing, many societies have crushed their COVID-19 numbers. And while infectious diseases tend to come and go in seasonal patterns, there is no reason to believe that the methods we have developed to monitor and suppress the disease can’t be successfully applied in the future. Many international jurisdictions, including various Canadian provinces, already have opened up large swathes of their economy without incurring a tidal wave of new cases.

Moreover, it has become clear that ‘herd immunity’ is still a distant dream, even in Sweden. Seroprevalence studies conducted in late April show that only about seven percent of surveyed individuals in Stockholm carried antibodies to COVID-19, an order of magnitude off the 60 – 80 percent goal. Until a vaccine is discovered, a person won’t become immune unless and until he gets sick and survives. As Sam Bowman has observed in the Critic, such data suggest that “criticisms of lockdowns tend to ignore that the real counterfactual would not be business as usual, nor a rapid attainment of herd immunity, but a slow, brutal, and uncontrolled spread of the disease throughout the population, killing many people.”

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Much in the way that individuals develop antibodies to a disease once they’ve become infected, whole societies can develop defence mechanisms to large-scale external threats. In fighting COVID-19, Israel may have benefited indirectly from an advanced health and communications network that has developed in part from decades spent under threat of war and terrorism. Even in peaceful Australia, COVID-19 struck when the country had just emerged from a summer of catastrophic bushfires, in which 24 people died and 60,000 square kilometres were incinerated. Just a few months ago, the navy was mobilized to evacuate citizens from coastal areas, and the army delivered food and water to besieged towns. Major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne were dusted with black ash for days. By the end of the 2019 – 20 summer (we’re in the Southern Hemisphere, remember), every Australian had been freshly acquainted with the fragility of life and the need to heed emergency warnings from public authorities.

Leadership has mattered, as well. Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was subjected to fierce criticism during the bushfire crisis because he went on holiday when the fires started. Reeling from those missteps, Morrison was disposed to take the initiative when the next emergency arrived in the form of COVID-19; just as ordinary Australians were disposed to play their part in the campaign that Morrison led. As in all countries that have excelled in the fight against COVID-19—a spirit of social trust and solidarity has thrived.

Even as early as January 23rd, scarcely three weeks after the first Chinese patients were infected, Australian biosecurity officials boarded the last plane from Wuhan to Sydney, where they helped organize efforts to protect Australians. By February 27, Australia formally declared that the country was facing a pandemic—this being two weeks before the World Health Organisation made a similar declaration (which was around the same time that Donald Trump was helpfully comparing COVID-19 to the “common flu”). In late January and early February, the Australian Government was announcing travel bans while the WHO was declaring them unnecessary.

As Oxford researcher Thomas Hale recently argued on the Quillette podcast, it is impossible, as yet, to determine the exact statistical relationship between lockdown stringency and health outcomes. But even so, we may concede that “lockdown skeptics,” as they often are called, do offer many valid arguments—not least of which being that citizens’ mental health cannot survive indefinitely while their usual activities are curtailed and social lives cut off. And it is entirely possible that historians will one day point to lockdown fatigue as contributing to the destructive riots now unfolding across the United States. Social unrest is an ever-present threat in disadvantaged communities. And the stress, isolation, unemployment, and impoverishment associated with lockdowns can become the final straw for those who feel frustrated and victimized.

But it is already clear that political ideology has little to do with suppressing a pandemic swiftly and efficiently. New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China all were successful in suppressing COVID-19 once public-health efforts were launched. Yet all of these places have very different political systems. Australia and the United States are both led by right-of-centre governments, but have embraced radically different pandemic-suppression strategies, with radically different results. Anyone trying to tease out patterns in the COVID-19 epidemiological data to support this or that political ideology are going to come away disappointed.

Notwithstanding the media’s relentless focus on political subplots surrounding COVID-19, the real task of fighting the disease is based around apolitical, labour-intensive tasks such as screening travellers at airports, educating citizens in social distancing, crafting industry-specific regulations that balance safety and economic recovery, and developing phone apps that allow us to log our social encounters. These are not glamorous tasks, nor are they associated with the lofty rhetoric you would normally hear in political speeches. Yet taken together, they have saved thousands of lives of my fellow Australians from this terrible disease.


Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon.

Feature photo: Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt (L) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) speak to media in the Blue Room at Parliament House on March 03, 2020 in Canberra, Australia outlining plans to help deal with the economic impact of the global coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

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Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.