Australia is showing the world how to fight coronarvirus with a rapidly falling infection rate and minimal deaths – but some of that success can be attributed to good luck.
While major western countries are measuring deaths in their thousands – and total cases in the tens of thousands – Australia has only just passed 50 fatalities.
That comes from a population of more than 25million and almost three months after the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country on January 25.
While no one is declaring a victory yet, Australia has managed to flatten the infamous curve, with daily infections peaking at 460 on March 28 and decreasing most days since.
As of Thursday it had 6,089 cases of COVID-19, with a death toll of just 51 – and 15 of those can be traced to an outbreak on the cruise ship Ruby Princess.
Nations including the United States (435,128 cases with 14,795 deaths) and United Kingdom (60,733 and 7,097) are struggling to contain the virus but Australia might have already found some of the keys to success.
Germany, which has been hailed for its low COVID-19 mortality rate, now has 113,296 cases and has recorded 2,349 deaths.
Australia is showing the world how to fight coronarvirus with minimal deaths, a slowing infection rate and some luck. While no one is declaring a victory, the country’s highest daily number of infections was 460 on March 28 and it has been decreasing most days since
The army has been deployed to help enforce Australia’s quarantine rules. All travellers have been required to go into self-isolation for 14 days. Soldiers are pictured waiting for overseas passengers to arrive at Sydney Airport on March 30.
Australia has conducted 319,784 COVID-19 tests, compared with 282,074 in the United Kingdom (population about 67million) and 2.2million in the United States (population about 328million). A cyclist is pictured at the Bondi drive-through testing clinic on April 7
Australian health experts say the infection rate has been steadied due to widespread testing, the tracing of carriers, self-isolation of those at risk and strictly-enforced social distancing rules.
Of course, the number of infected patients recorded in any country is limited to how many of its carriers have actually been checked for the disease.
With a strong existing public health system, Australia has one of the most comprehensive COVID-19 testing regimes in the world.
So far Australia has conducted 319,784 tests, compared with 282,074 in the United Kingdom (population about 67million) and 2.2million in the United States (population about 328million).
Border closures and Australia’s decision to ignore the World Health Organisation’s early insistence there was no need to restrict travel to and from China also seemed to have protected the country from a worst-case scenario of 150,000 deaths.
How Australia is faring in the coronavirus war
There have been failures, including letting cruise ships dock and disgorge infected passengers, but those losses have been surpassed by the wins.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison believes COVID-19 restrictions have prevented perhaps tens of thousands of infections that would otherwise have occurred.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy says: ‘We know that the tools we are using do work, and we can scale them up and down as necessary, and the data we have now suggests they are working.’
While the crisis is a long way from over, there are signs it is detecting COVID-19 better than many other nations and slowing its spread.
Professor Tony Blakely, epidemiologist and public health medicine specialist at the University of Melbourne, said Australia had done better than he expected.
‘I think we’ve done remarkably well and some of the headline numbers look really good,’ Professor Blakely said.
‘We’ve actually managed to get to the case load down enormously. Very impressive. Well done.’
Health experts say the key to the steadying of infections in Australia has been widespread testing, the tracing of carriers, self-isolation of those at risk and tough social distancing rules. Two police officers are pictured on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House on April 6
New York hospitals were forced to use bed sheets to wrap bodies because they ran out of body bags. Corpses are pictured being loaded onto a truck outside Brooklyn Hospital Center on March 31
A temporary hospital with 4,000 beds has been set up in London’s ExCel centre to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Medical staff are pictured unloading a stretcher on April 8
As an island continent which can only be reached by long sea or air travel from most of the world Australia should have some natural advantages in fighting pandemics.
Professor Blakely said Australia’s lower infections rates compared with countries such as the US and the UK could in part be put down to the country’s geographic isolation.
Australians ‘happy’ with handling of COVID-19
Almost two thirds of Australians (65 per cent) say the federal government is handling COVID-19 well, according to Roy Morgan research.
Of Australians who agree the government is handling the crisis well, 21 per cent ‘strongly agree’ while 44 per cent at least ‘agree’. Just 6 per cent ‘strongly disagree’.
Fewer Australians – 59 per cent – still believe the worst is yet to come for the pandemic over the next month than did so a week earlier.
The figures come from a nation-wide web survey of 987 Australians aged over 18 conducted last weekend.
The number of Australians who are afraid they or someone they know will catch the virus has fallen slightly to 73 per cent.
Four out of five Australians were willing to sacrifice some of their human rights if it helped prevent the spread of the disease.
‘We had another 10-day window to actually respond and stop it getting that way,’ he said.
‘We worked hard to stop it getting that way but we also were lucky being down the bottom of the world we had a little bit more time to respond.’
Asian neighbours which acted quickly against coronavirus including Taiwan (379 cases, five deaths) and Singapore (1,623 and six) have fared even better.
‘You could also argue that our geographic proximity to Asia and seeing how Singapore, South Korea – China to some extent – really did respond very well and perhaps emulating them a little bit more than some of the western countries might be a small reason,’ Professor Blakely said.
‘But I think mainly that we had a little bit more time to respond.’
The first case of COVID-19 infection in Australia – a Chinese citizen who had arrived from Guangzhou on January 19 – was reported in Melbourne on January 25.
Six days later Australia banned the entry of foreign nationals from China and ordered citizens returning from that country to self-isolate for 14 days.
On February 3 World Health Organization boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was still saying there was no need for measures that ‘unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.’
Australia’s self-isolation restrictions were extended to those returning from Iran on February 29, South Korea on March 5 and Italy on March 11.
That rule was further extended to anyone entering the country on March 15 and the nation’s borders were closed to all but citizens and residents from March 20.
Australia is enforcing strict border controls with heavy penalties. Motorists are pictured passing through a crossing between New South Wales and Queensland on April 2
A policeman is pictured talking to a driver at a checkpoint on the New South Wales and Queensland border. Australians have been asked to stay at home during the pandemic
Social distancing rules began with the banning of gatherings of more than 500 people on March 13. Premises including pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes and places of worship were closed to the public from March 23.
A week later public gatherings were limited to two people. Australians could no longer leave home except for work, education, essential shopping, exercise, and medical or compassionate needs.
Breaking the draconian rules attracts harsh penalties. Last week, a 21-year-old man in Newcastle, north of Sydney, was fined $1,000 for eating a kebab on a park bench after exercising.
While there have been some objections to state police forces’ interpretations of what is a valid reason to be away from home there has been no serious civil unrest.
Almost two thirds of Australians (65 per cent) say the federal government is handling COVID-19 well, according to Roy Morgan research released this week.
Australia’s worst breach of its borders came on March 19 when the cruise ship Ruby Princess was allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and spill almost 2,700 passengers onto the streets.
About 600 coronavirus cases have since been linked to that vessel but authorities have been diligent in tracking down those who could have been infected by its passengers.
Australia has one of the most comprehensive COVID-19 testing regimes in the world. Motorists are pictured at the Bondi drive-through clinic
Health experts have attributed the steadying of infections to measures including tight border restrictions, self-isolation rules and social distancing. Manly beach in Sydney is pictured
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Tuesday the country was flattening the curve that appears on graphs representing daily recorded infections of COVID-19.
From the country’s highest daily number of infections of 460 on March 28, there were 105 new cases on April 8.
CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 6,105
New South Wales: 2,773
South Australia: 421
Western Australia: 495
Australian Capital Territory: 100
Northern Territory: 28
TOTAL CASES: 6,105
One of the scientists who worked on new modelling released on Tuesday suggested Australia could have passed its infection rate peak.
Professor James McCaw of Melbourne University’s Doherty Institute said the government had acted early and could now make considered decisions.
Researchers expected to see a further decline in cases but if the country went back to normal now ‘we would see a rapid and explosive resurgence in epidemic activity,’ Professor McCaw said.
‘We’re in a very lucky position where we can think about the next steps and the very challenging questions ahead from a position of relative calm as opposed to crisis.’
‘We don’t have an overwhelmed hospital system yet, and we may well never have one if we continue to base our responses on the best available data.’
The Doherty Institute’s modelling, based on international data, suggested it was government-imposed restrictions which were reducing the spread of the virus.
The modelling suggested if no action at all were taken 89 per cent of Australians might catch the virus and only 15 per cent of people requiring ICU beds would get one, causing mass deaths.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy (pictured) says: ‘We know that the tools we are using do work, and we can scale them up and down as necessary, and the data we have now suggests they are working’
Australian Federal Police are pictured talking to travellers arriving at Brisbane Airport on April 3. Only residents or those with a permit are allowed to enter the state as it battles COVID-19
With social distancing measures and strict quarantine of the sick, the proportion of people infected would be 12 per cent and only five per cent would need medical care, meaning the health system could cope.
Professor Murphy said Australia had reduced its rate of infection even faster than the modelling suggested it would.
‘We’re not, in any way, out of trouble at the moment, but we’re in a relatively strong position to keep the pressure on and plan our next approach,’ Professor Murphy said.
‘We cannot relax what we’ve been doing. Complacency is our biggest risk.’
Professor Blakely said it was unclear which measures to reduce coronavirus infection were working best.
‘We don’t know,’ he said. ‘Because countries have put all these interventions on at the same time it’s not as though we’ve got randomised trials of what’s happened.
‘However I think we can make some careful expert deductions here and it’s basically simply reducing the number of contacts each person has with each other person which has dramatically lowered the ability of the virus to transmit.’
Professor Tony Blakely said there needed to be further research to weigh the relative merits of reducing human contacts in the workplace, at schools, on public transport and other places
Professor Blakely said there needed to be further research to weigh the relative merits of reducing human contacts in the workplace, at schools, on public transport and other places.
‘We need some idea of the relative impact of each of those even if it’s not perfect because that’s going to determine who we get out of this situation.’
Professor Blakely was still concerned Australia had a higher rate of intensive care unit admissions with 87 cases compared with two in New Zealand, which has a population of just under 5million.
‘That means to me New Zealand must be finding those asymptomatic and mild cases with much greater success than we are and we must have quite a bit of undiagnosed disease out there,’ he said.
Mr Morrison warned the country must ‘hold the course’ because it was too early to tell if the restrictions were causing the number of cases to drop fast enough.
‘We have so far avoided the many thousands, if not tens of thousands of cases, that might otherwise have occurred at this point,’ Mr Morrison said.
Beaches around Australia have been closed due to the coronavirus crisis. A woman is pictured walking at Surfers Paradise on April 7 before the beach is shut for the Easter long weekend
Australia has so far recorded more than 6,000 cases of coronavirus and just 51 deaths
‘And indeed the many more fatalities that could have also occurred by this point.
‘It has occurred well beyond our expectations in the way that we’ve been able to bring that daily growth rate down together, and certainly ahead of what all the theoretical models would have expected.
‘We have so far avoided the horror scenarios that we have seen overseas, whether it be initially in Wuhan, China, or in New York in the United States, or Italy, or Spain, or even the United Kingdom.
‘They do not have the opportunity in all of these places that we have right here and right now.
‘The combination of our health and economic responses is giving us the opportunity to plan our way through and out of these crises.’
Mr Morrison said the modelling and coranvirus’s relatively slow rate of growth in Australia ‘proves the theory of flattening the curve’.
‘It confirms, based on that data, that by taking the measures we are taking, you can make a difference,’ he said. ‘And indeed, that is what we are experiencing in Australia. We are on the right track.’
‘We have bought valuable time, but we cannot be complacent.’
AUSTRALIA’S COVID-19 RESPONSE: FROM DISCOVERY TO LOCKDOWN
World-famous Bondi Beach pictured closed due to coronavirus restrictions on March 21
The World Health Organisation confirmed on January 12 that a novel coronavirus was behind a cluster of cases of a respiratory illness in Wuhan in China’s Wuhan province.
Those illnesses had first come to the WHO’s attention on December 31.
Eleven days after the WHO’s confirmation of the new coronavirus strain Australia began screening arrivals on the three weekly flights into the country from Wuhan.
Initially, passengers were given an information sheet and asked to present themselves to biosecurity officials if they had a fever or suspected they might have the disease.
The first case of COVID-19 infection in Australia – a Chinese citizen who had arrived from Guangzhou on January 19 – was reported in Melbourne on January 25.
Three more patients who had returned from Wuhan tested positive in Sydney the same day.
Further cases linked to Wuhan were reported in the following days before the federal government announced on January 31 that foreign nationals returning from China would be required to spend 14 days in another country before being allowed into Australia.
Australia banned the entry of foreign nationals from China on February 1 and ordered citizens returning from there to self-isolate for 14 days.
As the virus spread further out of China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on February 27 he was activating an emergency response plan for COVID-19.
Two days later the government extended its enforced quarantine rules to people arriving from Iran.
Travel bans were imposed on South Korea on March 5 and Italy on March 11.
The first two cases of community transmission within Australia – both in NSW – had been reported on March 2. Until then all cases had been imported from another country.
A human biosecurity emergency was declared on March 18.
A National Cabinet including the premiers and chief ministers of all states and territories was formed on March 13, the first time such a body had been formed since World War II.
At its initial meeting the National Cabinet announced gatherings of more than 500 people would be cancelled but schools, universities, work places, public transport and airports were not included.
Two days later Mr Morrison announced that from midnight, anyone arriving in Australia would have to self-isolate for 14 days. Cruise ships were barred from docking in the country for 30 days.
Unfortunately, exceptions were made for several ships already returning to port.
On March 18 the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas docked in Sydney and about 3,500 passengers came ashore. By April 1, 79 passengers had tested positive to COVID-19.
On March 19 Mr Morrison announced Australia would be closing its borders to all people who were not citizens or residents from 9pm the next day.
That day the Ruby Princess discharged 2,700 passengers in Sydney. As of now more than 600 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths have been linked to that ship.
A social distancing rule of 4 square metres per person in any enclosed space was imposed on March 21 and the following day NSW and Victoria introduced a mandatory closure of non-essential services.
More major changes were revealed on March 22 when Mr Morrison closed pubs, clubs, bars, cinemas, casinos and places of worship.
Cafes and restaurants could remain open, but limited to only takeaway and delivery.
Mr Morrison said at that time he would like schools to remain open but parents could keep children at home if they chose to.
The Prime Minister went further when from March 31 he limited public gatherings to two people. He also urged Australians over the age of 70, those with chronic illness over 60 and Aborigines over 50 to stay home.
He declared only four reasons were now acceptable for Australians to leave their houses: shopping for essentials; for medical or compassionate needs; exercise in compliance with the public gathering restriction of two people; and for work or education purposes.