In July and August, the Australian state of Victoria was going through a second wave of Covid-19. Local leaders have set an unlikely goal for this challenge. They didn’t just want to lower their Covid-19 numbers. They wanted to completely eliminate the virus.
By the end of November, they had done it.
They saw no active cases for a full four weeks. Melbourne, the state capital and a city with about as many people as the greater Washington, DC area, is now completely coronavirus-free.
Australia enjoyed many advantages over the United States when it comes to controlling Covid-19. Strictly speaking, it has no land borders. Its population density is very low. Its epidemic has never been more severe than that of the United States. In her worst days, Victoria saw around 700 new cases; Missouri, with (roughly) a similar population and landmass, currently has an average population of over 3,000. Some Australian states have also closed their borders to others, which has reduced the risk that someone could carry covid from one part of the country to another.
But the Australian epidemic has also mirrored that of the United States in important ways. Once the coronavirus arrived in the spring, the country went into lockdown. When cases declined, some of those restrictions were relaxed – and, before too long, Covid-19 cases rose again. Each state was responsible for its own response, with the federal government playing an advisory role outside of clearly national issues like overseas travel.
In the second wave, Victoria was by far the hardest-hit state. Its case count was higher than any other state, including New South Wales, home to the country’s other major metropolis, Sydney.
Policymakers feared a never-ending cycle of lockdown-reopen-lockdown – exactly the situation the United States finds itself in. They realized that amorphous “slowing the spread” or “flattening the curve” targets had failed to mobilize the public for the strict mitigation measures. it would be necessary to contain the virus.
So they went big, next a policy proposal presented in September by the Grattan Institute (a nonprofit think tank supported by state and federal governments): “Go for zero”.
The goal was not just to slow Covid-19. It was to eradicate the virus. The state had entered a Stage 4 lockdown – most businesses closed, there was a nighttime curfew, and residents were ordered to stay within three miles of their homes – in August, then it was extended in September, with the explicit goal of eventually reaching zero new cases.
“Ideally, lockouts are only done once and done right,” said proponents Stephen Duckett and Will Mackey. “The benefit of zero is to reduce the risk of ‘yo-yoing’ between virus outbreaks and other lockdowns to contain them.”
They treated threats to public health and the economy as interrelated, which most experts agree they are. The Australian states that best contained Covid-19 also experienced the strongest economic recoveries. Victoria, with the worst outbreak among the states, was lagging behind in consumer spending and business income.
People will stay home and spend less if they are worried about the virus. The Grattan authors cited a study comparing Denmark (which established a lockdown) and Sweden (which adopted the more flexible strategy of ‘herd immunity’) and found that their economies suffered in much the same way in the first few months of the pandemic. But later in the year, when Denmark brought its epidemic under control, but Sweden did not, jobless claims had almost returned to pre-Covid levels in the first, but remained high in the second.
“Without elimination, the third, fourth or fifth wave is inevitable. This will either involve more lockdowns or the government will lose the social license to do lockdowns and the virus will spread indiscriminately, ”Duckett told me via email, perhaps unintentionally describing the very challenge the United States is facing. faced during this winter wave. “A hard lockdown in the early stages of the virus gives a chance for elimination, giving the possibility of commercial certainty and full recovery.”
The Melburnians are now enjoying the benefits of their sacrifices. Duckett said he had just gone to lunch with some friends before answering my email.
The United States probably cannot reach zero cases of Covid-19 anytime soon. But it could embrace the spirit of the Victorian model: clear purpose, support for proven mitigation strategies, and public engagement.
There is no secret sauce to containment of Covid-19. It just takes a commitment.
There was nothing particularly new about Victoria’s containment strategy. They just focused on what works.
They have expanded testing, including random group tests and tests for workers in essential industries and people attending schools or other indoor events. They achieved 24 hour deadlines for test results, so if a person tested positive they could quickly self-isolate. Once cases hit zero, the state planned to start testing wastewater for Covid-19 to get a head start on any resurgence.
The Grattan Institute also recommended stepping up contact tracing, another established part of an effective Covid response, and mandatory isolation. Australia had problems earlier in the year with international travelers breaking their quarantines and bringing the virus into the community. Experts have advised people to scan QR codes if they enter public places, so they can be contacted if a related case is detected. They also noted that other Australian states had asked police to carry out spot checks of people believed to be in isolation.
“A system that is based on self-isolation in which people are unable or unwilling to isolate themselves cannot be successful,” wrote Duckett and Mackey.
It probably sounds draconian to Americans. Certainly the toughest lockdown measures taken in Victoria – requiring people to stay a few miles from their homes and stay indoors completely at night – would be politically difficult in the United States.
But the Australians took it in stride because they knew the goal they were working towards.
“I think being obedient is definitely part of the Australian psyche,” Eloise Shepherd, who lives in the suburbs of Melbourne, told me (and whom I met for our report on healthcare in Australia published earlier. this year). “It was really tough, but I’m very grateful that I did it.”
The government of this country has made it easier for businesses and workers by providing grants to businesses to keep people in work and increasing their unemployment benefits – the same policies the United States has let down and now has. struggling to restore even during this devastating winter wave.
As cases dwindled, lockdown measures have been relaxed in a clear and gradual manner. Extreme travel restrictions were the first to go. Schools and businesses could reopen with a gap. Masks were always needed indoors and on public transport. Eventually, all restrictions except international quarantine could be lifted.
Things could still turn badly for Victoria and the rest of Australia. The state is prioritizing now have “normal” conditions for the Christmas shopping season instead of maintaining zero new cases. But it’s easier to focus on reopening when the community spread is eliminated – rather than moving forward with reopening despite sustained spread, as the United States has done.
“We know that we will basically have a much easier life now that the pandemic is under control,” Duckett said. “We always celebrate the fact that we have had so many days without new infections and without deaths. The community is very proud of itself.
Australia is much more homogeneous than the United States. This should facilitate the construction of solidarity for these extraordinary measures. America is deeply polarized, and this has been reflected in our scattered political responses and divergent attitudes of Democrats and Republicans towards wearing a mask and other restrictions.
But I don’t believe it was impossible for America to execute a strategy similar to the one that succeeded in Victoria. The polls showed that most Americans supported wear masks and other mitigation measures, although there was some cleavage among supporters. They were concerned that social distancing would be eased too quickly, not too slowly, like the Australians did.
The problem, or one of them, is that the United States has never set a clear target for the removal of Covid-19. It was understandably difficult to ask the people of Wisconsin to abide by social distancing restrictions back in the days when they thought the coronavirus was just a New York problem – and when they didn’t know what the plan was.
Today, of course, the pandemic is a very real problem for every American. So as we try to tame the winter wave, we might benefit from taking a lesson from the Australians and coming up with a specific goal that we can all work together to work on.