Australia’s COVID-19 Response Is Failing

There is a desperate need in Australia for an open and strong debate of our strategy in response to COVID-19. This is not a time, nor place, for blame, politics or self-interest but rather the discovery of path forward for all of Australia. What follows are my thoughts and I hope others will contribute their professional views to the discussion.

Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews has repeatedly stated that there was no choice but to enact level 4 restrictions within Victoria despite the significant adverse impacts in Victoria and across Australia. But there are choices, better choices, and clearly the community needs to speak loudly into these choices.

Billions of dollars have been expended, and the lives of every person in Australia significantly impacted by the actions which our Federal and State Governments have taken in response to COVID-19. We are told these actions have been data-driven, scientific and predicated upon the best-known response to pandemics, but when assessed against the criteria of a robust strategy, they fail.

What is the objective of our current COVID-19 strategy? It would appear that we are pursuing a suppression ‘strategy’ and hoping for a vaccine as quickly as possible. A vaccine may be widely available by end of 2021 at the earliest, it won’t be 100% effective and under a suppression strategy, would likely be mandatory.

Suppression calls for blanket coverage, locking down as many people as possible, restricting their movements to flatten the curve and then push it down further. As pockets of infection appear, trace them and lock them down. This is a firefighting effort where you are jumping from one fire to another trying to maintain containment lines. It is a strategy without an end point, because this highly contagious virus is not going away anytime soon.

Suppression requires complete control of the population and their lives, with such control in the hands of a few. It calls for obedience and not debate and seeds anxiety, fear and panic and it drains the community’s capacity to resist the virus.

As for our businesses, the whole concept of hibernation while suppression is occurring is a non-real-world construct. You cannot turn businesses of any size on and off as infection rates flow up and down. It’s just ‘progressive suffocation’ and I fear we will be gobsmacked by the losses which our business community have and will suffer.

The publicly available data for COVID-19 is sparse and not presented in a level of detail to enable robust analysis or debate in our wider community. But we can, from the information that is being provided on the Australian Government’s Department of Health website, glean some facts:

Under the suppression ‘strategy’, all persons are considered to be at the same risk. But that is the risk of catching the virus without regard to its health impact. This is a key weakness of suppression; it applies resources where they are not needed, fails to apply resources where they are needed, and makes no account for its significant ‘side-effects’ which will continue for many years.

Some brief examples:

  • 89.9% of COVID-19 attributed deaths are of people over 70 years of age but 87.1% of testing has been directed at persons below this age.
  • COVID-19 has the most significant impact on persons with comorbidities but no community information is readily available on these risk indicators.
  • 84.34% of our population, our workers and students, have been locked down where 99.91% have not tested positive and only .00007% have died with cause attributed to COVID-19.

The side effects of suppression are enormous including deaths which otherwise would not occur — unable to seek timely health care, domestic violence and suicide. Add to this, increased emotional and mental distress, family violence, broken families and relationships, isolation and loss of employment, income, capital and businesses including all the flow-on effects. And then there is the massive debt that has been incurred by Governments, Businesses and Individuals, which needs to be repaid at some time.

Victoria has proved that suppression does not work. It has had the most stringent lockdown regiment and conducted mass community testing, resulting in failures to identify high-risk areas and persons, leading to Victoria accounting for 75.6% of deaths nationally while representing only 26% of the population.

I believe mitigation as the strategy is a far better choice with the objective of minimising the adverse impact of COVID-19 and protecting and improving the well-being of our community.

Under this strategy, we identify where the greatest risks and negative impacts are and apply resources in priority to those areas. It allows the limited resources which exist in our community to be applied effectively and efficiently. It accepts that COVID-19 is here to stay, people will be infected and while efforts are being made to combat it through vaccine development, you continue to move forward — life does not stop because of COVID-19. Mitigation is not herd-immunity, rather it is understanding where risk is and is not.

How might a mitigation strategy work?

  • Identify and support those at risk by comorbidities and provide all necessary assistance to mitigate the risk of severe illness or death.
  • GPs develop COVID-19 safety plans for those persons at risk.
  • Inform and build confidence in the community as to where risk lies and where it does not lie.
  • Allow all those at minimal risk to study, work and live as normal.
  • The improved hygiene and physical distancing practices which the community supports should continue as appropriate.
  • Introduce guidelines for all organisations in the community to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to high-risk persons.
  • COVID-19 sick leave introduced paid by the employer and if not covered then through a Government safety net.
  • Employers required to be responsive to flexible working arrangements.
  • Public testing should continue but in a targeted manner with the GPs assessing symptoms before requesting testing with quick response times.
  • In areas of high risk, for example aged care, a regiment of ongoing testing for residents and workers overseen by a medical professional.
  • Open the borders and permit free movement with monitoring for illness becoming part of normal travel.
  • Policies and programs to repair the damage caused by the suppression ‘strategy’ across all sectors and for individuals and families.

This is Australia — One Country, One Nation, One People, Many Colours and Cultures, All Equal. It is now time to move beyond our initial response and pivot into a strategy that will see us ‘working- as-one’ through and out of the impact of this virus. A mitigation strategy will support the empowerment of the community with minimal government interference, which is, in my view, the way Australians work best in responding to challenges to our community.

Author: Dr Richard Shrapnel PhD is a strategist with 40 years-experience in the private and public sectors.

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