Australia has thus far mostly dodged the coronavirus pandemic. At time of writing, it has seen just 909 deaths from COVID-19, as compared to about 490,000 in the United States. Australia has a much smaller population, but adjusted for size, the U.S. rate of death is still 42 times larger. If America had handled things as well as Australia, something like 478,000 of those people would still be alive today.
How did they manage it? It is not primarily because Australia is an island, nor is it because Aussies have been under the thumb of a meddlesome state for months. On the contrary, over the course of the pandemic Australians have, on average, experienced dramatically fewer intrusive government controls than most Americans or Europeans.
The main reason can be seen in the lockdown that has taken effect in the state of Victoria in Australia this week. Its capital city, Melbourne, has seen a cluster of cases of the dangerous U.K. variant of the coronavirus in a quarantine hotel, and therefore the government has triggered a very strict lockdown lasting for five days starting Saturday. That kind of hair-trigger containment reaction is why Australia has been able to be largely open and virus-free for much of the last year — they halted the spread, and could then let up on containment. It makes for a depressing contrast with the U.S. and most of Europe, where halfhearted containment measures are still unpleasant but do not squelch the virus, and so drag on forever.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews made the announcement Thursday. All gatherings of any kind are banned, and masks are mandatory in all places. Residents will not be able to leave their homes except for needed shopping, exercise, and caregiving. The surrounding states also closed their borders.
It’s important to recall that, unlike other star performers like Vietnam and New Zealand, Australia did have serious community spread of coronavirus on two occasions. When the pandemic first struck last March, and again in July, it suffered galloping outbreaks with hundreds of new cases per day — a total of about 29,000 positive results thus far, and no doubt thousands more that were not caught.
This means it can’t be that Australia evaded the pandemic solely by virtue of being a remote island with little foreign travel. That surely helped, but once the virus gets going in any community, we have seen it spreads like wildfire. National isolation is little help against a disease that has already made it inside the border.
Now, early restriction on movement was a key part of the Australian strategy — but it was not just about closing the border to foreign travel, but also halting movement between states. That in turn was only one facet of a super-aggressive containment strategy. When the pandemic first struck, the government locked down hard, quickly built out mass-testing capacity, set up contact-tracing and isolated quarantine facilities, and kept the economy on ice. All that eventually halted the spread as of mid-May, and normal life could be (gradually and carefully) resumed.
That success provided crucial educational and political benefits (assisted by an agreement between the main political parties to work together to fight the virus). The vast majority of Australians learned that if they just hunkered down and endured some strict controls, then they would eventually get the delicious treat of returning to pre-pandemic life safely. So when a second, much worse surge of cases struck Melbourne during the Australian winter, and test-trace-isolate systems failed to keep up with the spread, public buy-in was strong enough that people obeyed a lengthy strict lockdown. It was painful and grim, but after about four months the virus was no longer circulating, and most of the restrictions were lifted once again. Bars, restaurants, movie theaters, sports and music venues, and schools could all open back up (though some with limited capacity, out of an abundance of caution).
It may be harder to implement harsh containment measures in a democracy than it is in an authoritarian state, but it can be done. Now there is wide agreement among Australians that it is far better to err on the side of aggressive containment, and it has been done several times. “Go hard, go early,” one pharmacist in Perth told a reporter when that city imposed a similar sharp, short lockdown after a single case of community transmission a couple weeks ago. “That’s been proven to work most times. Much better that way than a long, drawn-out inconvenient process.” Sure enough, Perth has seen no cases for a week and restrictions will lift fully this weekend.
In the U.S. and much of Western Europe, by contrast, the timidity, hesitation, and incompetence of political leaders led nations into a worst-of-all-worlds trap. Exponential dynamics mean that even a few hours of delay can spell disaster, but many countries hesitated to close their borders for fear of economic damage (including President Trump), or feared mandating strict controls on their citizens. That meant a much worse outbreak, even worse economic damage, and being forced into lockdowns to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed. Or worst of all, as in the U.S., the national government did basically nothing except watch the corpses pile up by the tens of thousands for all of 2020, while most of the citizenry imposed a quasi-lockdown on themselves anyway out of fear.
As I have previously written, there can be no freedom during a pandemic without aggressive and effective government.
In the United States, coronavirus cases are declining from their monster peak in early January. But there is every possibility they could surge again thanks to the more contagious variants that are already spreading across the country. It seems highly unlikely to happen, but we could still follow Australia’s model to save as many people as possible before the vaccines can be distributed. All it would take is some leadership.