It’s the question most house-bound stir-crazy Australians will no doubt be asking over this unusual Easter weekend: when will life return to normal?
The flattening of the coronavirus curve in Australia has beaten even the government’s expectations. A product of that success has been a rapid gear shift in sentiment.
Only weeks ago there was a clamour to shut everything down. Now some are daring to dream of when they might visit the local cafe, pub or beach. Nervous corporate chiefs are signalling the economy can’t handle six months of this.
The gathering pressure to ease restrictions is happening around the world, even in countries ravaged by COVID-19.
Nearly 20,000 people have died in Italy but the daily death-rate has now dropped substantially. The government there is about to announce a timeframe for the gradual easing of its lockdown. Younger Italians are likely to be the first allowed back to work.
Spain, where more than 15,000 have died, will begin an “orderly de-escalation” of restrictions in two weeks. Other European countries have already allowed some businesses to re-open.
In Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, the 76-day lockdown has finally come to an end. Locals have been allowed to leave their homes, although they will be tracked via mobile phone data to ensure the healthy don’t come into contact with those still infected.
At least two options on the table
The clear international consensus is that lockdowns cannot be contingent on a vaccine eventually being found.
As Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said this week, “we don’t know if and when a vaccine will come with this virus”. It was a wake-up call to those who think this will all be over once the miracle-workers in lab coats hurry up and find the answer. A vaccine may never come.
This leaves Australia with a couple of options: try to eliminate the virus completely and then remain closed off from the world indefinitely or learn to live with it and manage the caseload as much as possible.
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It’s already becoming clear the first option isn’t really an option. As Professor Murphy says, trying to eliminate the virus entirely means “you don’t have any immunity in the population and you really have to control your borders in a very aggressive way and that might be for a long time”.
The Prime Minister has also made it clear taxpayers can’t sustain the extraordinary economic lifeline indefinitely. The $200 billion worth of measures including the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments “have a finite life”, he says.
The second option of gradually easing restrictions, allowing some businesses to re-open and trying to deal with a “manageable” caseload in the community presents some particularly tough calls for the National Cabinet. These are literally life and death decisions.
One wrong step could prove disastrous. We could see another Ruby Princess type catastrophe or worse.
Armchair experts don’t have the facts
The National Cabinet will once again rely on the expert advice of state and federal chief health officers as it plans this exit strategy. But as Professor Murphy frankly admits, “there is no clear right answer. There are lots of potential paths.”
The chief health officers need to see more accurate modelling of how the coronavirus is behaving in Australia before making any decisions. That’s another week away at least.
In the meantime, armchair experts are full of advice, just as they were heading into this crisis. Everything has been suggested from Wuhan-style mobile phone tracking, to “immunity certificates” for those who have recovered from the virus.
More likely is a staged easing of restrictions in the safest pockets of Australia, ongoing protection of the elderly and those in remote Indigenous communities and a persistent message to wash hands and keep your distance from others.
Given the most dramatic impact on the curve came from closing Australia’s borders, they’re likely to remain shut for a long time.
For now, the Prime Minister isn’t allowing this debate to run too far, too fast. He is rightly worried about complacency, particularly this Easter weekend. If the daily infection rate starts to climb again, the debate will just as easily swing back to the need for even further restrictions on life as we know it.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iView.
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