A case. A young security guard in a quarantine hotel who was diagnosed with coronavirus and was showing mild symptoms.
All it took was Perth, Australia’s fourth largest city, to shut itself down completely. One case, and now two million people will be staying home for at least five days. One case, and top state official Mark McGowan, who faces an election next month, is asking his constituents to sacrifice themselves for others and for the country.
“This is a very serious situation,” he said on Sunday (31) reporting the case, the first in Western Australia discovered in quarantine in nearly ten months. “Each of us must do what we can to stop the spread in the community.”
The speed and severity of the reaction may be unthinkable for people in the United States or Europe, where much larger outbreaks have often been treated by half measures. But for Australians, it seemed normal.
The lockdown in Perth and the surrounding area followed similar efforts in Brisbane and Sydney, where some infections have led to a sharp increase in restrictions, control of the virus and a rapid return to near-normality. Ask the Australians about this approach and they can just shrug their shoulders. Instead of loneliness and regret, or revolt for encroaching on their freedom, they have grown accustomed to a Covid routine of short-term suffering for collective gain.
The contrast with the United States and Europe – accentuated at the start of the pandemic – has become even more striking over time. Fewer Australians have died in total (909) than the average number of daily deaths today in the UK and US.
“We have a way to save lives, to open our economies and to avoid all this fear and confusion,” said Ian Mackay, a virus expert at the University of Queensland who has developed a multi-layered model , or “Swiss cheese”, to defend against the pandemic. .]which has been widely circulated. “Everyone can learn from us, but not everyone is willing.”
Australia’s geographic isolation gives you a great advantage. But several decisive steps are needed. Australia has strictly limited interstate travel, while it has since March ordered hotel quarantine for overseas travelers. The UK and US are only now trying to make quarantine mandatory for those arriving from countries with a high Covid index.
Australia has also maintained a strong contact tracing system, while other countries have essentially given up. In the Perth case, contact trackers have already tested people living with the infected man (negative results so far) when the lockdown was announced and placed them in a 14-day quarantine in a public facility. Authorities also listed more than a dozen places where the security guard could have touched or breathed near people.
Australia’s fight against the coronavirus was not perfect. The Perth case illustrates persistent weakness – several outbreaks have been linked to hotel quarantine, including one in Melbourne late last year which led to a 111-day lockdown. Stricter border rules have caused hardship for many people, including thousands of Australians stranded abroad.
But evidence of the country’s success has been mounting for months, and since December it has been less marked by the absence of the virus than by a series of rapid responses containing small outbreaks.
Before Christmas, the beaches north of Sydney were closed when a few cases arose, then a few dozen. Vacation plans were ruined as any resident of Greater Sydney was banned from traveling to other states. The tests have increased. There were few complaints, and it worked: the city of 5 million people spent two weeks without a case of community transmission.
Brisbane accompanied her in early January with a brief lockdown, after a cleaning lady in her hotel quarantine system was infected with a highly contagious variant of the virus first identified in the UK. It was the first known occurrence of the mutation in Australia and authorities acted quickly. Annastacia Palaszczuk, Queensland’s highest authority, which includes Brisbane, announced the lockdown 16 hours after testing positive.
“Doing three days today can avoid doing 30 days in the future,” she said.
Brisbane is back to the level of normalcy made possible by Covid-19, as is all of Australia beyond Perth. Across the country, offices and restaurants are open, with rules that require physical distancing. Masks are recommended, but not required. And big events are being organized: the Australian Open, after facing a series of problems because of infected foreigners, expects to receive 30,000 tennis fans per day when it starts on the 8th.
Mackay, who has worked closely with Australian authorities, called it “the hammer and the dance”.
The lockdowns give everyone in contact tracing and public health a chance to catch their breath, to make sure that they’ve interviewed everyone, that no one will forget and remember something – and this allows them to stop the broadcast, “he explained.
Europe and the United States seem to prefer, according to him, “the half-baked lockdown”. He said they place too much faith in vaccines and fail to recognize that their effectiveness on transmission will be rather slow, rather than instantaneous.
Much of Europe, in particular, indicates fatigue and then failure. An analysis of the response of 98 countries to the pandemic by the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, found that many European countries were at the peak of their performance compared to Covid a few months ago, but today they are close to the bottom, like the UK, France and others, in addition to the US.
“They didn’t go far enough,” said Hervé Lemahieu, a Belgian researcher at Lowy who led the study with Alyssa Leng. “After making gains, they relaxed very early on.”
Translation by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves