This morning, Victorians woke to the first day of a fresh 7-day lockdown. It follows a 26-case cluster originally sparked by a hotel quarantine breach in South Australia.
For many of us, there was a feeling of dread as we watched the news, the numbers, the masks, and the press conferences with the Chief Health Officer back on our TVs. And of course there as the toilet rolls again disappearing from supermarket shelves.
“Here we go again”, you might have thought. Well, maybe. But I’m here to offer a little more hope.
Despite the triggering familiarity of so many cues, the situation we are in now is quite different from June last year, or indeed September when we were trying to determine how or when we might escape from lockdown.
That difference is primarily due things we know now that we didn’t know then. And those differences should also give Victorians far greater optimism that we will see the end of this episode sooner rather than later.
Here is a short list of things that should give us hope for this snap lockdown, and any future snap lockdowns if we don’t get vaccinations up.
Decision-making is faster
Last June when the rest of Australia was opening up again after the first wave, Victoria still had a problem. Breaches in hotel quarantine and ongoing pockets of community transmission meant that we really couldn’t keep up with the rest of the pack.
We got ahead of ourselves with opening up before we had put the last nail in the COVID coffin - and it lurched out.
But the Federal response then was also unclear – we were told elimination was the wrong strategy and we were going to have to ‘live alongside the virus’.
Unfortunately cases increased and Victoria ramped up restrictions again, slowly. First by geography with local lockdowns, and then using less restrictive Stage 3 restrictions across the state. We chased COVID instead of getting ahead of it and it soon got away. By then it was too late and stricter Stage 4 restrictions came along with a bang.
Now our leaders know better. We know we need to head off rampant community transmission as soon as we realise we don’t have full control. Now we don’t wait – we act. Any doubts or mysteries? Stage 4 immediately. Go.
Contact tracing is far better
The contact tracers at the Department of Health and Human Services have done an amazing job in identifying over 10,000 close contacts in just the last few days. Not all positive cases have been perfect citizens – despite having symptoms some have been active in the community for days before getting tested. This makes tracers’ jobs that much harder.
The criticism of current contact tracing in Victoria is unwarranted, unhelpful and uninformed. They have been battling against a tide of faster spreading variants and an increasingly complacent community. But all in all, contact tracing is far better than last year as it needed to be.
We know that people are important
Last year everyone was a modeller. Whether they were doing it in their head, in excel, or on an envelope. Everyone had a model and a theory that ‘predicted’ what was going to happen.
Unfortunately, many of these models were really maths focused but not very people focused. For example, there were models developed by physicists in the US helping universities to think through college re-opening scenarios that – get this – didn’t consider that students might ignore isolation rules and go to parties even if they got sick. Guess what? The models failed miserably and campuses closed down again.
The positive is that we all now realise that COVID-19 is a social and behavioural problem as much as a biological one. If you understand behaviour, decisions, movement, incentives and interactions in society, you can better understand and model potential spread and risk.
We know relationships are important
Last year the other thing we learned about people is that lockdowns – and the consequent social isolation – can be terribly hard and generate its own negative health consequences. This was especially the case among the over 500,000 people who live alone in Victoria.
Single households are a broad demographic including people who live alone by choice but also might have been recently bereaved, or live with chronic illness or disability. During last year’s lockdown, they were unable to form social ‘bubbles’ with other singles or families until mid-September when restrictions began to ease.
That this lockdown allows social bubbles for singles is a deep and welcome relief to many who advocated for change.
It is also unlikely to greatly increase risk of community transmission and is more likely to engender support for this and any future public health measures. It is a great improvement.
We know the economic benefits
During 2020 there was a tortured period where we debated ‘elimination vs suppression’ as though we were debating ‘health vs economy’. Thankfully that’s all behind us now as we now recognise that both go hand in hand.
While many were theorising about this last year, there can be little doubt now that Australia’s lived experience proves in real life that safeguarding health helps safeguard the economy – though that isn’t to minimise the terrible hit suffered by some sectors including hospitality, the arts, and universities.
The result for our leaders is that it makes decision-making so much easier. There is a clear goal that we now know that we can achieve – we can get to zero new cases.
Victorians know how to do this better than anyone – we know how to win.
Sure, significant challenges remain. Hotel quarantine is not fit for purpose given airborne transmission. There is an empty paddock where national quarantine facilities should be. JobKeeper support payments have prematurely disappeared.
More infectious variants are being generated over time and seeping into the community.
And most pressingly – vaccination rates are far too low and the vaccination program has failed to meet its targets so badly that it no longer has any targets.
But this is this year and these are this year’s problems to solve. Even better, they are problems that all look a lot easier than last year’s, and are within the Government and community’s power to address. These problems don’t need science anymore – the evidence is in – they just need some good decisions.
Of course, how we ensure good decisions is another question, but we are getting there.
Banner: Getty Images