Recent calls for an ‘elimination strategy’ to defeat the coronavirus pandemic are misguided, and may not even work. Why? Because pursuing elimination would mean longer and harder lockdowns. That would mean more jobs lost, more businesses shuttered for good, more livelihoods destroyed, more families plunged into poverty, more lives ruined forever.
And even with that, there would be no guarantee of success. An elimination strategy would also break from the goal broadly adopted by the Morrison government and National Cabinet, which is suppression. But suppression and elimination are hugely different strategies, with vastly different practical consequences.
Under a suppression strategy, restrictions are loosened when there is a low and manageable level of community transmission. Elimination requires stringent restrictions to remain in place until there is no community transmission whatsoever. The idea is that if transmission is stopped for long enough, the disease will disappear.
But that is at best wishful thinking. Countries that kept infection rates low, like Singapore and Israel, saw cases surge when restrictions were lifted. Even in New Zealand, where a ‘stage four’ lockdown was imposed on 25 March and transmissions have been effectively at zero for weeks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has indicated that the government is bracing itself for the possibility of another outbreak.
The futile ‘elimination’ debate is part of a wider problem with Australia’s coronavirus response. Politicians and health bureaucrats have shifted the goalposts so much that they don’t even seem to know what the actual endgame is, much less explaining it to the Australian people.
Initially, the goal was clear and reasonable: Keep infection rates as low as possible – that is, ‘flatten the curve’ – to give our health system time to prepare without being swamped with cases. Since that time, billions have been spent on intensive care beds, masks and ventilators. By any measure, our hospitals are now well-equipped. If there was ever a justification for heavy-handed lockdowns, there isn’t one anymore.
Still, the idea of an ‘elimination strategy’ is finding disturbing favour among everyone from the Grattan Institute to the ABC’s resident prophet of doom, Norman Swan. The latest push comes from Daniel Andrews’ hand-picked Chief Health Officer, the hapless Brett Sutton, who has plunged the state of Victoria into a second lockdown after the first one, incidentally the most heavy-handed anywhere in Australia, failed spectacularly. Frankly, it beggars belief that the Victorian government feels entitled to lecture anyone about anything.
To be sure, public health experts are approaching the coronavirus with the sole aim of keeping infections at zero. It’s an understandable objective, but it comes with enormous human costs, and the terrible toll taken by lockdowns must at least be a part of the debate.
The most obvious casualty is jobs. The official unemployment rate has soared from 5.2 per cent in March to 7.1 per cent in June, but Institute of Public Affairs research suggests that this a gross underestimate, and the real rate is close to 12 per cent. Young people have been the hardest hit: Almost one in three Australians between 15 and 24 are now neither working nor studying. All in all, 815,000 jobs been snuffed out since lockdowns began, and many more will go as they drag on.
The serious consequences of lockdowns are almost always reduced to a tawdry debate about ‘money versus human life’ (largely by those who are insulated by the economic carnage by a safe, lucrative job in the public service or academia). But the misery and deprivation of this 21st century Great Depression are not about abstract notions of ‘the economy’, but very real human costs.
Already, there are warnings that Australia’s suicide rate could surge by up to 50 per cent. Lifeline is taking one call every thirty seconds related to the coronavirus crisis. The fact that health experts – of all people – are dismissive of these ugly realities is callous in the extreme.
Remember, also, that these are the same ‘experts’ who have gotten so much wrong. These are the ‘experts’ who told us that Australia would run out of ICU beds no matter what we did, who advised us that masks were ineffective and then changed their mind, and who told us that sitting on a park bench or playing golf was dangerous and deadly, but deliberately ignored the risk of having 10,000 protesters stage a ‘mass gathering’ in the centre of Melbourne.
If Daniel Andrews or any other premier is foolish enough to pursue an ‘elimination strategy’, they must come clean and tell us how many more jobs they are prepared to destroy, and how much anguish they are willing to inflict on their own people.
Until then, they would be well advised to follow the lead of Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian, who have made the politically difficult but highly commendable admission that further lockdowns would make the state-imposed ‘cure’ far outweigh the disease.