Rating Australia & New Zealand’s pandemic response
When headlines proclaim news such as “Six more cases in NSW confirmed,” at the outbreak of a pandemic, you might hunker down and prepare for the worst. When the headlines don’t get a whole lot worse than that for months on end, you start to realise that preparation is paying off. Especially if you check out headlines from other parts of the world. COVID-19 is going to be part of our lives for a long while, but it’s clear Oceania has fared better than just about anywhere else in containing it. To be fair to other places, a big part of that is geography. Sparsely populated islands are easier to seal off than densely populated and tightly packed countries. But the response of Australia and New Zealand has been exemplary, as evidenced by the headlines such as “New Zealand reports no new cases for 2nd straight day” and “ACT becomes first state or territory to be free of known cases of COVID-19.” Here’s how they did it, and how they plan to keep the health crisis under control whilst reopening their economies.
Australia entered lockdown on 23 March, when there were about 1600 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country and days after 2700 passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship disembarked in Sydney, leading to hundreds of cases throughout the country. Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not mince words, warning Aussies that “the toughest year of our lives” was ahead. “Nonessential” services including pubs, gyms, cinemas, and places of worship were closed. Restaurants could only offer delivery and takeaway. Effective 28 March, people entering Australia—mostly residents returning from overseas—had to enter quarantine for 14 days, with hotels that had suddenly emptied of tourists providing accommodation. Interstate travel was heavily curtailed.
Elsewhere in Oceania, New Zealand began quarantining arrivals on 15 March, and 10 days later entered Level 4 lockdown. “We must go hard and we must go early,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of one of the world’s strictest policies. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, and petrol stations remained open. Some Silicon Valley billionaires managed to get to New Zealand and their ‘doomsday bunkers’ before things shut down. From there, about 5 million Kiwis—87% of whom have trust in the government, polling showed—followed the rules, keeping the death toll to a mere 22 people as of 28 May. On 27 April, Ardern announced a switch to Level 3 would take place in three days.
“There is no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand. We have won that battle. But we must remain vigilant if we are to keep it that way,” she said.
During the time they bought with lockdowns, Australia and New Zealand ramped up testing, with both ranking in the top 20 in the world in tests per capita, setting the stage for reopening.
The two types of testing—one determines whether you’re currently infected, whilst another determines whether you have antibodies in your bloodstream indicating you’ve had the virus and recovered—are crucial to reopening safely. Social distancing will still be part of the “new normal,” but if you have antibodies you might be able to donate plasma to someone infected, and if you test positive for COVID-19, you can self-isolate as to not infect others. This is important because people who aren’t showing symptoms can still be infected and spread the virus to others who can get very sick.
The next step is contact tracing, which alerts those who have come within 1.5 metres of a person who tested positive. Those people can then also self-isolate, stopping a potential spread in its tracks. Of course, this takes civic trust, as contact tracing apps are voluntary to download and self-isolation is largely on the honour system. But if people want restrictions to continue to ease and avoid further lockdowns, contact tracing is the best way to do it.
Oceania has seen different approaches. A few apps are available in New Zealand, notably Rippl—which allows people to scan a QR code when they enter a business without leaving personal information—and Team Safe from Putti Apps. Businesses are also using pen and paper to collect data from patrons, but this is not ideal as employees can use contact information for nefarious purposes. As of this writing, the NZ government had not settled on an official method of contact tracing.
Australia, on the other hand, has adopted the COVIDSafe app. It is hardly perfect, as despite best efforts it can leave personal data vulnerable, can be difficult to sign up for because of limitations on reception and eligible users, and might even interfere with other health apps. Still, millions of Aussies have downloaded the COVIDSafe app as they return to public life.
Slowly But Surely
The efforts have gone so well that New Zealand entered Level 2 on 13 May. That meant socialising in groups up to 10, domestic travel, restaurants and large venues seating up 100 people (distanced, of course), and school openings. Funerals can accommodate up to 50 distanced people if they are registered.
Australia has plans for a “COVID-safe economy and society” by July, Morrison announced. Implementation is up to state and territorial governments, but the federal plan has three main phases. The first phase involves allowing up to five guests in a house and gatherings of up to 10 outside. Funerals can have 20 mourners if inside and 30 if outside. Noncontact sport is allowed. Restaurants, cafes, and shops can reopen with restrictions. The second step is allowing up to 20 people in places like gyms, salons, and cinemas. Interstate travel is up to local governments but allowed. In the final step, offices and pubs can reopen, and gatherings of up to 100 people are allowed. The federal government will reassess every three weeks, and health officials are assembling rapid response teams to tamp out flare-ups.
There’s even been discussion of a Trans-Tasman travel bubble that would allow travel between Australia and New Zealand, with other countries in Oceania being phased in gradually. Tourism is especially important to New Zealand, where it provides 10% of GDP and 15% of jobs. China had eclipsed New Zealand in terms of visitors to Australia, but Kiwis still have been vital to Aussie tourism.
Has the COVID-19 response in Oceania been perfect? Of course not. Some of the antibody tests Australia spent $10 million on are inaccurate, and COVIDSafe has had its problems. A massive $60 billion error in JobKeeper estimates changed the economic outlook, though in a good way. But perfection is impossible, especially if the definition is zero lives or jobs lost. The pandemic and attendant economic crisis are far from over, as Morrison and Ardern are quick to point out. But if you take a look at some other places, things could be a lot worse.