Covid Diary: The world envies us
“The world envies us”. Ever heard these words?
Here in Australia they’ve often been rolled out by politicians to excuse failures: Yes, we might not have got it perfect, but we’re still doing better than the rest of the world. And there’s some truth to the words, but there’s also a lot of complacency - past success is not a guarantee of future success, and we can’t expect Australia to be immune to what other countries are experiencing.
The first year
By world standards, Australia’s first year pandemic response was fairly good. There were a few months of uncertainty and rapidly changing rules and restrictions, but by the end of March 2020 we’d largely settled on an approach: Banning people from leaving the country, requiring those entering the country to go through hotel quarantine to prevent cases getting into the community, and nationwide lockdowns to control the cases that had already got in. On the economic side, there was significant government support to prevent the mass unemployment seen in places like the US, and to keep businesses and individuals going till we could safely re-open more widely.
The restrictions were mostly imposed at a state/territory level, so there wasn’t a consistent national approach. However, they were somewhat coordinated by a National Cabinet with the Prime Minister and leaders of the individual states and territories. And it was widely speculated that it was some of the state leaders - including our own Dan Andrews - threatening to go their own way that forced the federal government to take Covid seriously.
When things re-opened in mid-May, we were at least in principle able to do many things that people in other parts of the world weren’t able to do, and to do them safely. That didn’t include international travel, of course, and even inter-state travel was a bit dicey. There were badly affected industries, particularly tourism and universities. However, we were starting to return to business as usual, and we definitely weren’t seeing the shocking case numbers and overwhelmed hospitals and deaths that many other countries were.
Of course, it didn’t work out so well for my own state of Victoria. The virus escaped hotel quarantine in June, which led to rising case numbers and months of tightening lockdown. The re-opening plan had included a tolerance for some cases in the community, but it turned out in practice most states were very quick to close their borders to us, and the strategy changed to “aggressive suppression” (which was elimination in all but name).
And that had its advantages: I gather most other states were able to continue with a fairly normal life. NSW were the last to close their borders to us, and they managed to control the resulting outbreaks without lockdown. However, while there were dark days here, even in Victoria it didn’t reach the levels seen overseas, and it was finally brought under control and even eliminated.
There were still some restrictions, and the international border remained largely closed, but inter-state borders were re-opening, families were able to re-unite*, and we were going to have a good Christmas and a great summer. The combination of government economic support, high savings levels during lockdowns, and feeling safe from Covid meant high spending levels and a strong economic recovery.
An outbreak in Sydney de-railed some of those Christmas plans, and by the start of this year had caused even Victoria to close our borders to NSW, but that outbreak was fairly swiftly contained. And the news after the March quarter was that the Australian economy was actually larger than pre-pandemic levels, which I think was sooner than was expected.
The response hadn’t been perfect, and I was certainly critical of some of the ways we hurt people along the way. However, Australia was a CovidZero nation, and our approach could be seen to be doing better on both health grounds and economic grounds than most of the Northern Hemisphere, Western nations we compared ourselves to.
There seemed genuine reason for the world to envy us.
* So long as they weren’t overseas.
The weak spots
In the wake of Victoria’s outbreak, there was a disproportionate focus on failings in our quarantine system. And to be clear: There absolutely were problems with it, and we held a full inquiry and then tried to strengthen the system based on the recommendations of that inquiry. However, there were also cautionary articles in the press suggesting that other states (including the much-vaunted Fortress WA) had some of the same quarantine failings. Maybe in practice we handled it worse than them, or maybe we just got unlucky.
However, before the end of last year, Covid had escaped into the community in both South Australia and NSW. This year, it escaped in all those places, as well as multiple times in both WA and Queensland. CovidZero was always a somewhat fragile state, and outbreaks could lead to lockdowns imposed with little notice, inter-state borders closed, and plans cancelled. And there was always the risk that those outbreaks couldn’t be contained, as turned out to be the case with the outbreak starting in Sydney in June, and later spreading to Victoria and ACT.
The vast majority of Australia’s population have been in lockdown at some point in the year. For some it’s only been a week or two - but it’s happened. And there was a period of months with between 50% and 60% of Australia’s population in lockdown.
However, even if our quarantine systems had been perfect, our position was still based on a gamble. The control measures we brought in did protect the population, but it wasn’t at all clear they could last forever. We were pinning our hopes on widespread vaccination providing a way to safely re-open the country and return to “normal”.
I’ve talked with someone on one of the national advisory committees whose advice to the federal government in March 2020 was “Don’t expect a working vaccine”. And of course by the end of last year the word was not just that we had multiple efficacious vaccines, but that their efficacy was better than we’d ever dared to expect (he said he was glad to be proven wrong).
I don’t know what we’d have done if we’d found that none of the vaccines worked. Or perhaps that they worked but didn’t work well enough (for some definition of “well enough”). We probably would have had to re-open our borders more widely at some point.
Would we have waited till an outbreak that was big enough, then said “We tried our best” and move on? Perhaps by year 3 or 4, the analyses at the end of year 1 that said Australia’s approach was a success might have had to be re-written to “They were only able to delay the inevitable”. But I’m sure the world would have given up envying us long before that final nail in the coffin.
The Year 2 Plan
Australia’s plan for 2021 was fairly simple: Hold Covid at bay long enough to vaccinate a large percentage of the population, hopefully gain “herd immunity”, then re-open to the world. It was abundantly clear from the start of the year that we were going to be more cautious than the nations which already had high case numbers. There weren’t going to be any emergency vaccine authorisations. We weren’t going to be at the front of the vaccine queue. And even when we got vaccination started, it was going to be a big project rolling it out across the entire population.
Our Prime Minister got a lot of flak for saying early in the year “It’s not a race” (and yes, it looked particularly bad during the winter outbreaks), but I had some sympathy with the sentiment. It was much harder to justify taking shortcuts on our usual quality control and other processes when we didn’t have Covid circulating and people dying. Being cautious also gave us more time to see how it played out in other nations.
I expected that caution would be shown in other ways as well. Re-opening borders and allowing Covid in, for example. Vaccination or no vaccination, zero cases and zero deaths was unlikely to be sustainable long-term. But it wasn’t going to be an easy sales pitch after how we’d been taught to fear Covid, and, yes, envied because we were handling it better than other nations.
To me, this made it more likely that we’d get to the point where other nations were able to do the things we were able to do. Not because they had zero Covid, but because they had high vaccination rates. And eventually we’d join them in relying on vaccination, not closed borders.
The time that made me see red
This is why I didn’t like hearing phrases like “The world envies us”. The plan for re-opening was different from our initial Covid control plan. Success in the first year didn’t guarantee success in the second or third year. We were resting on our laurels, the rest of the world was moving on, and we risked being left behind.
But there was one particular time that really made me see red. It was on 9 April 2021. Our national vaccine roll-out - already behind its original targets - had been largely reliant on locally manufactured AstraZeneca vaccine, and the technical advisory group had just recommended that this only be used for over-50s.
Scott Morrison concluded a press conference with this:
We really want Australians to know that: A - we’re living in a country at the moment in a way that very few others around the world are living. We are in a position that others envy. If you move around the country, from the west coast to the east coast, people are going out, they’re enjoying getting together as families, they’re going to sporting and cultural events, they are returning at least domestically to a life they knew before the pandemic.
The international borders aren’t open yet. Those sort of things are not occurring yet. But if we keep going down this path, we’ll continue to lead the world in our response to the pandemic and the economic comeback which is growing each and every day.
The vaccination program wasn’t about past successes. It was about what the country would look like in six or twelve months time. And the rest of the world was running their own vaccination programs, so they too would look different in that time. The path that we were on had certainly led to an economic comeback - but it also required the international borders to stay closed, and swift and decisive (and economically damaging) action to contain any further outbreaks.
Vaccination, we hoped, offered us a different path. The ATAGI decision had destroyed the (previously reasonable sounding) plan to vaccinate the country, and the government hadn’t yet figured out what the new target would be. Shortly afterwards they were talking about having offered everyone the vaccine by the end of the year (e.g. right now), though they didn’t seem entirely certain whether that meant offering everyone a first dose, or offering everyone both doses.
So I thought it wildly inappropriate to rest on the laurels of previous success - success which wasn’t guaranteed to continue. Nine months was a long time to maintain Australia’s CovidFree status.
Of course, the statement looks worse in hindsight than it did at the time. I believe some did predict major outbreaks when we came into winter, but I know I wasn’t one of them. And with Melbourne and Sydney and Canberra in lockdown for months, it was hard to see other nations envying us.
The main thing the outbreaks really did was to push us onto the same track those other nations had already followed - basically, desperately speeding up vaccination as a way of controlling outbreaks and saving lives. We brought parts of the Pfizer order forward. We did vaccine swaps with other nations. We scaled up vaccination hubs, and made more age groups eligible for vaccination.
But by September, what I was hearing from those overseas was that we needed to get with the program and just vaccinate our population. Far from leading the world, we were considered late followers. And, talking about international borders, another side effect of vaccinating our way out of these outbreaks was bringing back quarantine-free international travel in November, far earlier than planned, though it hasn’t been a smooth ride since then.
How did it affect me personally?
Here in Melbourne, I had around seven months of the kind of freedom other states had enjoyed, from the end of October last year (first outdoor gatherings with family members) to the end of May (Lockdown #4). Though with a couple of scares and a snap lockdown in February for good measure.
Morrison was right - domestically, life was much closer to what it had been. There just wasn’t a guarantee it would continue uninterrupted. I never felt like it was a choice between “doing what I wanted” and “staying safe”. No matter how big the gathering, if it was permitted and I wanted to do it, I did it, and had no reason to believe there would be any Covid cases there.
I remember when Hamilton opened in Sydney in March, they were saying it was the first theatre production of its size anywhere in the world for nearly a year. Later in March I went to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here, which I think would similarly have been one of our largest shows. At the time, it was only 75% capacity, but it later went to 100% capacity.
And that was only one of many things I went to. I also went to a community theatre production. An orchestral performance. Even on a cruise (though only along the Yarra River - nothing international…).
I was able to travel around Victoria and inter-state. There was walking in the Australian Alps. Climbing Mount Kosciuszko in the snow. Completing the Great Ocean Walk. Walking on a pink salt lake.
I was able to spend time with family and friends whenever I wanted, and I even returned to full-time work in the office.
I was well aware that I was doing things that most people around the world couldn’t do. But at the same time I was hearing people in the Northern Hemisphere talking about the possibility of international travel in their summer. For me, international travel had been an outside chance at the start of the year, but I wasn’t really expecting it, and the April announcement finally killed that chance.
And that was before the lockdowns began to hit. Every lockdown in Melbourne this year has cancelled something I was planning, and the Great Ocean Walk was the only one of those that I was able to reschedule.
I’ve been to two community theatre productions (one before lockdowns, one after), but in between I’ve held tickets to four different community theatre productions that were cancelled. Some of them may run next year. Others won’t.
The oddest one was when on a Monday night I booked tickets with siblings for a Thursday evening production, and was trying to decide between Thursday that week and Thursday the following week. I’d already been burned by lockdown cancellations, which was why I wasn’t planning far in advance, but in the end I decided on the following week because there were better seats available. I emphasise: At the time I booked, there were no known Covid cases anywhere in Victoria. Cases then emerged, maybe on the Wednesday, and on the Thursday lockdown was announced, commencing midnight. And I know the production that night did go ahead - so if we’d chosen that week rather than the next week, we could have seen it. But earlier that week there had been no real reason to choose one over the other.
I don’t say this to make a big deal of missing out on community theatre productions. There are far more important things in life. I just don’t think you can fairly talk about the freedoms we enjoyed without also talking about the uncertainty that went along with them. Those overseas might not have had the same opportunities as I did in our summer and autumn - but I think they were also less likely to have made a plan on Monday and have it cancelled by Thursday.
This year I’ve done things that friends overseas couldn’t do. And I’ve sat in lockdown for months while they were enjoying their summer and autumn. Yes, those times probably involved more restrictions and more uncertainty than they had hoped for, but they weren’t as restricted as I was.
This isn’t meant to be a competition. Last year, Victoria was in lockdown while friends and relatives in other Australian states were living far more normal life. I heard some complaining about this, and saying people in other states should keep quiet because it made it harder for us. But to me, if it was safe for them to do these things, they could do them. I’ve been glad when people I care about have been able to do more than I was able to do, and I hope they’ve also been OK with the times I was able to do more than them.
A Christmas message
When I saw Morrison’s Christmas message, I was struck by these words:
Christmas, you know, is a time of hope, and we are an optimistic people. Whatever comes our way, we back ourselves to overcome and to push through, as we have during the course of this pandemic, saving lives and livelihoods like few other countries in the world. That is our quiet confidence in Australia, driven by the love we have for those around us and the way of life we value so much and enjoy here in Australia, that we are able to aspire to in our wonderful country.
It’s the same kind of message: We’ve done better than other nations in the past couple of years, so we should back ourselves to continue to do that. However, as I’ve discussed, we have (of necessity) largely abandoned the approaches that gave us those better results. We’re on the same track as many other nations, and are seeing something of the new (vaccinated) norm.
We do have a higher vaccination rate than many nations, and I hope that makes a difference. But I don’t think we’re going to magically get a better outcome than other nations by our optimism or will-power.
The Delta danger and the Omicron scourge
In the past year, one of the things we’ve become familiar with is Covid variants. And the successful ones threaten to shatter all our successes.
Delta already made it far more difficult to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. While vaccination still seemed to suppress some transmission, it was more important that it reduced hospitalisations. And so we shifted to trying to get everyone vaccinated we possibly could, both for their own protection and for the protection of others.
With high vaccination numbers, we were significantly relaxing restrictions. However, I saw other Northern Hemisphere nations struggling with cases and re-imposing restrictions as winter approached. Maybe, like last year, we’d have a good summer, but winter would then come, and I didn’t see any reason to believe we would be immune to the issues other nations were facing.
What I didn’t expect was how quickly case numbers would take off before and after Christmas, probably fueled by Omicron. Today, NSW had their highest ever daily case numbers - more than ten times their peak during lockdown, and nearly a hundred times daily case numbers at the start of the month. And with the load their testing is under, it seems likely that the real numbers are higher. Numbers in other states and territories are following suit.
There are hopes: Perhaps a widespread rollout of boosters will be enough to stop it. Or perhaps the high vaccination rates will prevent most hospitalisations. Or maybe Omicron is a milder variant that puts fewer in hospital to begin with.
But even if these things are true, rising case numbers risk collapse of the entire healthcare system. We’ve already changed the close contact testing rules because testing was being overwhelmed, and it’s not yet clear what effect that will have. And even if we overcome this outbreak, winter will come.
And it’s not just about health. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that health outcomes and economic outcomes are often intertwined. The surge in cases in NSW in particular in the lead up to Christmas meant many businesses closed at a busy time and individuals in isolation or not working as expected. People weren’t going out as freely, and they probably weren’t spending as much money. What effect will that have?
The federal government has said they’re not going to be providing more economic aid. And maybe they won’t. But they said the same earlier this year, then reversed it during the Victoria/NSW lockdowns.
Entering the third calendar year
So far, it seems like every time there has been hope on the horizon, it has turned out to be a false dawn. Every time there has been an end in sight, something new has thrown a spanner in the works. This time round, even “personal responsibility” NSW has brought back mask requirements and other restrictions.
We’re now going into the third calendar year of this pandemic. I knew it wouldn’t magically go away when we entered 2022, but even a month ago I hoped we wouldn’t have this level of uncertainty.
Here in Australia, we’ve largely replaced closed borders and hotel quarantine and snap lockdowns with vaccination and “living with Covid”. That means we’re now in this together with the rest of the world in a way we weren’t at the start of the year. In the past two years, there have been some things we’ve done better, and some things we’ve done worse.
Personally, I’m not sorry to have been living in Melbourne and in Australia during this pandemic. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking it seriously (as we did). There have been times that were better, and times that were worse, advantages and disadvantages of our approach.
However, I’m not too interested in the political point scoring (except when I think it’s wrong 😛).. It’s not clear that the world is envying us now, nor that they should envy us. We’re using the same approach, and should be on the same team. I want things to be better for the world as a whole, not for Australia to win the “Best Pandemic Response” award while the rest of the world struggles.