Australia, previously an example to other countries of how to stem the coronavirus outbreak, has seen a dramatic rise in its number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks. On Thursday, July 30, the country recorded 723 new cases and 13 new deaths—an all-time high on both counts.
The spike has been concentrated in the Australian state of Victoria, specifically in metropolitan areas of its capital Melbourne and the nearby Mitchell Shire, and has been observed after the state began to lift the restrictions it introduced early on in the pandemic.
In late March, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison limited public gatherings nationwide to two people, and individual states began introducing fines to those who breached lockdown rules. This method appeared effective across Australia, as states saw their daily coronavirus tallies fall to double or single digits in the weeks that followed.
Victoria was initially successful in nipping its outbreak—on June 9, the state recorded no new cases or deaths, a promising sign of things to come. But within weeks, confirmed cases began to rise, and by early July, the numbers were back in the triple digits. The spread has been linked to an outbreak at a public housing complex and from a quarantine hotel where a contract worker allegedly had sex with an infected guest.
In an attempt to mitigate disaster, Australia’s five other states and two territories have closed their borders to Victoria. On July 8, Victoria placed metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire under lockdown once more. It has also since made wearing a mask in public mandatory in those areas, expanding the rule across the entirety of Victoria from August 2.
But despite the enhanced restrictions, Victoria has continued to see an increase in its number of coronavirus cases, leading some to question whether Victoria’s renewed efforts have been effective. Additionally, cases of defiant residents intentionally flouting coronavirus measures have gained significant media attention, and a recent high-profile case involving two young women from Queensland who tested positive for COVID-19 after lying about visiting Melbourne have prompted concerns that the virus may spread into other states.
“There’s been a lot of attention given to the people who aren’t following the rules,” said Lesley Russell, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in Sydney, Australia, who previously served as a health policy adviser to the Australian Labor Party. “But it’s a really small percentage of the population and they get a lot of attention, unfortunately.”
“Most people have been pretty compliant,” she added.
Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist and Associate Professor of Public Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, agreed that the number of people who have not complied with the lockdown measures was small.
“These are the same people who are anti-science, and there are always going to be a small proportion of these types of people in society,” said Vally. “They’re going to be the loud voices because they like to draw attention to themselves, which gives a false sense of their importance.”
Still, Vally stressed that the actions of the few who ignore local restrictions could have wide-reaching consequences.
“What they’ve done is selfish and irresponsible and could result in people dying,” he said. “If they start off clusters of cases, someone who is vulnerable could get infected and die. Not to mention all of the money that is now being spent on contact tracing, and people are going to have to take additional time off of work when they otherwise wouldn’t have had to. It’s potentially devastating.”
He said these cases are “incredibly frustrating to see” but are a “minority by a long way.”
Both Russell and Valley said that despite Victoria’s new lockdown not resulting in an immediate decline in coronavirus cases, they were confident that the cases in the state would likely decrease in the coming weeks, and could be contained if people continued to largely comply with restrictions.
“I think it’s very clear that more measures are needed,” Vally said. “But in a sense, the new lockdown has worked because had we not implemented the lockdown three weeks ago, we would likely be up substantially in cases.”
“We shouldn’t underestimate that, but we’re also not happy having hundreds of new cases a day, every single day,” he continued. “So clearly the government will need to look at the latest data that they have to work out what other interventions make sense in order to bring those numbers down quickly.”
Russell said she was encouraged by the way that local leaders were handling the latest outbreak, and stressed that future responses would need to remain flexible and dynamic as the pandemic continues.
“None of this is going to be over until we get a vaccine,” she added. “We may have to go on living like this for the foreseeable future.”
Still, she said that overall, Australia has done an impressive job of curbing the virus and added that current indicators suggest Victoria would be seeing a downturn if people continued to comply with the measures in place.
“I think we're still in the batch of countries that are doing well,” she said. “Even though we find the Melbourne cases shocking—and they are—it's still manageable.”
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