The Australian COVID Method: a Failure or a Success?

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY MATTHEW OULTON (3rd year - Economics - Merseyside, UK)

Throughout the pandemic people of all political persuasions have made liberal use of international comparisons when it suited them, and shunned them when it hasn’t. Sweden, once a poster child of the anti-lockdown lobby, rapidly declined as a topic of conversation once the infection numbers began to paint a less positive picture. Likewise, the status of Australia – a country which from the start of the pandemic has been lauded by proponents of tough Covid restrictions – is now being called into question.


Just a few months ago in March 2021, Forbes described the Australian Covid response as ‘the envy of many countries’, citing the lack of substantial restrictions and the absence of community transmission. Through a combination of brutal pre-emptive lockdowns, a very tight ‘hotel quarantine’ system for isolating imported cases, and mandatory social distancing Australia managed to avoid a serious peak. Australia was one of the first Western nations to be exposed to Covid-19, with a confirmed case all the way back in January 2021. Likewise, its proximity to China and other initial hotspots led many to expect a severe outbreak to be inevitable.


However, Australia’s first two peaks in March and August of last year saw a seven-day average of just 367 and 476 new cases respectively. To put those figures into context, the UK had an infection rate of over 50 times that during the January 2021 peak, when new cases approached 60,000. Even in the summer of last year, when Covid was at its nadir in the UK, the Covid rates were still, for the most part, higher than that of Australia in its peak. The response was, therefore, considered an overwhelming success. There were economic costs to lockdowns, of course, but the country suffered nothing like the damage that ‘late lockdowns’ caused in the UK. Many Australian companies were able to operate normally, since restrictions could often be eased due to the very low levels.


Now, however, the story is radically different. Driven by a burgeoning outbreak of the Delta variant, especially in the Sydney metropolitan area, cases are approaching 1000 new infections per day, over double their previous peak. The new restrictions being brought in rapidly in Sydney and other major cities aim to curb these alarming rates.


So, did the Australian method fail?


First, let’s get some perspective. The vaccination rate in Australia is terrible. The Australian government was slow to secure doses and has suffered substantial supply and logistical challenges. Similarly, the Australian public was initially quite reluctant to be vaccinated, given their low Covid rates. Today, only around 1 in 4 people in Australia have been vaccinated, compared to 65% in the UK. Nevertheless, fewer Australians are dying each day of Covid than Brits, despite our high vaccination rate. Australia’s current potentially worrying outbreak is a blemish on what is an otherwise very impressive response.


Similarly, though the situation is worsening for Australia right now, it remains much, much better than in the UK during our various coronavirus peaks. In total, Australia has still suffered fewer than 1000 deaths from Covid, whilst in the UK more than 140,000 people have died. It is almost inconceivable that this current crisis in Australia will escalate to the levels seen in the UK.


So-called ‘lockdown hawks’, who favour an intense response to Covid-19, need to be upfront about the experience of Australia. It shows that a ‘0-covid strategy’ does not necessarily mean there won’t be any Covid outbreaks. Even countries like Australia - an island nation that’s geographically isolated - cannot keep Covid entirely off their shores and, therefore, cannot prevent the capacity for transmission. Short of the ever-elusive herd immunity by vaccination, there doesn’t appear to be any economical way to entirely eradicate the virus. Vaccination is the only valid long-term strategy for escaping the cycle of restrictions: brief easing, followed by outbreak, followed by restrictions.


Nevertheless, the scale of outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand are not vaguely commensurate to those seen in Europe or North America. We should not overreact and condemn their approach entirely. The schadenfreude expressed by some lockdown-sceptics is misplaced. After all, Australia is just now facing its first significant Covid-19 outbreak, over 18 months after their first reported case, which can definitely be considered a triumph. The lives of tens of thousands of Australians have been preserved so far, and during this time effective vaccines have been developed, which now need to be employed to their fullest extent. The Australian situation is precarious, but like barbecues, beaches, and the weather, the Covid-19 situation is still better down under.


IMAGE: Flickr/Number 10