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Sorry, but 'Covid-zero' can't be our new normal

A pedestrian walks past Flinders Street Station in Melbourne on Friday as restrictions begin to ease. Picture: Getty Images
A pedestrian walks past Flinders Street Station in Melbourne on Friday as restrictions begin to ease. Picture: Getty Images

As Victoria surfaces slowly from its latest lockdown, it's become increasingly clear just how difficult it will be for Australia to emerge from the cul-de-sac of our Covid elimination policy.

There is no question this strategy has been successful, at least from the perspective of absolutely minimising the number of Covid cases in the country. It has been far more successful than was expected in March or April last year.

Yet the success of this strategy has had unexpected negative consequences.

First, because elimination is touted to be not just achievable but apparently relatively "easy", the public has not only not learned to live with Covid as originally hoped, but has actually become much less tolerant of any outbreaks.

For example, a number of politicians are supporting calls to establish expensive, purpose-built quarantine facilities in remote locations. Aside from the cost, this would be logistically challenging, and it still wouldn't make the quarantine Covid-escape proof.

Unless, of course, you think it's reasonable to keep all returning travellers - plus the thousands of staff that would be needed to run the facility, all their families and all necessary service providers and businesses - effectively locked in a bio-dome in a remote community, until everyone who wants to return has done so.

The intolerance of any Covid cases has also lowered the accepted threshold when it comes to implementing lockdown procedures.

To varying extents, all states have pursued a strategy of rapid containment and aggressive elimination of the virus. In a number of states, just a handful of Covid cases has been sufficient to trigger immediate lockdowns.

NSW, alone, has been willing to trust its contact-tracing system to control the inevitable sporadic outbreaks that have arisen over the past 12 months.

As the Victorian experience has shown, repeated lockdowns have serious economic and social consequences. The suspicion, fear and anger that Australians have shown towards other Australians, exacerbated at every turn by politicians exploiting Covid fears, will erode social cohesion for some time.

Some have sought to shift the blame for these negative consequences onto the federal government, claiming the slow vaccine rollout is to blame.

There is no question the dawdling rollout should be pilloried: it represents a significant stuff-up on several levels. However, this particular criticism is unfair.

Even the most successful vaccine rollouts across the world, such as Israel, are only showing 90 to 95 per cent effectiveness. In most countries, this is a huge step forward. For some, like Australia and New Zealand, this actually represents a step back.

We have established a community expectation that no one should ever get Covid, and even a single death from Covid is a policy failure. Yet, none of the current vaccines are effective enough to guarantee zero transmission of the virus, regardless of how many people get vaccinated. This is not a standard that can be achieved by vaccination.

In effect, the incompetent vaccine rollout is actually delaying a reckoning with the far more intractable policy problem: how to convince the public that any return to normalcy means an abandonment of the strategy of complete elimination. It's a task no politician has really even begun to wrestle with.

Indeed, the success of the Covid response to date is probably a big reason why there is resistance to the vaccine. The number of people declining to get vaccinated in Australia would be unthinkable overseas, where people are clamouring to get access to any protection they can.

Here the perception is that the extremely minor risk of side effects (together with the less than 100 per cent protection offered by the vaccine) is less desirable and effective than the current strategy of complete elimination.

No other area of public health has this level of expectation.

For example, more than 1000 people have died on our roads in the 12 months to April. There were more than 800 deaths from the flu in 2019. The point is not to revisit tired old comparisons between Covid and the flu, but to observe that the public implicitly accepts that hundreds of people die from various "preventable" causes each year.

Covid must eventually join this list.

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Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka was castigated for saying that borders must reopen next year, even if this means some people will die. Hrdlicka subsequently apologised, even though her statement was undeniably correct.

The alternative - indefinite continuation of compulsory quarantine, state border closures and yo-yoing in and out of lockdown for years or even decades - is simply unfeasible.

Unfortunately, the kind of political leadership necessary to win hearts and minds on this issue has been absent in large parts of the country throughout the pandemic.

Politicians have been pretending that making hard decisions means implementing lockdowns and encouraging police crackdowns on those breaching the new rules. Yet these decisions have largely been greeted by enthusiastic support from the public, no doubt in part because of the climate of fear that has been stoked by those same politicians.

Individuals who have internalised this "Covid-zero" normal will strongly push back against any move towards openness that carries a perceived risk.

And it will be difficult for politicians who have basked in public praise for more than a year, while burnishing their credentials of being tough on Covid, to step back from those claims and begin to normalise their state's Covid response.

Yet even the NSW government, which has endured sustained criticism from other states for its less lockdown-centric approach, will need to continue to liberalise Covid restrictions over time.

How the country responds to the end of this latest Victorian lockdown will be an important barometer of whether this liberalisation will occur sooner rather than later.

It could result in some states doubling down on the avoidance strategy, increasing vigilance against any threat of the virus re-emerging. But it could also result in some understanding that each successive lockdown becomes harder and harder to endure, and that breaking this cycle is actually the only way out.

The best version of Australia has always been the one open to the world, economically, socially and culturally. And that means that if the world must learn to live with Covid, so too must Australia.

  • Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies and a regular columnist.
This story Sorry, but 'Covid-zero' can't be our new normal first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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