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“COVID-19: learning from Australia’s weaknesses” (FT 21/3/2020)

21/03/2020

COVID-19: learning from Australia’s weaknesses (FT 21/3/2020)

Professor Wadan Narsey

I have previously suggested that Fiji and the Pacific can learn a lot from Australia, especially from its agricultural research and its excellent educational media programs such as those of ABC and SBS.

But, these last two months of ambivalent Australian government and public responses to the global coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) have shown that even this powerful developed Pacific neighbor of ours can be slow to learn from global developments and we in the Pacific may be making the same mistakes.

The number of infections in Australia (even with inadequate testing) has been rising dramatically over the last five days.

Health experts here fear that despite all the government rhetoric of being in control, the eventual Australian growth path may resemble badly affected European countries like Italy and Spain, rather than Singapore or South Korea they wish to emulate.

While I am not a health expert, I see three weaknesses here in Australia:

(a) populist politicians and corporate interests have had too much influence, rather than the health priorities suggested by health experts; and consequently,  

(b) a reluctance to discourage or ban group gatherings which must facilitate the spread of the virus.

(c) a public that has been reluctant to change from their “business as usual” behavior.

Thankfully, even over the last three days that I have been writing this article, government and the public have been changing rapidly for the better, even though no one really knows what is the best health policy that does not also destroy the economic and social fabric of society.

Fiji apparently does not have any cases of coronavirus, but I deliberately use the word “apparently” because the CWM medical superintendent Dr Jemesa Tudravu reports (FT 19 March 2020) that only 48 persons have been tested for the coronavirus.

I would think that this is far too small a number given the very large number of visitors that Fiji has had over the last two months, especially to areas outside of the urban centers.

Worst case scenarios may be that infected persons may have come in without detection, been in circulation and spreading the virus in Fiji, and left without detection here. Note that even Australia has been struggling to conduct adequate levels of testing.

Note also that persons may not have any symptoms such as higher temperature (the usual check at airports) but still be carrying the virus.  Only the full test can establish whether someone has the virus or not.

So what do I see as Australia’s mistakes that Fiji can learn from?

The global COVID-19 facts

There is a wonderful website which Fiji’s health experts and all curious people (including teachers and students) ought to explore, and especially its “interactive table”:

(https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries) which gives global statistics by:

Country

Total Cases

New Cases

Total Deaths

New Deaths

Total Recovered

Active Cases

Serious/Critical cases

Total Cases Per Million Population.

By “interactive table” I mean that the reader can click on any column variable and the table is sorted from highest to lowest for that variable (and vice versa with another click).

From newspaper headlines, everyone knows the countries with the largest numbers of cases (e.g. as of 19 March) were:

China               80,894

Italy                 35,713

Span                14,769

Germany          12,327

But the severity with which COVID-19 affects countries with vastly different populations is better measured by the variable “Cases Per Million Population” which had Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Iran and S. Korea at the top.

Today (19 March), that table has a whole number of new countries at the top and the numbers for these countries dramatically increased.

Let me give just one table (derived from another website which shows how the different countries are succeeding or failing with their efforts to control the spread of the virus.

https://corona.help/country/australia

Table 1       Identified cases (19th and 20th March)
March 19 th March 20th Perc. Change
China 81136 81155 0
 S Korea 8565 8565 0
Italy 35713 41035 15
United States 9345 13816 48
Australia 696 756 27
Source: corona.help

These numbers are all changing from day to day, and even within the day. 

By the time you read this article (Saturday 21 March 2020) the numbers will have changed again.

But overall, one must recognize that China and South Korea seem to have brought the coronavirus under control, while the others have not.

 Australian cases

When I started writing this article on the 15th of March, there were only 298 confirmed cases in Australia, with 151 cases having direct or indirect links to travel outside of Australia: China, the Diamond Princess, United States, Iran, Italy and other countries. The sources of 82 cases were not identified.

Today, there are 756 confirmed cases in Australia, with horrendous growth rates for all states.

[But at 9.30 am 21 March 2020, there appear to be 877 cases in Australa].

The health experts in Australia are pointing out that with government’s late and politically selective restrictions put in place on public gatherings and travel to Australia from infected countries, and with virtually no restrictions on internal travel, there is no indication that internal spread is under control or even of the likely real numbers infections in rural communities (like those of Aboriginals) who are poorly served by health services.

Some health experts have been complaining about Australia’s lack of testing centers and testing kits, should the virus really take hold, as all indications today are suggesting.

This lack of accurate statistics and medical preparedness is surely of even greater relevance to Fiji and other Pacific countries, especially when there are many expert views which suggest that as high as 80% of the populations of developed countries might eventually become infected.

 Ambivalent Australian political responses

 When the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan China became evident, there was some alarm in Australia.   Media attention initially focused on the few hundred Australians in Wuhan and on a cruise liner off Japan, all needing to be brought back to Australia and quarantined somewhere.

There then followed enormous discussion about the expected decline of Chinese tourists and students coming to Australia and how the Government was going to counter the likely adverse economic impact here.

Australian politicians tried to portray calm and the need “not to panic”. Prime Minister Morrison and Opposition Leader Albanese both declared they would attend football matches giving quite a wrong message to the public (although they later recanted).

Major sports events like the Australian Grand Prix were very reluctantly cancelled while spectators were banned from other games which were played in empty stadiums.  Eventually, the Australian Government declared that gatherings of 500 or more would be banned.

No one knows where this magical number of “500” came from when common sense would have indicated that any large gathering had the potential to spread the virus.

The real shocker came when Federal Minister Peter Dutton, who had been active in discussions about how to isolate coronavirus entry in Australia, was himself diagnosed with the coronavirus, but only after he had already attended Cabinet meetings.

Very strangely, and again giving the wrong message to the public, the Morrison Government allegedly saw no need to test all those who had come into contact with Dutton in Canberra. But observers noted cynically that Dutton’s offices were being carefully disinfected.

A general perception was that the Government’s responses were not led by expert health professionals, even if they were used to justify government responses.

Even when health experts were interviewed on the media, there were accompanied by economic and financial interests, whose central focus was limiting the economic fall-out in their industry, and NOT on containing the spread of the virus in Australia.

Given its importance as a source market for their tourism industries, Fiji and the Pacific need to closely monitor how the coronavirus develops in Australia (and NZ).

 Australian public responses

 It has been an eye opener for me to watch the less than sensible approaches taken by the Australian public and corporate bodies to the corona virus pandemic originating in China.

Many members of the public objected (many were “furious” reported the media) to the Grand Prix or rugby games being cancelled.

The corporate entities associated with national sports like NRL, AFL, rugby and soccer seemed to consider their own financial interests their priority rather than the health of the nation.  Most had to be dragged kicking and screaming to acknowledge the response needed to deal with the health crisis.

While some affected schools and universities where coronavirus cases have been identified, have been closing down there has been a political reluctance to close down all schools, with concerns about the likely flowon impact on their parents and grandparents.

One very positive development over the last few days is the many employers who have been allowing and indeed directing their employees to work from home, although network capacities have required detailed planning of the timing of their connections.

Unfortunately of course the nature of much work is that people can not work from home.

Probably the most astonishing has been the panic buying of items like toilet paper (how much can you use?), hand sanitizers, nappies, meats, and rice, with while customers known to engage in unseemly squabbles.

Supermarkets have resorted to rationing and selling online, although even that has not been possible.

But fundamentally, there has been a reluctance on the part of the public to understand that most of these essentials are manufactured in Australia and will not suffer shortages.

Ambivalent Fiji Government responses

Fiji is only today (19 March 2020) reporting a confirmed case, after test were sent to Melbourne. But that affected person has apparently been circulating in Fiji for the last two weeks.

But I warn again, the numbers of infected persons only refer to those who have been tested and identified as positive carriers. With the gross absence of testing in Fiji, the virus could be spreading throughout the rural areas, with no one being wiser. It is not helped that many Fiji people resort to traditional remedies, with no evidence that the coronavirus can be dealt this way.

Eventually of course, the numbers of sick and deaths will become obvious, just as they did more than a century ago with the influenza epidemic decimating the indigenous Fijian population, after being brought to Fiji from Australia.

Fiji is indeed somewhat belatedly putting in restrictions on foreigners such as passengers from cruise liners and asking all arrivals from abroad to self-isolate.

But while it might seem to be an advantage for Fiji to have a forceful national leader like Voreqe Bainimarama, the first lesson I would suggest is that Fiji’s national responses MUST be led by Fiji’s health experts and not politicians who inevitably place a heavier emphasis on political objectives, as in Australia.

One can see this weakness in the ambivalent statement by Prime Minister Bainimarama reported in FBC News (16th March 2020) that

not all Fijians returning home from overseas visits will be automatically asked to self isolate even if they do not display any symptoms of COVID 19… this applies to only those returning from the four high-risk countries of Iran, Italy, China and Korea….those coming in from overseas to attend events such as weddings will be allowed to do so.  [and] any civil servant who wanted to travel for personal reasons is permitted to do so.”

The Prime Minister’s advice may be politically popular with some people but not with global health experts on the pandemic. I hope he changes his views and national advice sooner rather than later.

Health experts would point out that there are many other source countries, apart from Iran, Italy, China and Korea where the virus is increasing exponentially (even Australia) whose visitors to Fiji could bring in the virus; health experts would not allow gatherings for weddings when other gatherings are being banned or discouraged; and health experts would not make an exception for civil servants to travel overseas.

The tragedy is that Fiji has many aggressive politicians, many with little learning or wisdom, who seem to have little respect for health and other experts.

Witness the government disregard for the solid and constructive advice given by the recently retiring professor from the Fiji School of Medicine (Dr Eddie McCaig) who the public has great respect for.

Witness also the frequent contemptuous responses by some Government Ministers and MPs to the constructive advice given by an experienced Professor of Economics (Professor Biman Prasad) just because he happens to be the Leader of the NFP in Parliament.

What to do?

I strongly advise students (and health professionals) to use the websites I have given above (and there are more) and follow the detailed paths of the rise and eventual control of the coronavirus in China where the government managed to totally close down Wuhan (city of 11 million people), the province of Hubei (with population of 60 million people or more than twice the population of Australia), and eventually China itself (population 1.4 billion people). A similar path was achieved in South Korea.

These websites also show the complete contrast with Italy, Spain, and worst of all, United States where the problem is spiraling out of control.

In a free and democratic society like Australia, there are many social and economic experts who understandably worry about the long-term impact on overall welfare if draconian measures are imposed by government, such as the closing down of schools and all places of work where close gatherings of people are inevitable.

How long can such policies be maintained before the population rebels? And remember, even health experts have no idea what might happen (even in China and South Korea) once the restraints are removed.

But for now, families can and must take responsibility for their own health outcomes, regardless of the advice or edicts issued by governments and public health authorities.

With the coronavirus spreading through personal contact with affected people and objects, it surely makes great sense to:

    • to avoid large gatherings such as for sports, church services, kava gatherings, parties, or even family functions such as weddings (i.e. practice “social distancing”)
    • to self-isolate after overseas travel and possible exposure to the virus
    • to minimize international and internal travel
    • if the virus appears within Fiji, to close down educational institutions
    • to frequently wash hands with soap and water; and to use tissues and handkerchiefs for sneezing
    • to take special care around the elderly and those with “preconditions” (coronary disease, diabetes, blood pressure, ) whose mortality rates are higher

Fiji and the world will still have to deal with the nightmare that no one really knows what will happen when the social distancing controls are removed three months or six months or one year from now.

The least that the Fiji Government can do is to approach this crisis in a non-political and non-partisan way to minimize the terrible economic and social fall-out on the weakest sections of Fiji population.

Read this incredibly sensible article (by Tomas Pueyo, “The hammer and the dance”) to better understand the different paths that the pandemic can take, depending on countries’ responses.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

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