Australia’s Covid Success Has Bred Complacency
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Compared with the rest of the world, Australia’s latest bout of coronavirus might seem to barely register.
The cluster of 83 infections connected to the affluent beachside suburb of Avalon in northern Sydney is equivalent to the number of new cases registered in the U.S. every 30 seconds or so. Still, with much of the country now closing its borders to people from Sydney, the circumstances offer a warning to other regions when they start to emerge from the pandemic’s shadow.
Thanks to Australia’s early success in suppressing the coronavirus, life has been gradually going back to normal for more than six months. The isolated western city of Perth has been holding mask-free outdoor music festival-style events. Social distancing standards are tighter in Melbourne after a four-month lockdown stamped out a resurgence of infection in June, but elsewhere things have been getting very lax.
The latest outbreak originated from a couple in their 60s and 70s who visited multiple venues in Sydney’s northern coastal suburbs while awaiting their results from coronavirus tests, the Australian newspaper reported last week, without saying where it got the information. It’s a sign of how casual distancing measures have become that this news has been greeted as much with smirks as alarm. Like the clusters linked to the White House and the dance classes of Hong Kong’s rich “tai-tai” ladies, an outbreak spreading to the community at large because of the heedless actions of a reckless elite seems like the perfect metaphor for life in 2020.
Still, the lackadaisical approach to infection isn’t confined to the rich. Despite signs advising mask-wearing and hand sanitation on public transport and in shopping centers, I usually feel distinctly in the minority when observing such protocols these days. For most of the past month, I’d estimate that only one in 10 people have been masked on the trains and shops I’ve attended — similar to rates of around 15% in parts of the city reported by the state government last month. A rough headcount in a local mall over the weekend, at a time when multiple exposure locations had been detected in adjacent suburbs, suggested the share following precautions had risen to no more than 30%. At restaurants and bars, mandatory check-ins with QR codes for contact-tracing is generally, but by no means universally, followed.
Australia has benefited from a great deal of good fortune in its handling of the coronavirus. Almost all major cities are the best part of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from each other, so on most routes the vast majority of intercity travel is by air. In more than a decade living in Sydney, I’ve only once traveled to another state by car. That's meant shutting the borders between the states and territories for much of the past year has attracted remarkably little grumbling. China’s efforts to cordon off Wuhan in the early weeks of the outbreak shocked the world. Turning a country with less than half the population of Hubei province into eight separate quarantine zones has barely even shocked locals.
We’ve also been lucky about timing. One of just half a dozen countries in the southern hemisphere’s temperate zone, the initial outbreak in the northern winter and spring hit when late-summer south of the equator was already slowing down the virus’s rate of spread. Even Argentina, South Africa and Chile, which have had more severe epidemics than those here, in Uruguay, or New Zealand, didn’t really see cases take off until the winter kicked in around June.
The tendency of society to let its guard down when infections start to recede is only natural. In some ways, it’s not even inappropriate: Infection rates in Australia remain low, with just one in 1,000 tests coming back positive.
Still, the return of disease in a country that thought it was in the clear is a sign of how drawn-out the world’s return to normal is likely to be, even after vaccinations start to become more widespread in the coming months. The smallest lapse in vigilance can put paid to months of progress. That would particularly be the case if new variants of the disease, like the one identified recently in the U.K., spread more readily — though the jury is still out on that front.
Investors seem to think this could all be over by springtime or summer, with the S&P 500 Index hitting a new all-time high last Thursday. They should prepare to wait a while longer.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.