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The reality of living in a pandemic has belatedly dawned on the people leading Victoria’s response to COVID-19.
The state government and the public health team advising it now accept that forcing people to stay in their homes and shutting schools and businesses for months on end won’t eradicate the virus from the community.
Premier Daniel Andrews (centre), Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton (left) and COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar on Wednesday.Credit:Getty
The zero-case obsession, a binary position that says we either have no COVID cases or catastrophic outbreaks on a scale witnessed in Italy and New York at the start of the pandemic, has been consigned to the epidemiological dustbin.
The virus is here to stay. It will continue to spread in Victoria, more people will get critically sick and some will die.
Instead of pretending this can be avoided with curfews, five-kilometre rules and stopping children from playing on swings and monkey bars, Victoria has joined NSW in accepting we cannot protect life by keeping it on hold forever.
The big shift came on Tuesday when Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and other public health leaders briefed a meeting of the co-ordinating ministers committee of cabinet.
Having previously assured the committee it was possible to crush the outbreak and return Victoria to zero cases, they now advised that it wasn’t.
Imagine the response of the people dialled in to that virtual meeting. Having held to COVID zero as an article of faith since the tail end of Victoria’s second wave, Professor Sutton was forced to admit his doughnut dreams were a fantasy.
As Premier Daniel Andrews put it on Wednesday, the public health advice changed fundamentally.
“We will not see these case numbers go down,” he said. “They are going to go up. The question is by how many and how fast.”
The implications of this go to the core of the Victorian public health response. Although they won’t admit it publicly, Andrews and Health Minister Martin Foley now understand that since the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant, they led us on a fool’s errand.
Victoria’s sixth and most severe lockdown has not been for nothing. Unquestionably, it suppressed the spread of the virus. Andrews cited research from the Burnet Institute showing Victoria would have had 6000 more cases of coronavirus by now if not for the measures taken.
A more pertinent question is whether Victoria, if not burdened by the goal of COVID zero, could have sufficiently slowed the spread of the virus with less draconian and damaging restrictions.
The immediate easing of restrictions announced on Wednesday is paltry and perhaps even mean. It reflects a government and public health team straitjacketed by an aversion to risk and their past decisions. Nonetheless, the shift in government thinking is significant.
From this point, our public health officials and political leaders should be more focused on driving vaccination rates than counting COVID cases. The seemingly arbitrary September 23 deadline for a further modest easing of restrictions, dependent on first-dose vaccination numbers, is intended to provide a positive incentive for the vaccine-hesitant to get a jab.
COVID cases still matter, particularly those that end up in hospital and intensive care. But we are back to where this began in March 2020: flattening the curve. The restrictions need only keep a lid on things while vaccination rates rise. This will give more voice to those in government, business and education who want to see a more generous easing of restrictions.
While the government isn’t providing immediate relief, it is at least promising future respite for a community suffering under the weight of a controlling public health response.
Every parent can see the cumulative impact on their child’s education and social and emotional development of so many days stuck at home.
Anyone who cares to look can see that lockdowns – whether you believe they are necessary or not to prevent the spread of a virus for which we have a vaccine – aggravate socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage.
The cost of illness and death from a virus is immediately apparent and, for a government, easier to factor into a political calculation than the longer-term, less predictable impacts that lockdowns may have on our physical and mental health and social wellbeing. Some of these impacts may not become clear until the current crop of politicians are long gone from Parliament.
Until now, the Andrews government has exercised an “abundance of caution” when considering the spread of the virus, but precious little when weighing the impacts of lockdown.
The end of the zero-case obsession is an opportunity to rebalance this equation. When the health advice changes, government policy changes, or so we are told. What should happen now that the previous health advice has been proven wrong?
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