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Go hard, go early and reap the rewards - why world should copy Aussie blueprint

Opinion

A new international report has endorsed Australia’s approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic – but warns that it’s still too soon to become complacent, writes Dennis Atkins

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As December begins, we’re headed toward a Christmas many Queenslanders probably didn’t think possible in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic nine months ago.

Then, in this extraordinary and unprecedented year, the catastrophists were in the ascendant, backed by doomsaying from bodies such as London’s Imperial College, which foresaw millions dying within months in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Things have been awful – and the second wave flooding hospitals in Europe and the Americas now shows there’s no end in sight just yet – but here in Queensland we’re enjoying a freedom that much of the rest of the world looks at with admiration and envy.

Bars and restaurants in our streets, party boats bobbing on the Brisbane River and the community hubbub generally depict a sense of confidence, often smacking of cockiness.

We shouldn’t be complacent and certainly not cocky. However, we can be satisfied the approach of the Queensland Government stands as world’s best practice.

This has been backed emphatically by a just-released report on how nations and communities globally have handled the virus.

The “go-hard/go-early and no regrets” approach of the Australian states has been vindicated by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organisation established in the wake of the 2009 global financial crash.

INET is “devoted to developing and sharing the ideas that can repair our broken economy and create a more equal, prosperous, and just society” and has run its ruler over the performance of the global community in the pandemic so far. It’s expertise stretches from international board rooms, think tanks and academia.

Here’s the report’s bottom line: “Strict lockdowns do work, and they work swiftly, within 4-6 weeks. They worked not only to suppress, but to virtually eliminate the virus in Australia, New Zealand, and Iceland, as well as in China, Korea, and Taiwan.”

INET concludes that limiting the economic damage caused by the pandemic “starts and ends” with controlling COVID-19. “Dozens of experiments conducted in different countries across the world definitively show that no country can prevent the economic damage without first addressing the pandemic that causes it,” the new report issued last week says.

“The countries that swiftly focused first on pandemic abatement measures are now reopening in stages and growing their economies.

“Most of the countries that prioritised bolstering their economies and resisted, limited, or prematurely curtailed interventions to control the pandemic are now facing runaway rates of infection and imminent state and national lockdowns.”

The Institute points to the relatively early benefits of this health first approach, saying it led to a positive feedback loop “where the reopening economies grow themselves without additional stimulus and suffer diminishing damage from the virus as cases dwindle”.

What became a “natural self-sustaining trend” towards a renewed economic health saved hundreds of thousands of lives – “a clear win-win in both economic and humanitarian terms”.

The INET report has a savage riposte to those who continue to argue for an economy first and last approach – a call which has gathered fresh momentum in Australia on the back of our success so far.

“The uncomfortable reality is that the pandemic doesn’t respond to political ideology, especially when it flies in the face of nature and reality,” says the INET report. “Those who resist lockdowns and containment measures early in the wave of infections are not, in fact, avoiding lockdowns.

“What they are really doing is guaranteeing that the inescapable lockdown will happen regardless, and will have to be more stringent, and for much longer, because they refused more moderate action earlier.”

The uncaring attitude towards the health cost of the pandemic seen in many nations at the moment will lead to greater cost, increasing until the virus is suppressed.

“This conclusion follows from the way coronavirus infections ramp up exponentially and taper off much more slowly,” says INET. “All the economy-first boosters are really doing is trading off a few weeks of ‘freedom’ up front for months of extra lockdown on the back-end once the hospitals are overwhelmed and allowing tens of thousands of people to die needlessly in the process.”

The INET report makes a series of recommendations beginning with the unremarkable but essential suggestion that the most cost-effective transmission abatement measures need to be identified, implemented and ramped up.

Other key proposals are to target measures geographically where the virus is most prevalent, provide subsidies for non-essential workers to avoid going to workplaces, the backing of essential workers with fully funded workplace conditions, testing and sick leave, and the use of real-time data to speed the rollout of abatement measures.

The report concludes that nations that have been most successful in handling COVID-19, including Australia, shared a common set of responses.

“They used swift response to extensive data, and the national scale-up of testing and tracing along with divide-and-conquer border-control approaches to isolate healthy regions from the virus-ridden,” says INET.

Australia can be proud of its inclusion in this top tier of nations dealing successfully with the pandemic but as our international borders are relaxed bit by bit we need to be as vigilant as ever.

A spark can start a raging inferno, as current experiences in places such as Sweden, Belgium and western and southern states in the US are showing.

We must be ready to accept renewed restrictions, targeted shutdowns and border closures. As the INET report clearly demonstrates, the failure to act is much more costly than any temporary measures, such as those used in South Australia last month.

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