With Australia’s coronavirus infection rate falling significantly in recent days, the government has begun discussions on when it might consider lifting restrictions. Here’s what you need to know.
When will coronavirus restrictions be eased in Australia?
With the daily total of confirmed coronavirus cases falling over recent weeks, many have asked when it might be a good time to ease some of the restrictions that have had a major impact on the economy and life in general.
Among other things, many Australian businesses have had to close down or drastically alter their operations in the past six weeks, and workers in the travel or hospitality industries have lost their jobs or are being stood down.
Thanks to successful physical distancing — so far — state governments have announced intentions to loosen some of the restrictions in place. Queensland and Western Australia were the first to announce changes to the advice. Queenslanders would be permitted from 2 May to travel up to 50 kilometres from their homes and could now have picnics from anyone from their household, per the ABC.
Western Australia took it a step further and increase the maximum number of attendees for indoor and outdoor gatherings from two to 10 people.
The NSW Government joined the fray on 28 April when it announced some measures would be eased. Specifically, from Friday 1 May, two adults and their children will be able to visit other households. Previously, only one person was allowed and it had to be for specific reasons such as care or dropping off food.
Federally, however, Scott Morrison has said the advice on restrictions will remain in place until at least 11 May.
These are small steps forward and serve to highlight how cautious authorities are taking the situation. Things might start going back to ‘normal’ in the coming weeks but our new reality will be far removed from what it was before until the virus is eradicated from society.
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What about herd immunity?
Once authorities determine it’s safe enough to ease restrictions, it’s not yet known if any parameters will be placed on who can venture out and when. It’s still not definitively proven but early reports suggest people who’ve gotten coronavirus do develop immunity once they recover from it.
That means once restrictions are lifted, those who haven’t yet gotten it will be more susceptible to the virus if it’s not completely eliminated from the country. With coronavirus cases not always being symptomatic, however, it’s not fully clear who is and isn’t immune.
Antibody tests are one way of determining that.
There are a number of ways to test for coronavirus, or COVID-19, but a serology test — blood-based as opposed to mucous — can help detect whether the virus has been in the body. This will give an indication of who might have built up some sort of immune response to the virus and could be a factor in developing herd immunity in Australia.
Herd immunity is when a big proportion of the population — a ‘herd’ — is immune to a disease. It’s usually created when a country-wide vaccine program provides protection against a disease so it has no one to infect. It is a key reason why smallpox was eradicated by the World Health Organisation in 1980.
Until a large majority of Australians are immune, or some version of it, from COVID-19, it’s likely to continue to linger in the community for some time ahead.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, an expert on infectious diseases at UNSW, told the Australian Academy of Science in mid-April it would be irresponsible to let COVID-19 rip through the community in order to achieve herd immunity.
“There’s a mathematical formula for calculating herd immunity, which relates to how infectious the virus is. And based on COVID-19 and what we know about it, we would need about 60 to 70 per cent of people immune, which means that level of people or more infected,” Professor MacIntyre told the Australian Academy of Science.
“Half our population is aged over 40 or 50. So you’re going to be creeping into that area where it’ll just kill people. So I don’t even think it’s ethical to make a conscious decision that we are going to just let people get infected.”
So, while there’s a rush to return life to normal, it can’t be done without travel and testing measures being put in place until a vaccine is developed or a large portion of the population develops immunity and that, in itself, is a tough journey.
Learning from past pandemics
While we’ve never dealt with a COVID-19 pandemic before in human history, we can learn from the past and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is a strong example to look at.
It was a very different time 102 years ago — the world was in the final stages of a major world war, healthcare was primitive compared to what we have now and our understanding of viruses hadn’t yet developed into what we know now.
Despite the differences, however, there were a number of similarities to what we’re currently experiencing.
For starters, social and physical distancing was used despite the flu not fully being understood. Even in 1918, people around the world were self-isolating, being placed in quarantine, wearing face masks and washing their hands.
We’re still in the first stage of the COVID-19 spread but the Spanish Flu shows us there can be a fluctuation of infections until a vaccine is developed or it eventually fades away like the 2003 SARS outbreak did.
While the first ‘wave’ of Spanish Flu in May 1918 was debilitating, it was the second wave in August that was most deadly. This was, in part, due to the relaxing of social distancing measures as countries were holding celebrations to commemorate the nearing end of the First World War.
One harrowing example of this is a tale of two US cities. According to Business Insider, St Louis in Missouri began shutting down schools and other public places as well as staggering shifts to minimise peak periods. On the contrary, Philadelphia held a massive parade and within two days, infections and deaths rose dramatically.
Many things have changed and improved since 1918 but there are other influencing factors that could cause the coronavirus pandemic to follow in history’s footsteps, such as re-opening up international travel or loosening social distancing measures.
“We can’t wish away this pandemic,” Professor MacIntyre said. “We all want our lives to go back to what they were, but our lives have changed and until we have a vaccine, we can’t completely control the pandemic.”
While many of us can’t wait to stretch our legs or take that much-needed holiday, we’ll have to accept that 2020 is on hold for now and that taking the situation slowly is the best thing we can do.
This article was originally published on 15 April but was updated on 28 April.
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