For many Australians, the last few weeks have been a relief. Venues and services are re-opening and life is slowly returning to some sense of normality. But with the easing of restrictions comes new risks, threatening to undo all the hard work — a dreaded ‘second wave’ of coronavirus.
It’s been a strange start to the decade for the world. New Year’s resolutions were quickly replaced with quarantine resolutions and we all became familiar with terms we had seldom heard before — community transmission, contact tracing, social distancing.
While the World Health Organisation declared 22 June to be the highest single day rise in global coronavirus cases, Australia remains comparatively coronavirus-free. Cases in countries such as the United States, Russia and Brazil have continued to rise in recent months but Australia, and its oceanic neighbour New Zealand, have experienced dramatic falls in comparison.
But as restrictions ease and we’re suddenly allowed to catch up with friends and be out in public once more, coronavirus transmission is expected to slowly rise. Outbreaks, the federal government said, were to be expected and we’re already hearing about one in Melbourne this week. It’s meant that Victorians have once again found themselves under more strict directions about who and how many they can see.
The idea is that stunting these outbreaks at a local level will stop further spread, halting a ‘second wave’ nationally once border restrictions are entirely lifted.
A ‘second wave’ could threaten our easing restrictions
Associate Professor Hassan Vally is an expert in epidemiology at La Trobe University. He said describing a second peak of infections as a ‘second wave’ is probably not the most accurate term.
It originates from the last major pandemic the world faced — the Spanish Flu. It had a second and third ‘wave’, according to Professor Vally, because the influenza virus disappeared with the seasons and came back with a stronger mutation. COVID-19, a part of the ‘coronavirus’ family, tends to mutate a lot slower.
Whichever term you decide to use, however, a second peak or ‘wave’ is a possibility given COVID-19’s persistent presence in Australia.
“As soon as you release those restrictions or start to relax them, if you’ve got any virus circulating in the community, which we have, then there’s always the possibility, or even the likelihood that you’ll get more cases,” Professor Vally told Lifehacker Australia over the phone.
“The worst case scenario is that these spreads will start to build up again to take us back to where we were [in March].”
The rest of Australia has largely avoided this scenario but returning overseas travellers and community transmission has meant Victoria is experiencing the effects of it now. Still, it remains a minor peak nationally and when compared with global levels, it shows both Australia and New Zealand have made great strides in controlling the spread of the virus.
Professor Vally explained good leadership and messaging from health officials had assisted in achieving this feat, though being an island had also helped their situation.
“The only lucky thing we have is that we’re both islands so we’ve been able to really control people coming into the country, which probably made a big difference,” Professor Vally said.
“We’ve listened to the experts and all of us as a community have made lots of sacrifices to keep the disease spread under control.”
What’s strange for many, however, is that even though every state and territory has lifted restrictions to some extent, new outbreaks have only happened in Victoria so far.
The reason behind Melbourne’s outbreaks is unclear
Each state and territory has began lifting venue restrictions and gathering limits in response to the drop in cases. For the states with the biggest total case counts — New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland — it’s been mostly successful too.
Victoria, however, has experienced a few outbreaks since it started lifting its tough restrictions. It can be attributed to some recently returned overseas travellers but the state’s premier has said family gatherings are mostly to blame for the uptick in community transmission.
That's why yesterday we announced that as of 11.59pm tonight, you can only have five guests in your home – and some of our plans to ease other restrictions will be delayed.
We simply have to stay the course on this.
We've given up far, far too much to throw it all away now.
— Dan Andrews (@DanielAndrewsMP) June 21, 2020
“There is a bit of luck involved and, sort of, probability and chance,” Professor Vally said, explaining why states with similar populations, like New South Wales, hadn’t also experienced comparable outbreaks.
“The most important thing is that we do exactly what we’re doing now. So, we work really hard to keep testing and keep tracking what’s happening and as soon as we see something that looks like a trend happening with an upsurge in cases, we have to do something different.”
When restrictions ease, the onus falls on the public
While no one has a crystal ball to determine how long COVID-19 will stay in our lives, we can assume it will be for some time yet. Estimates are really just that, Professor Vally said, and the unknown factors make it all the more challenging.
Saying that, you can expect we’ll be seeing a whole lot more easing and then reinforcing of restrictions over the next few months until a vaccine or effective treatment is found.
“We need to closely monitor what’s happening with the disease spread and if we feel like we’ve got it under control, we can sort of loosen restrictions and see how that goes,” Professor Vally said.
“Then you go through a phase where it feels like the virus is getting the upper hand or you start to see more spread and that’s when we have to tighten things up again for a little bit.
“That’s probably gonna be what it looks like to me for the next six months anyway.”
But despite the fact a visit to the pub is back on the cards for now, it’s important to remember — just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Easing restrictions means you can have a little bit of your old freedom back but Professor Vally said it’s important not to take advantage of it.
“We should be doing everything within our control as individuals to limit the spread,” Professor Vally said.
“If the government tries to allow us to get back to normal in terms of easing restrictions, the onus moves on to us as individuals to do the right thing.”
It might not completely stop a second or third or fourth outbreak of the virus in Australia, but it could make it a little less successful.