Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Australia's next coronavirus challenge: As curve flattens, experts warn we face a grim choice: end lockdown now and accept a spike in deaths or keep restrictions to save lives but risk economic ruin

Australia faces a daunting choice between easing lockdown measures and causing a spike in COVID-19 cases - or risking economic disaster by keeping the restrictions in place in a bid to save lives.

That's the opinion of some infectious disease and economic experts who are calling for coronavirus restrictions to be lifted to allow places such as beaches, schools restaurants and cafes to re-open.

But some of Australia's top scientists disagree, and say relaxing restrictions too soon could be disastrous and potentially lead to the failure of the health system.

The debate comes as Australia appears to be successfully flattening the infection curve, with just 33 cases confirmed on Sunday - the lowest since March 12.

There were 6,325 cases in the country as of Monday morning, with 59 deaths.

Danish political scientist and economist Dr Bjorn Lomborg said the economic impact of lockdown measures in Australia was not worth the pain given a 'second wave' of infections would likely arise in the coming months.

'The reality is, if we just want to stop coronavirus in its tracks, we have to shut down society almost entirely, and in the long run, that is not a sustainable solution,' he told 60 Minutes.

'We need to have the conversation, how much should we tackle corona, versus how much should we avoid totally destroying the economy?  

'At some point, we actually need to say "this is enough. If we go further, we're going to damage the economy more than the few extra people we're going to save''.'

Dr Lomborg, the president of a think tank called the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, compared the coronavirus response in Australia to the reduction of speed limits on the roads. 

'If you want to save everyone who dies in traffic, you should just take it down to five kilometres an hour,' he said.

'Nobody would die. But of course, the point is, you don't want to do that because it also has huge social ramifications.'

Dr Lomborg said Sweden's middle-ground measures to stem the coronavirus' spread should be emulated by Australia should to avoid economic disaster.

Sweden has allowed domestic flights to continue, while restaurants and schools remain open.

By slowly spreading the virus through the community, the Scandinavian nation's health officials hoped to achieve herd immunity. 

Herd immunity occurs when enough people are immune to the coronavirus through exposure to the illness, or via a vaccine.

But Sweden is now considering imposing tighter restrictions on citizens and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said on Sunday the country's coronavirus measures were 'not good enough'.

Disease modeller Professor Emma McBryde and Australian National University microbiology expert Professor Collignon suggested low-risk demographics like children could be used to spread the virus slowly and boost immunity.

They said evidence suggested children were less vulnerable to the virus.

'If we do everything we possibly can to make sure that no-one dies from coronavirus, people are going to start dying from other things,' Professor McBryde said.

'Children could be the key to getting out of lockdown.'

Professor Collignon added: 'All the available evidence around the world is children under the age of 15 rarely get this [the virus] and rarely get complications.'

Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said last month - as Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to close schools - that children appeared to be less susceptible to COVID-19.

The Australian government though has remained steadfast in the belief herd immunity is not a path the country should be going down.

'If we attempt herd immunity we would end up with a very large number of people severely unwell and a very large number of people would die so we're not going down a herd immunity approach in Australia,' Deputy Chief Medical officer Michael Kidd told ABC News Radio on Sunday.

But Professor Collignon has questioned the scientific benefit of confining Australians to their homes - rather than encouraging them to take in more fresh air outside.

'If you're outside in the sunshine - and sunshine itself is a sterilising agent - I would think if you keep your two-metre rule, you'll be safer there than inside,' he said.

'Providing you are maintaining your social distancing and minimising the people you're having close contact with, I can't see how that is going to transmit much infection.'

Experts have already warned Australia's tough social distancing measures will mean far fewer people are immune to the deadly bug.

The tough enforced rules could prove to be a double-edged sword, with any relaxation of lockdown restrictions potentially creating a huge spike in cases, scientists predict.

Overseas, in countries like the U.S - where nearly half-a-million people have been infected - lockdowns could end within just a few months, or even weeks.

This is because huge swathes of the population will have been struck down with the virus and either died or recovered, making them immune.

But in Australia, not enough people will have been exposed to COVID-19 - meaning it could still prove fatal for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The situation has the potential to create a dangerous new social stratification in Australia, with healthy people allowed outside and the elderly trapped in their homes until a vaccine is produced.

Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine at Monash University, told Daily Mail Australia the Federal Government's 'responsible' approach to the pandemic may be a mixed blessing.

'In the UK and the United States - because of the irresponsibility of the political leaders - they missed the opportunity to impose restrictions early and huge numbers of people are getting the disease,' he explained.

'But it does mean that the peak is very, very sharp, and it may well be that the timeline for them is shorter than it will be for us. Ironically.'

Others, however, argue lockdown restrictions haven't gone far enough. 

Professor Raina MacIntyre, the head of Biosecurity at the University of New South Wales's Kirby Institute, wrote a paper together with three other scientists outlining the benefits of a short, sharp lockdown for Australia.

The scientists said Australia's gradual approach to locking down the country, adding new restrictions on a rolling basis, was not enough.

A silent epidemic may be growing, driven by mild or asymptomatic infections of people who did not meet our testing criteria,' the scientists wrote.

Travel bans have been the most successful element of Australia's approach, but the gradual increase of social distancing and the failure to shut schools meant it was not enough.

'It will leave us dealing with COVID-19 for much longer, with a slow trickle of new infections that keep feeding the epidemic,' they wrote on the UNSW website.

'What's needed is a short, sharp lockdown for two to three incubation periods (four to six weeks), combined with scaled up testing capacity and expanded testing criteria.'

'This strategy, similar to South Korea's approach, would reduce the size of the epidemic substantially, spare the health system and give us a more manageable baseline from which to best protect Australia until a vaccine is available.'

They also said the measures do not have to last six months to 12 months - but only four to six weeks.

'China has demonstrated the feasibility of a short lockdown followed by phased lifting of restrictions,' they said.

A short, sharp lockdown of four to six weeks would enable Australia to control the epidemic quickly and get the numbers to a controllable baseline.

After that, the economic recovery can begin with the gradual lifting of restrictions.

'The slow trickle approach, especially if schools remain open, may result in continued epidemic growth, potential failure of the health system, and a far longer road to recovery,' they wrote.


We may be over-reacting to an unremarkable coronavirus

Stay safe. Keep well. Perhaps a hysteria has gripped the nation, at extraordinary cost, when we’re telling each other to take special care over a disease that in three months has killed about 60, in the main quite unwell elderly people.

Even in coronavirus hot spots in Europe and the US, there’s greater chance of being killed in a car accident than being harmed by COVID-19, according to research published last week by Stanford scientist John Ioannidis.

“The risk of dying from coronavirus for a person under 65 years old is equivalent to the risk of dying driving a distance of nine to 415 miles by car each day during the COVID-19 fatality season,” he concluded.

Yet many of those under-65s have had their lives pulled apart, including loss of 195 million jobs around the world this quarter, according to the International Labour Organisation.

In Australia at the very least, with so few deaths and infections, the response to the virus is starting to appear to be a damaging over-reaction. Last month’s draconian response by officials — inducing a recession, destroying millions of jobs and businesses, and locking us all up — was at least politically understandable. The hankering for total lockdown, cheered on largely by those who would be relatively unaffected by it, was irresistible.

Yet as more real data rolls in — as opposed to the wildly inaccurate epidemiological forecasts of millions of deaths globally and many thousands locally — justifications for massive interventions, fiscal and civil, are dwindling.

We were told lockdowns were needed; otherwise hospitals would be swamped. But during the first 11 days of the month, the number of people in intensive care in NSW has fallen to 30, of whom 21 were using ventilators. That’s 2 per cent of available ventilators, even before 3000 more arrive.

Fears of a Spanish flu-like pandemic, which killed almost 40 million people a century ago, are looking exaggerated as the global death toll from COVID-19 approaches 120,000, which is 0.2 per cent of the 60 million people who will die this year from all causes (including more than three million from respiratory infections).

Yes, the lockdowns and social distancing in theory must have slowed the spread. But evidence is thin. Sweden and Japan, for instance, have not imposed lockdowns yet have far fewer deaths as a proportion of their populations than Spain, Italy or France, which have.

The Spanish flu killed 1.2 per cent of Italians, according to new research by Harvard economist Robert Barro, equivalent to 720,000 people today. Almost 20,000 Italians have died of (or with) COVID-19 so far, putting the virus more on par with flu pandemics of the late 1950s and 60s, when governments refrained from destroying their economies. The weakness of the virus itself, rather than wise government action, is the likelier reason the death toll is not as grim as first predicted.

“The likelihood of someone dying from coronavirus is much lower than we initially thought,” Ioannidis told Greek media this week, forecasting that “the mortality rate will be slightly — but not spectacularly — higher than the seasonal flu.”

Indeed, almost 80 per cent of the population of Gangelt, a German town highly exposed to COVID-19, was recently tested to see if they had had the virus. About 15 per cent had, without any symptoms, implying an infection death rate of 0.37 per cent — about four times as bad as seasonal flu but much lower than figures of 1 per cent to 3 per cent first feared.

The first officially detected case of COVID-19 in Australia was in January, eight weeks before lockdowns took effect. Does anyone seriously think only 6400, yesterday’s domestic tally, have been infected? It’s the infection fatality rate — not the official rate of infection — that matters: official tallies are meaningless when so many are asymptomatic.

“I am much more concerned about the consequences of blind shutdowns and the possible destruction of a (Greek) economy where 25 per cent of the GDP is based on tourism,” Ioannidis said.

For the Australian economy, the costs of the response to COVID-19 will be profound too, quite aside from the significant additional debt burden. Joblessness soon will likely double, based on a Roy Morgan survey for last month. The costs of loneliness and inactivity are harder to measure.

“Another month of mass isolation will cost the West at least the equivalent of a million deaths in terms of reduced quality of life,” says Paul Frijters, a professor of economics at London School of Economics using his index of wellbeing. That’s too bad for Victoria, where Premier Daniel Andrews has extended the nation’s most severe lockdown for another four weeks.

If Austria and Denmark — each with many more total deaths and more new infections than Australia — can see the sense in beginning to lift restrictions, so should we. Hospitals have plenty of capacity and new infection rates have tumbled.

Everyone has a right to a view on this fundamental question. Disease experts’ forecasts have proved hopelessly wrong anyway.

It’s not certain a vaccine will ever emerge, but we obviously can’t stay locked down for six months. The longer it lasts, the harder it will be to switch the economy back on. The businesses won’t be there. The economy isn’t a machine like the bureaucracy but a complex set of relationships that will atrophy.

Why not let sport occur without crowds, parliaments sit, young people swim at the beach, businesses reopen, provided they observe social distancing principles? No one is saying “let it rip”; clearly insulating the vulnerable from this virus is a high priority. But it appears less likely the virus will wipe out 5 per cent of India, or 3 per cent of Indonesia, as the Spanish flu did.

We urgently need randomised testing to see how widespread the coronavirus already is. The Prime Minister has said COVID-19 is akin to a one-in-100-year event. It’s unlikely that’s true of the virus, but it’s looking true of damage caused by hysteria.


'Nonsensical': Photos from Bunnings and beach spark social distancing debate

The two photos were posted to a Facebook page for the community of Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast, on Easter Saturday.

The photo from inside Bunnings Noosaville shows a queue of people practicing social distancing, however there were concerns over how full the store was.

It then raised questions as to why people could not spend time at Sunshine Coast beaches, with tourists and locals alike urged to stay away.

“Meanwhile at Bunnings and Noosa Main Beach,” a man said on the picture comparing the busy Bunnings store to the abandoned beach.

A woman commented saying the rules were “nonsensical”.  “Very interesting contrast in pictures,” she said. “Indoor crowds at Bunnings OK but whatever you do, don’t spread out at the beach.”

Another said it was “not safe when too many go in at once”.

“Yeah what a joke, government telling everyone to stay home yet the shops are open it’s a bit of a laugh,” a man commented.

Others however commented Bunnings was an essential service and if it closed a number of people would be out of work.

One also made the point the number of people could be capped within stores but could not be in a public space.

Bunnings had encouraged people to shop at the store for supplies ahead of the Easter break, with research showing 65 per cent of Australians had at least one unfinished DIY job to do at home.

As Easter is a busy time for Bunnings, it urged people to get in early so social distancing guidelines could be maintained.

“We know the importance of customers being able to access the products they need, whether it’s for urgent home repairs and maintenance, supplies for tradies to keep their businesses running or items for home projects to keep people active,” Bunnings Managing Director Mike Schneider said.

The Bunnings boss claimed the hardware giant had seen an increase in demand for necessary products that customers needed for DIY projects or to maintain homes.

“We’re also hearing from customers that these projects provide a useful physical and mental distraction to the challenges of extended periods of time at home,” he said.

“We also understand the importance that a reliable supply of key products is to both DIY and trade customers to keep their business running and support their local communities, particularly with emergency repairs and maintenance.”


Are schools open or closed for term 2 amid coronavirus in Australia?

Australian governments’ positions on whether to send children to school in term two while coronavirus social distancing rules are in force has many parents confused.

Throughout March the Morrison government opposed school closures on the basis of medical advice, but the issue was forced by Victoria bringing forward its school holidays and other states and territories introducing pupil-free days to prepare for online learning.

Now, with the end of school holidays approaching, the national cabinet, states and territories are revisiting their guidance about whether to continue learning at home or send children to school.

What does the federal government say?

On Sunday the federal education minister, Dan Tehan, said the federal government “wants all schools open”. The issue will be revisited at national cabinet on Thursday, with the federal government pushing for a consistent national approach.

Tehan noted states and territories had “put in place different arrangements”. “But what the nationally consistent approach is, when it comes to parents who have to work and vulnerable children, schools have to be open and have to make sure that they provide a safe learning environment for those children.”


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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