SYDNEY — When it comes to defeating the coronavirus pandemic, Australia has a lesson for the world: it pays to be an island.
On its present trajectory, Australia could eliminate the virus by Christmas, some epidemiologists say, and join New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei and some Caribbean islands that have claimed, and in some cases lost, the coveted “zero covid” status.
On Thursday morning, Australia health authorities reported 17 new cases and two deaths in the previous 24 hours — meanwhile in Britain there were 7,108 cases and 71 deaths — continuing an eight-week decline. It has prompted policymakers to begin loosening strict rules and allowed normal life to resume for most Australians — except that their island is still largely cut off from the rest of the world.
Only 882 people are reported to have died in Australia from covid-19, a similar number to New Mexico, which has less than one-tenth the population.
But simple being an island isn’t a panacea as Britain has discovered.
The precise reasons for the low death toll are elusive, but appear to be a combination of high-quality health care, quick tracing of outbreaks and a dispersed population. Perhaps among the most important factors, though, was the decision to close Australia’s border to foreigners on March 20 and subsequent internal border closures by most state governments.
The response is much different to the United States and Europe, where travel is far freer and in line with the view of the World Health Organization and other bodies that border closures unfairly punish people whose livelihoods depend on moving around, including farm workers who harvest crops.
“WHO are not great supporters of border closures but for places like Australia and New Zealand, it has been a very effective measure,” said Marylouise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales and a covd-19 adviser to the WHO. “I think it was probably one of the most pivotal infection preventions and control measures in the outbreak.”
The restrictions on travel have caused many Australians to miss important life events, including weddings and birthdays. Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old nurse, Sarah Caisip, was not allowed to attend her father’s funeral in Brisbane, a decision not even Prime Minister Scott Morrison was able to overrule.
Now, though, attitudes among policymakers are shifting. This week Morrison flagged re-opening travel with New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Pacific Ocean islands, although he didn’t say when. He also suggested Australians arriving from overseas — non-citizens are largely banned — might no longer need to be confined to hotel rooms for two weeks.
“We will need a more flexible approach that gives us more options for managing this,” he told reporters this week.
Western Australia state, which claims the most isolated capital on earth, Perth, on Tuesday said it would open its border to the two biggest states, New South Wales and Victoria, because of their low number of cases.
Queensland state, whose big tourism industry has been devastated by the pandemic, last week allowed communities on its southern border to enter, as long as they get travel permits.
The island of Tasmania is under pressure from the federal government to open up travel with New Zealand. Thanks to its border closure there hasn’t been a single registered case in Tasmania since July, making it one of the safest places in the world from covid-19 — an island within an island state.
Officials in New South Wales are so happy with their progress that they have said 40,000 spectators can attend a rugby league grand final in Sydney on Oct. 25 in a stadium designed to hold 83,500 — an event that would be almost unthinkable in most countries.
Despite the shift in rules, tough restrictions remain. In Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, most citizens are confined to their homes 22 hours a day, and only get out for exercise, shopping, schooling, medical appointments or funerals.
The city has been hit hardest by the pandemic, both in the number of deaths and severity of the response.
Most Australians deaths have occured in Melbourne nursing homes. If the virus can be stopped there, it could be practically eliminated from Australia by the end-of-year holidays, according to Catherine Bennett, the head of epidemiology at Deakin University in Victoria state.
“The next couple of weeks will be telling,” she said in an interview. “If they cannot stop the aged care and health-care clusters by then, we cannot be sure that they will any time soon. If they do stop these transmission chains, then Christmas should be possible.”
McLaws from the University of New South Wales said daily infections could fall below five by the end of October at the current rate, which would allow the final restrictions on movement to be lifted and allow Australians to go ahead with their annual summer holidays at the beach.