When the coronavirus first reared its head, the Australian federal government moved quickly to implement lockdowns, restricting people's movement. As a result, the country only has 6,109 cases and 51 deaths as of reporting time. Other countries, such as the U.K. and the United States, missed the opportunity to lock down and stop the spread of the virus early.
Scientists are now saying that thanks to its government's quick response, Australia will have to end its lockdown much later than those other countries -- ending it at the same time as them would only result in a surge of new cases.
According to Paul Komesaroff, a professor of medicine at Monash University, the Australian federal government's “responsible approach” to the coronavirus pandemic may be a “mixed blessing.”
“They missed the opportunity to impose restrictions early and huge numbers of people are getting the disease,” stated Komesaroff, talking about coronavirus response in countries such as the U.K. and America.
“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,” he continued.
Komesaroff, a leading expert on epidemic response, explained that the strategy means that Australia will likely avoid all the “terrible suffering” seen in other countries and be able to provide proper treatment to all patients in hospitals.
However, this slow and steady process could continue for a significant amount of time. Komesaroff said it could take longer than the six months predicted by the Australian federal government.
“We'll have a relatively small number of deaths, which is the situation we have at the moment, that we'll be able to deal with anyone who's in need,” stated Komesaroff.
“But that might continue for many, many months. Even if we're passed the peak and the numbers come down, most of the community -- because of the strategy that's been adopted -- won't acquire immunity,” he adds.
Komesaroff isn't the only one saying that Australia's lockdown could be extended. Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, has also said that the pandemic would not be ending soon for Australia.
“This problem is going to continue until a lot of us are either immune, which means we've caught the infection, which is not a good idea,” he explained.
Collignon, who has worked for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the past, went on to say that Australians will need to get used to some form of pandemic-affected life for a while.
“I don't think life is going to be normal in three months,” he said. “It would be nice if life was reasonably normal in six months, but that's the earliest horizon.”
“My honest view is this will go on for 18 months to some degree,” he added.
With mass immunity not yet reached, restrictions could instead be partially lifted for Australians. Komesaroff states that healthy people and those “presumably immune” to the disease would be able to go out and return to their lives. However, this method would still leave vulnerable and elderly people stuck inside their homes. (Related: A prepper's guide to surviving a coronavirus lockdown.)
The issue here is the availability of tests to find out if a person is immune to the coronavirus or not. While no such tests have been approved, some experts have stated that they will be “imminently available.”
People develop immunity to the coronavirus by being exposed to it but then developing the antibodies to fight it off and recover. An immunity test would be one that searches for the presence of these antibodies in a person's body.
“They are serological antibody tests, which test whether people have been exposed to the disease and have developed antibodies against it, and therefore are presumably immune,” Komesaroff explained.
“Once we have access to these tests, and they are in a high state of development and even being used in a limited way in the UK and elsewhere, then that may enable us to identify people who are safe to go back into the community and to resume their normal activities,” he continued.
Komesaroff went on to state that being able to do so will be important to get the Australian economy going again. However, he also warned that it could lead to the creation of a two-tiered society where the immune do as they please while the vulnerable are forced to stay at home. According to Komesaroff, this could present some “social problems” and is a “complicating factor” that will need to be thought through.