Things are certainly changed this year, personally, professionally and for the world. The whole thing has been of great interest and anxiety to me. I tend to fixate and to some extend obcess over a topic, usually a single topic or a small number at a time. I give it great attention and then eventually it drops back to just passing interest to be replaced by something else. Some of these I have had in the past include: American Presidential Primaries, Day to day Australian politics, Learning German, Programming Compilers, Learning Ukelele and Investing (stocks and property). Since mid March coronavirus has definitely been my topic, some areas I have tought about are:
The virus was a background topic through Jan and Feb, mostly something that was happening far away. I don't think I had a good feel for how big the impacts were going to be outside of China and wasn't closely following the small number of cases we were importing. Probably around the 9th or 10th of March I come to the realisation that the exponential growth in cases in Australia was likely already out of control without restrictions, case numbers were moving from the odd imported case to 20+ a day. A few days later Tom Hanks being diagnosed in Australia was big news and really pushed it to the forefront of public attention.
The first restriction introduced in Australia was to ban the entry of forigners from China and require all residents returning from China as of March 1st to self quarentine for 14 days. This was timely as it was just as thhe university year was stating up which results in a large number of Chinese students entering the country. The Australian government got some critism at the time for the move from the WHO but it was definitely a good move. Before a general ban on foreigners entering Australia was introduced on March 20 we also placed restrictions on Iran, South Korea and Italy. While this was good we were slow to act on other western nations such as the US and UK where infection rates were quickly growing and these countries generated a lot of imported case volume.
The power of government in Australia is split in many areas between the states and federal government. One of the best aspects of the response has been the creating of "national cabinet" where the state leaders and the prime minster regularly meet via video link to coordinate on response. This in a sped up version of the usual process called COAG (council of Australian goverments) which would meet in person far less frequently, generate a lot less consensus and was as much about politics and generating any positive outcomes.
The first move was to restrict gatherings to 500 people or less. There were some misteps in the messaging though and the government sought to try and avoid a sudden panic. Prime minister Scott Morrison (Scomo) got into a mess saying that the restrictions wouldn't start for a few days and that he would still be attending the rugby before they did. The obvious question being that if the restrictions are needed on Monday, why aren't they needed now? He eventually backed down from this.
We quickly moved from the first restrictions on March 15 to the full stage 3 restrictions that we have been living under on March 29. I think appart from early mixed messaging this was handled very well and with about as much speed as possible with such big changes.
Our Victorian premier Dan Andrews was instrumental in the move to quickly increase our lockdown as he said that if further measures weren't implemented more generally that he would be going it alone with measures for Victoria. This seemed to bring about a compromise where the national cabinet implemented tougher restrictions without having to go all the way to a New Zealand style lock down where all non essential shops and industry was stopped.
I think we were pretty close to this kind of "stage 4" response in Australia but were only saved by the falling case numbers from the previous restrictions and border measures.
Schools have been one area of constant disagreement. There is the side that believes that the risk is minimal to kids, that they don't transmit the virus at the same level as adults and even when they do get it they only get mild cases. There is the other side that sees that social distancing in schools is practially impossible, that the staff are still at high risk (especially older staff) and that the large amount of movement required in getting kids too and from school each day presents many more oppotunities for transmission on public transport and at drop off points.
This is all additionally muddied by the economic arguments, generally those that want a full return to the classroom (and have actually advocated to never leave the classroom the whole way through) are primarily concerned from an economic prospective. That time spent by parents attempting to teach their kids from home and minding them is time that they are either not working on working nowhere near full capacity, hurting the economy.
Schools have been of particular attention to me and in our household as my wife is a teacher. There was definitely a period of confusion aand anxiety in late March where parents were being pulled out of schools and case numbers were risking but teachers were expected to come in each day. As a comprimise with the federal goverment in Victoria, the school holidays were bought forward by a week.
Schools are one of the bigger social/ work experiments of this pandemic. I doubt anyone before this would have contemplated an almost complete switch to online and distance learning, much less with 3 weeks of lead time and make the switch. I think it remains challenging for teachers, students and parents, but overall has worked pretty well given the circumstanses.
The return to school remains a contentious political issue with those that wanted to close them the soonest wanting the most cautious return and those like the federal goverment who never wanted to close them in the first place wanting them back as soon as possible. I think the federal goverment has been playing with fire so some extent on this issue, how would have they handled it if schools had become the outbreak hotspots.
Childcare has also been held to a separate standard, while schools have tried to limit the number of students in the classroom as much as possible, childcare has become free during the pandemic and it's use has been encoraged. We initially pulled our daughter out of childcare when the schools closed but decided to put her back in recently as it is just too hard with to entertain a one year old while attempting to have 2 parents working fulltime during the day. We did this for a couple of weeks before deciding that the risks associated with childcare were low enough that it was a good tradeoff to put her back in. Her center remains much more quiet than before the pandemic.
Following the numbers
The stats have become an obsession for me. Cases, breakdown by state, whether the cases are overseas acquired, acquired from a known source or community transmission, the current testing levels, is it higher? lower? what are the trends? where are we heading? are there any notable cases that tell us anything about the virus and the spread today? new clusters? goverment response and initiatives?
Early on following the numbers was a bit frustrating with the disjointed nature of how they were coming in. There were things like The Guadian live blog, but they weren't concerned with exact numbers from the different sources and consistent reporting of them. There are the state health sites but that is a lot of sources to follow and they don't always update timely, there was the Australian health site but it was generally behind or including the numbers for some states but not others for the day depending on when they reported.
I eventually found the site https://www.covidlive.com.au/ which provides the most up to the minute numbers by following a large number of sources by state and quickly updating from them. It is definitely the best way to track the numbers in Australia. There is also the Twitter account https://twitter.com/COVID_Australia which I don't use so much to the numbers but to see what people are saying about the most up to date numbers.
I feel like I have gotten following the numbers down to a fine art. The states generally reporting their numbers around the same time each day, NSW has a 8am press conference every weekday for example and we get the VIC and QLD numbers usually before 11. The rest of Australia comes in the afternoon but at this point it doesn't say much about where things are heading as the WA/SA/NT/ACT numbers are basically zero at this point. Numbers are reported for diagnoses up to 8pm the previous day, except to Tasmaina which reports at around 8-9pm each night for numbers up to 6pm the same day. As there was an outbreak there at a number of hospitals this would normally add a number of cases to the daily total each night, this is largely under control and going to zero now.
Following the numbers around the world
I am interested in following the progress of a number of other countries for a number of differing reasons.
New Zealand is in some ways a test case for the response in Australia. We stopped at stage 3 restrictions which allowed a lot of retail and industry to stay operation whereas they went to the extra step of shutting down everything that was non essential. So the test here in the longer term, depending on the results of each country, will be how the outcomes of each compare to inform which level of restrictions was the right level. Of course there are other factors in each country which don't make this a perfect comparison, but still interesting. New Zealand has began lowering restrictions but still has a very small number of daily case, 2 the past couple of days, so we will see where that goes.
A lot of our business days through Hong Kong, including transit and dispatch, so a full lockdown of non essential activity there would have been disasterous. Despite being partially a part of China and sharing a border with them they have been able to avoid the worst and are currently only seeing imported cases.
Similarly for business Singapore is important but it was also interesting as it was held up as an example of a model medical response to testing/ tracing/ isolating and as much as possible keeping the economy and things like schools open. Despite great early success they have had a large issue migrant workers being infected. These workers live in cramped appartments that are separate from residents so an outbreak amoung those workers can generally be contained to them and not spread amoung the wider resident population. So far they have been successful in keeping the infection of residents down but in such a high density city it could easily spill over into becoming a new more general outbreak in the city.
Watching the US response to this is like watching a slow moving train wreck and deserves it's own post. The worst impacted country in the world gained that title due to complete mismanagement of the pandemic. The curve has only been flattened to the extent that 2000 deaths per day is deemed acceptable and is showing a long tail of plateau. Despite this in some areas they have essentially declared victory and are ending lockdowns, this will likely only make things worse.