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'Worse still to come': Bleak virus warning as Australia mulls easing restrictions

“Trust us. The worst is yet ahead of us.”

That’s the daunting message from the World Health Organisation’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva.

His warning on Monday, local time, comes as countries across the globe begin to consider easing social distancing restrictions in their fight against the coronavirus.

One of those is Australia. After recording just eight mainland cases and five in Tasmania in the past 24 hours, the prospect of eradicating the virus on these shores is becoming a plausible reality.

World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has issued a stark warning about the threat the coronavirus still poses. Source: Getty
World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has issued a stark warning about the threat the coronavirus still poses. Source: Getty

Neighbouring New Zealand, which has actively pursued an elimination strategy, eased its stringent measures on Monday.

New Zealand’s move follows those from a handful of European countries, including Spain and Italy which have a combined 45,000 COVID-19 deaths, whose hopes of a swift navigation out of the turmoil caused by the pandemic appear to be nothing but a pipe dream at this moment.

“We want to re-emphasise that easing restrictions is not the end of the epidemic in any country,” Dr Tedros stressed.

“Ending the epidemic will require a sustained effort on the part of individuals, communities and governments to continue suppressing and controlling this deadly virus.

“Countries must now ensure they can detect, test, isolate and care for every case, and trace every contact.”

Those measures of testing, tracking, tracing and isolating are the key areas Scott Morrison promised to ramp up on Thursday as Australia plans the road out of lockdown.

While failing to go into detail as to why he believes the outbreak that has infected some 2.5 million people and killed more than 166,000 could get worse, Dr Tedros and others have previously pointed to the likely future spread of the illness through Africa, where health systems are far less developed.

There are also grave fears for a second wave of infections across countries already hard hit by the outbreak.

Countries must be alert to second wave of virus

The fear of a second wave of the virus is also a strong concern held in some countries, particularly in China where recently eased restrictions has paved the way for a small number of clusters to begin to fester.

Early results from sero-epidemiologic surveys from around the world - which monitor levels of immunity within a population - suggest that a relatively small percentage of the population may have been infected, the WHO said.

"Let's prevent this tragedy. It's a virus that many people still don't understand,” Dr Tedros said.

WHO's technical lead for COVID-19 Maria van Kerkhove urged vigilance, saying a large proportion of the population who hadn't been infected remained susceptible.

"So that means that the virus can take off again," she said.

"And so we need to ensure that the measures that are put in place (to transition out of lockdown) are done carefully."

While Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory all recorded zero cases on Monday, the ACT recorded its first case in over a week.

Sydney's Eastern Suburbs has a number of the city's hotspots. Source: AAP
The WHO has warned measures must not be lifted without meeting strict criteria. Source: AAP

"All it takes is for one person to begin another chain of infection that could potentially lead to a much larger outbreak here, or anywhere else in the country," ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr warned on Monday.

And while saying zero cases in a day was “outstanding”, WA Premier Mark McGowan was also concerned about the threat posed to his state if restrictions were eased too quickly, suggesting travel out of WA to other parts of Australia might not happen for at least another six months.

"You don't want to see what's happened in the United States, you don't want to see this madness that's happening over there happening in Western Australia or Australia," he said on Monday.

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