Why Australia faces being trapped in 'Covid purgatory'

·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read

Nearly 18 months ago, on January 25, 2020, Australia recorded its first official case of Covid-19

A few months later, Australia had closed its borders and introduced nationwide lockdown measures to slow the spread of the mysterious virus.

In April, as some countries started thinking about potential exit strategies from harsh lockdown measures, it was clear Australia could become trapped by its success. 

A woman wearing a face mask pushes a suitcase.
Australians are trapped in Covid 'purgatory' until the vaccine rollout ramps up. Source: Getty Images

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on April 9, 2020, about the prospect of so-called "immunity passports", Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty said: "In a way we have almost been too successful because the level of community transmission looks really low, so we’re not getting a lot of people immune basically.

"I think the strategy here has always been to protect old people and those with comorbidities, but have a reasonable level of infection that would gradually build up immunity."

But Australia's initial success in containing case numbers, and a greater understanding of the virus, ushered in a new goal of complete eradication from our shores. 

"A lot has changed since then [April 2020]," Prof Doherty told Yahoo on Wednesday. 

"We have very good vaccines, in fact some of the best vaccines we've got against anything.

"We've also learned a lot more about the disease... it's worse than we thought back then," he said, referring in particular to the debilitating symptoms of Long Covid suffered by some infected people.

But our success in containing the virus leaves us a very long way from normalcy. 

Australia stuck in Covid 'purgatory'

Writing for US publication The Atlantic, Hong Kong-based journalist Timothy McLaughlin explained to a largely American audience that Australia was among a group of far-flung countries now stuck in "coronavirus purgatory". 

"Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and mainland China, as well as Australia and New Zealand, were also adherents to the 'zero COVID' or 'elimination' strategy," he wrote. 

"Now, though, some of these early success stories are struggling to procure and deploy vaccines that would allow their residents to re-engage with the world."

For the better part of 18 months, Australia has become a gilded cage. And with just over three per cent of the adult population fully vaccinated, there is no sign as to when the cage will be unlocked.

People wearing face masks outside St James train station in Sydney.
A Sydney cluster continues to grow as Australia puts out Covid spot fires. Source: AAP

Vaccination will pave the way out

"I see the way out of this as getting 70 to 80 per cent of people in Australia vaccinated," Prof Doherty said.

"If we can't, we're in trouble."

Prof Doherty won the 1996 Nobel prize in medicine for his research on immunity and how humans fight viruses. 

He says a high vaccination rate coupled with the prospect of therapeutic drugs for Covid-19 – which are being worked on now – would get the virus down to essentially the same threat level as the common flu.

"We don’t close a country down because of the flu," he said. "I think we could hold it pretty well."

While the federal government has given no indication about when it will relax international border restrictions, Prof Doherty is optimistic Australia will be in a safe position to do so "by mid next year".

Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty.
Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty says there will likely be "a good case" to open borders by mid 2022. Source: AAP

"When we do open up, obviously the risk is increased," he said. "The real worry would be a new mutant that comes up. But at the moment, the vaccines are holding [against] the mutants."

While the Delta variant has proven to still infect fully vaccinated people, cases requiring hospitalisations are very rare, Prof Doherty said. 

'Politicians have to sell it'

A core part of Australia's success in suppressing the spread of Covid has been conditioning people to be intolerant of community spread and that is something that might need to change.

On Tuesday, officials behind Australia’s vaccine rollout admitted the government hasn't undertaken an advertising blitz encouraging Australians to get the jab because of worries about insufficient supply. 

When supply eventually arrives in Australia in large quantities "we have to go right down to the kids, the young adults at least" and hit that 70 to 80 per cent mark of vaccination coverage to rejoin the world.

"And then it's up to the politicians to sell it," Prof Doherty said. 

"Because people have become very risk averse."

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