How Melbourne eradicated Covid–19. Life is almost back to normal in Melbourne, Australia. Here’s how they did it.
This is a longish report from Dylan Scott (VoxCare email). I recommend that you read the original. In the meantime, I offer what I think are some key points.
In July and August, the Australian state of Victoria was going through a second Covid–19 wave. Local leaders set an improbable goal in the face of that challenge. They didn’t want to just get their Covid–19 numbers down. They wanted to eliminate the virus entirely.
By the end of November, they’d done it.
They have seen no active cases for a full four weeks. Melbourne, the state’s capital and a city with about as many people as the greater Washington, DC, area, is now completely coronavirus-free.
Policymakers dreaded an endless cycle of lockdown-reopening-lockdown — exactly the situation the US finds itself in. They realized that amorphous goals of “slowing the spread” or “flattening the curve” had been ineffective in mustering public support for the stringent mitigation measures that would be necessary to contain the virus.
So they went big. The state’s roadmap largely followed a policy proposal laid out in September by the Grattan Institute (a nonprofit think tank supported by the state and federal governments): “Go for zero.”
The goal was not just to slow Covid–19 down. It was to eradicate the virus. The state had gone into a Stage 4 lockdown — most businesses closed, there was a nightly curfew, and residents were ordered to stay within five kilometers of their home — in August, and it was then extended in September, with the explicit goal of eventually reaching zero new cases.
“Ideally, lockdowns are only done once and done well,” the proposal’s authors, Stephen Duckett and Will Mackey, explained. “The benefit of zero is to reduce the risk of ‘yo-yoing’ between virus flare-ups and further lockdowns to contain them.”
That’s what we in the U. S. are experiencing. We need to change the policies that cause the “yo-yoing”.
The US probably cannot achieve zero Covid–19 cases anytime soon. But it could embrace the spirit of the Victorian model: a clear goal, support for the proven mitigation strategies, and a commitment from the public.
The incoming Biden/Harris administration provides ann opportunity to do just that.
“Having a clear, uniform goal – that everyone could work toward – was critical to Victoria’s success,” Jennifer Kates, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told me. “But they didn’t just have a goal. They established the underlying components that were needed and provided strong social support.”
“All of this,” she continued, “has been mostly absent in America.”
I don’t believe it was impossible for America to execute a similar strategy to the one that has succeeded in Victoria. Polls showed most Americans did support wearing masks and other mitigation measures, even if there was some divide among partisans. They worried that social distancing would be relaxed too quickly, not too slowly, much like the Australians did.
The problem, or one of them, is that the US just never set a clear goal for Covid–19 suppression. It was understandably hard to ask people in Wisconsin to abide by social distancing restrictions back when they thought the coronavirus was just a New York City problem — and when they didn’t know what the plan was.
Today, of course, the pandemic is a very real problem for every American. So as we try to bring the winter wave under control, we might benefit from taking a lesson from the Aussies and coming up with a specific objective that all of us, together, can work toward.