Two million Australians are in lockdown over 1 COVID-19 case. Here's what Canada can learn from their approach

As of today, most of my home state of Western Australia, to which I returned in December after seven years in Canada, is in the midst of a five-day, full lockdown. As the debate about the merits of strict lockdowns continues in Canada, and the federal government introduces its own version of hotel quarantine, the successes and failures of those practices in other countries can be looked to for insight. 

Debate about the merits of strict lockdowns continues in Canada as Ottawa introduces hotel quarantine

Signage regarding lockdown restrictions is set up along beaches across Perth, Australia, on February 1. (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

This analysis piece was written by Alicia Bridges, a former CBC Saskatoon reporter who is now working in Australia.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As of now, most of my home state of Western Australia is in the midst of a five-day full lockdown.

In Perth, a city of almost two million people, and surrounding regions nobody is allowed to leave their home or neighbourhood except for essential reasons. Everyone must wear a mask. Schools are closed. One hour of exercise is allowed within a five kilometre radius of your home.

The penalties for breaching quarantine rules range from hundreds of dollars to a maximum of $50,000 or 12 months in jail. 

The catalyst for the lockdown? A single case of COVID-19.

After seven years in Canada, I relocated from Saskatoon in December to a very different world. No masks. Almost no restrictions. It was a surreal experience after living in a place where almost every aspect of daily life is affected by the virus. 

As the debate about the merits of strict lockdowns continues in Canada, and the federal government introduces its own version of hotel quarantine, the successes and failures of those practices in other countries can be looked to for insight. 

Hard border

Until Sunday, Western Australia had not had any community transmission of COVID-19 for almost 10 months — since April 11, 2020. Its successes in eliminating the spread of the virus were largely due to a combination of border closures and strict quarantine practices. 

Since March, international travellers have been required to spend two weeks in mandatory hotel quarantine.

Until October, a "hard border" prohibited Australians from other states from entering without an exemption for compassionate or employment reasons.

Western Australians are allowed to exercise for one hour per day as long as they wear a mask and stay within five kilometres of their homes. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The state now runs a "controlled border", forcing travellers from other states with even single-digit case numbers to quarantine on arrival in W.A. The drawbridge over the W.A. border goes up or down in a matter of hours as COVID-19 transmission emerges or ends in other states. The rules apply for travel by air, road or by sea. W.A. Premier Mark McGowan has experienced record-high approval ratings. 

Since April last year, the state's only cases of the virus were contained in hotel quarantine, which is mandatory for any international traveller returning to the state. Initially the cost was covered but most state governments now charge the traveller between $2,000 and $3,000 for one person in one room. This approach, and the elimination of COVID-19 transmission in the community, afforded Western Australians freedoms that feel like a thing of the past in other countries. 

Life in W.A. carried on as if COVID-19 existed in a parallel universe. Aunties gave big lipstick kisses at large family gatherings. Nightclub dance floors were packed. Drinks and meals were shared. Hugs were given without a second thought.

The wearing of masks was almost non-existent.

1st case since April 2020

On Sunday, Western Australia recorded its first case of COVID-19 outside quarantine since April. A security guard who worked at one of the hotels contracted the virus, which has been confirmed as the U.K. variant strain.

Premier Mark McGowan called an emergency news conference early Sunday afternoon, where he confirmed the single case and gave Western Australians until 6 pm to prepare for a snap five-day lockdown. 

This is not the first time the hotel quarantine containment system has failed in Australia. Transmission from a hotel quarantine case into the community in the state of Victoria, which has a population of 6.4 million, including 4.9 million in Melbourne, led to a major "second wave" outbreak during which more than 700 people died. Melbourne went into a 112-day lockdown.

During that time, the number of new cases daily peaked at just over 700. Public inquiries and reviews into the system and contact tracing methods were conducted. Changes have been made across the country in response to those reviews. The number of new daily cases in Victoria has remained below 50, including those in hotel quarantine. 

Since the Victoria outbreak, other cases of community transmission from hotel quarantine in the states of Queensland and South Australia were greeted with short and immediate lockdowns and did not lead to major outbreaks. 

W.A., as of Sunday, has followed the same approach. Compliance with the lockdown rules, according to police, was high in the first 24 hours of the lockdown. 

How many new cases will emerge linked to the "patient zero" security guard remains to be seen. The man visited numerous stores and offices across the city while potentially infectious in an environment where almost no one was wearing masks and hand sanitizer was not used as stringently. 

Having recently relocated back to Australia from Canada, where restrictions were widespread and the risk of contracting COVID-19 a daily reality, the freedoms of pre-lockdown W.A. felt precarious. Going to busy restaurants and live performances felt strange after so many months in a world of social distancing and isolation.

Staying COVID-free

Although many Australians have, on the whole, been able to live more freely than their international counterparts, sacrifices are still being made to maintain COVID-free living. 

Whereas Canadians live with a "new normal" of life with COVID-19, Australians live somewhat normally with the knowledge that their freedoms can be whipped out from under them at the detection of a single COVID-19 case.

The price of having more freedoms day to day is the knowledge that travel plans are perpetually uncertain. The presence of interstate wedding guests — or the wedding date itself — is never guaranteed. When COVID-19 is detected, lockdowns are expected and when community transmission stops, restrictions are slowly lifted. The cycle goes on. It is the concept of "the hammer and the dance" — something Canadians heard a lot about early in the response to the pandemic — in full practice. But in most of Australia, the hammer comes down rapidly and with much more force. 

In a country where, like Canada, travel between states was common for work, state border closures have prevented people from returning to their homes and families — in some cases leaving them stranded on the other side of the country or overseas.

Limits on the number of international travellers, including Australians trying to return home, have created a bottleneck in airline travel that has left thousands stranded overseas. Airline prices are high and flights are regularly cancelled, leaving some citizens unable to get back to their families in emergency situations. 

Those that do get to Australia are bussed from the airport with a police escort to a hotel room for their two weeks in mandatory quarantine, a practice that has been in place since March.

Hotel quarantine

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week that Canada will begin mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers for shorter periods of up to three days as they await COVID-19 test results.

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Air passengers will soon be required to spend up to three days of their 14-day quarantine in a designated hotel — which could cost them upwards of $2,000. Canadians who live abroad for the winter are questioning why they have to follow the same rules as vacationers.

In Australia, many of the rooms have no balcony or openable windows. Public debate centres around the mental health impact of isolating people in small spaces for two weeks, but the practice seems to be largely accepted by the W.A. public as a price to pay for the greater good. 

The fear and stress for Australians affected by border closures is no small thing, while the overall effect of those sacrifices affords their peers a quality of life no longer experienced in many countries around the world.

Eating at restaurants, going to comedy shows and having family gatherings comes at a price for those unable to see family members who are interstate or overseas. But some level of sacrifice is needed regardless. When considering the merits of this approach versus others, the question is who should be the one to make the sacrifice, and over what length of time? 

The goal of this week's five-day lockdown is to nip community transmission in the bud, eliminate it, then return to a somewhat normal life without major restrictions. 

The difference between management and attempting elimination is over what time period restrictions take place, and how strictly they are enforced.

Do we live with some restrictions on a permanent basis, accepting the risk of COVID-19 as a new part of life? Or, do we attempt to eliminate the virus and accept that strict lockdowns will occur on an occasional basis? Of course the economy plays a role in those decisions. Is a shorter, harsher hit to the economy worse than a milder one over a longer period of time? 

Geography is another factor of the approach that has led to lower numbers in Australia so far.

Of course, there are no international land borders, and far fewer roads between sparsely populated states like Western Australia and South Australia. However, there is more to the low Australian case numbers than geography, with greater surveillance of travellers and harsher punishment for quarantine breaches. 

On Jan.13, as I sat in a crowded café surrounded by office workers during a lunch rush hour, I opened my phone to see there had been 49 deaths in 12 days from COVID-19 in Saskatchewan. That in a province of just over a million people. 

Restaurants are still open for takeaway during the five-day lockdown but patrons must wear a mask when they leave their home and register their presence at the business using a contact tracing app. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Western Australia has recorded nine deaths from COVID-19 since March, in a state with a population of 2.6 million. By any measure, the loss of life in Canada has been far greater. 

Writing about the experience of Western Australia is not intended to argue for or against lockdowns or travel restrictions, but to provide insight into a different approach. 

As vaccines begin to be rolled out in Canada, and the chance of a return to "normal" seems within reach, there will be many questions to answer about what was done right, what could have been handled better, and what have we learned to prepare for another pandemic. 

Mulling the successes and failures of other regions, with the benefit of hindsight, could help make sure Canada can save more lives in another pandemic, or the next iteration of the one it is facing now.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Alicia Bridges is a former CBC Saskatoon reporter who is now working in Australia.