How Australia's strict pandemic strategy helps the country control COVID-19
Travel restrictions, hotel quarantine and quick lockdowns the key, says former CBC reporter
When the Australian Open kicked off on Monday, Feb. 8, nearly 18,000 fans packed Melbourne Park to take in the tennis action.
The expectation was that up to 30,000 fans would be allowed into the stadium each day of the following week — less than half the stadium's capacity — and up to 25,000 fans per day from the quarter-finals onward, according to ESPN.
But that all came to a halt early Friday morning when Victoria Premier Dan Andrews imposed a five-day "short, sharp circuit-breaker" lockdown for the state, starting midnight.
The lockdown was sparked by 13 new COVID-19 cases connected to an outbreak at a Melbourne airport hotel.
As part of the lockdown, all non-essential businesses are closed and in-person religious ceremonies are prohibited. Travel is also restricted to within five kilometres of people's homes, and residents must wear masks when they leave their homes for shopping, exercise, caregiving and essential work needs.
The lockdown also means that fans will no longer be allowed to attend the Australian Open in person, however the matches will continue.
Alicia Bridges is a freelance journalist in Perth, Aus., and a former CBC Saskatoon reporter. She spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about how Australia's prompt lockdowns have kept COVID-19 cases to a minimum. Here is part of their conversation.
How did Australia get to a stage where they could allow large crowds back into the stadium?
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, there have been quite strict controls on travel into the country and inter-state between different parts of the country. So anybody coming into Australia since March 2020 has had to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks.
There have been caps on the number of people coming back in…. The only people who can come in are citizens or people coming here on business if they have some sort of exemption.
Also enforcement of the rules — they've been able to bring the numbers under control not only through lockdown measures when there have been outbreaks, but also enforcement of those lockdowns.
In the state where I live in Western Australia, in Perth, there are hefty fines of up to $50,000 AUD (approx. $49,200 Cdn.) if you don't follow quarantine rules, and I think that hotline approach has sort of stayed in place. But there also has been high compliance with those rules overall, and I imagine enforcement is a large part of that.
But let's talk about quarantine because in Canada, we're just beginning to implement a hotel quarantine system for people coming into the country. In Australia, there's been one there since the spring. You went through the hotel quarantine system yourself. What was the experience like for you?
I tried to prepare by taking things to do, making sure I had my laptop to do some work. I wasn't alone; I was with my husband, and I think that made it a little bit easier.
We were in a room with no windows that opened [and] no balcony, so we hadn't had any fresh air for the entire two weeks. Our food was delivered three times a day with a knock at the door. We would receive a phone call from the nurse every two days to make sure that we were OK mentally and physically. There's a security guard in the hallway that was quite close to our room, so every time we would poke our head out the door to get food, we can see them there.
A small part of me did worry that the person across the hall could potentially have COVID-19, and that there could be some transmission. But I think generally, we felt like because the system had been working that whole time, that would be quite safe.
Last week, Perth went into a complete lockdown just hours after the discovery of one new case of COVID-19. How did [the lockdown] get implemented? What did it look like?
People were doing what they usually do on Sundays. They were out for brunch, or they were at the beach, or they were visiting family. Perth had not had any community transmission for 10 months, so people here had been living quite freely.
It was a very abrupt change. It went from people out at restaurants, and then suddenly there was a sign saying that the business was closing within an hour because, by 6 p.m., the whole two million people in this southwest area that was affected would be put into lockdown.
There was pretty broad and widespread acceptance of a lockdown, but I think that's also because it's a short lockdown and people have had time to experience life with COVID-19 in a situation where they're still quite free.
So, they feel they have something to protect by going through these short lockdowns.
What does [enforcement] look like? Are police going up to people in the street and asking for proof of residency?
It's surveillance of people when they do travel.
Say, for example, someone from the state of Victoria travels into the state of Western Australia, and at the time they're required to quarantine for two weeks. Then the police would be ... checking in on them.
There has been debate about just how strict and just how aggressive these measures should be between the states, and some are more aggressive than others.- Alicia Bridges
So there would be a situation where the police, they may go to their home, they may have to check into an app to prove that they're at their home, send a photograph of themselves.
It's different state by state, but those are some of the ways that they make sure that people are following the rules. And then they can enforce it because they know when someone's breaking the rules.
I know there are premiers of some states that are conservative and others [that] lean more towards the social democratic side. Are they all on the same side when it comes to enforcement and regulations?
Overall, I would say that there is cohesion in that the states have a somewhat similar approach. Of course, there has been back and forth.
Western Australia, in particular, where I live, had a hard border, where nobody was allowed to travel into the state unless they had an exemption. That was up until October of last year.
That was very controversial because there are a lot of people in Australia who travel for work. So if you lived in another state, and you worked in Western Australia, you basically had to stay here or stay out.
There has been debate about just how strict and just how aggressive these measures should be between the states, and some are more aggressive than others.
Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.