COVID-19 menace gripping the world? An Australian Perspective



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by Siri Gamage


In recent weeks and months, we have been watching with alarm what is unfolding – first in Wuhan, China, and then in countries including South Korea, Iran, Italy, France and Spain by way of the fast spreading COVID-19 virus. At the time of writing, Italy seems to be undergoing the worst scenario while the situation in the US and some European countries is evolving into serious health crises. Countries such as Australia and Sri Lanka have been making preparations to face the impending situation with all gears activated to protect lives. No vaccination is available at present and it is speculated that one will not be available for another 12-18 months. This article is intended to highlight some aspects of the evolving situation from an Australian perspective.


Australians enjoyed their summer holidays in December and January with some parts of the country facing an unprecedented drought and bushfire season with many deaths, destroyed houses, displacements and more. Governments – Federal and State – focused on this crisis throughout the period until some rain started to fall in the affected areas in late February. As officials, firefighters, and affected people were starting to express a sigh of relief, the news that came from China about the Coronavirus started to occupy the news media. Initially, the Chinese were blamed for the emergence of this virus due to certain food habits. The lockdown in Wuhan and other measures were seen with dismay.


The Australian Government response started with a ban of Chinese nationals to the country. This included about 120,000 tertiary students studying in Australia. If any of them travelled to another country and self-isolated for 14 days they were allowed to enter the country. Later, the government allowed about 700 schoolchildren from China to enter the country in a controlled manner. With Iran becoming the second trouble spot, the government belatedly imposed a ban on Iranians, followed by South Koreans. It was slow to impose a ban on Italians though and this was criticised by some commentators as if a double standard. Government brought home some Australians stranded in a cruise ship that was quarantined in a Japanese port. Likewise, it sent a couple of Qantas flights to Wuhan to bring Australians stranded there due to the travel restrictions. They were kept in isolation in Christmas Island and another facility in Darwin for a mandatory 14-day period.


The share market has fallen significantly and the value of shares held by owners – small and large – has disappeared. This will affect the retirees very badly. Job losses are becoming more apparent. For example, Qantas set aside its workforce of 20,000 people until the end of May. Many companies, government and semi-government offices are allowing their employees to work from home. Government support for those losing jobs is promised. It is expected that the numbers at welfare centres (Centerlink) can climb in the coming weeks and months.


A state of general anxiety is engulfing the community. Suspecting that a situation of lockdown can emerge for various localities, people started to stock food and other essentials from supermarkets. This was most visible in the case of toilet paper. It then spread to other items such as rice, pasta, flour and so on. Supermarkets have now imposed restrictions on the number of such items that an individual can buy. Coles has introduced a dedicated hour in the morning for senior citizens and those with disabilities. Pharmacies are also experiencing more than usual numbers with customers wanting to stock their medicine and other supplies. Many offices have introduced measures to sanitise offices and the way customers are handled. Notices can be seen at many places such as pharmacies or chemists informing the public not to enter if they have symptoms like cough and flue, travelled overseas or have been in contact with an affected person. Authorities suspect that the worst is yet to come and this situation will continue at least for another six months. Recessionary economic condition can continue for even longer period. People are encouraged to look after each other and put aside selfish attitudes when shopping for essentials


By now, a countrywide closure of entry points to all nationals, except Australians, is in place. Qantas has grounded its international fleet while reducing the domestic fleet by 80%. People are being encouraged to adopt ‘social distancing’ (some say physical distancing), and self-isolate if there are symptoms of the coronavirus. Pubs and restaurants have been asked to maintain a four-square meter space for each patron. Public events over 500 people are banned. Yesterday, the famous Bondi Beach was closed to more than 500 following this directive. Government is advising Australians not to travel overseas.


With people being advised to avoid public gatherings and alter the usual lifestyle in the face of the developing situation, many businesses are affected. The overall economy is severely affected and the prediction is that the country and for that matter the world will enter a period of recession. Interest rate has been reduced to .25% and the Reserve bank announced $17 billion package to support small businesses via smaller banks. Government itself announced a package of measures worth over $15 billion about a week ago and another is to be announced today – Sunday ($60+billion). Health sector is being provided additional support by the State governments to buy essentials to combat the spreading virus and its harmful effects. In some States, more and more hospital beds are being prepared by turning unused buildings to be health facilities. The number of affected cases has reached 1000 by now and it is an escalation from the number announced the previous day. Authorities are very concerned about this escalation as it adds to the rising curve of infections. The aim of medical and government officials seems to be to control the spread by advocating self-isolation measures, curtailment of travel, etc. In other words, to flatten the curve of new infections.


Many are wondering when the schools will be closed? Government is insisting that this is counterproductive. Two reasons come to light. Firstly about 30% of the parents are employed in the health sector. If they have to mind children after school closure, it will impact on the functioning of health services. Secondly, grandparents can be affected by the children bringing the Coronavirus home (even if schools are running, this is a present danger?). Already some schools in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne have been temporarily closed after finding affected cases of students.


While scientists are busy to find a vaccine, and to understand the nature and behaviour of this mysterious virus around the world, governments are struggling to impose society-wide constraints on human behaviour in order to curtail the spread of the virus. In Australia, up to the time of writing, government is allowing Australian citizens and residents to enter the country and voluntarily self-isolate in their place of residence with no follow up monitoring. My view is that this policy is failing. It is necessary to impose compulsory quarantining in designated centres with monitoring if the spread is to slow down.


This virus and its effects on human health and well-being have turned the way we used to live upside down and introduced a state of anxiety among the population. Those not familiar with the life and its challenges during the great depression and other calamities in the past are learning afresh new norms and ways of meeting unfamiliar hardships. Some writers are even providing critical perspectives about the work and lifestyle patterns promoted by globalisation and the free market economy (for example, see Wendy Smith, SMH March 20, 2020). Situation in Italy has turned for the worse and our thoughts are to be with those affected there with the loss of human life. Even Singapore which was hailed as a success story in containing the spread of the Coronavirus is reporting more cases. South East Asia, in particular Indonesia and Myanmar (due to lack of facilities including test kits), seem to be struggling to address the unfolding situation.


Australia is discovering that many of the items required to control the spread of this deadly virus, including face masks, ventilators, are produced overseas. Ordering and bringing them quickly is no easy task as there is a world-wide demand. Motivated by the greed for profits and more profits, manufacturing was moved to countries with cheap labour and competitive costs. Now the authorities and planners are realising the foolishness of this move. Some facilities producing different equipment and products have even been called upon to convert their machinery to produce essential items to combat the impending health crisis. I hope human beings all over will learn a costly lesson this time to be more generous to oneself and others at all times! Governments will take heed to calls for more sustainable economic and social policies that in fact serve the population – not those seeking profits and larger profits only. A new approach to how we do things is absolutely necessary in Australia and elsewhere. When everything built by globalisation mantra starts to crumble like a house of cards, it is the governments and communities that have to come to the rescue of failing companies and other entities.


In this context, we all need to aim for the silver lining rather than be bogged down by the dark clouds. Avoid large crowds, self-isolate if needed, don’t buy more than what you need and keep well!


Readings


Smith, W. 2020. There is a Silver lining to this Crisis, Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney. March 20. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/there-is-a-sliver-of-a-silver-lining-to-this-crisis-20200320-p54c7v.html


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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