Why I’m nervous about the end of lockdown


IS THIS what normal life looks like?

Somehow, my home country of Australia has managed to avoid the worst ravages of the coronavirus. Fewer than 100 people have died, and it’s now been a month since more than 50 cases were reported on any one day.

More than a million tests have been conducted — in a population of about 25.7 million — and less than one in a hundred of those have shown an infection.

Local transmission has been slight, with more than 60% of cases acquired overseas. Across the country, just 12 people are now in intensive care with Covid-19.

Life is gradually returning to some semblance of what it once was. My children have been attending school one day a week and they’ll be back full-time next Monday.

We’ve been round to several friends’ houses, and over the weekend, I cycled with my family to the shores of Sydney Harbour. The hundreds that we passed were doing a decent job of keeping their distance, but I’d be lying if I said we never came within the regulation 1.5m of anyone.

After eight weeks of caution, you could see people start to magnetise into each other’s physical spaces.

I should be feeling happy that my country seems to be emerging from the shadow of a pandemic without the terrible toll of death and disease paid elsewhere. In truth, I have a sense of creeping dread.

I find it hard to believe we won’t be looking back at this moment in two months, wondering how none of us saw what was coming.

It’s impossible to know whether Australia has so far escaped the virus from skill or luck, but it’s hard to argue we did everything right.

The day after the World Health Organisation finally declared a pandemic in mid-March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still boasting about how he was planning to see his favourite rugby league team at Sydney’s 83,500-capacity ANZ Stadium.

About one in 10 cases here stem from the moment the following week when Carnival Corp’s Ruby Princess was allowed to disembark more than 400 sick passengers in the middle of the city. State and federal governments are still arguing about who was responsible for failing to enforce quarantine.

That mirrors the sense of randomness experienced around the world, as my colleague Joe Nocera has written. Some places, like Lombardy, New York and the UK, have seen devastating, society-straining outbreaks. Others in superficially similar circumstances, like Campania, Florida and Germany, have been spared the worst.

Despite more than 23,000 scientific papers written on Covid-19, the breadth of what we don’t know is astonishing. It’s still unclear how much the virus is able to spread through the air; which types of surfaces it can best survive on and for how long; what role children play in transmitting the disease; how long those who’ve been infected retain immunity; and even how many have been infected.

Knowledge isn’t a prophylactic on its own. Robert Koch revolutionised our understanding of infection when he identified the causative agent of tuberculosis in 1882, but his attempts to develop a vaccine were an ignominious failure. The bacterium still kills more than a million people a year.

That means Australia may be no better placed to handle a resurgence of infections than the northern hemisphere countries that failed to learn lessons from China.

We’ve long been aware that pandemics spread in waves, with the subsequent outbreaks often far worse than the initial surge of infections. About 108 million people are under renewed lockdowns in China’s three northeastern provinces, while initial success in containing the disease has given way to fresh outbreaks in Singapore and South Korea.

The impossibility of maintaining a heightened state of vigilance in the long term may be one of the greatest risks ahead of us, as my colleague Clara Ferreira Marques has written.

The role of heat and humidity — a subject of particularly passionate debate — is probably what worries me most, living in one of the southern hemisphere’s few temperate countries.

Of the 17 nations with more than 50,000 confirmed cases, only Brazil and India have been outside the temperate, arid and high-altitude zones that a climate-based model would suggest are most likely to encourage infection.

For much of the world, where spring is gradually turning to summer, seasonal variation in Covid-19’s reproduction rate would offer the prospect of a welcome slowdown in the coming months.

Here in Australia, though, a mild fall is now giving way to the first bite of winter.

As I step into the cool afternoon air onto a main street that’s as busy as I’ve seen it in months, that’s not a comforting thought. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.