In a very frustrating pandemic, there are so many myths floating about that it can be challenging to know which one is the most upsetting at any one time. There’s the horrifying anti-vaccine sentiment, the outright denial of COVID-19, or the more pernicious misinformation where people pretend that the disease exists but isn’t much of a problem, or you can’t control it anyway.
But for Australians and our Kiwi cousins, there’s one myth that is both extremely common online, and sounds more absurd than anything.
The idea that we’ve just been “lucky”. As anyone living in the two nations can tell you, luck had very little to do with it.
The arguments about Aus and NZ always start the same way. Maybe we’re isolated Pacific nations with small populations and no international travel. Perhaps we’re so far away from anyone else that COVID-19 just never arrived on our shores, or that if it did, we could control it more easily. Some even imply that, because Australia is in places very sparsely populated, we must have some natural protection against respiratory disease, as if the average population per square kilometre is a realistic measure of how closely people interact in cities of 3–5 million people.
Some people argue that Australia is tropical and therefore immune to disease (it isn’t, at least not in the most populated areas), or that our complete lack of public transport saved us (given that I’m writing this on a train…probably not), or maybe that since our seasons are reversed we could simply avoid the respiratory plague in our upside-down world.
But even going back to the beginning, you can see this dodgy narrative fall apart. Australia may be far away from many places, but one country we are relatively close to is China. The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Aus was identified just a few days after the first case in the US. The United Kingdom saw its first COVID-19 death on the 5th of March — 3 days earlier, Australia reported the same.
And remember, this was at the tail end of the Aussie summer. As we headed into winter with hundreds of cases a day, the state and federal governments put into place a wide range of restrictions. They also ramped up testing to a massive extent, bringing us up to one of the highest rates in the world, largely closed the borders, amped up contact tracing, and implemented a hotel quarantine system for anyone entering the country. As it stands, people who come into Australia have to quarantine by themselves in a hotel for a minimum of 14 days, and have two negative tests, before they are allowed to move around freely. This is enforced by the government and carefully patrolled to ensure adherence.
Sadly, despite this, all of our measures failed. In May 2020, what began as a minor outbreak from hotel quarantine in the city of Melbourne, population 5 million, exploded into the worst epidemic the country has seen. The state of Victoria went almost overnight from a handful of local cases of the disease to hundreds a day and many thousands in total.
The Government Actions
And so they locked down. May turned into June, which folded over to July, which limps on to August, which crawled forward into September, which finally, finally, scraped over into October. After seeing no new cases of local transmission for several days, the premier of the state announced on October 26th 2020 that Victoria would reopen a few days later. Victorians breathed a huge sigh of relief as restrictions eased, allowing people to leave their homes, gather outdoors in groups of up to 10, have a friend or two over, and invite up to 20 people to a funeral.
They had been locked down entirely for more than 100 days.
While everyone in Australia is enormously grateful to our Victorian friends, it has not been entirely easy for the other states either. Towards the end of the year, as Sydney prepared to celebrate with our famous fireworks, a mystery COVID-19 case turned up in the suburbs along the northern beaches. After a run of days with no local transmission at all, the city was faced with more than thirty new cases in a single day, in what many thought was the prelude to another massive outbreak.
The government quickly took action. Despite it being a week before Christmas, the area where most of the cases were occurring was immediately locked down entirely. The rest of the city was placed on tight restrictions. Daily testing went from 1 test per 1,000 people in the state to 1 test per 100 people almost overnight, even though in Australia you are required by law to self-isolate from the moment you turn up to get a test until it comes back negative. Contact tracing leaped into action, with the list of venues visited by a confirmed case going from a handful to dozens within hours of the announcements.
The proof of all these interventions was really in the pudding. At the time of writing, in late January, the state of New South Wales has now had a run of 10 days total with no new cases of local transmission of COVID-19. The massive outbreak that many feared never happened, the cases brought under control without a lockdown of the entire state.
And let’s not forget our Kiwi cousins. Even in NZ, the country with arguably the best COVID-19 control in the world, there have been issues. In August, after recording several cases of coronavirus, the largest city in the country was locked down. The outbreak would grow to nearly 200 cases before it was fully controlled and the country got back to zero again. More recently, several people have been infected in hotel quarantine and then made it out to the community, leading to further government action to prevent the virus from spreading.
But it doesn’t take much effort to see how little luck was involved here. Within hours of announcing that a case had been confirmed, the New Zealand government posted lists of locations that had been visited while the person was infectious. The country’s contact tracing app, which the positive case had been using, identified 1,000s of possible contacts. The country as a whole leaped into action, and so far it appears to have worked.
Can you imagine if every single place visited by a COVID-19 case was publicly posted online, with close contacts legally obligated to quarantine for 14 days, in the UK when the country had a handful of new cases a day in early July?
I suspect the situation would look very different than it does today*.
Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that it has taken an enormous, consistent, and extended effort by the governments and people of both Australia and NZ to control COVID-19. Not just once, and not easily, but over and over again the governments have leapt into action when necessary, and with the support of the community we have managed to bring our cases down every time. Even in winter. Even at the start of the pandemic. Even with airports that in most years see millions of international flights (Australians are famously well-travelled).
It has not come without cost, but that’s the story of a pandemic. There are no easy options.
In many ways, it’s trivial to counter the ridiculous arguments about Aus and NZ, because they are so farcical — if it takes an island, then why is Vietnam doing so well? — but it’s also important to show just how much effort it takes to control this horrible disease. It was not the work of days, or weeks, but endless months, including the longest single lockdown anywhere in the world, that has put us in a situation where I can go have a beer at a pub and see a show in January 2021.
Maybe we’ve been lucky, but only insofar as luck covers the strong governance and civic support that has allowed us to succeed. Maybe in other countries, with less effective governments and communities that do not value suppressing the disease, this chain of events would indeed be impossible. We’ll probably never know if the United States, for example, could’ve taken action to prevent the tragedy that they are seeing unfold now, because they clearly didn’t. But it certainly wasn’t all just a lucky break for Australia or New Zealand.
Yes, we’re islands. And yes, as any Australian can tell you, we are very far away.
But if you pretend that that is all that there is to Australia/New Zealand’s pandemic responses, you are simply ignorant of the facts.
*Note: this does not mean that I think that the UK could have or should have copied NZ entirely.