I took the train to work today. I write a lot of my articles to the sound of moaning tracks, and this one was no different. On Friday, I am going out to a show in a live theatre, probably after getting food at a restaurant in the city. It’s summer in Sydney, so I’ve been going to the beach a lot, and this weekend will probably be no different, although I’ll try to get to the local bouldering gym for a few hours as well.
This is life in Sydney, January 2021. It’s not quite ‘normal’ — I’ll be wearing a mask to the live show, and the gym will probably be at 50-75% capacity rather than totally packed — but it’s pretty close. We still have some restrictions, and probably will until vaccination rates get very high, but even so life is more placid than chaotic in the city right now.
Which is why I find the latest myth, that government restrictions can’t control COVID-19, so utterly astonishing. Because they clearly have here.
The Battle Against COVID-19
We are now nearing 12 months into a global pandemic, and people are fatigued. The initial optimism that we could beat this by working together has faded into terrible ennui as we realize that even our long-term fixes aren’t easy options. Vaccines are a glowing light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s painfully obvious now that earlier predictions about the difficulties of rolling out vaccinations across the world were on the mark, and that it’ll be quite some time before the pandemic can really be declared ‘over’.
The world feels, in a word, exhausted with the entire process.
Which makes the newest myth totally understandable. After 12 months of ceaseless back-and-forth between lockdown and the semblance of normality, people are well and truly tired of it all. It is easy to become apathetic, and imagine that there really is no way that we can prevent COVID-19 from spreading, uncontrolled.
The issue is, however, that this idea simply isn’t true. To an Australian, where we’ve put enormous efforts into controlling the coronavirus, it actually sounds a bit bizarre to say that government actions can’t restrict the disease. Despite several recent outbreaks, we are still only seeing a handful of cases a day, largely due largely to the impressive and comprehensive government responses.
If we can do it, you probably can too.
At this point in the discussion, people often start raising ridiculous objections as to why Australia is supposedly so safe from COVID-19. We’re a tiny Pacific island, or a tropical country, or so spread out that people never interact and thus can’t spread disease, instead choosing to shout at each other across fields as we stand in our government-appointed spaced intervals across the enormous country that we call home.
The thing is, for every objection there is a pretty easy counterexample. Australia isn’t dense? Well, Taiwan is incredibly dense and has had virtually no local transmission of COVID-19 since April 12th 2020. The area of Greater Sydney is also roughly as dense as the county of Stockholm, Sweden (although Greater Sydney is geographically larger), and somehow that doesn’t seem to have protected Stockholm quite as much as people might have you believe.
And the tropical argument? Well, firstly, Australia isn’t purely tropical — we’ve got everything from temperate regions colder than Rome to desert to fully tropical rainforests. It’s a big place. There are also many places that have controlled COVID-19 outbreaks that are definitively not tropical, like South Korea.
Sometimes people try to argue that it’s just because of seasonality and the Southern Hemisphere has different seasons so that’s Australia’s main advantage. This is remarkably silly — not only did the Australian state of Victoria control a major outbreak during winter, but many places in the global south are currently experiencing their worst outbreaks of the year during summer. Uruguay, in south America, has experienced by far their worst outbreak during the summer.
The international evidence is really quite clear — if you really want to control COVID-19, there are measures that will work, from Vietnam’s careful quarantine and other interventions, to the mass contact tracing and border control of Australia, to the technological solutions of Taiwan. These are all places where, long-term, the virus has been controlled through a combination of efforts, in some cases incredibly well.
It’s clear that we can control COVID-19. The question then becomes: do we want to?
Do we want to control the disease? This has been the real conundrum of the last 12 months, and something that we are probably going to keep debating for a while yet.
The issue here is that there really are no good options when it comes to COVID-19 control. Completely reversing a country’s direction, particularly when it is experiencing an out-of-control epidemic, requires an enormous effort and quite draconian restrictions, which are obviously harmful in many ways. Unfortunately, letting the pandemic rage unchecked is also a problem, not only because of the ever-increasing body count but also to the economy and society as a whole. Some of the places that have done best in the world economically in the last 12 months are the very same places that imposed the harshest restrictions when it became clear that COVID-19 was a problem.
In fact, modelling from the International Monetary Fund suggests that high numbers of COVID-19 cases may be more damaging to the economy than government restrictions, which shows just how complex the decision to control the pandemic can be.
No one particularly wants to impose severe restrictions, but equally no one wants to start buying emergency morgues. Neither situation is ideal, and the cost-benefit of halting people’s lives is never going to be an easy thing to untangle.
Ultimately, the question of whether we want to control the coronavirus is something that each country needs to answer for themselves. There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to global decision-making, and what works for Canada may not be at all reasonable for Cameroon.
That being said, the idea that it’s impossible to stop COVID-19 spread, or that it is so terrible as to be completely ruinous, is fairly obviously wrong. Controlling COVID-19 is costly, but so are the alternatives. As with many areas of public health, there are no easy options when it comes to coronavirus, and we should stop pretending that there are.
So is it a good idea to control COVID-19? Maybe.
Is it possible to do so? Absolutely. The evidence is very clear.