Some people seem to think that Scott Morrison is doing ‘a good job’ dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. How can we tell? We only have other countries with which to compare his efforts.
We know that many countries have been very successful in keeping the rate of spread of the virus at a more or less manageable level. By that I mean not allowing the health services to be completely overwhelmed. Other countries have been very unsuccessful. The variation is due to numerous factors: demographics, lifestyle, availability and quality of medical services, whether the country is governed (supposedly) by halfwits (e.g. Trump) or not, and how long they ignored medical advice.
While the disease has now been traced back to initial infections in Hubei Province in China in the middle of November, the first reports of what was believed to be a new virus were reported to the WHO China office on the 31st of December, 20191,2. On the 22nd of January, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Health Regulations Emergency Committee met to discuss the outbreak of coronavirus in China, which at that stage had already spread to South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore. At that time, the advice was that the event did not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), but the Committee members agreed on the urgency of the situation and suggested that the Committee should be reconvened in a matter of days to examine the situation further3. The second meeting was held on the 30th of January, at which time there were 7711 confirmed and 12167 suspected cases throughout China. Of the confirmed cases, 1370 were severe and 170 people had died. There were also 83 confirmed cases in 18 other countries, with no deaths. This time, the Director-General declared that the outbreak of 2019-nCoV (later termed SARS-CoV-2) constituted a PHEIC. The Committee also believed that it was still possible to interrupt the spread of the virus, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early (testing), isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk4.
On the 11th of March, the WHO Director-General stated: “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic. Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.
Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do”2.
All the supporters of the federal government in the Murdoch and other RWNJ media would have you believe that the government is doing a good job in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. But is it?
Taiwan is about 130 km off the coast of mainland China and was expected to have the second highest number of cases of COVID-19 due to its proximity to, and the daily number of flights to and from China. The country has a population a little less than Australia at about 23 million. Of these, about 850,000 reside in and 400, 000 work in China. In 2019, about 2.7 million visitors from the mainland travelled to Taiwan. As such, Taiwan has been on constant alert and ready to act on epidemics arising from China ever since the SARS epidemic of 20035.
The day that the Chinese government contacted the WHO to report the epidemic in Wuhan (December 31st, 2019), and three weeks before any cases had been recorded in Taiwan, Taiwanese officials began boarding aircraft to assess passengers and crew for symptoms before they were allowed to disembark. Passengers displaying symptoms were quarantined at home and assessed as to whether medical attention at a hospital was necessary. As early as January 5, 2020, mandatory notification was expanded to include any individual who had travelled to Wuhan in the previous 14 days and had a fever or symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection5.
On January 20, while sporadic cases were reported from China, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officially activated the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) for severe special infectious pneumonia, with the minister of health and welfare as the designated commander. The CECC coordinated efforts by various ministries, including the ministries of transportation, economics, labour, education, as well as the Environmental Protection Administration, among others, in a comprehensive effort to counteract the emerging public health crisis5. On January 21, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Taiwan.
From January 20 to February 24, the CECC produced and implemented the following: the government announced that the spreading of fake news could lead to fines of up to $US100,000; level two and three travel alerts from affected parts of China implemented from January 5; quarantined individuals monitored using government issued mobile phones from January 29 (heavy fines up to $US10,000 applied); From January 30, 4 million surgical masks were released daily; all Chinese nationals and all international cruise ships banned from February 6; most travel to China banned from February 10; Level 1, 2 and 3 travel alerts applied to Japan South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Italy and Iran from February 11; From February 21, if anyone tested positive in a school or university their classes or the entire establishment was shut down for 14 days. There was also a system of active case finding, a public education campaign, negotiation with other countries, relief to businesses (February 13) and individuals (February 21)5. On February 27 the government announced the cancellation or suspension of large-scale school and sporting events6.
At the time of writing, Taiwan had 422 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 6 deaths7.
The first notification regarding coronavirus from the Australian government came on January 21, when the Chief Medical Officer stated in a press release that: “The Australian Government Department of Health is working across agencies to implement additional measures to manage the risk of novel coronavirus (2019‑nCoV) from the region of Wuhan in China. I want to reassure Australians that to date there have been no confirmed cases in Australia and the risk of transmission in Australia from this novel coronavirus remains low.8”
Sydney Airport started screening passengers arriving only from Wuhan on January 23. Two days later the first case was recorded in Australia, in Victoria, and this was closely followed the same day by three cases recorded in New South Wales. On February 5, Australia announced a 14 day ban on non-citizens arriving from China, and extended it indefinitely on February 209. On February 27, Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press conference with Health Minister Greg Hunt and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and announced a ‘coronavirus emergency response plan’, but there were no details, no actions and no mention of social distancing, hand-washing or hygiene10. On March 1, the first Australian died from the disease, and on March 17, Australia declared an emergency as the death toll rose to 6. The following day (March 18) the government raised the travel alert to the top level, effectively banning overseas travel, while on March 19, it was announced that all non-residents and non-citizens would be banned from entering the country after March 219. Initially football of all types (with crowds), was played up until the middle of March. Indeed, Morrison initially said that he would be going to the football on the weekend of March 14-15; however, he realised it would not be a good look, and cancelled11. The game did go ahead with a crowd, but this was the last week with punters. Football codes then tried playing in empty stadiums, but they all eventually shut down their competitions during the last 10 days of March. It was not until March 15 that the public information campaign started. Apart from that, there was no effort to prevent disinformation.
Perhaps the worst single incident was someone allowing the docking of the cruise liner Ruby Princess, in Sydney on March 19, and the disembarkation of its 2,700 passengers from the ship. The passengers weren’t screened and were unmonitored when they left the ship. They were even told they could travel overseas immediately (about one third were international passengers) or self-isolate in Sydney for a fortnight. It was even suggested that if necessary they could travel to the other states whence they came. One day after the ship docked, officials revealed the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in three people who had been on board – two passengers and a crew member12,13. Around 900 COVID-19 cases and worst of all, 21 deaths have subsequently been linked to the ship, at least 9 of whom were in Australia13,14. So, at the time of writing, the death toll in Australia from COVID-19 was at 72; therefore, over 12% of Australian deaths are related to the Ruby Princess. The government of New South Wales and the federal government are busily trying to blame each other for this debacle and, whoever is guilty, is busily trying to cover it up. Indeed, it has been suggested that a federal government minister pulled strings to allow it to dock because his relatives were on board the ship. Whether this is true or not is unknown, yet.
At the time of writing there are 6,645 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, and as mentioned above, 72 deaths14.
Overall, Taiwan kicked into action three weeks before the first case of COVID-19 appeared on their shores on January 21. The Australian government put out a ‘don’t worry, it’s unlikely to come here’ message on the day Taiwan recorded its first case and four days before the first four cases were discovered in Australia (January 25). Taiwan started implementing travel restrictions from China on January 5, Australia did much the same on February 5. Taiwan cancelled large sporting and school events on February 27, the same day that Morrison stated that his government had an emergency response plan, without giving any details. It was only three weeks later that large sporting events and other gatherings were cancelled in Australia. Taiwan banned all international cruise ships from docking on February 6, while in Australia the Ruby Princess docked exactly six weeks later on March 19. This sort of time lag is the difference between having 6,654 cases and 422, and between 72 deaths and 6. So, if you think the Morrison government is doing a good job, send me a message, I’ve got a harbour bridge I’d like to sell you.