EXPLAINER

Why the experts say we will have to live with COVID-19

COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. Picture: Shutterstock

COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. Picture: Shutterstock

Victoria has recorded 17 new cases of coronavirus. Two primary schools have been closed in Melbourne, The state's premier, Daniel Andrews, says 11 of the new cases are under investigation, and there has been "significant community transmission".

The latest batch of infections mark a full week where each day's new cases have been in double figures.

"This is still with us. This is not over. All Victorians want this to be over. But we simply can't pretend that the virus is gone - that the virus is somehow not in our state. It is here. It travels so fast. It is so infectious," Mr Andrews says.

Is this a second wave?

It's more of an "ongoing ripple", according to Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University.

He says the virus has not been eradicated, nor is it likely to be without a vaccine. "It is going to be around and a problem for a couple of years at least so we are going to have to change our behaviour," he says.

He is worried that the onset of winter will make it worse, because diseases of the lungs are transmitted more easily in cold weather.

And he thinks the Victorian outbreaks are not a reason to panic, but they are a reason to be concerned. He likens them to spot fires - when one appears, "you just have to jump on it".

But it's confined to Victoria, isn't it?

If it's not under control in Melbourne, it is not under control in areas which have free movement with Melbourne, which include NSW and the ACT.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro worries that Melburnians could take the virus to resorts in the Snowy Mountains, from where it could then be widely transmitted when skiers return home.

There is no doubt that the federal and ACT governments in Canberra and the state government in Sydney will also be watching the Victoria statistics in the coming days.

Policy may be re-evaluated. Queensland, for example, has declared that inner Melbourne is a virus hotspot and anyone coming from there will need a fortnight in quarantine.

This is a disparity in policy between Queensland, on the one hand, and that of NSW and the ACT on the other.

This is still with us. This is not over. All Victorians want this to be over. But we simply can't pretend that the virus is gone - that the virus is somehow not in our state. It is here. It travels so fast. It is so infectious.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

What's to be done?

Fight the spot fire, is the short answer.

Other states and territories should offer help in the same way as they do with fires, according to Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia.

The epidemiologist says contact-tracers should be sent to Victoria if the state government there needs them.

There should be more testing and more information put out in the hotspots, particularly information in languages other than English.

The communities themselves can not be cut off and quarantined, so the task is to minimise the transmission of the virus within the hotspots to stop its spreading to the wider community and beyond, including across the Victorian border.

So is this a second wave?

"It's a great concern. It could go either way," Professter Esterman says. "There's a high chance it's going to get worse."

What's gone wrong?

The new outbreaks are concentrated in particular communities in Melbourne's outer suburbs.

Nobody quite knows why. Victoria's restrictions are just as tight as those in other states. One theory is that there have been large family gatherings in the hardest-hit suburbs.

One of the concerns of experts is that there seems to be a high number of recent cases where contacts can't be traced.

What about the economy?

The longer infections continue, the slower any opening of the economy will take.

Canberra Airport, for example, has made much of its increased service to Melbourne. Its strategy is to gradually increase the routes between Canberra and virus-free "islands" similar to the capital.

If reopened routes turn out to be to destinations where the virus is not eradicated, demand may drop. It is also harder to make the case that increased flights are safe.

Are we expecting too much?

Experts say an expectation that the virus can be eradicated in Australia is too optimistic. It will be a matter of managing and minimising outbreaks - and that means people have to continue washing their hands frequently and keeping their distance from each other.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth says: "We will get, from time to time, outbreaks and clusters as we have seen in Victoria.

"Importantly as well, for those states where restrictions are lifting, that doesn't imply a lifting of our personal behaviour standards that we have become so used to."

On a similar theme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison describes the Victorian outbreaks in terms of "living with COVID-19".

"We always said we were not going for eradication of the virus. We have to ensure that we can run our economy, run our lives, run our communities alongside this virus. Until there's a vaccine, then that's what we have to contend with. We can't just shut everything up forever - the economic impacts of that are devastating," Mr Morrison says.

To sum up...

The Victorian situation is not out of control... yet.

States and territories which think they are over the virus aren't.

It's going to be with us for a long time yet. Changes in behaviour will need to continue until there's a vaccine - if there is one.

This story Why the experts say we will have to live with COVID-19 first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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