COVID-19: Profit or people?

| March 11, 2020

We live in a unique and beautiful land far away from most of the troubles of the world. I therefore don’t normally watch the news but I have been following the coverage of the spread of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 very closely.

Like many people, I am increasingly anxious about the welfare of my family and fellow Australians, but I believe that Australia’s isolation could be used to our advantage and save tens of thousands of lives.

I will begin by saying that although I am not an economist, virologist or a statistician, I do have a science degree and some common sense.
I strongly believe that Australia should close its borders to all non-citizens to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Some background information comparing the impact of regular flu to the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia will underline why I think robust measures are necessary.

Data for the Australian population of 25,400 000 people.


COVID-19 has only been around for 3 months so it is very difficult to estimate the extent and impact of possible anticipated infections in Australia.  However there is certainly no room for complacency.

The death rate around the world might be as high as 34 times that of seasonal flu. This mortality rate could be lower, as some theories suggest that the virus is so mild in some patients that they may not even report it, however these people can still pass it on to more vulnerable populations.

The infectiousness of COVID-19 is also higher than that of season flu.  On average, every person with the virus has passed it on to 2 or 3 other people, which is around double the rate of transmission of the flu of 1.32. This means that it is a much more serious disease which can spread much more quickly.

Alarmingly, COVID-19 has been shown to be spread by people not experiencing any flu like symptoms, as people are infectious for several days before they develop symptoms themselves.

Prevention is better than no cure

There is no cure for coronavirus, and no vaccine is on the horizon.  Countries must tackle the disease as a public health emergency before a critical mass of cases develops to minimise disruption to society and the economy, as well as the impact to individual lives.

I believe that public education on hygiene precautions and the development of symptoms will definitely decrease the transmission rates in Australia. Patient tracking and contact quarantine will also help limit the spread of disease.

However not all countries have the same level of health care and knowledge and they could be unknowingly spreading the disease inside and outside their country, putting other nations at risk.

If COVID-19 becomes a global pandemic, but borders remain open to the world, then some estimate that up to 68,000 Australians could die. Conservatively speaking, if only 1% of the population was infected, then it would still result it in 8,636 deaths.

Most of these victims would be elderly, or already suffering from respiratory problems or compromised immune systems.  The mortality rate in people over 80 with existing health issues could be as high as 15%.  Health workers subject to a heavy viral load may also be at higher risk.  However there seems to be an underlying theme in the comments of people downplaying the need for urgent action that somehow this class of citizens are less important than the rest of the population.

I am certain that if the overall death rate of 3.4% affected every demographic equally then reaction from the government would have been more significant.

This disease has already spread in a matter of weeks to almost every continent and infections are on the rise, triggering unprecedent  lock downs in entire cities and regions.

The disease has spread from its epicentre in China to Iran, South Korea and Italy, and many nations are now reporting their first wave of cases.  Even wealthy nations like ours lack the health service capacity to deal with a possible epidemic of this scale, while developing nations could be overwhelmed.

Safeguarding Australia

It is time for drastic action as the government’s first duty is to protect its population from harm.  If we closed our borders completely to foreign visitors and only allowed Australian citizens to return we could still drastically reduce the numbers of infections and deaths to come.

This step may seem overly cautious, but action must be taken before the epidemic takes hold.  The ubiquity of international travel, and difficulty of tracking contacts in our bustling cities, mean that the problem must be treated at source.

For example, a traveler might  catch a flight from Rome to London, stay a few days, then board a flight to Sydney before their symptoms develop, infecting other people on the plane.

A system could be set up to allow Australian citizens to return if they commit to self-quarantine for 2 to 3 weeks. Every person could be tested on arrival and then tested again after this quarantine period. They could be registered on a database and even given a wristband warning others that they may by carrying the disease and should not be in public.

This would ensure that we could track every possible new case from overseas, while doing all we could to limit the transfer of infection among people already in this country. Export and imports of goods should still continue as normal, except for products which could be of short supply in Australia such as masks and hand sanitiser.

There would be significant financial loss from barring tourists from this country, but the lives of Australians – and the potential social and  economic impact of letting the virus take hold – are much more important than money to any one particular sector.

It is difficult to calculate what the cost of closing borders would be, as this is an unprecedented situation, but we must balance it against the cost of locking down schools, universities, office buildings, sporting events, conferences, cultural venues, shopping centres and – in time – whole suburbs, cities and states.

Healthcare costs will inevitably spike due to additional hospital admissions of sufferers of COVID-19. Our hospitals are not prepared to cope with a massive influx of patients, and places in expensive intensive care units are scarce enough in normal times. All non-essential surgery and other visits to GPs may need to be cancelled sooner than we think.

Silver linings

Once our borders are closed and the number of new cases are stable, then Australians could return to some form of normality. They could be free to go to concerts, sporting events, work and continue using public transport must sooner than would otherwise be the case.

Another silver lining could be the realisation that modern democratic nations in general, and Australia in particular, are too reliant on China and international supply chains for their short term survival.  This might encourage Australia to resume the manufacturing of a range of goods and become more self-reliant as a nation.

I am a strong advocate of most foods being produced here to reduce transport costs, monitor hygiene standards and the use of chemicals, for example.

It is only a matter of time before another pandemic much worse than COVID-19 sweeps across the world. Now is the time to prepare for a worst case scenario in which a new disease with higher mortality rates affects more of the population.

We need to use this outbreak to boost our national economic and social immunity for the future, just as a vaccine stimulates the body to protect against a more serious disease.

I understand that the tourism industry would suffer most of all, but that industry is already on its knees as we speak as people are already avoiding airports and international travel. The government must provide assistance to help it survive.

It would be a very costly exercise to close the borders for 3, 6 or even 12 months before we have the disease under control and a possible vaccine if sound, but I assume domestic tourism would benefit as Australians could take their holidays locally.

Complacency is the enemy

While undue panic is not helpful, ignoring this crisis will not make it go away.  Some nations, such as Iran, ignored the problem until it became a full-blown health crisis, in contrast to Italy which has taken sweeping action to limit its spread.

Other countries around the world still haven’t got the message that we must all co-operate to minimise harm.  Ethiopian Airlines, for example, have ignored pleas from the country’s citizens and other African countries to suspend its 35 flights to China every day.

Their spokesman , Cagnew Fissha, rebuffed the case to suspend flights to China by saying “It is a business decision and we have 40% market share of the transport from Africa to China”.

Here in Australia, the CEO of Flight Centre, Graham Turner, is on the record in hoping that a state of global pandemic will be called so that all borders are opened and all flights can resume.

Putting people first

I would hope that we are better than this as a species. What is the point of having money when you have blood on your hands?  Above and beyond commercial self-interest, I fear that State and Federal governments’ softly-softly approach is already risking people’s lives to prevent economic disruption.

The government approach is reactive rather than proactive, which means any reaction will be too late. There is no silver bullet to solve the problem but no one seems to be debating ideas or solutions to minimise harm while we still can.

We need a task force of Australia’s best minds – not just economists and politicians – to address this issue immediately. Let’s also open a public debate and see what everyone thinks. We need to act now before the pandemic establishes itself in Australia.

Thinking only about personal profit, or our own minimal chances of coming to harm, isn’t enough.  We must consider the impact of this outbreak to our most vulnerable citizens.  Aren’t we supposed to be the smart and lucky country? Let’s keep it that way by caring about all citizens and not focusing solely on ourselves or the economy.