The PM's Events Ban Needs To Start Right Now And Go A Lot Further
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just announced a ban on all public gatherings of more than 500 people.
But the ban does not come into effect until Monday and does not include schools, universities and workplaces. During the next three days there will be sporting events, musical concerts and shows in which hundreds of thousands of Australians will mingle. Even Morrison himself said he will be attending an NRL match, which is completely irresponsible in my personal opinion.
The measures must start immediately and they must include a broader range of public gatherings or we will look back and pinpoint this exact day as the turning point for Australia's healthcare collapse.
I am not alone in my deep concern.
I am one of the administrators for a doctors-only online community based in Australia and New Zealand with over 11,000 members. Over the past week the mood in the group has rapidly changed from ‘wait and see’ to ‘impending disaster’.
Northern Italian hospitals are completely overwhelmed, with doctors now facing the impossible decision of who lives and who dies because there are simply not enough beds and manpower for a huge influx of the severely ill. The stories on the ground are heart-wrenching and the situation will only get harder as the medical workforce dwindles due to fatigue as well as their own coronavirus infections.
Patients not infected with coronavirus are also being threatened. Elective surgeries could be cancelled in Australia and life-saving chemotherapy for cancer patients has almost completely stopped in Italy.
To the young people who say that the virus doesn’t affect them: Please think about your parents or grandparents who may have a 20 percent chance of death and over 50 percent chance of hospitalisation. In fact, if you had seen the videos of young healthy men incubated for days in the Intensive Care Unit because they can no longer breathe for themselves, you might consider your own mortality in the face of this monster.
The awful truth is that our healthcare system is already underfunded, understaffed and often at breaking point, even on a normal day. There is simply no slack in the system for a large-scale outbreak. When I was a junior emergency department doctor 10 years ago, it was incredibly difficult to admit a patient to hospital due to the lack of beds. Now the situation is even worse. If and when Australia reaches the numbers seen in Italy, where 50 percent of patients require hospitalisation, our hospital system will face a catastrophic collapse within days.
A collapse of the healthcare system has already happened in Wuhan and Lombardy and it’s starting to happen in Seattle, and parts of France and Spain. There is a clear difference in patient survival rate between cities that are overwhelmed vs the cities that managed to slow the spread.
In Lombardy right now, the death rate is somewhere between four and eight percent. Patients are dying without adequate intensive care. South Korea, on the other hand, has recorded a death rate of less than one percent. The most alarming fact is that the collapse in Lombardy didn’t happen over months or years, it happened over two weeks.
Given our geographical isolation, the impact in Australia has been relatively mild so far. The case numbers remain low, but the trend is the same as almost every other major country with accelerating exponential growth. The innate problem with testing and reporting cases is that due to the delay of symptoms onset and delay in testing, the numbers we see published today is almost always two weeks behind the reality. One hundred cases reported today may mean over 1,000 cases walking the streets right now.
If the Australian government does not take a proactive approach, the number of cases could overwhelm our health system in a matter of two to three weeks, as it did in China, Italy and South Korea. Hindsight is often 20/20 and we are blessed with hindsight from other countries. The data is very clear -- the areas that implement large-scale, drastic measures such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even South Korea are keeping their hospitalisation and death rate low. Countries that delayed proactive measures such as Italy, the US, Spain, Switzerland and France are starting to pay the price.
"This week is the turning point for Australia," Dr Xavier Yu, former Vice President of the Australian Medical Association in Victoria, told me. "Decisions made by the government in the next couple of days will determine the fate of our hospital and our nation in the coming weeks.”
Luck has been on our side so far, but the medical professionals on the front line cannot rely on luck. The Australian government must make the tough decisions and implement drastic measures including social distancing, cancelling all large events, blocking flights from Europe and possibly the US.
“At a time when some schools are closing and health services are ramping up for a very difficult time, it seems unwise to continue with events such as the Grand Prix [which has been cancelled]," Dr Ruth Mitchell, neurosurgeon and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, told me. "In fact, it seems disrespectful to our medical colleagues in China and in Italy who tried to warn us about what this virus will do.”
Please spare a thought for our courageous medical staff on the front line. They know what’s waiting for them. Most of the people I’ve spoken to are expecting to be infected -- and some of them will likely die. Yet they continue to show up to work and fight this battle. Just like their brothers and sisters who have fought and died in China, Italy and around the world.
Australia has been given a lifeline and a two-week head start. To waste such a golden opportunity may result in unimaginable suffering for our community and our healthcare workers.
The Australian government needs to continue to show leadership and make the tough decisions. Further lock downs of public gathering of any size, closure of schools, closing non-essential work and reducing public transport needs to be considered. A temporary ban on flights from Europe and possibly the US also needs to be on the table.
To the public, don’t panic and be sensible. Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces and your face and don’t shake hands. If possible, avoid crowds and confined spaces with other people and look into working/studying from home.
Listen for daily updates from health professionals and local government. And if you have flu-like symptoms, stay at home and call the COVID-19 Hotline on 1800 020 080. The virus will pass, and a few weeks of inconvenience could potentially save thousands of lives.
Featured Image: Getty