An economist has lashed Australia’s response to the pandemic, arguing authorities have made mistakes by closing schools, forcing people to work from home and trying to vaccinate the majority of Australians before eventually — at some point down the track — reopening borders and returning to normal.
Cameron Murray told Thursday night’s Q&A panel that the coronavirus is “a thousand times worse for elderly people than the young and we don’t need to vaccinate 100 per cent of the young people before we open up”.
“From a public health perspective, it’s not clear to me that any of our reactions have been ideal,” he said.
“You look at the number of people … all the delayed birthdays, all those couples who will never have the children they want because … they were scared of the pandemic, all those routine health checks that got delayed that we can’t catch up on, you think that they outweigh the risks?”
Omar Khorshid, President of the Australian Medical Association, had heard enough and interjected.
“Are you seriously suggesting that Covid doesn’t affect young people or that our border closures haven’t made us almost the most successful country in the world when it’s come to managing this pandemic?,” he asked.
Mr Murray questioned whether Australia had been “the most successful”. Dr Khorshid told him Australia had been “extraordinarily successful”.
Kamalini Lokuge, an epidemiologist from the Australian National University, told Mr Murray that countries that did not do what Australia did paid a huge price.
“Cameron, if you look at the data from every country that didn’t do those things, all of that happened plus a lot of people died of Covid,” she said.
“Can I speak as a public health expert and not an economist. If you look at what’s happening in the UK at the moment, they have almost 50 per cent coverage. And they started to open up. They opened up to other countries in Europe.
“They’ve now had to close to Portugal. Their Prime Minister, their Secretary of the Treasury, has said we may need to delay opening up because we’ve got a new variant and got increasing hospitalisations and increased number of cases.
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“So I think waiting a few months to get to a level of vaccine coverage where we know we can control this disease without stringent measures is a no-brainer.
“One of the things I’ve had issues with during the pandemic is people without the appropriate expertise making commentary.”
Pitjantjatjara woman Sally Scales told Mr Murray that she also sides with a more cautious approach to reopening.
“For me, I will always be cautious when I’m a part of a group that is always going to be vulnerable,” she said.
“Aboriginal people have got underlying issues, I’m always going to choose caution and make sure we’re protecting our elderly. It’s a luxury to not be cautious.
“If Covid got into an Aboriginal community, we don’t have the luxury of quarantining by ourselves.
“For my communities, if we had Covid out there, everyone would have it within a day. And the turnaround for the Royal Flying Doctors is eight hours to Alice Springs or Adelaide.”
Australia’s ability to live almost virus free has been breathlessly praised by international media including the Washington Post and The New York Times, but it has come at a cost — just ask Victorians who on Friday will emerge from their fourth lockdown in 18 months.
But the country’s vaccine rollout has been slower than expected and there are fears that reopening international borders will not happen for several years because attempts at aggressive suppression mean even a handful of new cases require harsh restrictions.
According to UNSW Economics Professor Gigi Foster, who spoke to news.com.au earlier this year, it is difficult to estimate the full cost of Australia’s Covid-19 response.
But she said lockdowns likely caused more harm than good.
“What I can say is that under any reasonable assumptions, the costs of our lockdown response are far greater than its benefits in a Covid world,” she said.
“This was clear early on and is why I have been saying for almost a year now that we are making a huge mistake when we implement lockdowns in response to Covid.”
NSW and Queensland are the latest states to experience the dread of new cases after a Victorian couple fled lockdown and drove across two state borders while infected.
There have been no additional cases in either state so far, but a long list of exposure sites have been listed by authorities in both states.
— with Alexis Carey
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