Scott Morrison is losing control of the coronavirus outbreak due to lack of testing—and has failed to deliver the enormous expansion in healthcare services needed.
A number of countries have succeeded in controlling the spread of the virus—including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and eventually China, where the virus emerged.
Key to this has been free, mass testing and contact tracing.
In China, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) assistant director general Bruce Aylward, “To actually stop the virus, [they] had to do rapid testing of any suspect case, immediate isolation of anyone who was a confirmed or suspected case, and then quarantine the close contacts for 14 days so that they could figure out if any of them were infected.”
“Those were the measures that stopped transmission in China, not the big travel restrictions and lockdowns”, he told New Scientist. This is why the WHO director-general is imploring governments to “test, test, test.”
South Korea has set up facilities to test up to 20,000 people every day at a network of 633 sites nationwide, including at drive-through testing centres. Results usually come through within 24 hours.
After reporting up to 850 new cases a day at the peak in early March, over the last week it has brought this down to less than 100 a day. South Korea was prepared because its government put money into pandemic planning after dealing with an outbreak of MERS in 2015, another kind of coronavirus.
Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong were also quicker to respond because of their experience with the SARS virus in 2003.
Taiwan began screening passengers from Wuhan for fevers on 31 December, as soon as China admitted that people were falling ill from an unknown disease, and began initial testing within days.
Italy and Iran failed to do this early enough and are experiencing catastrophic outbreaks as a result.
But testing in Australia is also woefully inadequate. Shortages mean health professionals have been forced into “rationing” the tests, as immunologist John Dwyer from UNSW told the ABC.
Hospitals have imposed restrictive guidelines that allow only those who have returned from overseas with clear symptoms, or who have had contact with a confirmed case, to get a test.
One large hospital service in Brisbane was forced to tighten its criteria for access to a test twice in one day, the ABC reported.
Yet we know the vast majority of people who catch the virus will experience only mild symptoms, and some may not even realise they are sick. This makes widespread, proactive tracing and testing of those potentially exposed very important.
Yet people have been waiting at least five days to find out the test result. Labor’s Chris Bowen complained that, “I’ve heard reports of eight days, sometimes six days…”
Although the import of 97,000 new test kits has been trumpeted, this will not be anywhere near enough.
Morrison has completely failed to plan for this. In the two months since the crippling outbreak in China exploded little has been done to prepare.
There is also a desperate shortage of protective equipment like masks and gowns in hospitals. The Australian government only in late March asked local manufacturers to begin producing it, as well as starting to explore options to manufacture testing equipment.
Instead, the government’s strategy is to slow the virus’s spread by locking down society until a vaccine is developed. But this is at least 12 months away.
The unbelievable bungle that saw almost 2700 cruise passengers allowed to leave a ship in Sydney after people were known to be sick, before tests confirmed they had coronavirus, shows the failure of planning.
The spread of COVID-19 in Australia will overwhelm the health system unless there is a massive increase in testing and intensive care unit (ICU) beds.
Based on experience in China, around 5 per cent of those infected needed a ventilator in ICU. According to epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre, “If 50 per cent of Australians—13 million people—became infected that is up to 400,000 people dying, almost 2 million people needing a hospital bed and 650,000 people needing an ICU bed”, over the course of a year.
There are currently only around 2200 ICU beds in Australia equipped with ventilators, with suggestions this could be doubled to 4000. This is nowhere near enough to deal with a serious outbreak.
And many of them are in the private hospital system—which should be taken over and integrated with public hospitals.
Hospitals were already working at capacity. Australia has less intensive care beds per person than many other developed countries including Italy, the US and South Korea.
We need a massive expansion in health and aged care funding to meet the crisis, not billions of dollars to bail out business.
By Lachlan Marshall