(Image: Getty/sudok1)

Flatten the curve” is the mantra being recited around the world, urging everyone to help slow the spread of the coronavirus so healthcare systems can cope. 

Australia has had the benefit of learning from nations already affected. We know the virus responds extremely well to public health measures like social distancing and quarantining.

But we’ve yet to take drastic steps. Schools are still open, there’s no ban on mass events and no forced social distancing. Crikey takes a look at responses around the world and asks, what more should we do?

Stay away from me

New York this morning banned mass gatherings and ordered schools in several counties to close. Israel has closed schools and universities. Italy is in lockdown, with residents only permitted to leave their home under strict circumstances. China placed tens of millions into forced quarantine (though not without human rights concerns).

The president of the Australian Medical Association’s WA branch has warned Italy’s lockdown could be an example of what’s to come in Australia.

Professor Robert Booy, Head of Clinical Research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, tells Crikey that closures should be implemented immediately.

“We need to do more — this is a serious pandemic,” Booy said. “So many countries around the world are already closing schools and other institutions — this should be happening in Australia. The degree of social distancing should be increased.”

It’s an opinion echoed by Labor leaders who have called for “draconian” measures. Labor’s Bill Shorten has called for “drastic social distancing measures” — including closing schools and cancelling mass events.

Shorten is a step behind Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews who called for the closure of all schools earlier this week.

Should we force people into quarantine?

Given how woefully some journalists seem to understand the concept of social distancing and self-isolation, should Australia resort to forced quarantine?

Legally, we could. Under the Biosecurity Act 2015, those exhibiting symptoms could be detained and forced to undergo treatment or decontamination if they defied health directions.

But it’s an unnecessarily heavy-handed tactic, Booy says. “Some people will disobey orders because they need to keep their job, or have mild symptoms,” he said but added most people would do the right thing.

“Simply telling people to self-isolate is very effective.”

Where are our McTesting clinics?

China announced yesterday they have passed the “peak of the epidemic” after taking drastic measures to control the virus. The government made sure tests and treatment were free, establishing special fever clinics where people could take CT scans. These scans were revolutionary, finding “ground glass” patterns on the lungs in those infected. Each machine was capable of running over 200 tests a day.

South Korea pioneered drive-through testing clinics which screened more than 200,000 people in a matter of weeks. The country also recently announced they have “passed the peak” of the outbreak. 

Australia was quick to develop an effective test. Adelaide was the first to launch a drive-through testing clinic, though it is still in its pilot stages.

Despite our quick and free tests, Australia has had issues with administering them. Doctors have complained about mixed messaging around who to test, with metropolitan hospitals facing long queues of people waiting to get swabbed (which, yes, is as counter-intuitive as it seems).

Booy believes our testing is adequate, pointing to the special clinics for potential coronavirus patients and special funding to allow medicare rebates for telehealth appointments.

“We cannot bypass the epidemic. It’s highly transmissible and will cause severe disease in a minority of vulnerable people,” Booy said.

So stay away from others, get tested self-isolate.

Peter Fray

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