morrison coronavirus conference virus covid-19
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The first step to recovery is admitting you’ve got a problem. The issue in Australia is that Scott Morrison and his team of medical advisers don’t seem to be grasping the full extent of that problem.

Right now, we’re endeavouring to “flatten the curve” — that is, to trying to hold on with a slightly slower rate of infection to allow the economy to function at a lower rate, say 50%, until an effective viral treatment or vaccine is produced.

There are two fundamental problems with this approach.

First, the economy is headed to an even greater meltdown due to the length of the slowdown — and ensuing uncertainty.

Second, the maths is showing that the current measures simply aren’t working.

Let’s consider the second point first.

Australia’s infection rate has been growing fast this week the number of confirmed cases jumped 25% in a single day. This doesn’t appear to be slowing. (Preventing non-citizens from entering will do little to help, given transmission is now occurring in the community — plus, Australian citizens are just as likely as non-citizens to have the virus.)

The only chance this approach had of working is by using widespread testing, due to the likely significant number of asymptomatic cases. This is clearly not occurring.

Assuming the infection rate continues exponentially at, say, 23%, within two weeks there will be more than 12,000 cases.

In three weeks, there will be more than 53,000 cases (as a comparison, Italy now has 41,000 cases and 3400 deaths). If the rate continues at 25%, within three weeks we will have 76,000 cases. About the same as China.

Are our experts ignoring the reality of transmission?

Professor Jodie McVernon of the Doherty Institute recently said “we are not coming to these questions naively or without prior thought. [We are] coming with tools we’ve prepared earlier.”

“How long that will take, we don’t know. We’re saying at least six months, if we do this well, it will take at least six months to keep that curve flat enough to be within our capacity.”

This approach is likely to lead to a far longer and deeper recession.

Every business I’m involved with is currently cutting staff and hours (and drastically culling marketing spend). For many businesses, especially those with high fixed asset costs, the current situation is completely untenable for more than a few months.

The shutdowns will then further weaken demand, leading to previously strong and well-capitalised businesses facing catastrophe.

Morrison’s hope that we can continue in economic limbo for six months (or more) will lead to far worse economic hardship. Businesses are unable to properly plan as no one knows the length of the pandemic.

This approach may have been warranted in an information vacuum, but we have a live and working example: China.

Crikey has spoken to several leading China-based business figures and it is clear that the extremely strict, two-week lockdown outside Hubei was extraordinarily effective at curbing the spread.

Italy, which is attempting a similar lockdown, albeit with a far more resistant population, has yet to see decisive results. Although, the day-on-day growth appears to be slowing, certainly in the country’s north.

Shanghai, which was essentially locked down for just under two weeks from February 5 (with one person per household permitted out to purchase food once per day) is now back to around 80% capacity.

Schools are expected to resume in the coming weeks. People are going to restaurants and, other than constant temperature-checking, life within most of China is slowly returning to normality.

This was less than six weeks after the lockdown started. Surely this indicates that the fastest way back to economic normality is a short and drastic lockdown.

A slow, grinding half measure over six months is disastrous for our health and the economy.

The path for Australia is clear. An immediate China-style lockdown for 10 to 14 days, then a gradual easing over the next two to four weeks depending on the current spread. This will save lives and save businesses.

Half measures simply aren’t working.