scientist-with-coronavirus-testing-tools
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

Politicians in Australia are planning a post-pandemic world just as north-west Tasmania shuts down. Why are parts of Europe recovering while Britain and the United States continue to struggle? And could getting all up in our shit help curb the virus spread?

Where the world is at

It was only weeks ago that Donald Trump was proudly claiming he’d be declaring victory over the virus by Easter. Boris Johnson was his upbeat, unflappable self.

Now with the Easter weekend come and gone, Boris Johnson is being discharged from hospital and 23,000 people have died in the United States, where mass graves are being dug across the country.

COVID-19 is forcing other sceptic leaders to eat their hats. For weeks Russia’s Vladimir Putin led a country that believed it had been spared from the carnage in western Europe. But in an about-face, Putin admitted the country “doesn’t have much to brag about” as cases began to accelerate in Moscow.

Elsewhere in Europe things are slowly taking a positive turn. Italy and Spain are slowly reopening some parts of their economy. In Denmark and Austria — countries that took early action and did better than most of the continent — lockdowns are being reversed.

Why the inconsistent outcomes across the continent? As a comparison between the UK and Germany shows, early emphasis on testing and tracing is key. Germany moved quickly and has tested 1.3 million people, compared to 335,000 in the UK. Britain currently has nearly three times the deaths of Germany

Better testing is one of the key reasons certain areas are doing better. Take the unlikely success story of Kerala in South India, where despite high numbers of foreign tourists, an aggressive test and trace regime has seen the curve flatten, even as it trends upward in the rest of the country.

The numbers look good — but watch out for Tassie

Back home, our numbers continue to look positive.

Our daily new case numbers have been in the double digits since before Easter. According to Professor James McCaw from Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, the man behind the government’s modelling, Australia’s virus reproduction rate has fallen below one, which is the point where things start to fade. State and federal governments are tentatively planning an exit strategy. 

Some politicians are using this new talk of a post-virus world to push for Australia adopting greater economic self-sufficiency, early signs of a battle over the future of globalisation that is set to come. 

At the same time, the country still has specific virus hotspots. One of those is in north-west Tasmania, where the government has closed two hospitals and put some 5000 people under lock down following an outbreak linked, unsurprisingly, to the Ruby Princess. The region has around 60 cases, nearly half of all in the state.

In NSW, the state government is hitting hotspots hard. In areas like the affluent eastern suburbs, which still has the highest infection numbers in the state, people with even mild symptoms may be able to get a test, as authorities hope to stamp out potential community transmission.

It’s in the poo

How do we stay even further on top of virus numbers? One new idea being trialled by researchers in Australia and across the world is going through Australians’ poo.

Researchers in the Netherlands found that traces of COVID-19 can show up in faecal matter within three days of infection, earlier than most symptoms, and by testing sewage, epidemiologists here hope to get a handle on potential community outbreaks.

The idea is not novel. We already analyse sewage to track other viruses like norovirus, and to determine patterns of recreational drug use across the country. 

A nation of cops and dobbers

It’s been two weeks since states enacted some of the toughest restrictions on movement in the western world, giving police broad powers to dish out fines to people who didn’t have a good excuse for leaving the house.

By all accounts, they’ve been using these powers with relish. Over the long weekend, NSW police issued over $300,000 worth of fines. According to COVID-19 Policing Australia, a project run by academics and human rights organisations, there have been 28 reports of inappropriate or concerning police actions in the last week. 

And while we don’t know how many such incidents there are nationwide, or how many fines will be thrown out or challenged — over the weekend lawyers told The Sydney Morning Herald many fines wouldn’t stand up in court — there have been plenty of examples of police overreach.

A Victorian couple were issued with over $3000 in fines for pictures they posted on social media of a holiday taken last year. Also in Victoria, police entered a man’s funeral, behaviour that was called “totally disrespectful” by the daughter of the deceased.

In Western Australia, cops broke up a camp of Indigenous rough sleepers, doling out fines to people with nowhere else to go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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