daniel andrews in front of TV screen showing melbourne postcodes
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/James Ross)

The failure of the US to not predict the September 11 terrorist attacks has been described as a failure of imagination more than a failure of intelligence.

The ongoing COVID-19 disaster in Victoria is arguably a failure of both.

While the rest of Australia has come close to eliminating the virus, Victoria is reporting upwards of 400 new cases each day and will soon become the record holder for the world’s longest lockdown. Even worse, the virus is running rampantly through aged care centres and may result in thousands of deaths. 

Almost everything that has gone wrong has been utterly predictable — the lack of solutions has been a drastic failure of imagination. While the failure to maintain a satisfactory quarantine has been Victoria’s most prominent health disaster, that hasn’t been the only foreseeable error. Victoria’s testing failures have been almost equally culpable.

While most countries have failed on the testing front (with only the odd honourable exception like Iceland and Singapore), there are actually two issues with testing.

First, the volume of tests. In this case, Victoria started far too slowly and even saw a period where it slowed in early June, falling from May’s peak daily testing rate 33,000.

But the number of tests is only half the problem. Arguably even more important is the speed of testing. On Wednesday, Premier Daniel Andrews castigated Victorians for flouting isolation rules: “If you feel sick, get tested, and get tested quickly. Then while you’re waiting for your result, wait for your result at home. Away from other people. Not at the supermarket. Not at work. Not anywhere else.”

The problem? If you get a COVID test in Victoria, it can take one to five days to get your results back. Very few people, acting in their own rational self-interest would both get tested and then fully isolate their entire family over that period when the results are overwhelmingly negative. (Even more so if you’ve got a low or uncertain income, kids at childcare or are younger and less at risk of serious health issues.)

That means tens of thousands of asymptomatic carriers are continuing to work and shop across Melbourne. 

Rather than criticise people for behaving rationally, the smart response would be investing far more heavily in testing infrastructure to ensure all COVID test results are returned within 24 hours. This would lead to a huge increase in compliance. One day off work or childcare is bearable, five days can be catastrophic.

Estimates suggest the second wave in Victoria will cost the country at least $3 billion. Going by Bloomberg’s estimate that commercial COVID tests cost around US$50-$100 each, it could be argued that Victoria could test every person in Melbourne for upwards of $500 million — a fraction of the cost of the continuing lockdown.

Likewise, investing in far quicker test results, while more costly in the short term, is almost certainly going to provide a huge return. This is how China got its second wave under control in Beijing, after it tested 2.3 million people in nine days.

Less blaming, Dan, and more testing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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