In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument and then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?
Today: how can it be wise to open our international borders when COVID-19 keeps developing deadly and virulent strains? But then, how can it be fair to keep Australian citizens out of their mostly COVID-safe country by keeping the borders closed?
Yes: we cannot let this virus infiltrate Australia as it has other countries. No: we’ve got to learn to live with it.
Australia’s COVID management strategy is in trouble. Not just in Victoria, where the slow release of the iron vice of its fourth lockdown makes the peril obvious, but across the whole country.
The problem is the variant of the COVID-19 virus — previously known as the Indian variant — two sub-strains of which have made their power felt in the Victorian outbreak. The Kappa strain, which a Victorian man picked up in hotel quarantine in South Australia before returning home to unknowingly spread it, and the Delta strain, which leaked from Victorian quarantine to a family in West Melbourne in a way we still don’t understand.
To say these sub-strains are highly contagious is an understatement. Expert opinion varies but many say the Kappa strain is 40% more infectious than the UK’s homegrown strain, now known as Alpha.
But this is nothing compared with the Delta strain, which is — wait for it — 80% more transmissible than Alpha. And the Alpha variant is 3.5 times more infectious than the original Wuhan virus, which was transmissible and deadly enough to force Victoria into three months of hard lockdown last year.
Victoria and the UK are not the only ones who’ve been poleaxed by this new and highly concerning variant. Countries which had as good a record as ours of controlling COVID — Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea — are battling outbreaks that have so far eluded control.
We can’t risk becoming them and Victoria, at least, can’t wear another long winter lockdown. For the sake of our businesses and all our mental health — particularly that of our young people — we must find a more economically sustainable and humane way to avoid the mortality and morbidity of COVID.
For now, the choice is simple, though harsh. We have to stop Australians returning from countries where the Delta variant is dominant and out of control. For now, that means the UK and India but perhaps soon also the United States.
It won’t be forever. Eventually, when we’re all vaccinated with something more effective against the Delta variant (the AstraZeneca given to our older people is only 60% effective, and Pfizer just 80% ), or these places get their outbreaks under control, or a dedicated quarantine facility in Victoria is finally built, then — in a far more sensible way than slamming our borders shut — the risks of the virus and lockdown can be averted when everyone comes home.
But until then we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect it to turn out differently. Delta is too dangerous and our ability to control it right now too weak and variable. It can only get in through the borders — so that’s where we have to stop it, or else spend more time in lockdown paying for our latest mistake.
Australian citizens have a right to return. What else does citizenship mean?
Yes, repatriation in the middle of a pandemic means risk. But while the Delta variants are the current bogeymen, next week another variant will have replaced it in some country as the most transmissible or deadly. Then another. Are we going to ban everyone from returning from these countries, too? How just is it to have a COVID-free country but not allow Australians desperate to escape places where they’re likely to die if they catch it?
Sure, right now the costs of importing COVID are unacceptably high, but that’s not the fault of quarantine, which whether based in hotels or not will always have a risk.
Instead of chucking a mental every time someone gets infected and locking down, Australians must learn to live with the virus, especially as we have a way to do this that doesn’t cause illness or death: vaccination.
The main point of having vaccinations is to turn COVID into the common cold. Which means that by getting vaccinated, we are exercising our power to make mortality and morbidity, and therefore lockdowns, a thing of the past.
Get vaccinated. Vaccinated people are less likely to catch COVID, spread it, and — most importantly — get so sick they need to go to the hospital.
We need better vaccination efforts at our borders, too. All border workers and their families should be fully vaccinated with Pfizer because it’s more effective and they are at highest risk of letting it get in. Everyone returning from overseas should start the vaccination process — preferably with Pfizer because it takes only three weeks to have two shots — in quarantine.
Until then we’ll just have to wear the risk of the occasional leak and lockdown, but once we’ve all had both shots we’ll be as protected as we can be from mass deaths and hospital overruns. Which means, if we’re sensible we’ll stop panicking about every case in the community — in the same way we don’t social distance, mask or lockdown against the threat of the common cold.
There are four viruses that cause colds around the world, and we live with them. We must learn to live with the coronavirus too.
Which side do you think Cannold sits on? And what do you believe? Send your thoughts to [email protected] with Both Sides Now in the subject line.