The Australian economy is now projected to grow by 3.2 per cent in 2021, a major turnaround from last July’s estimate of minus 4.1 percent for this year. With a population of around 25 million, Australia has experienced just over 30,157 cases and 910 deaths as of June 5, 2021. Now one must be wondering how this is possible amidst the crisis. The answer boils down to Australia’s strategic handling of the pandemic.
In fact, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised Australia for being a world leader on the containment and management of emerging variants. Early in the pandemic, it was uncertain how lethal it was and which measures were essential to contain it. Different administrations tried different policies. Australia’s experience to date helps us draw lessons that can be used to shape strategies in future, in Australia as well as abroad. Here is a glimpse of its daily cases over the past year.
The country’s success in containing the pandemic can be ascribed to certain extent to its structural advantages such as, being an Island nation it had the luxury to close borders quickly. This cannot undermine the fact that the key to its fighting the pandemic was a strong public health response, effective policies, healthy leadership practices, vigilant testing, tracing and quarantine. Further, the article shines light on the key practices that enabled Australia to maintain low COVID cases.
The first one is “quick decision making” adopted by the government. Faced by the coronavirus threat in March last year the government quickly shut down the international borders and imposed an imperative home isolation for Australian citizens returning from abroad. Proper and clear communication about the restrictions, through press conferences, advertising etcetera played a huge role. Hefty fines were imposed on citizens not adhering to the rules and eventually all this provided Australia a logical path to move ahead. Well, such a prompt response from the federal government may be based on the lessons drawn from the bush- fire experience. It made them realise that an early bucket sprayed of water saves incessant gallons spreader too late.
The “data driven approach” that the government adopted is commendable. The ministry collected data from different sectors and put that together to create a single source on which to base decision making. This clarity about data ensured trust between policy makers and the masses. Now the policy makers also needed to understand the effectiveness of stimulus packages, so that future policies can be framed keeping this a base. To assist the government to understand this, financial institutions provided the government with anonymized credit- and debit-card-spending data.
“Bipartisan Unity” seen in Australia has also played a crucial role in its systematic handling of the situation. When the pandemic hit, Australia’s two major political parties put aside their differences of opinion and worked together. The conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, rallied state leaders of various parties into a national cabinet. The trade union movement was given a role in forming policy. The leader of the opposition, largely backed the government’s pandemic response. “There are no blue teams or red teams. There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now”, said Morrison. The country ensured a unified national response while at the same time allowing the states to retain their autonomy and learn from one another. Interestingly, the states learned from one another when the federal government commissioned independent reports for all leaders and the public to see. This enabled the states to employ the best practices of other states and independently adopt other policies as well. The risk of communication breakdowns in a federal system was alleviated by the establishment of a National Cabinet that consisted of the prime minister and the heads of government of each state. The National Cabinet conducted high-frequency formal and informal meetings which played a crucial role in overall handling.
“Sensitive, peaceful and logical engagement” with communities also helped. When the pandemic struck indigenous Australians insisted they run their own response and the government listened and provided resources. The incredible result was Indigenous Australians were six times less likely to contract Covid-19 and there were zero deaths. On the other hand, migrant communities in Victoria had been inadequately provided with information in their languages. This led to an outbreak in Victoria. It was something which was taken care of in future.
The “trust among the citizens” also had an extensive role to play in the efficacy of the reform measures. The citizens strictly adhered to the lockdown restrictions and rarely protested against mask wearing. Australia’s Medicare, which is a system of universal health care, is immensely popular. People believed in this health care system and this belief made more than half of the country’s population to get tested. Additionally, the public trust is also upheld because of the detailed reviews by independent professionals which are made available in the public domain. This maintained transparency and led to fact based decision making.
Fortunately, the pandemic brought the private and public sectors together with greater trust than usually is the case in Australia. The government established the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to create a mechanism to enable collaboration between the public and private sectors.
On the economic front, the government announced three packages of financial assistance to Australian households and businesses equating to 12.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The JobKeeper program which was a wage subsidy program also provided the necessary support.
The procedure was certainly not without hiccups. The coordinator was not constantly smooth and a few lapses did occur. The federal officials felt annoyed about Melbourne’s extreme lockdown and Hunt, Morrison and federal health advisers tried to criticize the rules without undermining overall confidence in the response. But overall it was managed well, letting the country into a much better position relative to the rest of the world today and having success in flattening the curve.