Last week, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, singled out Australia’s response to the covid-19 pandemic as an example of success. “They really do get the cases almost to nothing,” he said. “We’ve never had that in the United States.”
Australia is hardly a perfect country. Its record on climate change is poor. Reconciliation with Indigenous Australia is appallingly incomplete. The nation’s top law enforcement officer is currently battling a historic rape allegation while retaining the support of the prime minister.
But on covid-19, we’ve done well. Here’s my attempt to explain why.
1. The bush fire experience: Just before covid-19 struck, Australia suffered its worst-ever bush fire season. The fires consumed about 50,000 square miles of bush and killed at least 33 people, including three American firefighters. The lesson: An early bucket of water beats endless gallons sprayed too late. When covid-19 struck a month or so later, Australia responded with a sharp, hard lockdown. In March last year, international borders were closed, and returning Australians were forced into hotel quarantine — often guarded by police or military. Now, a year on, as many as 40,000 Australians are still overseas, queuing for a slot in that system. Some have criticized the policy as undermining a core right of citizenship, but it has worked.
2. First Nations people must be given power to run their own response: Health outcomes for Indigenous Australians are shamefully much worse than for other Australians: Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy around 8 years fewer than non-Indigenous Australians. But they were six times less likely to contract covid-19. Not a single Indigenous Australian died. Only 148 contracted the disease, and just 15 percent of these people were hospitalized. The reason: Indigenous leaders insisted that they should drive the response and — for once — they were listened to. Remote communities were closed to outsiders, food was supplied to limit travel, and information campaigns were created full of Indigenous humor and values. At the heart of the campaign was a First Nations passion for protecting their elders: “They are our universities: the holders of our knowledge,” as Indigenous leader Pat Turner put it. The result? According to public health expert Fiona Stanley, it has been “the best result for any Indigenous population in the world.” It also proved a case study in the efficacy of Indigenous control.
3. States matter: Like the United States, Australia has three levels of government — federal, state and local — which is one too many, according to persistent arguments going back decades. Suddenly, though, we’ve discovered the virtues of states. The most populous, New South Wales (NSW), has elevated contact tracing to an art form. The ability to close borders also turned Australia into eight small nations — an advantage in a world in which smaller countries have generally done best in the pandemic.
4. It helps if people follow the rules: Australians love to think of themselves as rebels, but in truth we’re a compliant lot. There were few anti-mask protests, and when people were told to wear masks, they immediately obeyed. And though some complained about the tough lockdowns, swelling approval ratings greeted the leaders who imposed them.
5. It’s important to reach across the aisle: Australian politics is highly combative, but when covid-19 struck, a truce was called. The conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, rallied state leaders of various parties into a national cabinet. The trade union movement, normally shunned by the government, was given a role in forming policy. The leader of the opposition, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, largely backed the government’s pandemic response. “There are no blue teams or red teams,” Morrison said early on. “There are no more unions or bosses. There are just Australians now.” The truce didn’t last forever, but it helped.
6. You don’t have to choose between “saving lives” and “saving the economy”: Australia’s tough lockdown had a shattering impact on business. Yet by controlling the pandemic, Australia has been able to reopen its economy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is now predicting the Australian economy will achieve its fastest rate of growth in a decade.
7. People trust the health system: For all the controversy over “socialist medicine” in the United States, Australia’s Medicare — a system of universal health care — is immensely popular. When people were told to get tested, the starting point was a health system people believed in. Nearly 15 million covid-19 tests have been conducted, equivalent to more than half the country’s population.
8. Make use of the police and military: Whether it was the army bringing its organizational skills to contact tracing in NSW, or the police and naval officers enforcing hotel quarantine, those in uniform won fresh levels of respect.
9. Mobilize communities: The worst outbreak, which occurred in Victoria, occurred in migrant communities that had been inadequately served with information in their languages. It was a lesson we had to learn.
10. Be an island: Australia is a very large island. It’s not the whole story. But it helped.