Australia should have restricted arrivals from the USA on the 11 March, in the same way as it did for Italy. Failure to do so has caused extra immeasurable cost and trauma to the Australian economy and people.
In fact, basic logic tells us that the decision about the USA could have been made as early as the 7 March.
Was the decision to hold off for another few weeks a result of obliviousness to the data or a conscious diplomatic decision not to upset our major ally?
The Ruby Princess might not be the principal mistake
The failure to place a strict embargo on flights from the USA seems to more than match the Ruby Princess debacle.
While on 11 March Italy joined China, Iran and South Korea as being subject to severe Australian restrictions on arrivals, such a restriction was never imposed on foreign nationals from the USA. It was not until 28 March that all arrivals were forced into mandatory hotel quarantine.
It is estimated from government sources that the number of infections (direct and indirect) attributable to US arrivals could be somewhere between 1,600 and 2,300 of our total of approximately 6,700.
The number of infections linked to the Ruby Princess could account for up to 1200 cases.
From around 11 March there were few new infections from the four main problem countries, but US derived infections were surging and, in a second wave, it would become our major source.
What logic and data told us
We do not need hindsight to draw these conclusions. Instead, it was clear by the first week of March that COVID-19 had to be widespread in the US.
How could we infer this?
On Saturday 7 March, the Victorian Health Minister revealed that a doctor had recently returned from the US with the infection.
But we ask ourselves, how could it be possible for someone, a doctor of all people, to go to the US and return with coronavirus given that the infection rate was so low there?
The doctor flew out of San Francisco on 27 February, when the US had only 15 reported COVD-19 cases less than one person in 20 million. It was effectively not possible for the doctor to catch it if the US infection rate was miniscule. The USA data at the beginning of March was clearly not only incorrect but massively incorrect. COVID-19 had to be very widespread in the USA.
Statisticians have a formalised approach to choosing between two scenarios and, while not strictly applicable in this situation, the statistical thinking supports this conclusion.
To me, the instance of the doctor was enough to indicate Australia could act with a very high degree of confidence in implementing strong restrictions on arrivals from the USA.
There were risks in making this decision:
– Act too early, when it was not necessary, and we might offend the world’s most powerful country.
– Act too late and we might suffer huge health and economic consequences.
One infected arrival not sufficient evidence for our key decision makers?
There were other indicators
Despite the doctor’s instance, logical thinking seemed to be shunned.
As far as we know, the medical practitioners who complained and petitioned in support of the doctor did not take on the role of medical detective, as medicos normally would, to determine how the doctor could possibly return from the US with COVD-19. Not even when, on the 10 March, it was reported that a second person on the same flight as the doctor was also infected.
On 12 March we would learn that two American celebrities apparently brought COVID-19 with them to Queensland. That home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also tested positive after a meeting in the US on 6 March.
Where were our modellers and our health experts? Scant mention can be found of anyone questioning these amazing happenings, all while the US infection rate was claimed to be negligible!
Reported infections in the US, though, were starting to explode.
We would learn about Australians in Aspen bringing the infection home with them, that some flouted isolation advice, and that six guests with links to returned Aspen travellers were infected at a 21st birthday party.
New Zealand would report cases arriving from the US from 14 March. Ten American tourists would test positive to coronavirus, effectively closing down the Barossa Valley.
Yet there was still no special clampdown on arrivals from the USA. The virus was needlessly spreading in Australia.
From January, emphatic concerns were expressed by Americans about problems in the US, including warnings about an American epidemic; that there were blunders and a possible unknown underlying catastrophe. In late February a nursing home in the Seattle region was being ravaged by the virus, with 35 people eventually dying. Some US states were taking action to fight the spread.
Much was written about the systemic issues in the US: the faulty testing kits, not enough testing, testing delays, inadequate infection data, wrongly attributed causes of death, shortages of essential medical supplies, crises in hospitals, politicisation of the pandemic, social distancing introduced too late.
On 13 March a BBC article included ‘As the coronavirus spreads across the US, tens of millions of Americans may not seek medical help either because they are uninsured or undocumented. That puts everyone in society at greater risk’.
The flow-on consequence of course is that it can put the citizens in other countries at risk too, and Australia would suffer.
The consequences of failing to act
In hindsight Australia has managed the COVID-19 crisis beyond all expectations and hopes.
The pity is that by end of March we could have been where we are now.
It is hard to ignore that with decisive early action many infections spread by well-heeled travellers would have been avoided.
Crikey noted that by the time of the stronger ban of 14 March (self-isolation for 14 days for all arrivals) ‘the US had become the leading source country of overseas infection’ in Australia. That problems in the US ‘… made it the key contributor to shifting the disease in Australia from challenge to emergency’.
Wrong judgement meant Australians remain in lockdown for another month or three at an incredible price. The consequences will be immeasurable in terms of extra cost to the governments, failed businesses, wrecked livelihoods, higher unemployment, unnecessary deaths, delays in restarting education, and the rest.
The Crikey article wrote that, for Morrison, ‘It was one thing to block hot-spots like Italy or Korea, but how should he respond to this US influx [of infections] without damaging the carefully curated relationship with the US president?’.
For some reason, timely and firm action was not taken against US arrivals.
If it was due to our decision makers being totally oblivious to the obvious, it is a blot on their otherwise astonishing performance.
If it was a political decision, it was an unconscionable trade-off for duty of care for the Australian people and the economy.
On the 26 April, after I had completed writing this article, a Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Monash University was quoted as saying:
‘If an infected traveller returns to a country with good testing and surveillance infrastructure after visiting a place where testing capabilities are poor, the traveller may provide a signal (sometimes the first signal) of infection in the country they visited’.
Robin Boyle lectured in statistics at Deakin University and preceding institutes for three decades until 2009. His academic background in mathematics, economics and finance, as well as statistics, led him to developing teaching software in those areas and to be widely sought after as a textbook author.