First, calmness is more useful than panic. New COVID-19 cases are a lagging indicator of the virus; the actual infection event likely happened a few days ago.
“It looks like they’ve found a cluster – maybe only a generation or two of transmission out from when it crossed the international border,” Deakin University’s chair of epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett tells me.
“That’s good news. They can fan out from that point, and going to contacts of contacts of cases getting people in for testing, and will stop the spread.”
Victoria became obsessed with daily case numbers; they were watched like the home straight at Flemington. But really you’re watching a race that was run two weeks ago.
The sharp upward and downward swings of the daily case count make your stomach feel like it’s on a rollercoaster. But there is an enormous amount of statistical noise in these counts, and they depend on who gets tested and how long those tests take to return. I should have resisted the urge to feel comforted by steep drops, or fearful of sharp spikes, or look for peaks.
Second, focus on what matters. Obsessing over surfaces or packed crowds at beaches is not supported by the evidence. The real threat has become clear: large groups, inside, over long periods of time.
The quality of Sydney’s suppression is one factor, along with the effectiveness of the public health response and, yes, luck, that will decide whether the outbreak can be quickly brought under control.
Accept that luck plays a large role.
Third, apply scrutiny to political and healthcare leaders in ways that make the community stronger, not weaker. During an outbreak, people are scared and looking for good advice on what they can do to keep themselves and others safe. Share and amplify public health messages. Resist misinformation. Bring people together to help each other.
When the crisis is over, turn sharp scrutiny on political, scientific and healthcare leaders. The same questions can be asked in Sydney as they were in Melbourne: how effective is infection control at hotel quarantine? How well-resourced and run is Sydney’s public health team? Do health advice and policy settings match the best scientific evidence?
Lastly, there will be an urge to feel sorry for yourself. Instead, try to keep your eyes on the people COVID-19 really affects: the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.
All around the world, it is disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of infections.
In Melbourne, it was our multicultural communities – inadequately warned because of a lack of in-their-language communication – and those living in social housing who were hit hardest. During lockdown, the same people often found themselves working in jobs that meant they could not stay home, putting them at greater risk of catching the virus.
It is overwhelmingly the elderly and the vulnerable who will die from this virus.
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Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter