Australia ended the first coronavirus lockdown too quickly and failed to adequately advocate the use of masks, the public health strategist Bill Bowtell has argued.
On the ABC Q+A program on Monday, Bowtell, who helped spearhead Australia’s response to the HIV/Aids epidemic, repeated his calls for an elimination strategy, similar to the approach taken in New Zealand, but which has been rejected by Australian authorities.
His view was strongly countered by the University of New South Wales economist Gigi Foster, whose argument that Australia should open its economy in the manner of Sweden’s approach to the pandemic was labelled “heartless” by the host, Hamish Macdonald.
Australia experienced one of its worst days of the pandemic on Monday as Victoria recorded 532 new cases and six deaths, while NSW reported 17 new infections.
Bowtell said the coronavirus was not an “Australia-wide” problem given that it had been effectively eliminated in Western Australia, while even NSW had experienced about three weeks without community transmission.
But he said Australia risked a “groundhog day” situation and, without the strategic goal of elimination, the virus had “found a way to come back”.
“We were too quick to come out of the lockdown, the first one,” he said. “We did not advocate strongly enough the use of masks in the transition, and here we are.”
The national cabinet last week affirmed that Australia was pursuing a suppression strategy and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, noted that NSW has so far avoided large daily case growth, despite reopening the economy.
The problems in Victoria have been attributed to failings with the state’s hotel quarantine system, which is now the subject of a judicial review. Masks, which are now compulsory in Melbourne, have not been widely advocated by authorities outside Victoria, although federal health advice states they are recommended in areas with community transmission.
Monday’s episode of Q+A focused on the economic response to the pandemic, including the government’s decision to reduce but extend the jobkeeper and jobseeker payments beyond September.
But much of the program focused on debate between Bowtell and Foster.
Macdonald noted that the Swedish response to the coronavirus, where authorities took a very light touch in terms of lockdown restrictions, has resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, far more than its Nordic neighbours, and little comparable economic benefit compared with those countries.
But Foster said: “Well, it’s very, very early days, first of all.
“Secondly, we’re also having huge economic costs here. These costs are going to be with us for a generation.”
Foster claimed that about 12,500 to 25,000 people, mostly elderly and immunocompromised people, would die in Australia if a Swedish-style model was adopted. She said this would eventually be comparable with other nations.
Macdonald asked her why she was advocating for people to die.
Foster rejected that, saying she was considering other factors such as unemployment and mental stress.
Bowtell said the Swedish situation was a “fiasco” and that some of the measures adopted there were “abhorrent”.
“The prime minister of Sweden the other day apologised for what had happened,” he said. “The idea of locking old people in aged care homes, not allowing them to be treated in hospitals as became the norm in Sweden, is or should be abhorrent.
“You cannot segment out one sector of the population and ask them to undergo great misery, suffering, death, in the interests, spurious interests, of saying all the rest of us will benefit.
“That’s not how societies work. It should not work in Australia. It can be discounted.”
On the government’s changes to welfare payments, the Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the move to reduce the coronavirus supplement for jobseekers by $300 a fortnight was a “massive cut to families and to the economy”.
The change, which will come into effect in September, reduces the base rate of unemployment benefits to about $830 a fortnight.
Goldie said without a permanent increase those on welfare payments would have “no certainty beyond Christmas about what will happen”.
The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, defended the decision to reduce the supplement, which he said the government had always maintained was “temporary”.
“We’ll have a look at what needs to be the case beyond December as we get closer to that point in time” he said.
“We’ve made further changes to ensure if people are able to get a few hours of work on top of that jobseeker payment and jobseeker supplement, they’re able to keep more of that money.”