Long game needed for victory over virus

For weeks, the message has been loud and clear: If we adhere to the social distancing restrictions that have curtailed our daily lives and strangled the economy, the pay-off will be a drop in the number of infections, saving lives and avoiding overwhelming the health system. There are encouraging signs, with the daily infection rate across Australia dropping below 100 for the first time in weeks.

With so many people financially crippled – half the nation’s businesses have let staff go or cut hours – it did not take long for the first rumblings to surface over how much longer the brake pedal will be put on people's movements. The retail industry group has called on shopkeepers to reopen stores "if they can", while the national cabinet has tentatively begun discussions on how it may gradually wind back restrictions in certain states or regions. The news this week from China that Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, had reopened its borders after 11 weeks of lockdown was also a promising sign of life returning to some form of normality.

A medical worker, in red, embraces a colleague as she prepares to leave Wuhan after restrictions were lifted.Credit:AP

While good news is in short supply and should not be discounted, Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews was quick to deliver a reality check. He made it clear this week that the state should brace for “many months” of social distancing restrictions, and even warned of possible tougher measures if the infection rates began to lift. The Age supports Mr Andrews' tough talk.

The medical reality supports Mr Andrews, too. A vaccine, which is the most likely breakthrough that would finally quash the virus, is still at least 12 to 18 months away. Until a sizeable number of any community is given immunity to COVID-19, some form of social distancing is still the most effective way to keep a check on the infection rate.

And even then it is no guarantee. Hong Kong and Singapore, nations that were held up as role models for early and effective intervention against COVID-19, are both seeing a spike in locally transmitted cases. For most nations, this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did some straight talking with Canadians this week, telling them life will not be returning to normal until there is a vaccine.

That is not to say some restrictions may be reined in. While the chances of going to watch an AFL game any time soon would at best be wishful thinking, schools opening their doors to more students would appear a better bet. While the unknowns of COVID-19 still outweigh the knowns, however, crystal ball predictions are a fraught business.

But there are more triggers required to increase the optimism that the virus is being contained. Flattening the curve for a few days certainly makes good headlines, but COVID-19 symptoms can take 14 days to surface, so it would take at least that long for infection numbers to stay low before there is some confidence that a spike was not just below the radar. Even then, widespread testing and contact tracing would need to continue to ensure any outbreak could be located quickly.

In sport parlance, this is a one game at a time scenario. Victory one week is often a poor predictor of future form. So far, Australia has fared much better than many nations in this pandemic, and there are many to thank for that, not least the vast majority of people playing by the rules. But each week, and month, will bring its own set of challenges. Let's make sure Australia stays focused on the main game of saving lives.

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