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From 1 to 1,889,757 cases and rising: Australia’s two years with COVID on our shores

By on January 24, 2022 0

Two years ago today Australia joined the COVID club for the first time.

We had heard of a strange new virus circulating in a Chinese city – little known outside the country at the time – for a few weeks as it escalated from a cluster of pneumonia-like illnesses to an epidemic. city-wide.

Wuhan’s 11 million residents locked down on Jan. 23, a move the World Health Organization called at the time “unprecedented in the history of public health.”

But it was already too late to stop the spread around the world.

In a few days, we would have our own cases, in a few weeks, our own blockages.

So far the pandemic has lasted twice as long as the spanish flu in Australia – and there is no end in sight.

Wuhan has been the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak.(China Daily via Reuters)

“Unprecedented” was a word we would hear a lot over the next two years.

We had prepared for the inevitable spread of the virus to our shores, with public health officials springing into action, pandemic preparedness plans dusted off and epidemiologists honing their media skills.

Australia’s coronavirus story has been full of twists and turns from the first to the 1,889,757th case recorded on Monday.

We have now been through several different waves of coronavirus, and each has had a different shape as the major drivers change.

A man stands in the middle of rows of beds in a large convention center.
A convention center transformed into a temporary hospital in Wuhan, just after the start of containment in January 2020.(Chinatopix via AP, file)

First cases in Australia

On the morning of January 25, the news dreaded by health officials arrived: Australia’s first reported case of coronavirus was detected in a man in his 50s from Wuhan, who had since flown to Melbourne. Guangzhou six days earlier.

One case quickly grew to four: Later that day three more cases were confirmed in New South Wales, three men who had flown in from China aged 30, 40 and 50.

By this point, the virus – before it was called COVID-19 and long before we had heard of its variants – had killed at least 41 people in China and infected more than a thousand. others.

“Given the number of cases that have been discovered outside of China and the heavy traffic from Wuhan City in the past to Australia, it was not unexpected that we would receive cases,” the official told Reuters. then Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy.

We haven’t heard much about these four men other than travel routes and flight numbers, but the bones of their story became familiar early on in Australia’s pandemic journey.

At first, most cases were caught overseas and brought to Australia – first from China, then Europe, the US and further afield as the epicenter of COVID shifted around the world.

Several people walking past a large ship, with the Sydney Harbor Bridge visible in the background
It wasn’t just airplanes that brought the coronavirus to Australia. (AAP: Dean Lewins )

Spread from abroad

Those who tested positive were Australians who had traveled at the wrong time, expats who had decided to return home to weather the pandemic and its economic downturn, dual citizens who had become accustomed to a global life with their families through the world, foreign citizens who come here to work or travel.

Airlines released lists of flights that had brought cases home and which seat numbers were most at risk. Cruise ship passengers brought it with them off the ship and across the country.

Home quarantine was introduced to reduce the risk, the border was closed and when that wasn’t enough Australia switched to its hotel quarantine system – which in itself was not foolproof. The virus still managed to infiltrate the community from hotels at least two dozen times.

For a long time, “overseas business” has been a significant part of Australia’s caseload.

Two years later, it’s a whole different story. COVID caught overseas is a tiny part of that wave.

Now other countries are excluding Australian travelers – or thinking about it.

Hong Kong banned flights from Australia in early January, while the European Council has classified Australia as a hotspot this week, advising its member countries to block arrivals.

And then came the local cases

More than 30 cases were imported from overseas before Australia had its first locally transmitted cases – a Sydney healthcare worker and the sister of a man who returned from Iran – on February 29.

Once enough COVID got here and escaped detection, patterns of community transmission emerged and new hotspots emerged.

A few of them were obvious, reflecting the spread of cases overseas.

One of the first major epidemics was elderly care, with its precarious workforce and vulnerable residents. The Newmarch House outbreak – once the second deadliest in the country – showed exactly how dangerous the virus could be with more than 70 staff and residents infected and 19 deaths.

Despite a vaccination program and a special report by the royal commission on care of the aged, the problem persists.

The last national elder care outbreak report from the Ministry of Health, as of January 20, reported 1,198 active outbreaks nationwide and 7,861 residents and 11,198 staff with active infections.

In total, more than 1,130 deaths – or around 36% – have been recorded in care for the elderly during the pandemic.

More generally, healthcare workers have been hit hard, especially in the Omicron wave. Other essential services, such as butcher shops and retail outlets, have also been hot spots.

Lower socio-economic areas – first in Melbourne, then later in Sydney – had a greater share of cases in earlier waves, the mix of jobs that could not be done from home, larger households and poor communication with diverse communities being the main drivers.

Less obvious was the keen interest Australians would take in what contact tracing told us about the lives of others.

The strength of our contact tracing system – particularly when cases were low or between waves – meant we could see in detail how cases were spreading in ways overseas that were impossible.

They have become shorthand for new outbreaks: the Hoxton Park party, the St Kilda engagement party, and perhaps the most bizarre, Barbecue Man (his band has even released a song about it).

Now Omicron is here and the granular contact tracing of the past is gone.

Transmission is widespread in all segments of the community, but Australians in their twenties in particular have been hit hard.

Now some Australians are not just worried about catching COVID, they are worried about getting it twice.

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Sign that the peak of COVID is approaching or has already passed.

What the data don’t tell us

The pandemic has always been judged by numbers – and they have intensified with the arrival of Omicron. Records have been broken across the world for the number of new cases.

Worldwide, the death toll officially counted reached 100,000 in April 2020 as it devastated Europe. At the end of June, it was 500,000; a million in September. Four months later, it doubled again to 2 million. Today, that figure stands at around 5.6 million recorded deaths – the true number can never be known.

The world has nearly 350 million recorded cases.

Australia had played a small role in this story, but Omicron changed the script.

We still only represent a small percentage of the cases worldwide, as our push was accompanied by a global push from Omicron.

But the per capita data tells a different story.

Australia ran ahead.

Of course, Australia still tests more than most countries, even when testing resources were at their peak over Christmas and New Year, so that’s no surprise.

But with several states routinely seeing a third of their PCR tests come back positive, experts say that’s just the tip of the iceberg, although they are now counting rapid antigen test results.

Of course, now that the country is vaccinated at such a high level, attention has turned to how many people are hospitalized or in intensive care, and how many are dying.

The numbers are low, yes, compared to other countries in the early stages of the pandemic. But deaths continue to rise as more people contract the virus.

With 3,103 deaths, the overall death rate for the past two years was 0.16%.

But therein lies the problem with statistics and data: sometimes they miss the detail.

Each of these deaths leaves behind a life – a family, friends, a shortened story.

And that is not forgotten.

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