High time we looked at what went wrong, and right, with our COVID response

While the rest of the world is gradually finding a way to manage COVID-19 as a disease that circulates in the community, China is providing an example of the increasing costs of trying to suppress it completely.

Under its COVID-zero policy, which involves mass testing of all citizens and widespread lockdowns, China has for the past two years been able to control the disease and save thousands of lives. According to official figures, China has suffered fewer deaths, about 4600, than Australia. It is a source of genuine pride for China, something it says shows its concern for all its citizens.

Volunteers carry daily necessities for residents locked down in Shanghai.Credit:AP

Yet the costs of this approach are growing ever more painful, especially since the arrival of the more contagious Omicron. Last week China put Shanghai, a city of 26 million, into a suffocating lockdown, the biggest since the original lockdown in the city of Wuhan. The rolling shutdowns in Shanghai and other Chinese manufacturing centres are disrupting supply chains and causing shortages throughout the world.

Over time China will have to follow the rest of the world and allow the disease to circulate in the community, but it should first address its low vaccination rate, especially among vulnerable older people. Only about 20 per cent of people over 80 have received a booster and only half have had two doses. China should also reconsider its decision not to use foreign vaccines despite strong indications they are more effective than Chinese ones.

Here in Australia now that Western Australia has reopened its borders, the whole country has abandoned a COVID-zero strategy. It is possible that some states waited too long, but by waiting until we reached high vaccination rates before reopening, Australia avoided the stress to its health system and high death rates seen in countries such as the US. Even with this cautious approach, tragically, more than 4100 have died of COVID-19 already this year.

The debate here has now shifted to the question of how fast to wind back the remaining fairly modest restrictions, including the seven-day quarantine for close contacts of proven cases. Prime Minister Scott Morrison in early March said the rules were redundant and unnecessarily starving business of staff. On Thursday, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the council of state and federal chief medical officers, recommended extending the rules a while longer, noting that the number of cases across Australia had jumped 77 per cent to 62,000 a day in the two weeks to March 23.

The committee said winding back quarantine now could result in further disruption to the health system and could cause more “broader societal disruption”.

As we consider the global differences in approaches still being taken to COVID, it is high time Australia initiates a postmortem of the past two years. The Age welcomes the unofficial review into Australia’s response to the pandemic which a group of philanthropists including billionaire Andrew Forrest have asked former senior public servant Peter Shergold to conduct.

But there should be an official inquiry with royal commission-style powers and broad terms of reference similar to the Victorian bushfires inquiry. Without the ability to call evidence from state and federal governments and bureaucracies, to reveal their secrets and inquire deeply into what decisions they made and why, the chance of really understanding what we have all lived through will probably be lost.

It’s a huge undertaking. Our COVID response has encompassed lockdown laws of varying harshness, hospital funding, the mistakes made in aged care, the arrangements made for vaccines, quarantine and the purchase of personal protective equipment. Governments may be unwilling to open their books to this kind of public scrutiny because there is no doubt that mistakes were made.

But it is precisely by learning from these mistakes that we will be best equipped to deal with future global health emergencies. Now is the time to embark on something that will inform us all.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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