Every morning in Melbourne, Jason Thompson waits with his heart in his throat for the official coronavirus count to come out.
On Friday, he was relieved to find that the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, had reached a milestone that many of his detractors thought was impossible. Victoria, which was the epicentre of Australia’s second wave, had gone 14 days without recording a single new case of COVID-19.
“It’s just a relief, really,” Dr. Thompson said. “People said we couldn’t get under five [and] that we’d be lucky to get under 10.”
Dr. Thompson’s relief was especially profound because he led a controversial modelling effort that Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, held up as the reason the lockdown in Melbourne went on as long as it did.
Victoria eventually beat back the virus by testing widely, tracing contacts aggressively and enforcing some of the most Draconian restrictions in the democratic world. As Canada’s own second wave sweeps every province west of the Maritimes, there are lessons to be learned from the experience of Melbourne – even if it does enjoy the advantage of being in a temperate island country that doesn’t share the world’s longest land border with the United States.
Dr. Thompson, a senior researcher at the transport, health and urban design research lab at The University of Melbourne, developed the models with Rod McClure, dean of the faculty of medicine and health at the University of New England, north of Sydney.
Talking to them over Zoom is like taking a video call from a future that looks far brighter than Canada’s.
The second wave of COVID-19 exploded in Victoria, a state with about as many people as the Greater Toronto Area, in a manner similar to what’s happening in the GTA right now. After the virus spread from two quarantine hotels in Melbourne in May, it took off in the city’s poor, ethnically diverse suburban neighbourhoods where many residents can’t work from home.
The infection rate for Victoria spiked so quickly – from 73 new cases on July 1 to 598 a month later – that the Ontario government’s scientific advisers and modellers used it as a template for what steep, sharp growth of the province’s epidemic might look like.
On Oct. 29, Ontario’s modellers concluded growth had slowed, meaning the province was likely to avoid a Victoria-style spike. When the modellers weighed in again on Thursday, Toronto was seeing 88.5 new cases a week for every 100,000 residents, and neighbouring Peel Region 130.5 per 100,000, blowing by the rate of 63 weekly cases per 100,000 that Victoria logged at its peak in early August.
By Aug. 2, when Victoria widened the lockdowns to the rest of the state, Melburnians had already been living under stay-at-home orders since early July. Conditions were initially strictest at nine public-housing towers where residents, many of them immigrants, were under virtual house arrest.
Newly tightened restrictions in Melbourne permitted residents to go out for only an hour a day for exercise or necessary shopping, such as buying groceries, within five kilometres of home.
Essential workers received permits to be out. The government imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. A “ring of steel” made up of police checkpoints was erected around Melbourne. Police handed out on-the-spot fines of up to $1,652 (Australian), about $1,575 Canadian, for individuals and nearly $10,000 (Australian) for businesses that broke the rules. The fine for refusing to wear a mask was $200 (Australian).
“If you were out on the street, the police could stop you and check your address and check whether you had your work permit,” said Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne. “There were many, many fines. Every day in the news, we saw how many fines were issued.”
No more than two people could leave a home together; Dr. McVernon could go out with only one of her two teenage daughters at a time.
Human Rights Watch called police tactics during the lockdown “harsh” and “abusive,” citing examples such as the arrest of a pajama-clad pregnant woman in front of her children for trying to organize an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. (Compare that with Canada’s hardest-hit province at the moment, where the chief public health officer tweeted this week: “Manitobans don’t need a law to do what is right – restrict your social interactions to your household. Not because you’ll be fined, but because it’s the right thing to do.”)
Despite their rigidity and punishing effect on the economy, a majority of Victorians backed the lockdown rules in August, according to public opinion research.
“Our protests were very, very modest,” said Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University in Victoria. “Even if [people] don’t always agree with the decisions being made, they understand that there are sacrifices to be made for the common good. That’s a fundamental difference, I think, from what we see in other democratic countries.”
Later in August, the state government asked Dr. Thompson and his team for the models and, based on their projections, established a timeline for when Victoria could safely end the containment measures.
Dr. Bennett said solidarity frayed as the lockdown dragged on through September and October. By that point, the number of new daily cases had fallen into the low single digits.
The model Dr. Thompson and his collaborators produced – which involved creating an “artificial society” and having a supercomputer determine what would happen if restrictions were altered in different ways and at different times – predicted the coronavirus would roar back by Christmas if the hammer were lifted before Victoria got to an average of fewer than five new cases a day over two weeks.
“What we were showing [to political leaders] was, 'if you make these decisions, you’re going to find yourself in a third wave in December, and essentially, your career is going to be over,” Dr. Thompson said.
He acknowledged there is no guarantee the wily coronavirus won’t slip in again. But he thinks achieving a long stretch of “zero COVID” would make it easier to catch.
In the meantime, Melburnians have emerged from their forced hibernation. The ring of steel has come down. Bars, cafés and pubs are open, with capacity limits, as are gyms. Premier Andrews’s approval rating is at 71 per cent. Most important, Australia, a country of 25 million, has recorded just 907 COVID-19 deaths, the majority in seniors' homes.
As of Thursday night, Canada, a country of 38 million, had reported 10,768 coronavirus deaths – and counting.
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