Through careful management and planning, it would be possible for the Australian Government to take control of the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Professor John Quiggin.
DESPITE CONTINUING high numbers of COVID-19 cases, lockdown restrictions have mostly been removed in New South Wales, at least for fully vaccinated people, with Victoria likely to follow suit. These moves have been justified by the claim that we need to start "living with COVID".
As with a lot of three-word slogans, the appeal of this idea depends in large measure on its ambiguity. One version of "living with COVID" is, in essence, a continuation of the policies that have been followed in Australia for most of the pandemic, derided as "zero COVID", but more accurately described as "suppression".
The idea is to keep border controls at a level where outbreaks can be controlled through a combination of limited lockdowns and contact tracing, backed up by high and increasing vaccination rates. In this case, "living with COVID" means relaxing controls and counting on vaccination to offset the resulting higher frequency of outbreaks.
Given the highly infectious nature of COVID Delta, a policy of this kind can only work if vaccination rates are near 100%, or if the unvaccinated are kept isolated from everyone else through vaccine passports and employment mandates. That's the direction taken by European countries like France and Italy, where case numbers are now heading for zero.
What most people who talk about "living with COVID" in Australia seem to have in mind is something different: a situation where there is a steady but manageable flow of cases, say 1,000 per day in Australia and where a limited set of restrictions is maintained indefinitely. To keep in touch with reality, with a fatality rate of 0.7%, a hospitalisation rate of 5% and an average 14-day stay, that would correspond to over 2,000 deaths a year and 700 hospital beds occupied.
Unfortunately, this version of "living with COVID" represents a mathematical impossibility. The reason this is that infections diseases display exponential growth, or contraction, measured by the (effective) reproduction rate - R. If R>1, the pandemic spreads until it runs out of people to infect and if R