Contact tracing and how Australia almost eliminated Covid-19 in the country 

By Marie Balce / 21 May 2021

In the midst of raging pandemic around the world, Australians are enjoying normal lives – being able to eat at restaurants, visit relatives and friends, attend large gatherings and travel domestically. At the time of writing, only Melbourne is on snap lockdown (for 7 days) due to 35 active cases which originated from hotel quarantine in South Australia. All other cities including Sydney have zero covid at the moment.

So what’s the secret? Naturally, being an island continent it can lock its borders quite quickly and indeed Australia has closed its borders since March 2020 allowing only citizens and permanent residents to return. Return travellers are required to undergo RT-PCR testing and only allowed to board the plane if they test negative. When they reach Australia they are escorted to quarantine hotels for 14 days. During quarantine, they are again tested twice in a row. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared that this border closure will remain in place until mid-2022. Of course, not everyone agrees with practically isolating the country from the rest of the world. Some medical experts and economists opined that Australia needs to live with covid and it is not good for the economy of the country in the long term. While there is booming domestic tourism, the owners are complaining about the lack of workers, notably chefs. While in the farms, fruits rot on trees due to lack of pickers, jobs normally filled in by backpackers and working students. Universities have lost massive revenue from lack of international students.

But most remarkably, Australia has been able to get it right as far as contact tracing is concerned, potentially the most successful contact tracing-cum-testing program in the world. What has been done? For example New South Wales has rolled out a digital CovidSafe contact tracing app in April 2020, almost as soon as Covid-19 was discovered in March. Other states followed suit later. While the adoption of this technology was slow due to privacy concerns, another technology introduced soon after was the CovidSafe Check-in app which allows businesses keep track of customers and staff that visit their premises. Customers who forgot their phones were asked to fill in a paper form. It turned out that these technologies were critical in speeding up contact tracing, hence lockdowns were quick and snappy – between 3 to 7 days. Contact tracing alone is not enough, the identified primary as well as secondary contacts were advised to go for testing and quarantine which can go in 10s of thousands at a time.  Thankfully, the health system was prepared for these intermittent surges in demand for urgent testing.

In January, while I was about to fly to Sydney from my 14-day quarantine in Cairns, Brisbane had one covid case, a hospital worker and the whole city and areas close by were locked down for 3 days. After that, Brisbane and the whole of Queensland was covid free – for 5 months now. In March, Western Australia locked its borders down specifically for people coming from Victoria for 7 days, also it is now covid free since then. In April, a man and his wife in Sydney were found to be covid positive. The NSW government did not impose lockdown but only restrictions such as wearing mask in public transport and cancelling big events. After 7 days of restrictions, there was no additional further transmission and life is back to normal. Hence, since January this year, there were only very short lockdowns in Australian cities which is  arguably not only advantageous for the economy of the country but also on the mental health of our citizens.

About the author:

Marie Balce is the Co-Founder of Deepdata Inc.  She has managed and implemented enterprise-wide data analytics and forecasting projects in large telecommunications companies and smaller projects in various not-for-profit groups. She has a PhD in Socio-Economic Planning (University of Tsukuba, Japan). She currently lives in Sydney.

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