Crisis in Australia as Covid-19 cases explode, questions mount about preparedness

People waiting in line at a walk-in Covid-19 testing site in Melbourne, on Jan 5, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia is experiencing a national health crisis for the first time since the pandemic began, as the lifting of restrictions has swiftly led to Covid-19 cases soaring.

This is causing chaos on multiple fronts, as hospital wards start to fill up, clinics struggle to secure vaccine and test supplies, and grocery shelves are left empty due to a lack of healthy workers.

As case numbers continue to spiral, questions swirl about whether the federal and state governments should have been better prepared after having almost two years to do so.

The latest crisis to emerge has also involved parents who want to have their children vaccinated before the start of the school year later this month. Vaccinations were allowed for children aged five to 11 years from the start of this week, but many parents discovered that scheduled vaccinations had been cancelled after doctors and pharmacies ran out of supplies.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd insisted on Tuesday (Jan 11) that "there is no need to panic" and that Australia had sufficient supplies to vaccinate all eligible children by the end of the month.

Until recently, Australia, which has about 25.7 million residents, had experienced relatively minor outbreaks of Covid-19. As at Dec 1, it had recorded a total of about 213,000 cases, but that number has exploded to more than 1.2 million.

On Wednesday, Australia recorded 103,689 new cases, including 40,127 in the state of Victoria, 34,759 in New South Wales (NSW) and 22,069 in Queensland. Other states and territories have smaller, but growing outbreaks, except for Western Australia, which has maintained its border closures and is continuing to pursue an elimination strategy. But the national Covid-19 case tally vastly underestimates actual numbers because many people are conducting at-home tests which are not yet being recorded.

Most states have now started to require people who test positive at home to register their results. NSW plans to introduce a similar requirement but the state government is awaiting advice on whether it can legally force people to record their results.

Arguably, the biggest failure during the current outbreak has been the inability to meet the surging demand for tests. As case numbers began to increase in late December, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing facilities could no longer cope. Some centres recorded queues of up to six hours, and the deluge at testing laboratories caused processing delays that meant some people waited for more than a week to find out whether they had Covid-19.

Suddenly, health authorities, which for more than a year had urged people to do a PCR test, even if they had the weakest of scratchy throats, now told them to avoid testing facilities unless it was absolutely necessary. Instead, the authorities began asking people to rely on at-home rapid antigen tests.

But a lack of supply left people unable to find testing kits. Some shops began boosting the price of their kits from the standard A$10 to A$15 (S$9.70 to S$14.60), to A$60 or more, forcing the federal government this week to ban "price gouging". Penalties include up to five years in prison and fines of up to A$66,600.

Australia currently has more than 4,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals and about 350 in intensive care. This is still far from capacity, but some hospitals are struggling because large numbers of staff have been infected or have been deemed to be close contacts of Covid-19 cases. NSW and other states have begun allowing crucial workers in critical sectors such as health, agriculture, food logistics, transport and manufacturing to leave self-isolation, even if they are close contacts.

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Not surprisingly, Australian political leaders are facing growing pressure as public concerns rise about the handling of the current situation. Some medical experts say they had warned about lifting restrictions too quickly and had urged the authorities to order a greater supply of at-home tests.

Until late December, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was believed to be considering calling an early federal election to capitalise on the nation's economic recovery and apparent success in dealing with the pandemic. But analysts say the current crisis has ended any prospect of an election in March and this means the ballot will likely be held in May.

Mr Morrison insisted on Monday that Australia was "pushing through" and denied a reporter's suggestion that he had allowed the nation to enter a "let it rip stage". But he also acknowledged: "The fact is, Omicron has changed everything."

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