03 August 2020

Lessons learnt from the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Australia’s Victoria state

A second COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria has taught us some valuable lessons on how community transmission can occur with shortcomings in implementation of healthcare and social distancing guidelines.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

At a time when most states in Australia had declining COVID-19 cases and limited restrictions on public gatherings, large swathes of Victoria state were put back on lockdown from 8 July due to a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections. The lockdown measures, tightened further on 2 August , encompass Greater Melbourne, the country’s second most populous region, and Mitchell Shire, where only one person per household can leave their their home for essential shopping, giving care to someone and one hour of exercise within their local government area; all non-essential businesses are closed and face masks are mandatory in public areas. The outbreak also led to a reduction of incoming repatriation flights to the country, especially to Melbourne Airport to prevent imported cases from worsening the outbreak. The second wave outbreak in Victoria has taught us some valuable lessons on how community transmission can occur and rapidly spread with shortcomings in implementation of healthcare measures and social distancing guidelines.

Since early July, Victoria has recorded over 200 new COVID-19 cases almost daily with many cases linked to essential services personnel which indicated high levels of community transmission unlike the first wave of infections in March, where most cases were from overseas travellers. Investigations revealed breaches in quarantine centres where staff from private security firms poorly trained on hygiene measures illegally mingled with infected international travellers who were meant to be in isolation. Infections in aged-care facilities and nursing homes highlighted lapses in hygiene and sanitisation practices; moreover, healthcare workers, who had contracted the infections inadvertently, were working on a rotation basis at multiple facilities which were poorly staffed. Clusters in North Melbourne, Brimbank and Hume were also traced to non-English speaking and poorly educated communities where inadequate health awareness, testing drives and language barriers resulted in lack of awareness on COVID-19. Social distancing guidelines were also poorly enforced at many shopping malls and public areas when restrictions were temporarily eased in June, and people were often found flouting limits on large public gatherings. Authorities need to address these shortcomings to curtail the community transmission in Victoria and prevent similar outbreaks in other neighbouring states.

The federal government has announced that it will maintain restrictions on incoming repatriation flights until they can fix lapses at quarantine centres in Melbourne and other areas. Going forward, quarantine centres in Victoria and other states are likely to be strictly monitored by police, rather than by private contractors, to prevent any flouting of guidelines. However, staff at these facilities need to be trained on dealing with infected travellers without coming in close contact with them. To improve sanitisation and hygiene practises at aged-care facilities and nursing homes, the Victorian government plans to increase the number of qualified healthcare staff and prevent rotation of workers between clinics; other states like New South Wales are likely to implement similar measures where a second outbreak has emerged. Local governments are looking to increase healthcare awareness drives in multiple languages in areas with sizeable non-English speaking and poorly educated communities within and outside Victoria, where over 10,000 people refused to get tested, with some believing it to be a government conspiracy; others have feared that they will be shunned in society for testing positive for the virus. COVID-19 awareness drives need to address the stigma associated with the virus and dispel rumours. As far as social distancing measures go, more security personnel are likely to be deployed to enforce gathering limits within shopping malls, supermarkets and other public areas.

After the second wave of infections, authorities are unlikely to let their guards down anytime soon even if infections show signs of decreasing in Victoria in the near-term. Border controls which prevent most people from COVID-19 hotspots like Victoria from travelling to other states are likely to continue. Restrictions on inter-regional movements, gathering limits and non-essential businesses are also likely to remain in Victoria and possibly be implemented in other states in the coming days, to prevent another outbreak.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst.