Melbourne, Australia Australia is struggling to control an outbreak of the highly contagious corona virus Delta variant that began with an unmasked and unvaccinated pilot of an international aircraft crew in Sydney.
A closure in the city, the largest in Australia, has been extended until the end of August. Other capitals, including Melbourne, are now easing the restrictions, but states have imposed travel restrictions between the states.
The outbreak has put pressure on a government whose vaccination program is one of the slowest among developed countries and has once again raised questions about the hotel quarantine system for international travelers imposed at the start of the pandemic.
Although it did help contain the virus, the requirement that each arrival spend 14 days in strict isolation did not work out. It also prevented about 30,000 Australians from returning home and others to visit family overseas.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists the hotel quarantine program is ’99, 99 percent effective ‘.
But there have been at least 21 separate leaks from different hotels, leading to the repeated closure of schools and businesses and significant disruption of daily life as cities are forced to eliminate the spread of the virus.
Critics say the system has acted as a greenhouse and distributor, causing more risks in a country where only more than 13 percent of the people have been fully vaccinated – the second lowest rate under the OECD or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“Since November, there has been a leak in hotel quarantine on average every nine days,” Mike Toole, a professor of international health, told Al Jazeera. “This has led to numerous outbreaks of communities in five cities and subsequent closures.”
Toole, who works at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne and has experience as a medical epidemiologist and in public health, says it was sometimes the cause of transmissions instead of the hotels containing the virus.
“Certain states have not paid enough attention to the transmission in the air and the virus has spread in hotel corridors,” he said.
“They have not reviewed the ventilation in hotels, and they do not provide staff with adequate breathing masks.”
Along with the buildings – hotel rooms designed for holidaymakers and business travelers rather than including viruses – he also blames poor quarantine management.
“The current outbreak of more than 2,000 cases in Sydney was caused by the government of New South Wales which did not require a flight attendant manager at Sydney airport to wear a mask,” he said.
“He was not vaccinated either.”
‘Lack of planning’
Management mistakes were responsible for the outbreak in the state of Victoria in June 2020, which prompted the prime minister to announce a ‘state of emergency’ and impose a month-long closure estimated at 12 billion Australian dollars ($ 8.8 billion). ) has cost hundreds of people dead.
A further investigation found that between March and June 2020, a total of 21,821 returning travelers were placed in quarantine in Melbourne hotels, with only 236 (1.1 per cent) actually testing positive for COVID-19.
While community affairs fell to just 57 in May 2020 – from a peak of 541 – violations in the quarantine program led to daily increases of 725 cases rising in early August.
The report found that the violations were caused by a combination of poor planning, inexperienced private security and mismanagement by the government agency overseeing the program – the Department of Health and Human Services.
The ‘lack of a mandatory mass quarantine plan has meant that Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Program has been’ redesigned ‘and implemented to take effect within 36 hours, from concept to operation, “the report said.
“This lack of planning was a very unsatisfactory situation to develop such a complex and high-risk program.”
The outbreak also contributed to the spread of the virus nursing homesThis results in nearly 700 deaths and investigation into the poor infection control practices in these facilities.
Mike Toole says hotel quarantine programs need to be improved to contain the virus and that every state should use targeted quarantine facilities, such as the Howard Springs Center in Darwin, which had no leaks.
In Howard Springs, travelers are quarantined in individual chalets that open to the outdoors rather than in a gated corridor where the risk of a virus in the air is greater. Unlike a downtown hotel, the facility is also more remote, so fewer people are at risk if there is a violation.
Toole estimates that five new facilities – one for each state – will cost about two billion Australian dollars ($ 1.5 billion), which he says is “much less than the current economic cost of closing $ 1 billion ($ 750 million). per week.”
“But it will take six months to build it, so in the meantime hotel quarantine needs to be rectified,” he said. “Otherwise we will continue to lick and lock up until about 80 percent of the people are vaccinated.
In response to the hotel quarantine investigation, the Victorian government has estimated plans to build a 500-bed quarantine hub outside Melbourne city center.
Based on the Howard Springs model, the center will open in 2022, while New South Wales and Queensland will also explore similar options.
Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, Tony Blakely, says that such targeted facilities will have a lifespan beyond COVID-19.
“We need purposeful facilities in this pandemic and the next,” he told Al Jazeera.
With such facilities, more stranded Australians could also return. With the latest outbreak, the government has halved the quota of international arrivals, taking care of those who have been separated from home for months.
Blakely estimates that five to ten times the number of people will be able to go through purposeful facilities with the same risk of leakage as the existing city hotels.
Although the announcement of quarantine hubs and renewed urgency of vaccination indicate a proactive response from the government, such action has been hampered by tensions and finger-pointing between state and federal governments, particularly around funding and governance responsibilities.
The limited vaccination offer in Australia is also subject to disputes, and each state has given a case for why they should be prioritized in the vaccination program. Morrison recently apologized for the slow rollout.
The recent nationwide shutdowns cost the Australian economy an estimated $ 10 billion ($ 7.4 billion), and although the case numbers in Australia appear small compared to countries such as India, Indonesia and even the US, the continued virus policy elimination has meant that closures are likely to be instituted in response to even the smallest outbreak.
It is a prospect that is testing millions of Australians who are rapidly losing patience with bickering politicians and a mismanaged COVID-19 response.