Op Ed for the Alice Springs News by the CEO of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress
We need “hard borders” to hotspots as COVID-19 kindling is set to ignite with a single spark in the Northern Territory.
It has so far done exceptionally well in preventing infections within our borders.
A large part of that success is because back in March the NT Government acted promptly to control our borders and make sure that all people arriving here underwent 14 days quarantine.
Because of our collective hard work, we are now able to welcome back visitors from all jurisdictions that do not have community transmission. This is great news for the NT.
However, the serious outbreaks of community transmission of the coronavirus across Victoria and in Sydney make it look increasingly likely that severe restrictions will need to be reimposed in those places to try and control the outbreaks.
How can we open up the Northern Territory in a safe way and avoid experiencing the same pattern, with the very significant health and economic consequences that would follow?
Most importantly, the NT Government must follow all the other States and Territories in Australia in imposing a “hard border” with any coronavirus hot spot.
We should not continue to be the only jurisdiction going alone with a different approach. This would mean not allowing anyone who has recently been in an area of significant community transmission (currently all of Victoria and Greater Sydney) to enter the Northern Territory. Any such arrivals would need to be turned around at our borders to keep the Northern Territory free of COVID-19.
At the moment, we do not have a hard border. Our borders are not closed.
People who arrived from those places before 17 July are only required to self-quarantine for 14 days, and we know that self-quarantine is risky.
Recent data from Central Australia shows that of the people in self-quarantine about 10% were not at home when checked.
We also know that people are only being checked about a third of the time they are in quarantine so the proportion of people breaching quarantine will be higher than this.
We think around a hundred people from Victoria who arrived before 17 July are still in self-quarantine for up to the next two weeks here in Alice, so this is a significant risk for everyone in the community.
From 17 July people from coronavirus hot spots have still been allowed to come to the NT but must enter mandatory supervised quarantine at their own expense.
This is a significant disincentive for people to come, and it is safer than self-quarantine, but it is not foolproof.
All it takes is one person with the virus to leave quarantine illegally, or to infect someone working at or visiting the hotel or motel where they are quarantining, and we could be facing a serious outbreak of COVID-19.
This is what happened in Melbourne, leading to the serious outbreak there.
This is why a hard border to those who have been in coronavirus hot spots, with very limited exceptions who would have to go into mandatory supervised quarantine, is the safest way to go to keep all of us safe.
Even jurisdictions that have managed supervised hotel quarantine as well as the NT have still chosen to implement a hard border with Victoria and other hotspots. There is no reason why we should think we can do quarantine any better than all the other jurisdictions who have decided it is too risky.
As well as the hard border, the best way to keep the NT safe is for us to eliminate community transmission of the COVID-19 virus across all of Australia.
Originally it was thought by many people, including some of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, that this goal was unachievable.
However, the success we have had in the NT and in the rest of Australia until recently, and that has been achieved in New Zealand so far, tells us that this is a reasonable aim. As a result, many epidemiologists have publicly declared their change of mind.
It may require maintaining some restrictions for longer, but the alternative is much worse: continuing outbreaks like we are seeing in Victoria and New South Wales with all the health risks, the economic disruption, and sadly the deaths that will accompany them.
None of this is easy.
The virus is a dangerous opponent, quick to reveal any weaknesses in how we respond to it.
That is why our governments need to be quick to adapt to new situations. Imagining that we are in the same place now as we were a month ago will not help anyone and could be dangerous.
It is also why we all need to recognise that, far from the pandemic being over, this is the time of greatest risk.
We must not be complacent.
The next two weeks are critical, and as an organisation dedicated to the health and wellbeing of people in Central Australia, Congress urges everyone to keep physical distancing, avoid crowded indoor places, continue to wash your hands many times a day and get tested if you have any respiratory symptoms at all … now more than ever, we need to test, test, test.
It could only take one spark to set off a bushfire that could burn through the Territory, doing untold damage to our families, or businesses and our communities.