News & Blog

What will happen in Australia if the coronavirus outbreak becomes a pandemic?

The coronavirus may soon turn into a pandemic. SBS News looks at what that means for Australia.

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that that coronavirus has “pandemic potential” and all countries should prepare accordingly.

While the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia remains low, the government has plans in place if infections do spike.

So should Australians be worried about a coronavirus pandemic?

What is a pandemic?

Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, told SBS News there is actually no specific definition of what constitutes a pandemic.

“But generally, in broad terms, what it means is an infection that crosses international borders and has sustained local transmission in multiple countries,” he said.

Medical staff with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.

Examples of pandemics include the Spanish flu in 1918, HIV and the 2009 flu pandemic, also known as swine flu.

Associate Professor Senanayake said the Spanish flu “is the one we’re always worried about” repeating.

“That killed 40 to 50 million people in about a year … and the important thing about that, apart from the massive loss of life, is they were young, healthy people.”

Is coronavirus at a pandemic level?

“I think we’re almost there,” Associate Professor Senanayake said.

Globally, around 80,000 people have been infected in at least 30 countries.

But the bulk of the cases remain in China, where the virus originated, with 77,660 cases and 2,663 deaths.

In Australia, there have been 23 cases, including 15 people who have already recovered.

Commuters in Tokyo on Tuesday.

“There’s certainly been some local transmission in Iran, in South Korea, in Japan, and in Italy,” he said.

“Hopefully it’s at the stage where the governments there and the public health infrastructure can control it. If they can’t, however, then we are looking at becoming closer and closer to a pandemic.”

For the time being, the WHO is calling coronavirus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.

How would Australia respond to a pandemic?

Associate Professor Senanayake said travel bans, like the one Australia has with China, will become obsolete if a pandemic occurs.

“If it’s only one or two countries you’re dealing with that have a concentration of the infection, perhaps a travel ban might be effective, but if it’s multiple countries, it’s just not plausible in this day and age when we’re so connected globally,” he said.

Instead, Associate Professor Senanayake said the focus would be on Australia’s health system and resources.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told SBS News the government “is preparing for every eventuality, including both continued containment or the possibility of a pandemic”.

The spokesperson said an Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan For Novel Coronavirus has been developed, which will guide a response.

If the outbreak escalates, the plan says that “pressure on health services will be more intense”.

“Surge staffing and alternate models of clinical care, such as cohorting and/or establishment of flu-like clinics may need to be employed to cope with increased demands for healthcare,” it says.

“Healthcare staff may themselves be ill or have to care for ill family members, further exacerbating pressures on health care providers.”

And in the worst-case scenario, “secondary care services, such as blood services and diagnostic services will be challenged to maintain capacities and the community focus will be on maintaining essential services”.

Australian evacuees from Wuhan, China return to Sydney.
The plan also discusses the possibility of more extreme “social distancing” measures, such as “school or workplace closures, or cancellation of mass gatherings”.

“Health emergency legislation may be needed to support outbreak specific activities,” it says.

But the Department of Health spokesperson stressed: “at this time, we have no community transmission in Australia; people should go about their duties as normal”.

“The actions taken will depend largely on the characteristics of the virus – understanding the severity and transmissibility in Australia will help to determine the most appropriate intervention.”

Should Australians be worried about a pandemic?

Nigel McMillan, an infectious diseases expert at Griffith University, agreed that coronavirus is “teetering right on the edge of switching over to a pandemic”.

But he said Australians should not panic.

“Australia right now is in a very good position, in that we have had 23 cases and each of these has been fairly mild. And the patients that have recovered so far have recovered fairly well,” he said.

“And once it’s a pandemic, it’s not going to be that Australia is instantly inundated with thousands and thousands of cases of coronavirus … This is a slow burn, this is going to come to us over a period of months.”

Professor McMillan said the fatality rate is “about one per cent and may even be lower as time goes on”, with the elderly being the most susceptible.

“Most of the population below the age of 60 will have essentially a mild cold, a flu-like sickness that they will recover from,” he said.

“For most of us, the coronavirus will not be problematic.”

source :