Victoria’s coronavirus restrictions roadmap could exacerbate anxiety and prolong economic pain, experts say
The Victorian Government’s roadmap to easing coronavirus restrictions has been met with varied reactions.
While some say the extended lockdown is necessary to snuff out the virus that has claimed the lives of 666 Victorians, experts fear continued restrictions could devastate the economy and have a detrimental impact on mental health.
Epidemiologists and economists alike want to see more of the data driving the Government’s decisions.
Mental health groups, meanwhile, want to see more Government-funded resources for a community struggling with heightened anxiety.
Stage 3 restrictions and masks ‘enough’, expert says
Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said stage 3 restrictions plus the use of masks should be enough to stem the spread of the virus.
“Our data showed us that we started not only flattening the curve but started to push it down with stage 3 [restrictions] plus masks before we even saw the effects of stage 4,” she said.
She said there was a risk people would disengage if they were stuck in stage 4 longer, especially if the Government could not give data-driven explanations for decisions such as hairdressers being allowed to stay open but gyms being forced to stay closed.
“I think we only had to go through stage 4 this time because people weren’t fully engaged with stage 3,” she said.
“And so they brought in stage 4, which was really getting us to a similar level of compliance as we had with stage 3 in April.
“It worries me that stage 4 will start to look like stage 3 again in terms of the effectiveness of it.
“But we still will have businesses that are closed, that are hurting, and we’ve now got stage 4 in place for an even longer period.”
But John Mathews, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, said a longer lockdown was necessary to control transmission.
“The extension was pretty inevitable — they more or less had to do that,” he said.
“If you do want to keep the case numbers down, we needed to keep the foot on the brake.”
Expert says timeline realistic, but more evidence needed
Professor Bennett said she was disappointed by the roadmap.
She said if two thirds of Victoria’s cases were still coming from aged care and health care, “we’re basically holding all of Melbourne in lockdown” in order to close those cases down and stop the infections spreading into the wider community.
“It strikes me that they weren’t basing these decisions on classic public health risk assessment,” she said.
“They were basing it on other decisions to try and open up as much as they could, to think about gender balance in the workplace, to think about what people are personally attached to in the general public.”
Professor Bennett said the roadmap Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Sunday was thin on analysis, and the modelling focused on overseas data rather than Victorian-specific data.
“I don’t actually understand where this has come from — we haven’t seen the evidence that we hoped to see,” she said.
“That would make us much more confident that we are mapping the fastest and safest route out.”
The Victorian Government has come under fire in recent weeks over what has been seen as a lack of access to data about transmission.
In response, the Government has released additional information about case locations and outbreaks, as well as a “data dashboard”. It also released the modelling on which it based the roadmap.
Professor Mathews said the Government had not been as transparent with the data behind its decisions as he would have liked.
But he said the Government’s timeline was realistic.
“If they tried to do it more quickly, it wouldn’t work,” he said.
Economist warns recovery will take longer
Economist John Vaz from the Monash Business School said the state had already endured five weeks of a tight lockdown, as well as months under lesser restrictions, and it had failed to bring the virus under control.
“The prolonging of the restrictions means that there’s more pain and the payoff is questionable,” he said.
“And the cost has been spread over a large part of the community rather than being targeted.”
He said the extended lockdown meant the economic recovery would take longer.
Professor Vaz said he would like to see restrictions eased across more industry sectors, but areas which data showed were high risk should remain tightly controlled.
That way, he said, lives could still be saved, but without a broad-brush approach.
“In other words, don’t use one big tool across the whole economy — try to segment it a bit on risk basis,” he said.
“The things that are productive and probably not impacting the spread of COVID have been shut down as much as anything else.”
He said he wanted to see more widespread COVID-19 testing, including at workplaces, and he stressed consumer confidence was key to economic recovery.
He said Victoria’s contributed 25 per cent of the Australian economy, with 60 per cent of that driven by consumer spending.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Paul Guerra yesterday slammed the State Government’s approach.
“We were hoping for a road to recovery, today we have been delivered a road to nowhere,” he said.
“We can’t continue to let business and jobs be decimated on the way to controlling the spread of the virus.”
‘We will be consumed by a mental health pandemic’
John Brogden, chairman of Lifeline Australia, said if expectations about the end of the hard lockdown were not met, there could be an “enormous amount” of anxiety and depression, as well as an increased risk of suicide.
“The good news is there is some certainty,” he said.
But people who anticipated the harsh lockdown would begin to ease next week would struggle with yesterday’s news, he said.
“It’ll be two weeks, but it’ll feel like two years for some people,” he said.
“When the lockdown started, with the public housing towers locked down, we saw a 22 per cent increase in calls out of Victoria. Now that’s an extraordinarily large increase.
“There are going to be plenty of people walking on eggshells in Victoria from now until November, when the Government’s suggesting that the lockdown will be fully lifted effectively. But for many people that’s a hell of a long time … that’ll be nine whole months from the beginning of this thing.”
He said people were facing dislocation and a recession, and when the JobKeeper scheme ended people could lose their jobs, homes, families and lives.
“When this physical health pandemic is over, we will be consumed by a mental health pandemic,” he said.
“Our view at Lifeline is the Government needs to be ready with more mental health resources.”
Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention research at youth mental health organisation Orygen, said young people had been hit hard by the lockdown and many would be disappointed by the extension of the restrictions.
“Young people are really suffering with isolation, with not being back at school and not being able to work,” she said.
But she said having a clear roadmap with targets provided some much-needed certainty and additional measures, such as social bubbles for those who lived alone, were vital.
She said it was a challenging year for people who were at school, with students struggling with remote learning and maintenance of social connections.
“For some of them, this will be a landmark year,” she said.
“It might have been the first year or last year of high school and they’re going to miss out on some of those critical of rites of passage.”
But she said there were resources for young people, including free training about the risk of suicide for parents, to help them navigate mental health issues.
“Everybody is struggling a little bit and we just have to remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
“We will get through this.”