Without precautions, the average infected person passes on the virus to maybe three others. That is an average of very uneven numbers. According to Adam Kucharski and others, if 100 sufferers generate 300 further infections, 240 of those infections will come from just ten of the sufferers.
The ten may not be that medically different from the other 90. They may frequent closed and crowded spaces more favourable to transmission, or meet more susceptible people.
The new outbreak of the virus in Victoria, Australia, highlights the chanciness of the process, and the foolishness of saying the answer to the virus is just “strong lockdowns”, never mind what sort of “strong”.
Until late June it seemed that a rapid and efficient lockdown had enabled Australia to get off lightly. There were zero deaths from the virus between 23 May and 24 June. Daily new cases were below ten a day over the whole huge country for much of that time.
Rates of testing were high. Only citizens and residents have been allowed to enter the country, and only with 14 days’ quarantine in government-provided hotel rooms.
Now Victoria has an outbreak bigger than the whole country’s initial toll. The best guess is that it was directly generated by “strong” measures — carried out by casual employees of private contractors. The security guards at the quarantine hotels became the channels of infection.
Australia is an instructive part of the world picture, but only a small one. Confirmed infection numbers have been rising again world-wide, since early May, doubling about every 40-odd days. Deaths have been rising again since 27 May, at a slower pace.
The world figures are dominated by huge surges in the USA, Brazil, India, and Mexico.
There are new virus-upturns in countries which previously seemed to have infections well-controlled with general lockdowns (Czech Republic, Denmark...) or without (Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong...). The figures in those countries are still very low compared to USA or Brazil, or to two other countries which locked down then eased ineptly, Iran and Israel.
The lockdown-easings in Europe are probably at a limit beyond which slacker covid-distancing will generate new surges even before winter. Some countries are keeping their curves fairly flat, but very few still pushing the figures down.
The coming months are likely to bring renewed lockdown-type measures, maybe more limited and targeted than the emergency March policies, resorted to by governments in “throw in everything and see what sticks” mode.
Britain is probably saved from worse because people have mostly ignored the floundering government’s appeals to return to pubs and stop working from home. Infections are still running fairly low for now (the slight apparent rise probably due to increased testing, now the highest rate of testing in proportion to population of any big country in the world).
Even on the best projections, infections are likely to increase somewhat from October in the Northern Hemisphere, as people spend more time indoors in winter, and tracing the virus becomes more difficult amidst flu infections.
The way to minimise that is to use the current virus-lull to mobilise the labour movement to force the government into necessary social measures:
• Full isolation pay for all. Publicly-provided alternative accommodation for those in overcrowded housing who need to self-isolate.
• Bring NHS logistics and supply, and supply of PPE, into the public sector; take over the private hospitals and integrate them into the NHS; nationalise the care homes, and put the staff on secure public-sector pay and conditions
• Run the test-and-trace operation as a public-service operation, with a focus on rapid results and rapid communication, rather than the current mess of private profiteering subcontractors
• Workers’ control over all workplace reopenings, and workers’ control over precautions in hospitals and social care
• Open scientific debate, and honest information, including about the many things we just don’t know.
Pandemic leave for all
Pushed by its second surge of the virus, the Australian government has introduced paid pandemic leave for all in the hard-hit state of Victoria, and for all workers in elderly care.
Workers will be guaranteed $1500 a fortnight if self-isolating because of a positive test or because they have had contact with infected people.
The Australian trade unions are calling for the payment to be raised to full ordinary wages and to be made easier to claim.
The state of Victoria is also introducing policies for care-home workers all to work only in one home, rather than possibly carrying infections from site to site, and to have any consequent loss of pay made good.