There are different strategies to control coronavirus - has Australia picked the right one?

Herd immunity, suppression, elimination: Countries around the world have been controlling the spread of COVID-19 in different ways. SBS News asked health experts which is the most effective.

The majority of Australians are happy with the way the coronavirus has been handled.

93% of Australians believe Australia has handled the coronavirus well. Source: AAP

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted countless countries, but different approaches to containing the spread of COVID-19 have reaped varying results, with some having more success at flattening the curve.

What strategy is Australia using?

After implementing various gradual shutdowns and enforcing numerous social distancing measures, Australia is well on its way to controlling the infection rate of coronavirus through suppression.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday that restrictions will remain in place for at least the next four weeks. "Now is not the time to be complacent," he warned earlier in the week. 

To date, Australia has recorded more than 6,400 positive cases of COVID-19 and the CSIRO's director of health and biosecurity Dr Rob Grenfell says the nation has so far been able to suppress the transmission of the virus across the country. 

"Australia has done a very good job of finding the travellers and controlling their spread of the virus - but now the challenge is working out if and where there have been cases spread in the community," he told SBS News.

"We probably won’t reach that stage where there are no cases in Australia, but we may get to a point where we have a really good handle on knowing where the virus is in the community and being able to manage it." 

What strategies are other countries using?

By contrast, New Zealand remains a nation in complete shut down as it sets out to completely eliminate transmission inside its borders.

New Zealanders were instructed to remain in their homes for a full month from 26 March, with all schools and non-essential businesses closed. 

It was one of the only Western nations to commit to an elimination strategy, hoping early intervention could stop the disease in its tracks.

New Zealand has recorded more than 1,400 cases but Professor Peter Collignon of the Australian National University says it may not be that much better off than its neighbours across the Tasman.

"New Zealand has gone into a full lockdown and from what I have seen that has not had any extra benefits to what Australia has done," he said. 

Peter Collignon
Professor Peter Collignon AM of ANU Medical School Source: SBS

An expert in infectious diseases, Professor Collignon said the full lockdown approach taken by New Zealand is unlikely to get the country through the coronavirus outbreak any faster than Australia.

"If you look at New Zealand's pandemic curve it shows that they are getting more cases per head of population than Australia currently and their curve hasn't fallen any faster than ours," he said. 

"New Zealand's full lockdown will have a more detrimental effect on the rest of society in the long term as it could take a long time for people to get back into jobs and for their economy to rebound." 

What happened to herd immunity?

Attempts by other nations to create a herd immunity have proven costly, with Sweden and the United Kingdom two examples of countries forced to quickly change tack after a rapid spread of the virus.

The United Kingdom's approach to the pandemic was to implement full lockdowns later in the epidemic in an attempt to save more lives. Sweden, on the other hand, did not impose any lockdowns, and instead called on citizens to respect basic social distancing practices.

More than 1,200 people have since died in Sweden, while in the UK there have been more than 12,600 deaths.

Dr Grenfell says the statistics show Australia has potentially avoided a major crisis by not taking a herd immunity approach to the pandemic.

"We have seen an example in the United Kingdom where their initial attempts at targeting a herd immunity of the virus had to be changed very quickly and they are unfortunately dealing with the consequences," he said.

"Sweden has recently realised they too had made a mistake, requiring a rapid change in how they approach the spread of COVID-19."

"We don’t understand this virus. This is a very infectious virus and it really does make many people very sick. "

"Herd immunity hasn't really worked in this case and I’m very happy we didn't do it in Australia." 

Will Australia's restrictions be lifted soon?

Australia is one of the success stories in the world, Professor Collignon said.

"Not only have we managed to flatten the pandemic curve but turn it so that we have very few new daily cases."

While Professor Collignon says the end of coronavirus cases in Australia could be some way off, relaxing restrictions in the coming months could be very likely.

Restrictions to public places have helped Australia suppress the spread of COVID-19 Source: AAP

"We need to control the small numbers of the virus we have now and particularly take precaution coming into the winter months, as the large majority of respiratory viruses are worse during that time of year," he said. 

"If that can be done then it could be time to look at what restrictions we could lift, and what other ones we should consider keeping in place a little longer."

University of Queensland's Public Health faculty dean Charles Gilks says Australia could open a Pandora's box if it is too hasty in easing restrictions.

"Because we have seemingly flattened the curve so effectively in Australia, we are in a situation where our population could be very susceptible to the virus when we start to wind down all the preventative measures," he said.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

6 min read
Published 16 April 2020 at 5:33pm
By Nick Houghton