Australia

Second wave of coronavirus infections in Germany and South Korea a cautionary tale for Australia, experts warn

Commuters change trains in the morning rush hour at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea on Monday. Source: AAP

Experts are warning Australia's fight against COVID-19 is far from over.

Health experts have warned that second waves of COVID-19 infections in Germany and South Korea should act as a cautionary tale for Australia.

Both countries successfully flattened their pandemic curves and relaxed some coronavirus restrictions, only to see a spike of infections in recent days.

It comes as Australia starts to loosen its own restrictions and moves towards a "new normal" by July.

"The virus is no different in Australia to South Korea or Germany, so if people relax too fast and too far and believe that the worst is over, then we will inevitably see a rise in new infections," UNSW strategic health policy consultant Bill Bowtell told SBS News.

A resurgence in cases

On Monday, Germany's Robert Koch Institute said the country's closely-watched reproduction rate had climbed to 1.1, meaning 10 people with COVID-19 infect, on average, 11 others.

As recently as last Wednesday, Germany's reproduction rate stood at 0.65. 

Australia's reproduction rate is sitting at just above 1.

"It's a very clear indicator of relative success or relative failure," Professor Bowtell said.

Citizens enjoy picnics at Yeouido Hangang Park in Seoul, South Korea.
Citizens enjoy picnics at Yeouido Hangang Park in Seoul, South Korea.
AAP

Also on Monday, South Korea announced its highest number of new coronavirus cases for more than a month, driven by an infection cluster in a Seoul nightlife district.

In both countries, there were reports of people flouting social distancing precautions after restrictions were eased - something that experts say is happening in Australia.

"We've seen in the news, images of people not observing social distancing," Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, said.

"Part of that is when you've been in a siege mentality for so long [and] you're suddenly given this freedom after doing such good work ... then there is a tendency to go to the other extreme."

A crowded Sydney street on Monday.
A crowded Sydney street on Monday.
AAP

"[But] we really need to be aware that this virus hasn't gone anywhere. We haven't eradicated it. We've just suppressed it.

"It's still around and it can flare."

An 'emergency brake'

Last Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-stage "roadmap to a COVIDsafe Australia", which was followed by states and territories releasing their own plans to roll back COVID-19 restrictions.

But Associate Professor Senanayake said something was missing.

"The prime minister said we will expect to see a surge in cases and we'll have to work through it ... but there also needs to be a point where there is a brake applied [to the easing of restrictions]."

Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference following a national cabinet meeting on Friday.
Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference following a national cabinet meeting on Friday.
Getty

He cited Germany, where social curbs are reimposed if the infection rate rises above 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the course of a week.

Germany's so-called 'emergency brake' has already been used in at least three districts in recent days.

"We need to have that in place [in Australia] - so our resources can be ready to deal with this infection, but also so the public realises this isn't a free rein to do what you like,"  Associate Professor Senanayake said.

Last Friday, Mr Morrison was adamant that Australia would not go backwards.

"It's like the emu and the kangaroo. They go forward, not backwards ... That's how this has to work. Premiers and chief ministers are very keen to ensure that you continue to move forward," he told reporters.

Asked specifically if states and territories would need to "hold their nerve" once they go down that path and "not snap back to tightened restrictions", Mr Morrison said, "yes".

The Roadmap to a COVIDSafe Australia
Federal government

But the federal government has stressed that states and territories should not progress forward in stages until it is safe to do so.

SBS News contacted Health Minister Greg Hunt and the Department of Health about whether Australia has a specific national 'emergency brake'.

A spokesperson for the department pointed to an interview with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly on Saturday, where he said authorities were closely monitoring Australia's reproduction rate.

"If we were to see lots of cases around a dispersed geographical area then that would be more concerning, really, than a specific outbreak like we are seeing in western Melbourne at the moment," he said.

Long-term changes

Second waves of coronavirus infections around the world have sparked concern about how Australia will adapt to a "new normal" in the months ahead.

Holly Seale, a social scientist at the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said businesses in particular have a key role in preventing a second wave of infections.

An empty train in Sydney.
An empty train in Sydney.
AAP

"Changing people's attitudes, changing people's perceptions is tricky ... If we want to make a new social norm of good practise when it comes to hygiene and physical distancing, we need to make it easy for people," she said.

"[Workplaces] will need to step up and look at how they support their individual workers to come back in.

"If we want to see people continuing to sanitise their hands, then when they return to work we need to make sure bottles and gels are in common areas.

"If offices aren't set up for physical distancing, then companies will need to invest money into reconfiguring workspace to make that easier."

Dr Seale said businesses will need to plan which staff should return to work and why.

"We can't suddenly rush from nobody working in the cities to everybody working in the cities, because that may be when we see that transmission spike again," she said.

"We don't know what's going to come of this down the track ... There will be ups and downs going forward, we're not going to suddenly see zero cases."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

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

Additional reporting: Catalina Florez

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