Australia

This Sydney doctor believes Australia can avoid a COVID-19 public health crisis. Here's how

Dr Dan Suan is taking a cautiously optimistic approach to Australia's response to COVID-19. Source: Garvan Institute

Australians are being urged to avoid physical contact over the coming weeks as authorities work to curb the spread of coronavirus.

A Sydney doctor believes the country is well-placed to avoid a COVID-19 public health crisis, but only if all Australians take certain steps in the days and weeks ahead.

Dan Suan, a clinical immunologist and researcher at the Garvan Institute, said Australia is still "extremely early in the outbreak" with fewer than 300 cases, compared to 80,000 positive results in China, 21,000 in Italy and 12,000 cases of coronavirus in Iran.

But Dr Suan told SBS News on Sunday that the number of cases will "explode" if Australians don't keep away from each other during these early stages.

People wear face masks in front of the Sydney Opera House.
People wear face masks in front of the Sydney Opera House.
AAP

"This virus spreads between people. We can stop the epidemic by stopping contact between people, unless it's absolutely necessary ... The next two weeks are critical," Dr Suan said.

"Do not leave your home if you do not need to ... When you go out, do not touch another person, in any way, unless you have to."

A social media post by Dr Suan, which featured a graph comparing the COVID-19 case-growth after 100 infections went viral, attracting more than 10,000 shares.

Health authorities are now urging Australians to keep a distance of 1.5 metres from others – so no shaking hands, hugs or kisses – and avoiding crowds and mass gatherings.

Dr Suan said countries further along in the outbreak have had dramatically different numbers of cases depending on how well they kept to themselves during the early periods.

Singapore and Hong Kong "were very effective" and as a result have managed the outbreak "very well."

"Because of SARS, Hong Kong people understand what social isolation is at a personal level ... They know they just have to ride it out for a while."

"They didn't go out of the house if they didn't have to, they didn't touch another person if they didn't have to, they didn't touch anything they didn't have to when they went out."

Dr Suan contrasted this with Europe and the United States, which he said did not take these measures and are now "on the verge of a hospital-based disaster."

'Flattening the curve'

To illustrate his case, Dr Suan pointed to a widely-used pandemic graph – which looks at the number of cases and the time since the first report.

If cases spike right away, the country soon passes the capacity of the healthcare system, triggering a public health crisis.

If cases spike the healthcare system is quickly overwhelmed.
If cases spike the healthcare system is quickly overwhelmed.
Twitter - LA Public Health

Singapore and Hong Kong have been able to "flatten their curve," meaning the healthcare system was not overwhelmed. 

"By flattening the curve, we will actually avoid the crisis that we are all fearing, the crisis that we just saw happen in Italy where patients were spilling over everywhere, unable to be ventilated."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison discuss possible outbreak scenarios on Sunday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison discusses possible outbreak scenarios on Sunday.
AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the curve in a press conference on Sunday, warning that a spike in cases could put significant pressure on the healthcare system.

"If we don't take measures that seek to contain the spread and mitigate the spread ... We have scenarios where we get a very severe peak," he said.

'An act of love'

Dr Suan said the discussion around individual social isolation measures has so far been largely "missing from the conversation" in Australia.

"Australians need to understand exactly what social isolation means at an individual level ... Each individual person has to get it," he said.

"It's devastatingly effective in preventing a crisis."

Dr Suan said it "may sound a bit fluffy" but "social isolation is not an act of fear - it's an act of love."

"What you are doing is saying, I understand the importance of not touching anything or anyone else and I'm doing it because I care about you and your family," he told SBS News.

"I think if we all take personal reasonability right now, I am confident we can really minimise this epidemic, so that it becomes really manageable at the level of hospitals and intensive care units."

"We can drastically minimise the number of deaths."

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