Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: June 4

By Chris Woods

Thursday June 4, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Sweden’s top epidemiologist agrees ‘too many people died too soon’

In an interview with Sweden’s public radio station Sveriges Radio, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has acknowledged that the country’s minimal approach to COVID restrictions has led to too many deaths.

While agreeing with the journalist’s proposition that “too many people died too soon in Sweden so far,” Tegnell still argued that, if granted another shot, he would pursue policies somewhere between Sweden and the rest of the world.

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“Should we encounter the same disease, with exactly what we know about it today, I think we would land in doing midway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did,” Tegnell said (translated from Swedish).

“I think there is potential for improvement in what we have done in Sweden, quite clearly. And it would be good to know more exactly what to shut down to prevent the spread of infection better.”

Unlike neighbours Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Sweden bucked national lockdowns for voluntary social distancing, soft travel restrictions, and bans on both visits to aged care homes and gatherings of more than 50 people.

As Tagesspiegel’s comparison of EU countries demonstrates, the massive difference in death tolls — Sweden (4468, roughly half of whom are in aged care homes); Denmark; (580); Norway (237); and Finland (320) — is also reflected in per capita rates.

Translation: “Weeks since 100th death”.

How Sweden defended its approach, and the importance of modelling

As recently as late April, Sweden’s health officials were defending this approach as a kind of pseudo-nihilistic, unofficial “herd immunity” strategy that would result in roughly the same amount of deaths as other countries in the long term.

While acknowledging the country had failed to keep the virus out of aged-care homes, Tegnell argued that Sweden’s loose approach would make the country better prepared for a second wave, and had successfully kept cases within the healthcare system’s capacity.

At the time, CNN reported that a professor in the department of microbiology, tumor and cell biology at the Karolinska Institutet, Jan Albert, argued that herd immunity was ultimately “the only thing that will eventually stop this, unless there is a vaccine in time, which is quite unlikely:

Stricter lockdowns only serve to flatten the curve, and flattening the curve doesn’t mean that cases disappear — they are just moved in time. And as long as the healthcare system reasonably can cope with and give good care to the ones who need care, it’s not clear that having the cases later in time is better.”

As the BBC notes in its report on Tegnell’s latest comment, Norway’s public health chief, Frode Forland, has said Sweden focused too much on historical models of viruses; according to an earlier report from the broadcaster, Tegnell’s team used models that anticipated a more-limited impact than other countries’ simulations.

Sweden’s former state epidemiologist, Annika Linde, argued the country should have focused on three things:

  • an early lockdown;
  • greater protection of care homes; and
  • intensive testing and contact tracing in areas of outbreaks.

What lessons can be learned?

Notably, Tegnell does not list which restrictions he would pursue if given the chance:

“Actually, all countries have thrown everything in right away. Sweden is one of the few countries that has worked up a stop more and more (sic). All other countries started with a lot of things at once, and the problem with that is that you don’t really know which of the measures you have taken has the best effect.

“Maybe we know that now when you start taking action off one by one, and then maybe we get some kind of lesson about what else, besides what we did, you could do without driving the total shutdown.”

On top of the health impacts, we know from a 12 May University of Copenhagen paper that Sweden’s strategy still saw spending drop 25% from 11 March to 5 April 2020, just four points higher than spending in Denmark which fell 29%.

Now, Denmark and Norway have excluded Sweden from their new tourism bubble, and Business Insider reports that the country is fast-tracking a review into their handling of the outbreak.

How Iceland successfully rejected a harsh lockdown

For a counter-example, Elizabeth Kolbert explores in an in-depth New Yorker essay how Iceland managed to “virtually eliminate” their curve without ever pursuing a strict lockdown.

As Mandarin Premium wrote in April, the country of just 360,000 was quickly recognised for an aggressive contact tracing and isolation program run in conjunction with biotech firm deCODE genetics’ mass testing scheme, one that has since moved onto antibodies.

While the country attracted some criticism for further relaxing already-loose restrictions in April, Kolbert notes the contact-tracing team “had almost no one left to track” when she arrived mid-May, and new cases were down to two a week.

Interestingly, according to Kolbert, masks “aren’t even part of the public conversation” in Iceland, with director of health Alma Möller arguing they are useful for people who are sick and coughing, but that, “that person shouldn’t be walking around in public anyway.”

“We think they don’t add much and they can give a false sense of security,” Möller said. “Also, masks work for some time, and then they get wet, and they don’t work anymore.”

Now, with just two active cases left in the country, Iceland is looking to revive its tourism industry — about 40% of the country’s total export revenue. On Tuesday, the government confirmed its plans of offering all international arrivals the option of a COVID-19 test from 15 June, as an alternative to the two-week quarantine requirement in place since April.

How America’s protests against police violence could further exacerbate COVID-19 inequalities

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reports that mass protests against the police killing of George Floyd could create new clusters across the country. Further, not only are protests and police assaults not great for social-distancing, anecdotal evidence from protesters — as well plenty of hard evidence from prisons such as New York’s Rikers Island — suggests that thousands of people being arrested (many for the simple act of protesting) face little-to-no protection from the virus.

Not helping matters was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s decision Saturday to close all COVID-19 testing sites in the city, rather than just those in affected areas; LA has since reopened one testing site at the Dodger Stadium

Now, with the African American community already disproportionately hit by COVID-19’s health and economic impacts, Hugh Eakin outlines in a New York Review of Books essay how, “the greater tragedy of the Floyd killing, and its aftermath, may be yet to come.”

Eakin notes that not only was Minneapolis the epicentre of the state’s pandemic — with black Minnesotans for nearly 30% of known cases of the virus, according to data published in The Star Tribune, despite making up just 6% of the state’s population — but that protests will further exacerbate the economic harm:

“Already, state health experts have warned that the large-scale protests this week could themselves lead to a rapid spike in infections. Equally hard to ignore has been the toll of the violence on local businesses, already struggling to survive during quarantine. In the neighbourhood around the protest site, one particularly bitter outcome was the burning to the ground of a nearly finished, affordable housing complex that was supposed to be ready for occupancy later this year. It featured 189 units, of which several dozen had been designated for tenants of very low income. Now, it is razed.”

On the home front: NT establishes Central Australian Economic Reconstruction Committee

Yesterday, the Northern Territory announced the membership of the Central Australian Economic Reconstruction Committee (CAERC), which will provide advice to the newly-created Minister for Central Australian Reconstruction, Dale Wakefield, who will be sworn in on 9 June in order to create a post-COVID regional roadmap.

The CAERC will work with the previously-announced Territory Economic Reconstruction Committee (TERC) and Team Territory, and will operate up to 24 months strengthening collaboration between government, business, industry and landholders. Amongst designated priorities, will look to fast-track existing projects in tourism, construction, mining and human services as well as new industries including aerospace, renewable energy, creative, and manufacturing.

The CAERC membership includes:

  • Dale Wakefield – Chair, Central Australian Economic Reconstruction Committee
  • Danial Rochford – CEO, Tourism Central Australia
  • Neil McLeod – Chair, Chamber of Commerce – Central Australia
  • Justine Petrick – Local businesswoman
  • Chris Neck – Local businessman
  • Paul Ah Chee – Local businessman
  • Steve Brouwer – Local businessman

Several major projects that the CAERC will be prioritising and fast tracking to help accelerate Central Australia’s economic rebound and growth include:

  • National Aboriginal Art Gallery
  • Alice Springs CBD Revitalisation
  • Alice Springs Seniors’ Lifestyle Accommodation Project
  • Alice Springs Health Accommodation Development
  • Central Australian Renewables Strategy
  • Heavitree Gap Shared Pathway
  • Industrial Precinct Development
  • Larapinta Residential Development
  • Alice Springs Hospital Car Park (Stage 1)
  • Stage 2 Development: Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage Aircraft Storage and Part-out Facility
  • New Home for Rugby Codes
  • Mutitjulu and Yulara Futures
  • Outback Way Development
  • Alice Springs Sporting Precinct

State wrap

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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