The upsurge of COVID-19 infections in China, Europe and North America in February and March occurred with only limited information about precisely how the virus spread, how fatal it might prove to be, and how best to treat the infected. Australia participated in the world-wide rush to implement precautionary policies. There were over 30 separate Australian policy restrictions implemented during those two months.
Understandably, there was little knowledge at that time about which measures would have the most effect in restricting the spread of the disease (that is, deliver the highest ‘marginal benefit’) and no systematic discussion of the adverse impacts of different restrictions to help identify those with the lowest ‘marginal costs’. If information had permitted, it would have been useful to find the policies with the highest marginal benefits and the lowest marginal costs.
The Australian restrictions achieved a remarkably quick initial conquest of the virus, but it is now widely understood that their costs are extremely high (in terms of damage to employment and living standards, social costs and worse health outcomes in other areas). Which restrictions can we now remove, and how quickly, against the persistent risk of recurrent outbreaks of Covid-19, perhaps even amounting to a ‘second wave’ of infections?
To help that analysis, this report serves to remind us of the timeline of key events and policy changes, and of Australia’s COVID-19 performance and selected international comparisons.