Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

Should we do everything to stop COVID-19, or just enough?

25 May 2020 — a 1 minute read on opinion

Are you more worried about getting COVID-19, or more worried about giving it to someone else?

Up until now there's wasn't much point in separating the two. We Australians mostly followed government advice to stay home; we mostly stopped people getting it and we mostly stopped people passing it on. But now that governments are relaxing the lockdowns and society opens up again I think the distinction becomes important again.

Do we want to try stop anyone from getting this novel coronavirus from now on, or are we OK with hardly anyone getting it? To put numbers on that: we've prevented 99.97% of Australians getting infected so far, would we be comfortable letting the caseload triple and 99.9% of Australians remain uninfected?

The big danger is if the virus gets out of control. You probably know the story by now: exponential growth, overwhelmed hospitals, death on a massive scale. You can see that recognised in the relaxation of restrictions in Victoria that were announced yesterday: they keep repeating "contact details must be kept for tracing". The rules seem to focus on preventing an outbreak from getting out of control, rather than focus on preventing anyone getting the virus in the first place.

I think this is why we have rising tensions over the relaxing of restrictions. I reckon a lot of people think the right thing to do is prevent anyone from getting this coronavirus, but our governments aren't aiming for that. Governments seem content to let a few people get sick in exchange for opening up our society again... as long as the virus doesn't get out of control.

I didn't write this to advocate for one side or another. I wrote this to point out that we are in an interesting new phase. We are no longer in a battle where the mathematics of exponential growth mean we face a dichotomy: either almost everyone getting sick or almost no-one getting sick. We won that battle and almost no-one got sick, and we did the things necessary for that with remarkably little dissent. The next battle is far more subtle yet I think the arguments will be far more bitter: should we do everything to stop this virus, or just enough?

© 2023 Charles Gutjahr