The Australian government announced Thursday an inquiry into handling the coronavirus pandemic, including its use of fortress-like travel restrictions and a sluggish initial vaccine rollout. According to a statement from the prime minister’s office, the independent panel will examine communications, decisions, actions, and protocols involving the government during the pandemic. It also will review more than 20 earlier inquiries and reviews, some of which were led by state governments.
The country imposed some of the world’s most stringent restrictions during the pandemic, sealing international borders for two years and locking down most significant cities for months. The strategy worked for much of the pandemic, with cases dropping and infection rates well below those in other countries. But it was also a costly, inconvenient, and divisive response that frustrated many Australians. Families were split apart, people missed weddings and funerals, and many who had to remain in a quarantine zone could not work or run their businesses.
Many of those frustrations were magnified in the nation’s poorer communities. Infections were disproportionately higher in the bottom socioeconomic quintile, with more than 140 deaths per 100,000 people in that group compared to just 40 in the wealthiest. That disparity was partly caused by the lack of economic stimulus measures that would have helped businesses and workers in disadvantaged areas.
Australia’s approach to the pandemic was so intense that critics accused it of normalizing fear and emergency. The inquiry is an excellent first step, but the country should be careful about what it learns from its experience to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.
The inquiry will examine the sluggish vaccination rollout and its underlying causes, including hesitancy among those offered the vaccine. In some states, between 20 and 40 percent of frontline health care workers offered the shot declined it. That hesitancy was a surprise since researchers assumed that healthcare workers would be the most eager to vaccinate.
The inquiry will also closely examine the coordination of Australia’s national and state responses. The panel will include Robyn Kruk, a former senior official with extensive experience leading independent reviews and inquiries. She’s been involved in several public health and government reviews, including as director-general of the NSW Department of Health, secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Environment, Water, Heritage, and Arts, and CEO of the National Mental Health Commission. Her panel will also include epidemiologist Catherine Bennett and health economist Angela Jackson. An additional staffer will assist them. The inquiry is scheduled to wrap up by September 2024. The panel’s final report will be made publicly. The Australian government said it will consider its findings before deciding further steps. The country’s strict border restrictions have kept infection rates far below those of the United States and other countries.