Dan O'Heirity

I have consistently maintained a line of thought with respect to China’s responsibility for a pandemic that has of today 31st March 2020, resulted in 801,065 cases worldwide and 38,769 deaths worldwide. Far from accepting their responsibility for a virus that they spread around the world, China is engaging in a war of misinformation including trying to blame the United States for introducing the virus into China, a claim that is palpably nonsense. Whilst it may or may not be the case that patient Zero was likely a shrimp vendor working in a Wuhan market, it is absolutely certain that the virus originated in Wuhan. China must not be allowed to obscure this fact through a misinformation campaign.

Up until today I had seen next to no news article outing the fact that the appalling hygiene standards in the Chinese markets, slaughterhouses and factory farms was a significant contributing factor to this pandemic. However, today the Guardian reported on this fact in a balanced article that also looks more broadly at the question of how our global methods of food production – poultry factory farms for example – are contributing to the risk of zoonosis or cases of human virus infections with animal origins. Whilst I would absolutely concur that global methods of food production are creating conditions for future pandemics, it remains the case that China’s exotic and wild animal markets provide a unique breeding ground for such viruses.

I have for quite some time questioned the legitimacy of the Covid-19 statistics for the total number cases in any particular country because the reported data is contingent to a very significant degree on the testing rates in those countries. In Australia the State with the highest testing rate is South Australia which is testing 1,480 resident per 100,000 residents. This gives a testing rate of 1.48% of residents in South Australia. At the other end of the scale, Tasmania is testing 332 residents per 100,000 residents which equates to testing 0.332% of residents in Tasmania. The State in which I live, Victoria, is carrying out 675 tests per 100,000 residents giving a testing rate of 0.675% of the population.

These testing rates are incredibly low which is, in the first place, worrisome as identification of infected individuals along with their isolation is absolutely key to controlling the spread of the virus. The differences in the rates of early testing as between South Korea and the United States has been claimed as one of the key reasons why South Korea managed to contain the virus early on whilst the virus ran rampant in the United States. A second dimension to the low testing rates is that the resultant data for the number of confirmed cases – reported daily in the news – may lull Australian’s into a false sense of security meaning that Australian’s will not take the pandemic seriously.

There is ample evidence that too many people in Australia are not taking the pandemic seriously. A few days ago the news in Australia reported that backpackers were not following social distancing regulations. A follow up story on the backpacker parties has linked outbreaks in Bondi, a suburb in New South Wales, to those back packer parties. In terms of overall data, New South Wales announced 114 new Covid-19 cases today bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the State to 2,032. The South Eastern Sydney region – which Bondi falls under – has identified a total 450 cases over the last couple of weeks with this figure being based on the region having conducted 14,549 tests as of today 31st March, 2020. The results for the region show 46.92 cases per 100,000 residents or an infection rate of 0.04% of the population in the South Eastern Sydney region.

In my ideal world I would be able to locate the figure for the population of Sydney’s South Eastern suburbs in order to determine the testing rates in those suburbs relative to the population of Eastern suburbs as a whole. However, despite having searched high and low I cannot find a source for the population of Sydney’s South Eastern suburbs. However, we can look at the data in another way. In terms of available data for testing rates, which begins March 21st, 2020, New South Wales was conducting on average around 5,000 tests per day meaning that a total of around 45,000 tests were carried out in New South Wales between March 21st and March 31st. According to the 2016 census, New South Wales had a population of 7,480,228 people. This means that during the 11 day period under consideration, New South Wales tested 0.6% of the State’s total population.

As reported on 31st March, the South Eastern Sydney region had conducted a total of 14,549 tests by March 31st, 2020. This means that in terms of the available testing data for the State as a whole, 34% of all tests carried out in New South Wales between March 21st and March 31st, 2020, were conducted in Sydney’s South Eastern suburbs. According to the same census, Sydney’s Eastern suburbs – which includes Bondi – had a population of 267,037 people. This means that the population of Sydney’s Eastern suburbs comprised 3.56% of the total population of New South Wales whilst accounting for 34% of all Covid-19 tests carried out in New South Wales between 21st March and 31st March, 2020.

The testing figures for Sydney’s South Eastern region make sense because New South Wales Health increased coronavirus testing in Sydney’s eastern suburbs due to the outbreak that was linked to the backpackers. However, the main point to notice here is not the figures per se but what the figures mean in terms of Australia’s response to the virus. This mini case study of New South Wales basically points to very low testing rates in the State as a whole – 0.6% of the State’s population – with 34% of the testing being carried out in a region where Covid-19 cases had been confirmed. To put it another way, the testing has found exactly what it was looking for, namely increased Covid-19 cases in a Covid-19 hotspot. As for the number of cases across the rest of New South Wales, we actually have no real idea of just how many cases there might be.

First Published March 31st, 2020

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