Life in Australia as we know it is about to drastically change. If it doesn't, coronavirus could kill an enormous number of people, a leading expert warns.
Life in Australia as we know it is about to drastically change. If it doesn't, coronavirus could kill an enormous number of people, a leading expert warns.

Fears hundreds of thousands could die

If Australia doesn't continue to make tough decisions, hundreds of thousands of people could die from coronavirus, a leading epidemiologist has warned.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a series of unprecedented and significant measures to slow the spread of the disease and warned more restrictions could be on the way.

Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge from Australian National University's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health said strong action is critical.

"Australia is in a position to act early and strongly to control this epidemic," Prof Lokuge said.

"It seems from the data available that we do not yet have much spread in our community, so now is the time to do it."

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra today, where functions are normally jam-packed, she told the handful of people in attendance that the situation facing the country is "extremely serious".

"If we wait to take strong action, then we risk overwhelming the health system, and as we have seen happen in Italy and is now happening in other parts of Europe and the United States, we risk being in a situation where many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, may die," she said.

"But if we act early when numbers in the community are low, we buy ourselves time to establish strong health and epidemiology systems and save lives and have the best chance of returning in a few months to a life without these measures."

Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne today was very quiet as people stay home. Picture: AAP
Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne today was very quiet as people stay home. Picture: AAP

New restrictions announced today ban non-essential indoors gatherings of more than 100 people, from now, indefinitely, from pubs and theatres to large restaurants.

The Government has also introduced sweeping new measures to protect the elderly, by limiting visits at aged care homes banning entry to people who have recently returned from overseas or are ill.

"Every single one of us has an important part to play, to support and protect each other, especially those most vulnerable," Prof Lokuge said.

"Our grandmothers, our grandfathers, our nurses and our doctors take care of us when we are sick. Now it's time to do what we need to do to take care of them."

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With a good distance between them, Prime Minister Scott Morrison with the Chief Medical Officer Brendon Murphy during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage
With a good distance between them, Prime Minister Scott Morrison with the Chief Medical Officer Brendon Murphy during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage

Strict social distancing offers one of the best defences in slowing the spread of coronavirus in the community, she said.

"We all have the power to stop the spread of this virus by limiting our contact with others, by staying home, by avoiding crowds and gatherings such as sporting events and church, by working from home, by taking our kids out of school if we can do that safely, by not going to the gym, by not attending that party we agreed to go to a month ago," she said.

"Social distancing is not something we have to practice forever, but it is something we must practice now, right now, to slow the spread of this virus."

It's uncertain how long the new measures will remain in place but Mr Morrison today warned that Australia could be in the grips of crisis for six months.

Sydney streets are eerily quiet today. Picture: AAP
Sydney streets are eerily quiet today. Picture: AAP

Associate Professor Hussan Vally is an epidemiologist and senior lecturer in public health at La Trobe University, and it's hoped Australia isn't heading for the same situation that Italy finds itself in.

"We hope not. This is exactly why we have instated social distancing so early, before we have started to see a large amount of community transmission," Prof Vally said.

"The best indicator of what can happen if we don't act decisively is what has transpired in China, Italy and South Korea. We have looked at what has happened in these countries and trying to learn the lessons to avoid this.

"The best way for us to flatten the curve is to act decisively to prevent the spread of infection.

"Individuals need to follow the hygiene advice from the government which includes washing hands often, covering up when sneezing and coughing and staying away from other people if unwell.

"In addition, the social distancing measures that we are seeing now are one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of illness in communities."

People enter a coronavirus clinic at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.
People enter a coronavirus clinic at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.

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