Humans and the perils of Covid-Zero

How the entire state of South Australia was disrupted based on a lie

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here.

Last week, the entire state of South Australia was locked down for a week as a circuit breaker against what they thought was a more virulent strain of the novel coronavirus. It turned out that the whole matter was one big mistake. What it was it shows us the tremendous challenges in achieving Covid-Zero — no cases of Covid-19 spreading in a region.

Here’s the story. Like all Australian states, South Australia has a system of hotel quarantine whereby travellers are required to stay for two weeks at a hotel before being allowed into the state. The hotel is staffed, in particular, by security guards to keep everyone in check. This model, while making sense, has proven difficult in being perfect because the people involved are human. Already, the entire state of Victoria was locked down for almost three months when a security guard slept with residents and then spread the virus outside. {Update: it was not that.] This time the porous nature of people struck in South Australia.

A woman in her 80s tested positive for the virus and contact tracers quickly found that her daughter was a cleaner at the Peppers medi-hotel in Adelaide — one of the quarantine hotels. Contact tracers swept into action looking at her family and all of the staff at the hotel. This included two security guards. One of them worked a second job at the Woodville Pizza Bar.

Then another case appeared at the Stamford hotel who, it turned out, had ordered pizza from the Woodville Pizza Bar. That alarmed authorities who now had to contend with the real possibility that pizza delivery was spreading the virus. This is something no one thought possible but if true it was very serious. The state locked down.

The contact tracers turned to everyone who had contact with the pizza bar.

Six days later, the worker at the Stamford who had claimed to have just ordered pizza, confessed to actually working at the pizza bar themselves. In other words, they worked with the infected security guard from Peppers, the other hotel. Pizza delivery was not spreading the virus. Normal, close-quarters contact was.

This was actually good news. But, of course, this falsehood had led to a statewide lockdown. That lockdown was reversed with more modest restrictions. Meanwhile, the contact tracers will continue to do their job.

Australians are not kind to people who cause mass issues. The person who worked as a security guard and a pizza employee will likely face a lifetime of hardship. I imagine those jobs will be lost, the government will likely pursue criminal action (although precisely where is still open) and then the public outrage wagon will take its course.

No one likes people who lie. And there is a belief that if the punishment is high enough then people will tell the truth. But I can’t help but think that the situation was important here. We have a security guard working in a stressful environment with stressed people. No one likes to be quarantined and to be stuck in a hotel for two weeks will cause many to be unpleasant. Add to that the fact that this guard felt it necessary to work a second job which, let’s face it, is a sign of being underpaid for the first one. And then contact tracers come calling. The link to the pizza shop isn’t hidden, just the extent of it. In the end, authorities, out of an abundance of caution, decide that the likely hypothesis was a new, more virulent strain of the coronavirus and so they lock everything down.

But was that the likely hypothesis? We surely have to remember Dr House’s dictum here: “everybody lies.” The authorities trusted the information from the critical person in the link when they had already learned that another worker had two jobs! That was a bad judgment call in retrospect. Someone who is afraid of losing two jobs doesn’t want to risk that. So while understandably failing to understand the epidemiological difference in their answer, didn’t answer correctly. That person more likely understood that if the pizza shop was found to have not one but two employees who also worked with quarantined travellers, the shop was toast. Don’t think you can separate the person from the situation here.

If I had my druthers, the reaction should be one of understanding and then of education so that people feel safer to tell the truth. I suspect the opposite is where Australia is heading.

[Addendum: it turned out the person was in Australia on a temporary work visa. In other words, someone feeling even less secure than I was speculating. For this situation, my point holds even more strongly.]

What did I miss?