The Australian state of Victoria declared a “state of disaster” over Covid-19 on Sunday, August 2, sending the nation’s second-most-populous region, which includes the city of Melbourne, back into a strict lockdown. Nonessential businesses will be closed for the next six weeks, the government has imposed a nightly 8 pm curfew, and during daylight hours, trips outside the house are strictly limited: In metropolitan Melbourne, only one person per household will be allowed to leave their homes at any time to pick up essential goods, and no one can travel more than five kilometers from their home. “Where you slept last night is where you’ll need to stay for the next six weeks,” declared Victoria premier Daniel Andrews (CNN, 8/2/20).
These extreme measures — reminiscent of lockdowns put in place in the spring in Italy and Spain as those nations battled virus surges — were necessary to stem a massive outbreak in and around Australia’s second-largest city, reported US and international news outlets. “Australia’s Melbourne Clamps Down in Frantic Race to Curb Virus,” declared the New York Times headline on a Reuters wire story (8/3/20) discussing how “the surge in community transmissions in Victoria raised fears that the infection rate could blow out of control”; the renewed lockdown after a two-month-plus stretch of low infection rates in Australia “underscores how quickly early success in containing the virus can unravel,” noted CNN (8/3/20). The Wall Street Journal (8/3/20) reported that infections had soared since mid-June following
failures to adhere to infection-control procedures at hotels in Melbourne housing travelers returning from overseas spawned infection clusters in schools, public-housing towers and aged-care homes, and spread to other Australian states.
All of this is true, but it also elides one important piece of information: If Victoria were a US state, its infection rate would be one of the lowest in the nation.
The “bleak Covid-19 figures” in Victoria, as CNN (8/2/20) reported, peaked this past weekend at 671 new infections in one day. That’s indeed a huge rise in infections, up from 77 a day a month earlier (New York Times, 7/2/20), a figure that itself was seen as an alarming uptick at the time. In a state of 6.6 million people, the latest peak represents an infection rate of 102 people per day per million residents, according to Johns Hopkins tracking data, more than five times Australia’s overall national rate.
Victoria’s disaster, though, pales in comparison to typical infection rates across the United States. As of Monday, 34 out of 50 states — Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, Idaho, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Alaska, Utah, New Mexico, Kentucky, Kansas, Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington — had higher daily per capita infection rates (calculated as one-week rolling averages) than the Australian hot spot.
At the top of the table, Florida’s infection rate stood at 421 new cases per day per million residents, even as observers expressed concerns that case rates could be undercounted, thanks to new self-testing centers that could result in numerous false negatives. And far from imposing lockdowns, most of these states have kept reopening plans in place; in all of Florida except for Miami-Dade County, restaurants even remain open for indoor dining, though taking off masks to eat and talk in a confined indoor space is a perfect breeding ground for Covid infection (Wall Street Journal, 7/3/20).
While this might be the most important lesson for US readers — a major Australian city is under near-total lockdown for infection rates that in the US can’t even get elected officials to require mask-wearing—virtually none of the media coverage made this comparison. Among the few exceptions: Forbes contributor Bruce Y. Lee (8/2/20) noted that even as cases have surged across multiple US states, Victoria’s lockdown “seems much more aggressive than the measures currently being implemented in most of the US,” while Mother Jones (8/2/20) reported on Donald Trump’s tweet that “virus breakouts” were happening even in “nations which were thought to have done a great job” by noting that “in Australia, just 1 in 1,445 people have contracted the coronavirus, according to the New York Times. In the US, it’s 1 in 71.”
One of the disappointing hallmarks of US media coverage of the pandemic has been the way it’s treated the course of the virus overseas as dispatches from another planet, with little relevance for how our own national and state leaders should be fighting to prevent outbreaks (FAIR.org, 4/8/20). American exceptionalism is a common media tic (FAIR.org, 5/16/16, 2/9/17, 6/13/18), of course, but it’s especially short-sighted at a time when we need to learn what works and what doesn’t by looking everywhere — even at nations that normally get relegated to wire-service reports unless they’re literally on fire.