Australia’s Experience in Dealing with COVID-19: Are There Lessons for India?

By Ranjan Ray | May 26, 2020

While India and Australia share some common features, such as a large landmass, concentration of its working population in and around the urban metropolitan areas, and a federal structure with significant movements within the country, there are several disparate features between the two countries that may have shaped their different COVID-19 experiences to date. 

Martin sanchez j2c7yf223 Mk unsplash 900x600

Comparison between Australia and India on some key statistics on COVID-19

According to the latest reports, India has just witnessed a large spike in the COVID-19 daily infection rates in contrast to Australia where the infection curve has flattened, and in several regions, there has been no reported case of infection in the past few days. As India extended its national lockdown to May 31, Australia has started relaxing the lockdown. While India and Australia share some common features, such as a large landmass, concentration of its working population in and around the urban metropolitan areas, and a federal structure with significant movements within the country, there are several disparate features between the two countries that may have shaped their different COVID-19 experiences to date. This piece focuses on the latter and may help the Indian reader understand the different trajectories recorded by the two countries since the first case of coronavirus was recorded in the Wuhan province in China.

Let us compare the statistics on COVID-19 infection and fatalities between the two countries. According to the WHO website, Australia has to date 7081 (cases over time), 100 (deaths), and 11 confirmed cases that are still active, including 2 new cases. The corresponding figures for India are 118447 (cases over time), 3583 (deaths), and 6088 (new cases). To put these figures in comparative perspective, considering that Australia’s population stands at 25,499,884, while India’s population is 1,387, 297,452, Australia’s infection rate (as a percentage of the total population) is .02777 percent, death rate is 1.412 percent (as a percentage of infection, referred to as case fatality rate’, CFR), while the corresponding figures for India are .00855 percent (infection rate of the population at large) and 3.024 percent (death rate among those infected, i.e. CFR). With a global death rate (among infected people) standing at 6.56 percent, both countries are doing better than globally, recording below the global CFR from coronavirus. On CFR, both countries have a significantly better record than, say, France (18.65%), and the USA (5.76%). What has not been generally recognised is that Australia’s CFR (1.41%) puts it in the same position as the widely praised Taiwan (1.4%).

Returning to the Australia-India comparison, while India’s infection rate is much lower than Australia’s, the chances of survival once the disease is confirmed are much higher in Australia than in India. Before proceeding, let us strike a note of caution in treating these figures. India has one of the lowest rates of testing for coronavirus in the world, while Australia has one of the highest. This is likely to seriously understate the incidence of coronavirus in India and with increased testing, the infection rates in India are likely to increase significantly. A similar note of caution needs to be sounded on India’s CFR which is currently at 3.024 percent. As with testing, due to poor record-keeping in hospitals, India’s CFR is likely to be a serious underestimate. Not only do many deaths go unreported, especially in rural areas, but there have also been several recent instances of deaths not being attributed to coronavirus by family members due to the social stigma associated with the disease. On CFR, India seems to do as well (or as badly) as China which according to a special issue of The Lancet: Infectious Diseases (published 30 March 2020) has a crude case fatality ratio (adjusted for censoring) of 3·67 percent (with 95% CI: 3·56 – 3·80)’ but on adjusting for demography and under-ascertainment, the same Lancet study obtained the best estimate of the case fatality ratio in China of 1·38 percent (with 95% CI, 1·23 – 1·53), much lower than India’s. Part of the better-than-global average infection rates in India can also be attributed to (a) the younger age profile of India’s population in relation to Australia and other developed countries, such as Italy, and (b) India’s experience with malaria, tuberculosis and the Nipah virus in Kerala in 2018 that may have given the population immunity from coronavirus.

Some reasons for Australia’s satisfactory indicators

Let us now try to understand why Australia did so much better on COVID-19 than, not only India but also, the rest of the world. To put the comparison in context, Australia has a population density of 3.1 people per square kilometre, while India records a population density of 464 people per square kilometre. This gives Australia a huge advantage over India in fighting a disease that spreads rapidly through person-to-person contact. It is much easier to enforce safe distancing’ in Australia than in India. Indeed, Australia’s advantage, large as it is, may be understated by a simple comparison of these population densities since much of Australia’s population is concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne and the population density tapers off once one moves away from these two cities. In contrast, India’s list of densely populated cities is long and even its semi-urban areas are more densely populated than Sydney and Melbourne. It is, therefore, significant that in Australia, though the rates of infection and death have come down sharply to the point where one speaks of the infection curve bending’, not flattening’, the performance has been uneven between regions with the states of New South Wales and Victoria whose capital cities are Sydney and Melbourne, respectively, continuing to record new cases and fatalities from COVID-19. To support this conjecture as a possible reason for Australia’s superior record on Covid-19 there is some evidence that India’s urban areas have recorded the larger share of the incidence of COVID-19 in the country. This is consistent with international evidence that urban areas with greater economic activity and higher population density have been the prime location for Coronavirus.1 Of course, this may change as India witnesses return migration from urban areas to rural areas increasing the spread of infection to India’s hinterland.

Another advantage that Australia holds over India is in the safety of its distance, the lower magnitude of its intra-national and international traffic and the fact that much of it has been in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. This made it easier to control the spread of the disease through community transmission’ with much of the efforts in Australia’s border closures with the rest of the world needing to be done in selected airports, namely, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. In contrast, India has to contend with porous borders with multiple entry and exit points.

Swift action by Australia ahead of WHO – Similarity with the Kerala model

These significant advantages aside, a great deal of credit is due to the Australian authorities, both federally and in the states and territories, as the following chronology of events during COVID-19 brings out. Interestingly, the start of the trajectory was remarkably similar for both, India and Australia. While India recorded its first case of coronavirus in Kerala on January 30, Australia’s first case was recorded on January 25 in the state of Victoria. In both cases, the infection was carried by a traveller from the Wuhan province in China. While the date of arrival in the case of the Indian patient was January 27, in the case of Australia the patient, a man from Wuhan, flew to Melbourne from Guandong on January 19. The parallels end here with the difference in the timing of the policy interventions triggered by the first reported case in Kerala and Victoria. As now well-known, the Kerala model’ is reminiscent of the state’s development strategy that attracted international attention, Kerala acted immediately to close its international borders to stop the spread of the coronavirus by migrants returning from the Gulf countries from where it has a large traffic. In fact, the state’s Health Minister, KK Shailaja, on reading about the possible infection originating from Wuhan, had on January 20, set up a rapid response team that had in place the WHO protocol of test, trace, isolate and support’ even before the first case arrived on January 27.

Australia acted later than Kerala though earlier than most of the developed countries, and even before the WHO swung into action. In fact, there is a similarity between the Kerala model’ and the Australia model’ both of which have been effective in containing the spread of the disease by acting earlier than others and not waiting for WHO to take the lead. On February 26, Australia declared that the coronavirus would become a global pandemic, a full two weeks before the WHO declared it to be so. Australia was one of the first countries to declare a travel ban from China on February 1 and has been extending that ban regularly.

Australia began its lockdown on March 13, the day after WHO declared it to be a global pandemic, a week and a half before India declared its lockdown on March 24. These 11 days may have made a crucial difference in containing the spread of the coronavirus in Australia. Also, Australia’s lockdown was gradual and did not take the form of a one-shot announcement with only four hours given for the lockdown to start as in India. This gave the authorities in Australia time to study the effectiveness and implementation of each step as the lockdown proceeded so that by the end of March there was a total shutdown. In contrast, the sudden announcement in India with little notice led to complete dislocation and human misery on a scale not seen in Australia or elsewhere.

Formation of National Cabinet in Australia: How it helped in policy communication

Another significant policy decision that Australia took in the early days of COVID-19 that helped in its containment was to form a national cabinet’ comprising the leaders of the Federal government and the ruling parties in the various states and territories. Australia’s federal structure, similar to that in India and the USA, allows the states to be in charge of decision-making in their respective jurisdictions (the federal government has limited power) in enforcing decisions related to COVID-19. Quite early in this crisis, the National Cabinet was formed, and all the decisions were collectively taken, thus, avoiding the possibility of disagreements between the states and the federal authorities. Whatever disagreements arose, these were ironed out behind closed doors so that the public saw a unified authority acting similar to a war cabinet. One did not, therefore, witness, the public bickering between the regional and national leaders that one saw in India and the USA reducing the effectiveness of the steps taken to contain COVID-19.


The other aspect of the lockdown that distinguishes Australia from elsewhere is its forward-thinking. It has already set out three phases for coming out of the lockdown.

Phase 1: Easing the national baseline’ restrictions, non-work gatherings of up to 10 people would be allowed along with social events at home with up to five visitors in addition to the residents.

Phase 2: Allowing larger gatherings and more businesses reopening, but pubs and casinos would likely remain closed.

Phase 3: Allowing non-work gatherings of up to 100 people; while cafes, restaurants and food courts could operate with seating for the same number, authorities would consider opening bar areas and gaming rooms.

With the infection curve bending in Australia, more in some states, less in others, the various states have started these phase-wise easing of the lockdown. There is regional variation in the timetable depending on the incidence of COVID-19 in the region. Schools have started to reopen in some parts of the country though, due to social distancing in force, only limited numbers are allowed in the classrooms. At the time of writing this article, all face-to-face teaching in the universities has been suspended and the learning is being carried on online.

The economic challenge: Contrast between Australia and India’s policy responses

Possibly, the biggest lesson that one can take from the Australian experience is its policy response to meet the economic challenge posed by the lockdown. To start with, there is a parallel between the two-step response of the Australian and the Indian governments. The response of both took the form of two stimulus packages with the second package being substantially larger in scope and coverage than the first. However, the similarity ends there. The first stimulus package in Australia was announced on March 12 and is worth $17.6 billion. It was largely addressed to the business sector by (a) providing tax incentives for business investment, (b) increasing cash flow for businesses by boosting cash flow for employers and supporting apprentices and trainees, and © non-tax measures, such as a one-off cash payment of A $750 to pensioners and welfare recipients. The Australian government followed this up with a second stimulus package announced on March 22 that was much more substantial and addressed to individuals. Along with the first round of stimulus announced 10 days earlier, the total Australian fiscal stimulus in response to the coronavirus is worth around 3.5 percent of GDP. With the global average estimated to be around 2 percent, the size of Australia’s fiscal stimulus in terms of percentage of GDP is higher than that of the UK and Canada (3% each) and puts the country in the top tier of countries ranked by the size of the announced stimulus packages.

A central element in Australia’s fiscal response has been the cash payments to the vulnerable sections of the population. Underlying this strategy are the results of research by Australian economists (like Andrew Leigh, Australian National University) based on the experience of cash handouts during the GFC (global financial crisis) that these payments boosted spending by recipients and were effective in providing an economic stimulus. While the first stimulus was directed largely at the business sector, the second package was designed to provide income support to those who have lost their jobs or are on reduced income due to the lockdown. Central to this strategy was the announcement of job-keeping’ and job-seeking’ support packages along with the announcement of a historic wage subsidy to around 6 million workers who will receive a flat payment of A$1,500 (before tax) per fortnight through their employer. While the former (job keeping) was targeted at businesses with a substantial decline in their revenue due to the lockdown to help them retain their staff in employment, the latter (job seeker) was directed at individuals who had lost their jobs and had no income or received income below a certain level. The job-keeper payment would bring the government’s total economic support for the economy to A$320 billion or 16.4 percent of GDP, one of the highest anywhere.

India’s second relief package was also quite large at Rs 20 lakh crores. At 10 percent of the GDP, it was one of the largest among the emerging economies. However, India’s second relief package missed the central element of Australia’s package, namely, immediate cash transfer to the poor. Instead, India’s relief package focussed on food transfers via increased coverage by the PDS shops and increased credits to a range of entities, such as small businesses, farmers and the informal sector. While these are welcome initiatives, they lacked the urgency of immediate cash transfers that was the spirit behind the Australian second relief package. The increased wages announced to MGNREGA workers lacked immediate implementation since much of the work for which MGNREGA is implemented has come to a standstill.

In these comparisons, one should recognise, however, that since Australia is much more digitised than India, cash transfers can be immediate and more effective in reaching the intended recipient. A further disadvantage that India has in relation to Australia is that much of its employment is in the form of migrants working in the informal sector away from home, and it is not easy to design and implement job-keeper programs as in Australia. Moreover, while India was already heading in the downward direction economically with a downward revision to its growth rates even before the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in late January, Australia was in a comfortable economic position with a projected budget surplus. However, on the positive side, India is much less dependent on China than Australia. As I write this piece, political tensions between China and Australia over the origin of COVID-19 are adding to Australia’s economic woes with China threatening to reduce imports from Australia of a range of key items, such as barley, iron ore, gas, wine and poultry. Exports of these items have been the drivers of Australia’s prosperity in recent years and China is Australia’s largest trading partner. Indian policymakers do not have to contend with this serious constraint in trade. In fact, India can take advantage of the gaps in Australia’s trading and economic relationship with China that will open up in the post-COVID-19 era by identifying areas where the two countries can work closely and develop mutually beneficial trading relationships.

The road ahead for India in the post-COVID-19 world: A note of optimism

As India looks to start the process of coming out of the lockdown, the 3 phases that Australia has laid out can provide a useful strategy though it needs to be adapted to the Indian conditions. If India can address the current challenges through well-thought-out policy formulations, the country can bounce back quickly in the post-COVID-19 world. This would require the identification of areas that will offer India new opportunities as the world comes out of the devastation caused by the global pandemic. For example, as the world realises the value of IT skills and software development where India has a huge comparative advantage, the country should be well-prepared to take advantage of the new export opportunities when the world opens up again. The race will start soon, and India should seize the initiative and start early.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation. 


Ranjan Ray, Professor of Economics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia