SYDNEY, Australia – In the war against the delta version of the coronavirus, if any democracy has demanded as much of its people as Australia.
Police in Sydney amidst fresh lockdown heavy fine For three moms gossiping in a park. Melbourne’s playgrounds were wrapped in police tape, and traveling from a state with Covid to a state without one – for the lucky few granted permission by the authorities – a hotel or two in quarantine at a remote former mining camp A week’s tenure is required.
Now there are two Australians. In Perth, offices, pubs and stadiums are as full and normal as ever – paying for an off-limits approach that has made Western Australia an island within an island. In Sydney, residents are approaching their 14th week of lockdown. Working-class areas with the highest infection rates have faced heavy police presence, and most recently, curfews until 9 p.m. and just one hour of outdoor exercise per day.
Is the sacrifice worth it?
Australia is at a crossroads with COVID. The confidence and pride of 2020, when lockdowns and isolation peaked the Covid outbreak, have been replaced by doubts, fatigue and a bitter fight over how much freedom or risk should be allowed in a delta-defined future.
Some states are doing their best to catch up on what they used to do, while New South Wales and Victoria, home to the country’s biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are more granular ahead of the Delta outbreak. Forced to find a way. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put his weight behind plans to reopen when 80 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. But the road ahead may not be smooth – as demonstrated by protests over a vaccine mandate this week – and state leaders are still insisting they will do it alone.
“We can see the country turning back the clock,” said Tim Southfomasen, a political theorist at the University of Sydney. “There is a clear isolationism and narcissism that dictates the debate now.”
The world has come to see the country from that perspective – through the actions of its politicians in the blink of an eye. For some American conservatives, Australia has also become world’s largest prison Its citizens have been barred from leaving or returning to the country, with governments locking people into their homes at any sign of the virus.
But many Australians, in despair, see something else. Asked if the sacrifices are worth it, they look at their neighbors, their community leaders, the millions of people waiting in long lines for vaccines and the thousands of Australians who would have died of Covid without all restrictions.
Their answer, with warnings or enthusiasm, has generally been the same: “Yes, it’s worth it,” or “Yes, we believe it will.”
To understand this, I explored both Australia, one with a Covid, where nearly half of the country’s population is stuck at home, and one that has so far managed to keep it out. In both, I heard the same message – critics need to re-imagine freedom, not as the individual autonomy that Americans cherish, but as a collective right with responsibilities. The pandemic is a test of society’s commitment to the greater good, he argues, and if any country has failed, it is the United States, not Australia.
Pre-covid past tour
Western Australia is about six times the size of California, but has just 2.7 million people. It combines a vast, red marsh-like landscape to the north and east, rich in minerals, with a fertile southwest coastal stretch that includes the city of Perth and the Margaret River wine and surfing area.
Traveling through almost all of it in August after a 14-day quarantine 2,000 miles away near Darwin, I heard two refrains about Covid: “We’ve been very lucky” and “That’s because we’re so obedient. “
Only nine people have died from Kovid in Western Australia. If it were a country that would have kept its death rate below almost every other country.
It was like traveling back in 2019. Pubs and stadiums where people hugged. Silence in hospitals. No masks – anywhere.
“For us here, it feels so surreal to see what’s happening in the Eastern States,” said Kate Harris, manager of a bookstore in the trendy area of Fremantle. “We’re very happy.”
That experience is central to Australians’ tolerance of sanctions. Less freedom is medically necessary – as only 49 per cent of the country’s adult population has been fully vaccinated under the plodding campaign initially – and is acknowledged as life without COVID still seems possible.
Western Australia, which has only a few short, sharp lockdowns, has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. After the spurt in iron ore prices, the state recently announced its biggest budget surplus sometimes.
“If the question is why do we impose these restrictions, it is because in most cases we have been able to cope with them for a very short period of time,” said Ian McKay, a university virologist and risk expert. Queensland, another state enjoying life without the current outbreak.
More important, he added: “We have saved more lives than we had hoped to save.”
In the United States and Britain, about 2,000 people per million covid has died. In Australia this figure is less than 50. More people have died in Florida’s Kovid-19 this week than Australia throughout the pandemic.
No one claims that the approach has been without cost. At Margaret River, I met Rob Gough, a Californian who had moved to Australia in 2003. Inside the popular pub that he and his wife own, his eyes filled with surf pictures on the walls and “Eye of the Tiger” playing on the speaker. A few weeks ago, he had tears in his eyes when he talked about remembering his mother’s 80th birthday.
“It’s like, I just want to go out there and hug her,” he said.
I relaxed the question. Is it worth it?
“As long as you have zero covid, you can get away with it,” he said.
The day before, I went to the CinefestOs film festival, which features events at the Margaret River Winery, brew-pubs, and crowded movie theaters. I could see there a freedom that very few Americans now know: freedom from fear.
Judy Levine, an Australian producer who had returned from Los Angeles for a project, told me she was less intimidated by the rules in Australia than the behavior of Americans. His daughter works at a university in Ohio, where students who tested positive for Covid were found hosting a party a few days later.
“America takes this business of civil liberties into a place that doesn’t necessarily take into account the greater community,” she said. “So where Australia says we’re doing it for the greater good and that taking care of yourself and your fellow people is a priority, Americans say, ‘Oh, well, you’re entitled to do whatever you want; put yourself first. Please Keep.'”
living with covid
In Sydney, communal responsibility has become both accepted and suffocating.
The hardest-hit communities are full of young essential workers, whose movements have kept the delta running, albeit with a very low fertility rate, which is what the version would have been doing without the lockdown.
When I called Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and leader of the South Sudanese community, whom I had written to about four years ago, he said he was busy.
“I am dealing with this in many ways, because a lot of families and community members and youth are affected by the lockdown and really the virus,” he said. “Our 85 families are sick, about 700 people.”
To help, he was delivering food and hosting online question-and-answer sessions about vaccines. He also formed a committee of his former players, who were working with the police to explain to youth why it is important to stay home and get vaccinated.
“The government is imposing a lot on us,” he said, “but the virus has put people off.”
Many Australians see redundancies around them. There is little scientific evidence to support the curfew, and Australia’s lockdown has taken a heavy and uneven toll.
Rosanna Barbero, who runs a community organization in western Sydney, cited long-term costs: families with many children and only one computer for distance schooling; debt-ridden small business
“If you are in a position of privilege and comfort, it is much easier to follow the lockdown rules,” Ms Barbero said. “There is a gender element, a caste element, and a class element.”
But she also said that while more help was needed, the lockdown was worth it to be permanent.
The lack of independence has certainly created a new sense of urgency around vaccination. About 83 percent of New South Wales residents 16 years of age or older have now received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. In Blacktown, where Mr. Chagai lives, the figure is over 90 percent.
And after three months of lockdown, the number of cases in New South Wales has finally dropped to around 1,000 per day. Last Wednesday, the curfew was lifted from Sydney and restaurants will open soon for vaccinations. Playgrounds have come alive again with the voice of children in Melbourne.
So while critics of Australia in the US turn their attention to rising deaths, many Australians are looking forward to a summer with fewer restrictions – and less fear than most of the world.
“We should feel proud,” said Dr. McKay, a Queensland virologist. “We’re still doing well.”