As the COVID-19 epidemic raged, Melbourne resident Rav Thomas faithfully spent 262 days confined to his house, like millions of others in the world’s most secure location. He was immunized. And although Melbourne’s lockdowns – the world’s longest enforced by any city — hammered his entertainment and events firm, the single father of two found ways to pay the bills.
The city’s constraints began to relax in October, as did Thomas’ emotions. As Melbourne’s nightclubs and pubs reopened, his firm resumed arranging events.
Then there was omicron.
Despite Australia’s high vaccination rate and rigorous border controls that kept the country largely cut off from the rest of the world for over two years, the coronavirus strain has spread across the country.
Those policies, which helped convert Australia into a COVID-19-free utopia early in the epidemic, have come under renewed criticism as the government fights to deport unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of the Australian Open. And they’ve sparked frustration and exhaustion among Australians, who wonder why their nation, which appeared to have done all possible to prevent the virus’s spread, is now infected with it.
“Tell your people to stay in their houses; you won’t be able to get past your letterbox after 8 p.m. for days or months.” “And then you’re told, ‘OK, we’ve put in the hard yards,'” says Thomas, whose firm, Anthem Entertainment, is now in its 23rd month of losses as bookings dry up once more. “But then we’re back to square one.” “Once more!”
Officially, more than 600,000 active cases have been reported across Australia’s 26 million people, while specialists estimate the true figure is much higher. The rise is partially attributable to the coincidence of two events, according to health experts: politicians who were hesitant to backtrack on pre-omicron promises to loosen regulations such as mask-wearing, and the discovery of the extremely infectious strain.
Faced with an outbreak of illnesses, the government of Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, eventually reversed course and reinstated mask requirements last month. But, according to epidemiologists, it was too late by then.
While the number of deaths and hospitalizations has remained low, the immunizations have not prevented the virus from spreading. Australia’s immunization program, which has reached roughly 80% of the population with at least one vaccination, started later than many other Western countries, allowing a large portion of the population to wait for a booster.
“Vaccination alone isn’t enough,” says epidemiologist Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia’s chair of biostatistics and epidemiology. “Everything was going swimmingly until New South Wales decided it didn’t want to go into lockdown.”
Esterman has asked legislators to make mask-wearing and social separation mandatory, as well as to enhance school ventilation, especially when kids return from their summer holiday in the southern hemisphere. This month, children aged 5 to 11 were eligible for the immunizations for the first time.
“We don’t have enough immunizations for children,” said Esterman, a former World Health Organization employee. “We know how to keep schools safe: get kids and instructors vaccinated, make sure there’s proper ventilation, and have the kids wear masks.” Is it something we do in Australia? No.”
Despite the fact that Australia’s high vaccination uptake has averted a worsening crisis in overburdened hospitals, Australian Medical Association President Dr. Omar Khorshid admitted it was distressing to witness Australia fall from its position as a COVID-19 containment poster child.
“It’s definitely disappointing to see our per capita population rate in New South Wales approaching the highest in the world, when we were at the lowest in the world not that long ago,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the country’s opening up coincided nearly perfectly with the emergence of omicron across the world.”
Many Australians are perplexed by the government’s sudden shift from its long-standing “COVID-zero” strategy to a “live with it” one.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated last week that “Omicron has transformed everything.” “My government is committed to keeping Australia open and progressing.”
The health-care system was likewise taken off guard by the policy reversal. Lines for PCR testing may be hours long, and results can take days, and a shortage of fast antigen tests has sent ill Australians racing from store to store in search of the kits.
Rodney Swan, a Sydney resident, was recently among the throngs looking for speedy testing. The 77-year-granddaughter old’s is sick, and she and her family have been quarantined at home for days while they wait for the results of their PCR tests.
“If you get a PCR test, you have to wait a long time,” Swan explains. “You won’t be able to get a quick antigen test.” My daughter has been unable to obtain boosters for her children.”
Swan is irritated by the government’s confused messaging and taken aback by the soaring case numbers.
“These are the kinds of figures you’d see in England,” he adds. “I have friends in London since I used to live there, and I can see the sneer on their faces now that they’re looking at Australia.”
According to epidemiologist Dr. Nancy Baxter, head of Melbourne University’s Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Australia’s slow start to its booster program has left the population vulnerable to omicron and increased the chances that its omicron wave will not decline as quickly as other countries’.
According to Baxter, Australia’s lawmakers are concerned that any further limitations will enrage the population. However, she claims that they can still assist curb the spread by offering a limited amount of free N95 masks and fast testing to Australians.
“We could control the wave,” Baxter adds, “but there is no political will to do it.”
Former Australian human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti wrote an opinion article for the Sydney Morning Herald this week, outlining his horror at his two immunocompromised grandsons being ill with COVID-19 after Christmas, two weeks before they were due to receive the vaccination. Since then, both children have been in and out of hospitals.
Sidoti blames the government for his grandchildren’s condition. Why, he wonders, wasn’t the government ready with enough quick testing before the PCR system was undoubtedly overwhelmed? And why did the Premier of New South Wales relax mask-wearing rules in November, when small infants were eligible for immunizations and most people were due for boosters?
“We’ve been off the rails from the start because our politicians are unwilling to learn and prepare,” Sidoti said in an interview. “People have stopped paying attention because there is no consistency, no credibility, and no solutions.”
Despite politicians’ opposition to more lockdowns, the omicron epidemic has forced many Australians to stay at home, leaving small company owners frightened about their future.
“People are pretty shattered,” says Zara Madrusan, who runs a number of Melbourne pubs and restaurants. “We’re effectively in a self-imposed state of lockdown.” No one is going out, yet there is no protection, no advise, and no financial assistance accessible to us. So we’ll simply have to bumble our way through.”
The state’s decision this week to shut down indoor dance floors in hospitality and entertainment facilities was another stomach hit for Thomas, whose firm is dealing with a flood of event cancellations. He wonders what will be left of his once-thriving city when it’s all over.
“What is our goal now?” he asks. “Can you tell me where our finish line is?”