Since the Covid-19 outbreak first spread over the world about two years ago, Australia has frequently looked to be in a parallel universe.
When more than 50,000 people had died in the UK and daily case numbers were hovering around 33,000 during a stifling lockdown in November of last year, Queensland leader Annastacia Palaszczuk was bragging about sold-out rugby games.
The phrase “donut day” was established in Victoria, the only state in the country to see a substantial epidemic of the virus in 2020, to commemorate the arrival of zero new instances of the virus.
Australians have mostly accepted their forced isolation from the rest of the world on the grounds that life went on relatively untouched by a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 5.4 million people worldwide.
However, as the advent of the Omicron variation corresponded with a relaxing of Covid-era restrictions, Covid zero’s policy, called “fortress Australia” or “the hermit kingdom,” has been largely abandoned.
New South Wales, Australia’s largest state, reported more than 12,000 new cases on Thursday, up from 6,000 two days earlier. The state presently has roughly 1.4 cases per 1,000 persons in the population, quickly approaching the UK’s ratio of about 2 cases per 1,000.
Victoria also recorded a new high of 5,100 cases, up around 2,000 from the previous day’s high. Queensland and South Australia, which have been attempting to eliminate the virus for longer, are keeping daily case data. On Thursday, more than 20,000 instances were recorded.
Though the increase in cases has followed the global increase since the introduction of the highly infectious Omicron form, much of Australia is now struggling with the reality of first-hand experience with the pandemic.
Queensland’s health minister, Yvette D’Ath, cautioned locals on Christmas Eve, two years into the outbreak, to “be ready for Covid.”
Her NSW colleague, not to be outdone, announced, “We’re all going to get Omicron,” a striking change from recent public health messaging.
Though Omicron is to blame for the rise in cases (it accounted for roughly 80% of all Covid infections in NSW by last week), the end of Covid zero has long been predicted. As the two-dose vaccination rate surpassed 80% in November and public dissatisfaction with Covid-era restrictions grew, Prime Minister Scott Morrison became more optimistic about the country’s reopening.
“Planes are flying again, kids are back in school, restaurants are reopening, and a great Christmas is on the way for all of us,” Morrison remarked at the time.
Despite the fact that the federal government receives the majority of media attention, Australia is a nation of federated states, and it is the leaders of these states that have led the response to Covid during the epidemic. The election of a new premier in NSW in October, following a public controversy, signaled a significant shift in the country’s response to the epidemic.
Dominic Perrottet, a 39-year-old conservative Catholic with a background in student politics, took a “let it rip” approach to the pandemic, bringing forward a loosening of restrictions after a long lockdown caused by the Delta variant and advocating for the country to reopen international borders, which critics dubbed a “let it rip” approach.
Other state leaders quickly adopted the same strategy. While Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, maintained a firm Covid-zero policy for much of the pandemic, mounting discontent with a series of grueling outbreaks that saw the state’s capital, Melbourne, spend more time in lockdown than any other city in the world led him to declare in October that the policy would not be repeated.
“Now that we have the vaccination, and Victorians have gone out in record numbers to get the vaccine in record speed, we don’t need lockdowns anymore,” he remarked at the time.
The rest of Australia has been forced to follow where Australia’s two major states have gone.
As the number of cases rises across the country, even Western Australia’s government, Mark McGowan, a staunch supporter of the Covid-zero strategy, has been forced to admit that the state would eventually have to live with the virus.
When Western Australia reported five new cases on Christmas Eve after a French tourist tested positive for the virus, he warned that the state’s scheduled border reopening with the rest of the country on February 5 might become “redundant” if the illness spreads rapidly.
Leaders like Perrottet have remained confident about the need for Australia to “live with the virus” despite mounting evidence of the Omicron strain’s lessened severity and Australia’s high vaccination rate.
However, it has served as a test for a country grappling with a significant shift in its attitude to the illness.
Perrottet has been forced to backtrack on some of the looser rules, including a decision to impose an indoor mask mandate, and warned NSW citizens not to queue for PCR tests unless they were unwell, following an explosion on Covid testing lines and delays in results.
“We’ve indicated in every news conference that case numbers will rise. They’re now becoming bigger. We must learn to coexist with the virus, and we are doing so. And, in the meanwhile, there will be difficulties as we acclimate to those settings as a society, which is OK,” he continued.