SYDNEY, Australia – In the war against the Delta variant of the coronavirus, few to no democracies have demanded as much from their people as Australia.
Amid the latest blockades, Sydney Police have handed out heavy fines on three moms with strollers chatting in a park. Melbourne’s playgrounds were wrapped in police tape, and traveling from one state with Covid to another without – for the lucky few authorized by authorities – requires two-week stays in quarantine at a hotel or former camp remote mining.
There are now two Australias. In Perth, offices, pubs and stadiums are more crowded and normal than ever before – the reward for a border closure approach that has made Western Australia an island within an island. In Sydney, residents are approaching their 14th week of lockdown. Worker areas with the highest infection rates have faced a heavy police presence and, until recently, a 9 p.m. curfew and only an hour of outdoor exercise per day.
Is the sacrifice worth it?
Australia is at a crossroads with the Covid. Confidence and pride in 2020, when closures and isolation brought the Covid epidemics to a halt, has been replaced by doubt, fatigue and a fierce battle over how much freedom or risk should be allowed in a future defined by Delta.
Some states are desperate to keep what previously worked, while New South Wales and Victoria, home to the country’s largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are being forced by the Delta outbreaks to find a more nuanced path. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has supported a plan to reopen when 80% of adults are fully immunized. But the road ahead may not be easy – as this week’s protests against a vaccine mandate show – and heads of state still insist they will go it alone.
“We could see the country turn back the clock,” said Tim Soupthommasane, political theorist at the University of Sydney. “There is an explicit insularity and parochialism that now dictates the debate. “
The world has come to see the country through this lens – through the actions of its blinded politicians. For some American conservatives, Australia has even become the largest prison in the world – its citizens have virtually no right to leave or return to the country, with governments reflexively locking people in their homes at any sign of the virus. .
But many Australians, though frustrated, see something else. When asked if the sacrifices were worth it, they look to their neighbors, their community leaders, the millions of people who wait in long lines for vaccines and the tens of thousands of Australians who would have died of Covid without all the restrictions.
Their response, with caveats or zeal, was generally the same: “Yes, it’s worth it” or “Yes, we think it will. “
To understand why, I explored the two Australias, the one with Covid, where around half of the country’s population is trapped at home, and the one that has so far managed to keep it out. In both cases, I heard the same message: Critics need to reimagine freedom not as the personal autonomy that Americans cherish, but rather as a collective right with responsibilities. Epidemics are a test of society’s commitment to the greater good, they argue, and if one country has failed, it’s the United States, not Australia.
Visiting the pre-Covid past
Western Australia is about six times the size of California, but it has only 2.7 million people. It combines a vast red Mars-like landscape to the north and east, rich in minerals, with a fertile coastal stretch to the southwest that includes the city of Perth and the Margaret River wine and surf region.
Walking through most of everything in August after 14 days of quarantine 2,000 miles away near Darwin, I heard two refrains about Covid: ‘We were so lucky’ and ‘It’s because we are so compliant.
Only nine people have died from Covid in Western Australia. If it were a country, it would put its death rate below almost any nation.
It was like traveling in 2019. Pubs and stadiums with people kissing. Quiet hospitals. No masks anywhere.
“For us here, it’s so surreal to see what’s going on in the eastern states,” said Kate Harris, manager of a bookstore in trendy Fremantle. “We’re pretty happy. “
This experience is at the heart of Australians’ tolerance for restrictions. Less freedom is medically necessary – as only 49% of the country’s adult population has been fully vaccinated as part of the initial laborious campaign – and it is being accepted because life without Covid still seems possible.
Western Australia, which has seen only a few brief and severe shutdowns, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Following a surge in iron ore prices, the state recently announced its biggest budget surplus on record.
“If the question is why do we support these restrictions, it’s because in most cases we have been able to endure them for a fairly short period of time,” said Ian Mackay, virologist and risk expert at the University. of Queensland, another state enjoying life without the current epidemic.
More importantly, he added, “We have saved even more lives than we thought. “
In the United States and Great Britain, nearly 2,000 people per million have died from Covid. In Australia, that figure is below 50. More people have died from Covid in Florida this week than in Australia throughout the pandemic.
No one is claiming that the approach was free. In Margaret River, I met Rob Gough, a Californian who moved to Australia in 2003. Inside the popular pub he and his wife own, with surf pictures on the walls and “Eye of the Tiger” playing on the speakers, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke of missing his mother’s 80th birthday a few weeks earlier.
“It’s like I just wanted to go out there and give her a hug,” he said.
I calmed down in the question. Is it worth it?
“As long as you have zero Covid here, you might as well run with it,” he said.
A day earlier I was at the CinefestOZ film festival, with events at Margaret River wineries, breweries and crowded cinemas. I could see in it a freedom that few Americans know now: a freedom from fear.
Judi Levine, an Australian producer who returned from Los Angeles for a project, told me that she was less horrified by the rules in Australia than by the way Americans behaved. Her daughter works at an Ohio university where students who tested positive for Covid were having a party days later.
“The United States is taking this civil liberties case to a place that does not necessarily consider the community as a whole,” she said. “So where Australia says we’re doing this for the greatest good and taking care of you and your fellow human beings is the top priority, Americans tend to say, ‘Oh, well, you have a right to do what you want; put yourself first.
Living with covid
In Sydney, community responsibility has become both accepted and suffocating.
The hardest-hit communities are filled with essential young workers whose movements have kept Delta going, albeit with a much lower reproduction rate than the variant would do without lockdown.
When I called Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and South Sudanese community leader I wrote to about four years ago, he told me he had been busy.
“I have faced it in so many ways because a lot of families, community members and young people are affected by the lockdown and indeed the virus,” he said. “We have 85 sick families, around 700 people.
To help, he delivered food and held online vaccine question-and-answer sessions. He even created a committee of his former players who worked with the police to explain to young people why staying home and getting vaccinated was important.
“The government is taxing us a lot,” he said, “but the virus is what has locked people up”.
Many Australians see overbread all around them. There is little scientific evidence to support the curfews, and Australia’s closures have taken an uneven, heavy toll.
Rosanna Barbero, who runs a community organization in western Sydney, cited the long-term costs: families with many children and a single computer for distance education; small business owners are drowning in debt.
“It’s so much easier to follow the lockout rules if you’re in a position of privilege and comfort,” Ms. Barbero said. “There is an element of gender, an element of race, and there is an element of class.”
But even she said that while more help was needed, the blockages were worth enduring.
The lack of freedom has certainly produced a new sense of urgency around vaccination. About 83% of New South Wales residents aged 16 or older have now received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. In Blacktown, where Mr. Chagai lives, that number is over 90%.
And after three months of lockdown, the number of cases has finally started to drop in NSW, to around 1,000 a day. Sydney’s curfews were lifted last Wednesday and restaurants will open soon for those vaccinated. In Melbourne, the playgrounds come back to life with the sound of children.
So, as Australia’s critics in America turn their attention to the rising death toll, many Australians look forward to a summer with fewer restrictions – and less fear than most countries in the world.
“We should feel proud,” said Dr Mackay, a Queensland virologist. “We are still doing well. “