Australia has been the most locked-down country since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, but residents are growing frustrated with cases still rising.
In recent months, Australia’s government has gone from the “COVID-zero” approach to “live with it,” leaving many of their residents confused.
“Omicron has changed everything,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. “My government is for keeping Australia open and pushing through.”
Strict border policies and a high vaccination rate kept Australia largely sealed off for two years. In Melbourne in October 2021, the city began to lift its restrictions; however, Omicron caused the COVID-19-free paradise to ultimately lockdown once again.
Australians are questioning why their country is infested with the virus after doing everything it could to stop it.
“Tell your population, ‘Stay in your houses, you can’t go past your letterbox after 8 p.m. for days and months on end.’ And then you’re told, ‘Okay, we’ve put in the hard yards,'” Melbourne resident Rav Thomas told the Associated Press. Thomas owns Anthem Entertainment, an entertainments and events company whose bookings are drying up and it’s facing its 23rd consecutive month of financial loss.
Around 80 percent of Australia’s population has received at least one jab of the vaccine, including Thomas, who stayed home for 262 days and received the vaccination. While deaths and hospitalizations have remained relatively low, the vaccines have not stopped the spread of the virus.
Australia’s vaccine program began much later than many other Western countries, so a large portion of the population is not yet qualified for a booster.
Across Australia’s population of 26 million, there are more than 600,000 active cases of COVID. Health experts say the surge can be attributed to two things: Politicians were hesitant to go back on promises made before Omicron that they would relax restrictions such as mask mandates, and the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron.
Sydney resident Rodney Swan expressed frustration at what he called the government’s jumbled message and says he’s shocked at the sharp increase of case numbers.
“These are numbers you get in England,” Swan said. “I’ve got friends in London, because I lived in London, and I sense the smirk that they have now looking at Australia.”
New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia, backtracked and reimposed mask mandates last month; however, epidemiologists say it was too late and infections had exploded.
“Vaccination alone isn’t good enough,” said epidemiologist Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia. “We were doing so well, until New South Wales decided it didn’t want to go into lockdown.”
Esterman urged politicians to enforce, or re-enforce, mask mandates and social distancing. He also urged them to improve ventilation in schools, as children between the ages of 5 and 11 only became eligible for the vaccines this month and students are currently preparing to return after the southern hemisphere’s summer break.
“We haven’t got enough vaccines for youngsters,” Esterman said. “We know how to keep schools safe. First, get kids and teachers vaccinated, make sure ventilation is very good and you get the kids to wear masks. Do we do that in Australia? No.”
Dr. Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at Melboune University, says that Australia’s slow start to the booster program left Australian’s vulnerable to Omicron. She also said Australian politicians appear worried that new restrictions will anger the public.
“We could manage the wave, but there’s no political will to do so,” she said.
Though policymakers seem averse to further lockdowns, the Omicron outbreak has prompted many Australians to stay home anyway, leaving small business owners worried about their companies’ survival.
“People are quite broken,” says Zara Madrusan, who owns several bars and restaurants in Melbourne. “We are basically in some kind of self-imposed lockdown. No one is going out, but there’s no protection for us, there’s no advice for us, there’s no financial support available. So we’re just supposed to muddle through.”
For Thomas, whose company is facing a deluge of event cancellations, the state’s decision this week to shut down indoor dance floors in hospitality and entertainment venues was another gut punch. He wonders what of his once-vibrant city will be left when this all ends.
“What is our objective now?” he says. “What is our finish line?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.