October 11, 2021

Last week Melbourne acquired the dubious honour of becoming the Lockdown Capital of the World: it has now spent 252 days in lockdown, overtaking Buenos Aires, where restrictions were in place for 245 days. By the time the current — sixth – lockdown is scheduled to end on 26 October, Melburnians will have been in lockdown for 267 days, or 45% of the time since the pandemic officially began.

And yet, at least in Australia, there is nothing overtly remarkable about the interminable restrictions the Victorian capital has had to endure. Like every other state, its political leaders have been committed to a Zero Covid strategy — driven by a woefully unprepared health system — that necessitates lockdowns in response to uncontrolled outbreaks. Even New South Wales, the one state that tried “living with Covid’ at the start, folded in the face of a major outbreak in July and is currently in its third month of lockdown.

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Nevertheless, other states’ shutdowns have not nearly been as lengthy. And spending almost half of the pandemic under restrictions has certainly left its mark on Melbourne.

There are the “stay at home orders” which mean that anyone not deemed an “authorised worker” must work from home. For approximately 65% of the workforce this has meant working longer hours as office life seeps into the home. Meanwhile, throughout most of the lockdown, schools have also been closed. The impact has been stark: children in Victoria are already falling behind their peers in the country.

But at least they can play outside again; the Government re-opened playgrounds following a three-week closure in August. For adults, however, there are only five reasons to leave home: shopping for essentials, authorised work, exercise, caregiving and medical appointments. Yet even these luxuries are restricted. For example, only one person from a household can go shopping, once a day. And unless you’re exercising, you must wear a mask outside, even though a number of health experts believe there is no medical basis for this.

Even with a mask on, where can you go? I have walked the same route every day to my local café, where the staff greet me with varying degrees of despair or weary optimism that we might open up “one day”. Fortunately, Melbourne prides itself on its cafes, so there is likely to be one within 5km of your house, which, until two weeks ago, was the limit for how far you can travel. As a result, I’ve walked through every single green space within 5km of my home, sometimes with a friend, since the Government has allowed exercise with one other person.

That radius has now expanded to 15km — though residents still can’t stray too far. A curfew, which runs from 9pm-5am, is still in place, turning life into a “reverse Groundhog Day”, where each identical day becomes less comforting and amusing.

Things are not much better in the city’s economy. Melbourne’s famed vibrant 24-hour city life has been gutted, as workers stay at home and bars and restaurants are closed. The arts and entertainment sectors — an afterthought when it comes to government support — have also been crippled. To top it off, economists estimate that around $1 billion is lost from the economy for each week of lockdown, and one in three small businesses are seriously considering closing. While city life sprang back into life after last year’s lockdown was lifted, there are serious doubts if it can do so again.

In the broader community, too, the institutions that keep society together — the sports teams, community groups and voluntary organisations — are all closed. Mental health experts say people in Melbourne are now up to seven times more anxious, depressed and stressed than before the pandemic, and the number of people experiencing loneliness has increased by 54%. Compared to 2019, calls to mental health and suicide prevention lines in Australia have increased by 40%, with three of Lifeline’s busiest days in its 58-year history coming in August 2021, as lockdown returned to Victoria.

Admittedly, Melbourne’s lockdown is not unique, with many other parts of the world going through similar restrictions at various points in the past year. What is different, though, is not only its length, but also the fact that it keeps happening again, and every time in a different context. In reality, Melbourne’s lockdown is defined by three very different periods, the culmination of which has made dealing with these restrictions increasingly difficult.

The city’s first lockdown, from 30 March to 12 May 2020, was, if not exciting, at least novel and unprecedented. While certainly coupled with fear of the unknown, it was also a shared experience with the rest of the country and other parts of the world. This made it easier to bear, especially once Australia’s federal government eventually doubled the unemployment benefit and provided a generous wage subsidy scheme. Indeed, studies have shown that Australian’s overall mental health actually improved during this period, as society adjusted relatively well to the new reality.

But this all changed during Victoria’s second lockdown, from 8 July to 27 October 2020. This 111-day ordeal, sparked by failures in the state’s hotel quarantine system for returning citizens, was particularly draining, especially when harsher measures, such as the curfew, were introduced. It was also doubly difficult watching the rest of the country getting on with their lives, oblivious to what life was like in the “lockdown state”, but quick to sneer at the management of the outbreak.

Yet the combination of external disparagement and parochial defensiveness meant that the second lockdown was wildly popular, with 72% of Victorians supporting it, while Premier Dan Andrews sparked a fanatical following on social media, prompted in part by a newfound obsession with his sartorial choices.

Moreover, once the lockdown ended, Melbourne enjoyed a glorious summer, where bars, restaurants and city life returned to “normal”. A short, five-day lockdown in February was a brief reminder the pandemic was not over, but the city quickly reverted to its usual rhythms.

However, the fourth (14 days), fifth (12 days) and sixth (ongoing) lockdowns, which began on 27 May, in effect constituting a single lockdown, are a different story. From the start they have been accompanied by a sense of disbelief that we are doing this again, after all the “hard work” of last year.

And so there has been anger: with the state government for imposing vaccine mandates; with mass protests flooding the (empty) city streets and getting into violent confrontations with the police; with states like NSW for allowing the current outbreak to spread into Victoria; with Covid-free Queensland and Western Australia posturing about the virtues of lockdowns while not experiencing them; with the federal government for refusing the provide the same economic support as last year; and with it again for its disastrous vaccine “stroll out”, which has left the population completely unprepared for the Delta variant (only 21% of Victorians were fully vaccinated when the latest lockdown began on 5 August).

It is unsurprising, then, that there is none of the enthusiastic support for the Premier’s handling of the pandemic of last year, with polls indicating that voters are turning on the Government. In its place is either outward hostility, as with the protests, or indifference, as people gradually stop following the lockdown orders. Indeed, compliance is visibly down, with the Premier reduced to pleading with people to stay the course. But after more than 250 days of lockdown, the community has few reserves left to draw on.

To its credit, the Government seems to have realised this, abandoning its cherished goal of Covid elimination, and instead aiming to open up when 80% of adults are double-jabbed, no matter the case numbers. And, importantly, it has promised that there’s no going back this time, that once we open, we will stay open, perhaps recognising a seventh lockdown would simply crumble in the face of non-compliance.

Whether this determination can hold if cases explode, or if there’s a new outbreak, remains uncertain. But it does point to the grim truth that lockdowns — an already blunt tool in the pandemic management toolbox — get blunter the more you use them, and produce more and more damage in the process. As Melbourne has finally realised, lockdowns can’t last forever.