My country had a chance to eliminate the virus, but we failed
Australia, up until a few weeks ago, was the lucky country when it came to Covid-19. With the notable exception of Victoria, we avoided the worst of the Covid pandemic. Our geographical isolation and transformation into the Hermit Kingdom of the Antipodes had a lot to do with it. For much of last year our blue skies were empty — no international flights and, for the most part, no interstate flights. But then we made our first mistake. As Covid-19 appeared to vanish from our midst, Australians began to believe we could eliminate it forever.
This eliminationist delusion explains the lockdown mania that continues to grip Australia. Just this week, the state of Victoria tightened mask-wearing restrictions after 10 new cases, which was followed by a five-day lockdown. Incredibly, the state was said to be on “high alert” after just one new case.
In this, Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews has form. Last year, he imposed a Stage 4 lockdown on Melbourne from August to October. His crackdown ticked all the boxes on the so-called Stringency Index, including stay-at-home directives, school and business closures, travel restrictions and mask mandates.
The brutality of the 112-day lockdown in Melbourne was justified by the vision of a virus-free state. No small claim given that at the time Victoria accounted for more than 90% of virus-related deaths in the entire country. The rest of Australia looked on in dread at the heavy-handed measures taken by the Andrews government. It is only fair to add that New South Wales, South Australia and the other states opened up their borders to Victorians after Andrews’ eliminationist strategy had been ruthlessly pursued to its logical conclusion — the virus, seemingly, vanquished.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had a reputation for eschewing the more draconian measures of her Victorian counterpart, but that reputation is likely to change as the Delta strain takes hold of Greater Sydney. Lockdown restrictions are increasing as the likelihood of containing the virus continues to diminish. Progressives will attack Berejiklian for not imposing a lockdown fast enough at the beginning of the latest Covid-19 outbreak; conservatives are more likely to castigate her for trampling on our rights and freedoms. Neither tells the whole story.
By April this year, the AstraZeneca rollout in Australia had turned into a stroll out. To this very day only some 10% of Australians are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Australia is ranked 38 out of 38 for least vaccinated country in the OECD. There are any number of reasons for Australia’s vaccine hesitancy, not least a scare campaign whipped up about the rare side-effects of AstraZeneca. The limited availability of the alternative Pfizer vaccine, considered more suitable for younger Australians, only added to a nation-wide sense that vaccination could be put off until another day.
Australia’s relative isolation, in retrospect, did not give us a free pass, only a reprieve. We had been lucky, but that luck had to run out at some point. As Australians were repatriated from overseas, some were infected with the incredibly contagious Delta strain and the return of Covid-19 to our shores was inevitable. A Covid-free Australia had the chance, starting in late February 2021, to vaccinate itself against the inevitability of the virus’ reappearance. We failed to make it happen. As Paul McCartney chided John Lennon in an early post-Beatles song, ‘You took your lucky break and broke it in two’.