During the course of the Coronavirus crisis, there’s been a huge amount of discussion around one country – Sweden’s – “herd immunity” strategy. Arguably less has been said, however, about Australia, despite it taking a hardline approach to managing Coronavirus – albeit in the opposite direction.
While the UK, and many other parts of the world, ended lockdown months ago, Australian cities have been some of the slowest to reopen. Melbourne, which has had the longest lockdown globally (five million people locked down for a total of 262 days out of nine months) is set to lift its restrictions. Sydney, Australia’s largest city, opened up last Monday after nearly four months in lockdown.
Why has Australia been so slow to do this? It all comes down to government and health officials deciding that an “elimination strategy” was the best way to handle the pandemic, as was the case in New Zealand. This involved shutting down the country in the case of single cases of Coronavirus, stopping international flights and installing a hotel quarantine system.
At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, Australia’s approach was one that received largely positive media coverage. The FT, for instance, ran a story titled “How Australia brought the coronavirus pandemic under control”. It credited all the aforementioned steps.
As time went on, though, the system was dubbed “the Fortress Australia” plan and drew criticism for its most inhumane aspects. Families were split up for years in some cases, and in the worst case scenarios unable to see each other in moments of crises. The slow speed at which the Australian government obtained vaccines also attracted criticism.
Midway through 2021, however, Australia changed course. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, proclaimed that it was time for citizens to “come out of the cave” and “live with the virus”. He set a target for 70 per cent of the population to be fully vaccinated, as a precedent for reopening the economy. So why the change of direction?
The first, as aforementioned – is that the vaccine has been a game changer in the fight against Coronavirus. Cities, like Sydney, that have reached the 70 per cent target can now moved forward.
The second is realism. Despite all their best efforts, Australian authorities couldn’t achieve an elimination strategy. This became especially clear when the Delta variant surged through Sydney, and then spread in Melbourne and Canberra, despite Australia’s strict approach.
Third, there’s been huge political pressure on the government to open up, as Australian citizens have grown tired of lockdown. The police have made hundreds of arrests in Sydney and Melbourne, due to protests. In September it was even reported that riot police had been deployed to control 200 people angry with Melbourne’s lockdown. The protestors threw golf balls, batteries and bottles at the authorities – in what became the third consecutive day of demonstrations against Covid restrictions.
Australia’s approach offers big lessons to other leaders, in terms of pandemic management. It’s interesting that the UK government was criticised for not locking down soon enough. This was mainly because scientific advisers were mindful of how long people can cope with such conditions. The delayed approach was a decision that sparked accusations of the Conservatives being callous and dangerous.
Australia shows, though, what happens when lockdown goes on for long periods of time. Like Sweden, it demonstrates that there’s no perfect answer to this virus, and that politicians can be too extreme in their strategy, in either direction. Maybe the UK approach – somewhere in the middle – will age better than previously thought.