Over the weekend, Australia’s states and territories were thrown into snap lockdown with some premiers declaring that they faced the scariest period since the beginning of the pandemic.
With NSW recording 30 new COVID cases yesterday, and Sydney residents warned that the breakout of the highly infectious virus strand would almost certainly get worse before getting better, The state’s Premier, Gladys Berejiklian was forced to make the drastic call on Saturday afternoon to send not only greater Sydney into lockdown but also the Central Coast and Wollongong for a full fortnight.
The state’s chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said that the second week would be crucial in determining whether stay-at-home orders would need to be extended.
At the same time, Queensland announced a list of thirty exposure sites across Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast after two new cases of the virus were recorded following a quarantine breach. And Western Australia’s Premier, Mark McGowan amplified his own lockdown efforts in a bid to ensure “a safe and sensible response”. Emphasising the importance of “crushing and killing the virus quickly” to regain control, he suggested that NSW’s approach to delay strict measures was “a problem”.
Perhaps most worryingly, Darwin and its surrounds were also thrust into a snap lockdown on Sunday, with five new cases of the virus emerging after a worker at a major Central Australian gold mine tested positive late on Friday night. There are grave concerns that the virus could spread rapidly, devastating northern Indigenous communities.
And all of this chaos wreaking havoc across the nation took place while much of the rest of the world started to announce it could see the horizon. Indeed Singapore, one of Australia’s closest Asian neighbours, declared a “strategic exit” from the pandemic with mandatory testing and vaccinations ramping up and restrictions easing.
“What we’re looking at is a strategic exit from the pandemic,” said Dale Fisher, an Australian physician and a senior consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the National University Hospital.
“We can see what the end point is, and that is a very vaccinated community with minimal restrictions, where the virus is circulating but severe disease only happens in those who are not vaccinated.”
New Zealand, which has likewise navigated the pandemic and vaccination rollout so far with ease, made the call to suspend its travel bubble with Australia saying “there are now multiple cases and outbreaks in Australia in differing stages of containment and the health risk for New Zealand in response to these cases is increasing.”
It’s a staggering turn of events.
How could Australia, a country which has for so long been a global leader in the fight against COVID-19, fall like wafer dominoes at this final hurdle? The answer is patently and shamefully clear: our Prime Minister and his government didn’t do enough to protect us from an utterly avoidable crisis. Australia’s vaccination rollout has been nothing short of woeful.
Vaccine hesitancy has been an issue in this country for months, but that is largely due to the government’s own mixed messages about getting it done.
The Prime Minister and his Health Minister, Greg Hunt have been flip flopping all over the place; suggesting Australians should wait to pick and choose the vaccination of their choice. Last week, they sensationally advised Australians under-60 to get the alternative Pfizer shot, of which there are limited supplies. Their complete lack of urgency has been astounding.
“All across the country people are cancelling appointments or asking about whether they should even have their second dose,” Dr Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners told the BBC. “It has definitely put a big barrier on the vaccine rollout,” she added.
Moreover, the vaccine rollout among workers looking after our nation’s most vulnerable is still perilously behind. To date, two in three aged care workers have not been vaccinated, and of the 238,000-strong workforce, only 43,000 have received a second jab.
But it doesn’t end there. The Morrison government has done approximately nothing to fast track or even normalise vaccinations among Australia’s youth.
Esteemed epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws warned how this oversight could lead to mass outbreaks, given those in the 20 to 40 age bracket are the most socially mobile and therefore likely to spread.
“You go where you get most juice for your squeeze and that is the 40 per cent of cases in the 20 to 39-year-old group,” she said on Q&A last week. “They don’t have the same risk of death as those 70 and over but if the young ones don’t get it, they can’t spread it, so we really need to protect the young right now.”
Morrison rejected this advice, just as he rejected following many of the countless global examples of countries doing well and starting to build new pathways out from this crisis. The result? Australia back at the beginning, teetering on the edge and desperately anxious about what’s to come.
And it’s going to be hard to give him the benefit of the doubt this time.