By Kalinga Seneviratne
Along with Singapore and New Zealand, Australia was considered as one of the top three safest countries in the world for having successfully fought the spread of Covid-19 until about two months ago. But, with a two weeks lockdown in Australia’s largest city Sydney extended for another week, this early success has turned sour meanwhile.
From about August last year until the beginning of May, Australians have exercised a freedom that most countries did not have, in being able to have holidays within their own country, attending sporting events in their thousands without having to wear a mask, and even clubs and pubs were opened for dancing and singing earlier this year.
Some envious foreign media dubbed Australia the “hermit nation” for having a strict border control policy. When a new mutation of Covid (now called the ‘Delta’ variant by the World Health Organisation) started to play havoc in India, Australia banned flights coming in from India in early May, drawing criticism at home and abroad for adopting a “racist” policy. The ban was lifted subsequently, and it is this variant according to medical experts, that has slipped into Australia and undone Australia’s reputation as a “Covid-free” country.
The Delta variant has slipped through Australia’s hotel quarantine facilities in Melbourne in May when a hotel employee had infected people outside; while in June, an unvaccinated driver who was ferrying air crews from the airport to their quarantine hotels have brought the virus into his community in Sydney, that forced the lockdown of the city for 2 weeks and now extended for another week.
A major reason for Australia’s latest Covid-19 outbreak is blamed on the government’s vaccination policy and peoples’ vaccine hesitancy—both could be pegged on to Australia’s initial success in controlling the virus. But, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turbull has blamed his successor Scott Morrison for a “phenomenal failure” of public policy.
In a stinging rebuke of his former Cabinet colleague, Turbull told the national broadcaster ABC that it was inexcusable that only 8 percent of Australia’s population has been fully vaccinated against Covid. He blamed the government’s failure to buy enough vaccines. “This is just a failure to do the one single most important job the Commonwealth (federal) government had which was to get the country vaccinated. It is hugely disappointing,” Turnbull told the ABC.
On July 5 it was revealed that five patients at an aged-care home in Sydney’s north-west was infected by the virus, possibly from an unvaccinated worker at the nursing home. Two nurses at the nursing home were earlier tested positive to Covid, and the management acknowledged that two-thirds of the staff there were not vaccinated, while 96 percent of the residents were vaccinated.
The federal government quickly announced that all workers employed in residential aged care would need to be vaccinated by September. The opposition leader Anthony Albanese seized on the reports of three aged care residents in Sydney being infected with COVID-19, blaming the Morrison government for its failure in rolling out the vaccine program. “It was another reminder of this government’s incompetence when it comes to the rolling out of the vaccine,” Albanese told reporters in Canberra.
The government’s blaming of the aged-care workers has upset the federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Annie Butler, who said she was concerned the federal government was trying to shift the blame onto workers in aged care instead of ensuring they were vaccinated. She told the media that the federal government figures indicate about sixty-six per cent of aged care workers were still not vaccinated across the country. “What we’ve seen in Baulkham Hills (north-western Sydney) could happen anywhere in the country right now unfortunately,” she points out.
The Morrison government on July 2 announced a four-stage plan to steer Australia through the Covid-19 pandemic and back to some sort of normality, which hinges on the vaccination targets. “The vaccination is the key to our ability to be able to open our borders up again and get Australia back to whatever the new normal is going to look like,” Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told Sky News. “Every Australian wants us to get to stage four as quickly as possible, but we can only do that if we know that the health and safety of Australians is being protected on the way.”
This stage-four would include Australians able to travel overseas freely and opening up the borders to foreign tourists and other visitors. Since May 2020, Australian citizens and permanent residents are not allowed to leave the country, unless permission is granted by the Home Ministry. Also entry to Australia has been severely restricted and even Australians citizens have been prevented from coming back home. Currently there are some 34,000 Australian citizens stranded overseas.
In May when Melbourne went into a two-week lockdown due to a virus leak from hotel quarantine, it was the 17th time that this had happened in Australia since the Covid-19 outbreak. There have been criticisms from health experts that hotels built for tourists and business conventions are not suitable venues for quarantine of inward travellers. There have been calls for purpose-built facilities because Australia has the money, the space and the needed remote locations to build such facilities. So far only one has been built in Howard Sprints near Darwin, where travellers from India were sent.
Prime Minister Morrison has consistently claimed that hotels are 99.99 percent effective in containing coronavirus. But, opposition health spokesperson Mark Butlers argues that the government “ignores the fact that every single leak is a massive disaster (for the Australian economy)”.
The tough border restriction policy has been popular with the Australian electorate as long as Australians feel safe from the coronavirus. But, with the recent series of snap lockdowns it is showing signs that Australians are getting impatient with the tinkering of their civil liberties. The small business sector, especially in the hospitality, tourism and similar service sectors are also beginning to feel the pinch. With an election looming in the next 4-8 months, Morrison government is keen to retain public support, while the Labour Party opposition is trying hard to break peoples’ trust in the government to keep them safe and free.
Labour pollster Kos Samaras told Sun Herald that “there is a level of trauma in the society I have never seen before, you cannot keep inflicting lockdowns on people”. He said the tolerance for lockdowns and support for fortress Australia is “starting to fray and the fatigue we are seeing now is enormous”.
Victorian Labour Party Premier Daneil Andrews says that when all the people who want to be vaccinated have been given the vaccine, there will be no need for lockdowns even if Australia has no zero Covid cases. “We won’t have lockdowns to protect people who won’t be prepared to protect themselves,” he told Sun Herald.