Cafuego

The second wave of toilet paper hoarding hit Australia in late June, and purchase limits were reintroduced in the country’s biggest supermarket chains. However, life is slowly starting to pick up its pace again in Melbourne and the entire state of Victoria after one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 lockdowns of nearly four months. Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia with a population of five million, finally began to ease the second lockdown on the 28th of October after two consecutive days without new infections. While Europe is currently being hit hard by the second wave of COVID-19, and multiple countries such as France, Germany, UK, Ireland, and Greece are imposing their second yet lighter lockdowns, Australia seems to have found an equilibrium, at least for the time being.

The second outbreak was initially traced down through genomic tracing to two returning travel groups under quarantine in Melbourne hotels, with travelers under guard by security officers. However, it seems as though this virus spread to the hotel staff and security officers, which were ground zero for the second wave in Victoria. From June 9th, the last time the state had zero cases, the daily new coronavirus cases started to climb, reaching a peak of 687 on August 5th.  By then, Victoria had already taken a stricter approach than required by other states in the country. Restaurants, hairdressers, beauty, entertainment, general retail, and non-essential businesses were forced to close, with only online or take away orders allowed for some. Victorians were also limited to 1 hour of outdoor exercise a day, a five-kilometer radius travel restriction from their home, restriction of travel between Melbourne and Regional Victoria, a night curfew from eight in the afternoon to five in the morning, compulsory face masks, and of course, being cut off from interstate travel.

The economic and social implications of the COVID-19 measures taken are enormous. As estimated by the Australian government, 1.200 jobs have been lost on average per day in Victoria and the demand for mental health services has increased by 30%. Furthermore, Victoria’s lockdown has cut around €60 million per day from the state’s economic activity and could cut the national GDP by 2.5% in the third quarter. These figures do not sit well with the fact that Australia fell into recession for the first time in three decades this year in the March quarter due to the COVID-19 shutdown. In 2008, Australia even kept growing through the global financial crisis due to steady immigration, rising exports to China, and careful monetary policy. However, there are some recent sparkles of hope as on October 27th the Reserve Bank deputy governor stated, “The growth elsewhere in the country was more than the drag from Victoria and the drag from Victoria was possibly a little less than what we guessed back in August.”

The effectiveness of Victoria’s COVID-19 strategy on the number of cases seems to be unmatched, with only Singapore containing a similar second wave to Victoria. As a result of this, Singapore has now opened up its borders to allow Victorians to travel to the city-state. However, it is yet to be determined whether these low figures may be sustained in the long term. The summer months are approaching Melbourne, and so is the Christmas summer holiday season. With 75% of people in Victoria living in Melbourne, limiting the spread of the virus and defending the almost non-existent cases and hard work of every Victorian will be the real test for the Victorian government. As seen in Argentina, even 200 days of full lockdown did not curb the virus for long. Argentina’s failures could be attested to but not limited to an unbearable length of the lockdown for many and other common enemies – poverty, inequality, testing failures, and health care shortcomings, all areas in which Australia has a limited concern. 

Australia has adopted stricter border control measures to protect the Australian community from the virus. Due to the geographical location, the country has been relatively easy to close down for foreign visitors and keep their citizens inside the borders. All citizens and permanent residents have been prohibited from leaving the country since March 25th, except some essential and government workers and individuals permanently residing elsewhere. There are additional efforts put in by the authorities to help Australians abroad. In late October, a series of eight commercial flights from London, New Delhi, and Johannesburg were organized to bring thousands of especially vulnerable Australians back in the country from overseas, with most likely more to come. However, after arrival, one must quarantine in a designated facility, such as a camp or a hotel at the port of entry to Australia for 14 days before entering the community. Both flights and quarantine are at one’s own cost for now, but this was not the case in the first wave of the virus. Despite this, Victoria has been almost completely isolated, and all intended international arrival has been redirected to other parts of the country.

For many Australian expats abroad, the strict COVID-19 restrictions have caused particular concern. The government has established caps on the numbers of citizens and permanent residents returning to the country to manage the need for quarantine facilities. There are regular and rapid disruptions and changes in flight schedules concerning the caps and other regulations. As one can imagine, for a working professional with a limited amount of holiday days, booking a flight to see family and other loved ones is close to impossible. Flights are regularly canceled, and there is no guarantee when one would indeed be able to fly. Not much has been said regarding the opening of borders and chances for international travel either, but it is most likely to stay prohibited until late 2021. Looking at Europe and the EU’s situation with freedom of movement perceived almost as a given, particularly before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian approach may seem rather harsh. Nevertheless, the Australian government insists its main priority is to protect the community, which is certainly easier when international movement can be highly restricted. However, is the lack of freedom worth it?

Perhaps surprisingly, Victorians have largely obeyed the authorities and not many protests have been seen against the strict COVID-19 measures. The set safety rules and regulations have been enforced rigidly, which allowed for the success of taming the virus. However, after all these months of lockdown, it will be interesting to see how the possible increase in cases will be handled and how much are the people of Victoria and Australia in general willing to give up in the name of public health and safety. On the contrary, Europe is heading into winter and new lockdowns with somewhat leery and tired citizens around the countries. Is there something that could be learned from Victoria or is it already too late for Europe?

As said, only time will tell whether or not the results in Melbourne and Victoria are sustainable, and the success has undoubtedly been a sum of multiple factors. However, it seems that the local government in Victoria has done something crucially right and has convinced the people of the importance of the safety measures from mandatory mask-wearing to adhering to the lockdown rules and the importance of testing. Moreover, recent results from the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project reveal that “nearly three in four Australians trust the government to provide them with accurate information about COVID-19. Not all countries and politicians have been as successful. To quote the White House coronavirus adviser Anthony Fauci about mask-wearing, “it has been “painful” to see the issue become politicised in the United States.” Therefore, even if the strict border measures might not be enforceable elsewhere in the world, such as in Europe due to loosely restricted borders, having everybody on board tackling the virus together by the best scientifically proven methods is essential. We will only succeed in keeping this pandemic in check through sacrifice and a willingness to achieve a unified goal.