Once a near-COVID-free utopia, Australia sees omicron surge

Rav Thomas, single father and founder of Melbourne-based entertainment and events company Anthem Entertainment, who endured two years of financial hardship due to long shutdowns in his state, sits at his home in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, January 12, 2022 Now, as the highly contagious variant of the omicron COVID-19 sweeps the country, it is watching in dread again the drying up of its event bookings. The rapid spread of Omicron has left frustrated Australians wondering why their country – which has apparently done everything possible to stop the spread of COVID – is now infested with the virus. (AP Photo / Mark Baker)

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Like millions of others in the most closed place on the planet, Melbourne resident Rav Thomas dutifully spent 262 days confined to his home as the COVID-19 pandemic raged. He got vaccinated. And the single dad of two has found ways to foot the bills as Melbourne’s lockdowns – the longest city-imposed lockdowns in the world – hit his entertainment and events company.

Then, in October, the city’s restrictions began to lift, with Thomas’ morale going. His company again began booking events when Melbourne’s nightclubs and bars reopened.

And then, omicron happened.

The coronavirus variant has swept Australia despite its high vaccination rate and strict border policies that have kept the country largely isolated from the world for almost two years. The measures, which made Australia a virtually COVID-19-free utopia at the start of the pandemic, have come under renewed scrutiny as the government fought to expel unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic before the Australian Open. And they sparked questions from frustrated and tired Australians about why their country – which has apparently done everything to stop the spread of the virus – is now infested with it.

“Tell your people, ‘Stay home, you can’t go past your mailbox after 8 p.m. for days and months.’ And then you get told, “OK, we’ve gone to extra lengths,” says Thomas, whose company, Anthem Entertainment, now faces its 23rd straight month of financial losses as bookings dry up again. “But then here we are again. Again. Again!”

Officially, there are now over 600,000 active cases in Australia’s population of 26 million, although experts believe the actual number is much higher. The surge, health experts say, is in part due to the coincidence of two events: politicians who were reluctant to renege on pre-omicron promises to ease restrictions such as mask wearing and the emergence of the incredibly contagious variant. Faced with the explosion of infections, the government in the most populous state of New South Wales finally backed down and reimposed mask warrants last month. But by then, say epidemiologists, it was too late.

While deaths and hospitalizations remain relatively low, vaccines have not stopped the spread of the virus. Australia’s immunization program – which has enabled around 80% of the total population to have at least one vaccine – also started later than in many other Western countries, leaving a large chunk of its population yet to qualify for a reminder.

“Vaccination alone is not enough,” says epidemiologist Adrian Esterman, president of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia. “We were doing so well, until NSW decided they didn’t want to go into lockdown. ”

Esterman urged politicians to enforce mask wear and social distancing, and improve ventilation in schools, especially as students prepare to return home after summer vacation in the southern hemisphere. Children aged 5 to 11 only became eligible for vaccines this month.

“We don’t have enough vaccines for young people,” says Esterman, who previously worked for the World Health Organization. “We know how to keep schools safe: first, get children and teachers vaccinated, make sure the ventilation is very good, and the children wear masks. Are we doing this in Australia? No.”

Although Australia’s high vaccination rate prevented an even worse crisis in stressed hospitals, Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid admitted it was difficult to watch Australia collapse from his position as a model child for the containment of COVID-19.

“It is certainly frustrating to see our per capita case somehow reach the highest in the world in New South Wales, for example, when we were at the lowest in the world not so long ago,” a he declared. “It is a bit unfortunate that the opening of the country has coincided almost perfectly with the omicron epidemic that has started around the world.

In recent months, the government has shifted from its long-held ‘COVID-zero’ approach to a ‘live with it’ approach, leaving many Australians confused.

“Omicron changed everything,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. “My government is for keeping Australia open and moving forward.”

The political boost has also caught the health care system by surprise. Queues for PCR tests often last hours, results take days, and the lack of rapid antigen testing has caused sick Australians to run from store to store in search of kits.

Sydney resident Rodney Swan recently found himself among the hordes looking for rapid tests. The 77-year-old granddaughter is ill and her family has been in isolation at home for days awaiting their PCR results.

“If you get a test that’s a PCR test, then you wait ages,” Swan says. “You can’t get a quick antigen test. My daughter cannot get reminders for her children.

Swan is frustrated by what he sees as the government’s confused messages and is stunned by the skyrocketing number of cases.

“These are numbers you get in England,” he says. “I have friends in London, because I lived in London, and I can smell the smirk they have now looking at Australia.”

The slow start of its booster program in Australia has made the population vulnerable to omicron and also increased the chances that its omicron wave will not decrease as quickly as other countries, said epidemiologist Dr Nancy Baxter. , director of the Melbourne School of Population and Global. Health at the University of Melbourne.

Australian politicians appear to be concerned that any further restrictions will cause public anger, Baxter said. But they can still help slow the spread by providing Australians with a limited number of free N95 masks and rapid tests, she says.

“We could handle the wave, but there’s no political will to do it,” Baxter says.

Fury and fear prompted former Australian human rights commissioner Chris Sidoti to write an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald this week, detailing the terror he felt when his two immunosuppressed grandchildren fell ill with COVID-19 after Christmas, two weeks before they were eligible for the vaccine. The two children have been in and out of the hospital since then.

Sidoti accuses the government of the fate of his grandchildren. Why, he asks, was the government not prepared with sufficient stocks of rapid tests before the PCR system was inevitably overwhelmed? And why the NSW premier rolled back restrictions such as wearing masks in November, before young children were eligible for vaccines and before most adults were eligible for reminders?

“We were wrong from day one because our politicians are not ready to learn and prepare,” Sidoti said in an interview. “People have stopped listening because there is no consistency, credibility and answers. ”

Although policymakers seem reluctant to further lockdowns, the omicron outbreak has prompted many Australians to stay home anyway, leaving small business owners worried about the survival of their businesses.

“People are pretty broken,” says Zara Madrusan, who owns several bars and restaurants in Melbourne. “We’re basically in a kind of self-imposed lockdown. No one comes out, but there is no protection for us, there is no counseling for us, there is no financial support available. So we’re just supposed to make it through.

For Thomas, whose company is facing a deluge of event cancellations, the state’s decision this week to shut down indoor dance floors in hospitality and entertainment venues was another blow. He wonders what will be left of his once bustling city when this all ends.

“What is our goal now? He said. “What is our finish line? “

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