Australia is widely seen as being a country that has had good success in controlling Covid-19. The country of close to 26 million people has had a little over 30,000 cases and less than 1,000 total deaths. Urgent actions like lockdowns and curbs on foreign arrivals were seen as having enabled the country to avoid the worst of the pandemic. It is, therefore, with surprise that many greeted the news that its biggest city, Sydney, was going into a two-week lockdown till July 9. As it turns out, the fresh restrictions were prompted by fears over a fresh surge of infections with the Delta variant.
How Did Sydney Decide To Bring Back Restrictions?
The last time any sort of curbs were operational in Sydney, the capital of the New South Wales province on the country’s east coast, was in December last year. The province has had a total of about 5,500 cases during the entire duration of the pandemic so far, about a sixth of the country’s total. But robust containment measures had allowed Australia in general to return to a semblance of normalcy this year.
But the country has also been noted for putting in place severe restrictions to deal with any new rise in cases. According to reports, the government of New South Wales, which had 79 active cases at the end of the week, “was reluctant to impose the lockdown” in Sydney but did so after health experts warned against a fresh rise in cases. In May, after they identified 26 local cases, authorities in Melbourne, which is in the state of Victoria, rolled out a fourth state-wide lockdown, closing schools, most private businesses, and banning public gatherings.
"The vast majority of Australian states take this approach… As soon as there’s even a single case, they move to very restrictive practices very quickly," Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney, was quoted as telling Fortune magazine.
Coming to the lockdown in Sydney, it covers the 5 million residents of Greater Sydney along with the communities in some adjoining areas. According to the official New South Wales Covid-19 tracker, the state saw 32 cases in the 24 hours till the evening of June 26. The one-day tally was equal to the total number of cases the province had recorded in all of the week before. But more worryingly for health authorities, while 25 of the 32 cases in the week before were traced to overseas arrivals, all but two cases identified in the last 24 hours were locally acquired infections.
The BBC said that the latest cases were traced to a driver who ferried international arrivals from the airport. The jump in cases was first noticed in the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney before spreading to its western suburbs.
What Are The Restrictions That Have Been Applied?
According to Australian media, the restrictions do not include any curfew-like curbs and people can go out of their homes to buy food and essential items or for health purposes, including vaccination. Going outdoors for exercise or education is also allowed. The premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, said while announcing the curbs on Saturday that “all of us have to stay home unless for the four reasons.”
Media reports said that people in the area where the fresh restrictions apply aren’t permitted to have guests or organise gatherings at their homes. Weddings are not allowed for the two-week period and funerals can be held with a maximum of 100 guests amid strict distancing protocols. Non-essential business like spas and salons are to stay shut.
Why Is The vaccination Rate Being Linked To The Lockdown?
The Delta variant, which was first detected in India this April, has sparked fresh concern across the world of a new surge in cases with even those countries that have achieved significant vaccine coverage not taking it lightly.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that “Delta is the most transmissible of the variants identified so far (and) has been identified in at least 85 countries and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations”.
As successful as Australia is considered to be in its implementation of curbs against Covid-19, the rollout of its vaccination drive has faced criticism. Only about 4.7 per cent of eligible Australians have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 while less than a fourth has received at least one dose. Compare that with India, where 3.9 per cent of the population has so far been fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus while 18 per cent of eligible people in its billion-plus population have got at least one dose.
Australia has authorised two vaccines for use in its Covid-19 inoculation programme — the Pfizer-BioNTech shot and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine is being prioritised for people under 60 years of age while those aged 60 and above are to be prioritised for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Reports say that the government has now given a provisional nod to the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
However, experts say that reports of blood clots with the AstraZeneca vaccine has fuelled vaccine hesitancy which, combined with a slow rollout, has served to keep overall vaccination numbers low for Australia.