MELBOURNE, Australia – After spending more than 100 days under one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns, residents of Australia’s second largest city are getting a hard-earned reprieve – but conditions underscore the deep global divide over the need for lockdowns to combat Covid-19 – Pandemic.
As of July 9, Melbourne residents have been banned from leaving their homes for a number of reasons, except for brief periods, including moving around and shopping for groceries within a three-mile radius. Most offices and retail outlets were closed. Restaurants and cafes were only open for take away or delivery orders. A night curfew was only lifted late last month.
Now with daily infections dropping from a high of more than 700 to just two and three consecutive days with no coronavirus deaths, health officials in the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, are easing the toughest restrictions while the general lockdown remains tighter than those that prevail almost everywhere in the world.
As of Monday, Melbourne̵
With many small business owners already at the breaking point, Victoria’s Prime Minister Daniel Andrews said the November 1 target could be brought forward if infection rates, as measured by a 14-day moving average of daily cases, are falling faster than expected. However, he did not issue an update for industries such as construction, manufacturing and meat processing, many of which were operated under capacity constraints.
The tough tactic underscores the different approaches countries are taking to tackling the virus as 2020 enters the final weeks. Leading companies in the US and Europe are grappling with a renewed surge in coronavirus infections. But they are also trying to balance these concerns with the economic and social upheaval caused by lockdowns.
Many public health officials now say that sweeping bans are not necessary and are also unlikely to be followed.
In Australia, however, public health officials are sticking to the aggressive, near-tolerance-free approach to community transmission they have taken since the pandemic began. Despite the new easing, Andrews has stressed that Melbourne’s exit from the lockdown will remain cautious and gradual.
“These bans are associated with pain, damage and injury, but the strategy works,” Andrews said on TV during a news conference on Sunday. “What it means is that other parts of the world are falling into a deadly winter, with locks and restrictions that are heartbreaking,” Victoria said now, “can build a Covid normal in 2021,” he said.
Mr Andrews invited for a head-to-head comparison with the UK, which had a similar number of infections back in August, when daily cases in Victoria peaked at 725.
“Today, as Victoria records two new cases, the UK hit 16,171,” he said. “And as we continue to relax our restrictions, they are forced to increase theirs.”
Melbourne’s restrictions came into effect after a breach of hotel quarantine protocols sparked a second wave of infections this summer when the rest of Australia was virtually virus-free. Officials initially tried a more targeted set of block-by-block restrictions, but imposed the hard lock if they couldn’t contain the spread.
As a result of the outbreak, 816 of the 904 deaths occurred in Australia and almost three quarters of all cases in Australia, according to official statistics.
The tough restrictions have lowered Melbourne’s infection rate, but they have also crippled a city that routinely ranks among the most livable in the world. Corporate groups and political opponents criticized the state’s response as unnecessarily burdensome with a disproportionate impact on the economy and social well-being.
“There is no reasonable reason to continue the business restrictions, especially when the case numbers are clearly on a downward trend,” said Jennifer Westacott, executive director of the Business Council of Australia. “It’s just not good enough to just get a haircut or be outside a little more when you don’t have a job, no money and your business has failed.”
With Victoria accounting for roughly a quarter of Australia’s gross domestic product, the restrictions have put a strain on the country’s entire economy, which has been in recession for the first time in nearly 30 years.
And the great Australian football final, the local equivalent of the Super Bowl, will be played outside of Melbourne next week for the first time in its 123-year history.
The protracted restrictions have generated public frustration and fatigue, and contributed to small and sporadic public protests and legal challenges from small business owners regarding the validity of the lockdown.
Health professionals and medical associations have broadly supported the Victorian government’s efforts to combat pandemics, but have highlighted the need to address the serious mental health implications of the ongoing lockdown and related job losses and social divisions, particularly among the youth and the disadvantaged be to mitigate groups.
Greg Hunt, the health minister for the Conservative Australian government, said federal data showed a 31% increase in Victorians in need of mental health assistance over the past two months, compared with a 15% increase nationally. The number of calls to Beyond Blue, a mental health support service, was 90% higher in Victoria in August than the rest of the country.
“The second wave that led to the lockdown has seriously affected the mental health of Victorians and their economic prospects,” said Josh Frydenberg, Australian treasurer.
An October 14 poll by the Roy Morgan polling station showed that the Prime Minister’s approval rating remained robust at 59%, albeit 11 percentage points lower than five weeks ago.
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Mr Andrews, who heads a center-left Labor government, has insisted that tough measures are needed to stave off a potentially worse third wave of infections that risks overflowing hospitals and forcing an even longer shutdown.
He said the infection rate targets were based on supercomputer scenario modeling and in extensive consultation with public health experts, and were constantly being weighed against economic and social issues. Many of the restrictions are likely to remain in place for at least a few weeks.
“These are not easy decisions, the stakes are high,” said Andrews on Sunday. “And if we do too much and too quickly, we will be where none of us would ever want to be again – back where we were.”
Write to Philip Wen at [email protected]
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