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Virus raging in once-secured Australia

Residents weary, frustrated over rise after nation was so careful early in pandemic by KRISTEN GELINEAU THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | January 13, 2022 at 3:52 a.m.
Customers sit Saturday outside a cafe at Bondi Beach in Sydney, the capital of Australia’s New South Wales state. New South Wales has faced a sharp rise in covid-19 infections. (AP/Mark Baker)


SYDNEY -- Australia is weighing a return of the strict border policies that kept the country sealed off from the pandemic for almost two years as the omicron covid-19 variant sweeps the nation, and the government decides whether to deport unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of the Australian Open.

Health policies also have raised questions from frustrated and fatigued Australians about why their country -- which seemingly did everything to stop the spread of the virus -- now finds itself infested with it.

"Tell your population, 'Stay in your houses, you can't go past your letterbox after 8 p.m. for days and months on end.' And then you're told, 'OK, we've put in the hard yards,'" said Rav Thomas, whose entertainment and events company is now facing its 23rd consecutive month of financial loss as bookings once again dry up. "But then here we go again. Again. Again!"

Officially, there are now more than 600,000 active cases across Australia's population of 26 million, though experts believe the actual number is far higher. The surge, health experts say, is partly because of two factors: Politicians were reluctant to renege on pre-omicron promises that they would relax restrictions such as mask-wearing, and the emergence of the more contagious variant.

Faced with the explosion of infections, the government of the most populous state, New South Wales, ultimately backtracked and reimposed mask mandates last month. But by then, epidemiologists say, it was too late.

While deaths and hospitalizations remain relatively low, the vaccines have not stopped the spread of the virus. Australia's vaccine program -- under which around 80% of the total population has received at least one jab -- also began later than many other Western countries, leaving much of its population yet to qualify for boosters.

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"Vaccination alone isn't good enough," said epidemiologist Adrian Esterman, chairman of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia. "We were doing so well, until New South Wales decided it didn't want to go into lockdown."

Esterman has urged politicians to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, and to improve ventilation in schools, particularly as students prepare to return after the southern hemisphere summer break. Children between the ages of 5 and 11 became eligible for the vaccines only this month.

"We haven't got enough vaccines for youngsters," said Esterman, who previously worked for the World Health Organization. "We know how to keep schools safe: First, get kids and teachers vaccinated, make sure ventilation is very good and you get the kids to wear masks. Do we do that in Australia? No."

Though Australia's high vaccine uptake has prevented an even worse crisis at stressed hospitals, Australian Medical Association President Dr. Omar Khorshid acknowledged that it was difficult to watch Australia plummet from its position as a poster child for covid-19 containment.

"It is certainly frustrating to see our case per head of population rate sort of getting toward the highest in the world in New South Wales, for instance, when we were at the lowest in the world not that long ago," he said. "It's a little unfortunate that the opening up of the country coincided almost perfectly with the omicron outbreak starting around the world."

In recent months, the government has pivoted from its longstanding "covid-zero" approach to a "live with it" approach, leaving many Australians confused.

"Omicron has changed everything," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week. "My government is for keeping Australia open and pushing through."

The policy whiplash also caught the health system off guard. Lines for PCR tests are often hours long, results take days, and a lack of rapid antigen tests has left sick Australians scurrying from store to store hunting for the kits.

Australia's slow start to its booster program has left the population vulnerable to omicron and has increased the chances that its omicron wave will not decline as rapidly as other countries, said epidemiologist Dr. Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at Melbourne University.

Djokovic, the world's top-ranked male tennis player and prominent vaccine skeptic, arrived in Australia as covid-19 cases were rising across the country. He was denied entry last week at Melbourne's airport after officials canceled his visa because he was not vaccinated, an entry requirement for noncitizens. A judge reinstated the visa and ordered him released from immigration detention, but he continues to face possible deportation by the immigration minister.

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

Sidoti blames his grandchildren's plight on the government. Why, he asks, wasn't it prepared with adequate supplies of rapid tests before the PCR system became inevitably overwhelmed? And why did the New South Wales premier roll back restrictions such as mask-wearing in November, before young children were eligible for vaccines and before most adults were eligible for boosters?

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 gut punch. He wonders what of his once-vibrant city will be left when this all ends.

"What is our finish line?"



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