MELBOURNE, Australia: After more than 100 days under one of the longest and most severe lockdowns in the world, residents of Australia’s second largest city are getting a hard-earned respite, but the terms highlight the deep global gap on the need for lockdowns to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since July 9, Melbourne residents have been banned from leaving their homes except briefly for a handful of reasons, including exercise and shopping for food within a three-mile radius. Offices and retail outlets were mostly closed. Restaurants and cafes were only open for takeaway or delivery orders. The night curfew was lifted only at the end of last month.
Now, with daily infections dropped to just two from a peak of more than 700 and three consecutive days of coronavirus-free deaths, health authorities in the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, are loosening tougher restrictions, maintaining a tighter overall lockdown than those prevalent almost anywhere else in the world.
Starting Monday, Melbourne̵
With many small business owners already at the breaking point, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews said the November 1 target date could be anticipated if infection rates, measured by a 14-day moving average of cases per day, declined faster than expected. But it didn’t provide an update for industries like construction, manufacturing and meat processing, many of which operate with capacity constraints.
The difficult tactics underscore the divergent approaches countries continue to take to fight the virus as 2020 approaches the final weeks. Leaders in the U.S. and Europe are struggling with a renewed wave of coronavirus infections. But they are also struggling to balance these concerns with the economic and social dislocations caused by the blockades.
Many public health officials now say large lockdowns are not necessary, nor are they likely to be enforced.
In Australia, however, public health officials stick to the aggressive, near-zero tolerance, approach to community transmission they have adopted since the start of the pandemic. Even with the new easing, Andrews stressed that Melbourne’s exit from the bloc will remain cautious and gradual.
“These blocks came with pain and damage and injuries, but the strategy is working,” Andrews said during a televised briefing on Sunday. “What it means is that as other parts of the world are entering a deadly winter, with blockades and restrictions that are heartbreaking,” Victoria can now “build a Covid-normal 2021,” she said.
Mr Andrews called for direct confrontation with the UK, which had a similar number of infections in August, when daily cases in Victoria peaked at 725.
“Today, while Victoria has two new cases, the UK has reached 16,171,” he said. “And as we continue to loosen our restrictions, they are forced to increase theirs.”
Melbourne’s restrictions came into effect after a violation of hotel quarantine protocols this summer sparked a second wave of infections when the rest of Australia was virtually virus-free. Officials initially tried a more targeted set of block-by-block restrictions, but enforced hard lockdown when they failed to contain the spread.
As a result of the outbreak, according to official statistics, Victoria now accounts for 816 of the 904 deaths in Australia and nearly three-quarters of the total cases.
The severe restrictions have reduced Melbourne’s infection rate, but also paralyzed a city routinely ranked among the most liveable in the world. Business groups and political opponents have criticized the state response as unnecessarily burdensome with a disproportionate impact on the economy and social welfare.
“There is no compelling reason to continue business restrictions, especially with case numbers clearly on a downward trajectory,” said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive officer of the Business Council of Australia. “Just being able to cut your hair or go out a bit more when you have no job, no money and your business has gone bankrupt isn’t good enough.”
With Victoria accounting for around a quarter of Australia’s gross domestic product, the restrictions have dragged on the economy of the entire country, which is in recession for the first time in nearly 30 years.
And the Australian football final, the local equivalent of the Super Bowl, will be played outside Melbourne next week for the first time in its 123-year history.
The lengthy restrictions have led to public frustration and exhaustion, contributing to small and sporadic public protests and legal challenges from small business owners over the validity of the lockdown.
Health experts and medical associations have broadly supported the Victorian government’s pandemic control measures but highlighted the need to mitigate the severe mental health implications triggered by the prolonged lockout and associated job losses and disconnection. social, especially among young people and disadvantaged groups.
Greg Hunt, health minister in Australia’s Conservative National Government, said federal data showed a 31% increase in Victorians needing mental health support over the past two months, compared to a 15% increase in national level. The number of calls to Beyond Blue mental health support service was 90% higher in Victoria than the rest of the country in August.
“The second wave, which led to the lockdown, had an extreme impact on the Victorians’ mental health and economic prospects,” said Josh Frydenberg, Australian treasurer.
An October 14 poll conducted by polling firm Roy Morgan showed the premier’s approval rate remained robust at 59%, albeit down 11 percentage points from five weeks earlier.
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Mr. Andrews, who heads a center-left state Labor government, insisted that tough measures are needed to avert a potentially worse third wave of infections that would risk overloading hospitals and forcing an even longer closure.
He said infection rate targets were based on supercomputer scenario models and in extensive consultation with public health experts, and consistently assessed for economic and social pain. Many of the restrictions are likely to remain in place for at least another few weeks.
“These are not easy decisions to make, there is a lot at stake,” Andrews said Sunday. “And if we do too much, too fast, then we’ll be where none of us would ever want to be again, doing this again, getting back to where we were.”
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