MELBOURNE: Australia’s second largest city has put into force harsh new measures limiting movement, including overnight curfews, as it continues efforts to get on top of a surging wave of COVID-19 cases that has resulted in a climbing death toll and strained the healthcare system.
Melbourne in the state of Victoria recorded a record 725 cases of the virus and 15 deaths on Wednesday (Aug 5), making it the worst day for the city as a whole since the pandemic began, continuing a string of such records since a new flare-up of infections began in mid-June.
The cause has been attributed to a bungled hotel quarantine programme for returned travellers, which is now the subject of an inquiry by a royal commission led by a retired judge due to submit its findings in September.
It has nevertheless been widely acknowledged that the use of private security guards neither adequately trained nor issued with the correct personal protective equipment, administering a programme hurriedly cobbled together resulted in the virus spreading to the larger community.
The result has been a steady uptick in infections and deaths, with the virus finding its way into the aged care system during this latest wave.
The result has also been a surge in deaths, although nowhere near the scale seen in the United States and some European countries.
While hospitals are containing the situation, the contact tracing system has come under strain from a significant number of community transmission and unlinked cases.
Nation-wide, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in all of Australia has surged to 255 on Aug 6. The number is even starker considering the toll had remained steady before the Melbourne spike with only a total of 11 deaths recorded between May 7 and Jul 15.
This flare up was, and still is, mainly confined to virus hotspots of a few predominantly working-class suburbs in the north and west of Melbourne, home to many immigrants from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.
This has presented additional challenges to authorities’ efforts to combat the outbreak, as English is not the first language of many residents.
Many also work as essential blue-collared workers. Their socio-economic circumstances mean they are less able to afford to take time off work when unwell or required to self-isolate.
Indeed, recent statistics revealed a startling 800 people found not to be isolating at home as they were supposed to be, out of 3,000 spot checks conducted by police and army personnel.
HARSHEST LOCKDOWN GLOBALLY
The surge in infections across Melbourne has seen the imposition of what has been called “world’s strictest lockdown”.
These have progressively grown from restrictions on travel in a handful of Melbourne postcodes to the current set of measures which came into force over the weekend that banned Melbourne residents from traveling more than 5km from their home except for work or emergencies.
This applies even to shopping for groceries, unless there are no such options. Each household is also limited to going out once a day for exercise or shopping, with only one member of each household allowed to be out at any given time.
A nightly curfew is in place from 8pm to 5am, and comes on top of mandated closures for most retail operations with exception for food and other essential operations such as medical care.
Even the construction industry, one of the lynchpin sectors of the Victorian economy, is limited to no more than 25 workers, with restrictions placed on the number of different worksites a worker can work at.
The increased restrictions, which will last for at least six weeks, have been brought on by the lack of adherence to previous restrictions imposed in early July.
Traffic data suggest more cars were also out compared to the earlier set of lockdowns, which ended in early June when it appeared the pandemic was brought under control.
The reduced compliance has been attributed in part to lockdown fatigue, with Melbourne residents caught for egregious violations.
One culprit was discovered to have driven across the expansive city to buy groceries and another to a regional town four hours away - for a Big Mac.
This may be understandable to some extent. Residents were only barely beginning to savour little things like dining in at restaurants following the easing of restrictions.
Most Melbourne residents have, however, accepted the harsher measures, which include the mandatory wearing of masks outdoors, albeit with an air of weary resignation.
Even Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, which have a handful of COVID-19 cases, have seen residents in the area complying with these new realities with a shrug of the shoulders.
There has also been little of the panic buying at supermarkets seen previously, although fresh meat is running out. Due to several cases of COVID-19 at meatworks and abattoirs in Victoria, the latest round of restrictions require these facilities reducing their onsite workforce by a third.
A LONG ROAD AHEAD
Despite the grim picture, Australia’s political leadership at the federal and state levels, as well as health authorities, are unanimous in their assessment the country will get on top of this latest spike.
Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, has expressed hope the latest restrictions would reverse current infection trends by the time they are due to end in September, although experts have cautioned it will take time before the latest measures see effects, with one warning Melbourne may witness up to 1,100 daily cases before plateauing and falling.
Other Australian states have seen a small number of clusters alongside Melbourne’s outbreaks, mostly linked to travellers or returning residents from Melbourne’s virus hotspots. Some involve asymptomatic carriers unknowingly spreading the virus, but in other cases, some travellers have lied in their health declarations or wilfully ignored requirements to self-isolate.
This has led to other states tightening restrictions on travellers from Victoria, with New South Wales requiring visitors from their next-door state to quarantine themselves in a hotel for 14 days.
As expected, all talk of a potential Australian “travel bubble” with other countries such as New Zealand and Hong Kong have evaporated.
The news is just as grim on the economic front. Already facing a severe jolt even without the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned that the country’s Gross Domestic Product is expected to take a further A$7 billion (US$5.04 billion) to A$9 billion hit in the quarter ending in September, on top of the expected A$3 billion due to the previous lockdowns.
Unemployment forecasts paint an equally dire picture, with Morrison revealing that the Treasury Department is expecting the jobless rate to hit 10 per cent, above initial forecasts of 9.25 per cent.
He added that the real picture might be much worse after factoring in workers who are technically employed, but are not getting any rostered shifts due to workplace closures or restrictions.
However, he encouraged Australians to “keep our heads up” to get over the crisis, with Victoria’s Andrews urging people to do the right thing and follow medical advice to enable the state and the country to get over this crisis.
Melbourne, and Australia as a whole, is now learning a few salutary lessons about the COVID-19 pandemic: The virus is adept at finding any gap in a response plan. Countries that do not get it right will find themselves in a significant amount of health, economic and social pain dished out by the pandemic.
On a human level, Melbourne also demonstrates that populations who have undergone a bout of lockdowns may chafe at subsequent attempts to impose similar restrictions, which may reduce their efficacy or necessitate harsher measures to get the desired effect in reducing infections.
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Mike Yeo is a journalist based in Melbourne.