An increasingly frustrated Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison turned to an animated film last week to drive home his point that the country needs to reopen – Covid or no Covid.
“It’s like that movie ‘The Croods’,” he said, referring to the 2013 movie about a prehistoric family forced to leave their home. “People wanted to stay in the cave … We can’t stay in the cave and we can get out of it safely.”
Since then, debate on the issue has descended into a less than family-friendly slinging match between states over a national plan to open internal borders before Christmas.
The problem is not all of Australia is keen to leave the cave so quickly.
Businesses are suffering, families are split, and the ongoing uncertainty is taking a toll on people’s mental health.
Yet in parts of the country that have managed to contain Covid-19, including the states of Western Australia and Queensland, there is little appetite to open borders and allow the virus in.
After 18 months of basking in their success in keeping Covid out, Australian politicians are now being forced to pivot from a zero-Covid strategy to living with the virus.
The question is how they can convince Australians to support the national plan when some of the states’ own leaders are in revolt, with one state premier calling the plan “complete madness.”
For a while, along with neighboring New Zealand, Australia’s success made it the envy of much of the Western world. As global Covid case numbers and deaths soared, Australia mostly kept itself Covid-free.
The Australian government shut the country’s borders in March 2020, shortly after the first global outbreaks began, and since then any infections inside the country have been stamped out with fierce restrictions.
Then, Australia suffered a major outbreak of the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant in New South Wales, the state in which Sydney is the capital.
The local government initially set light restrictions, but as cases continued to explode, they had no choice but to impose a lockdown. Since then, infections have spread to Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, and then to the national capital, Canberra.
As of Friday, more than half of Australia’s population of 25 million people are under lockdown, including the entire populations of three states and territories – NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
Faced with growing economic pressure, rising case numbers and violent anti-lockdown protests, Morrison announced the beginning of the end of Australia’s zero Covid policy on August 22.
He wants Australians to follow the lead of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, which have started to embrace living with Covid, using vaccines to the reduce hospitalizations while allowing versions of free travel.
Under Australian’s national plan, the country will reopen with limited restrictions when at least 70% of eligible people have received two vaccine doses.
However, the country has struggled to vaccinate its population due to a lack of urgency and inadequate supplies. As of Friday, about 37% of people over the age of 16 in Australia had received two doses, compared to at least 60% in the US and more than 78% in the UK.
The Australian plan, a version of which was previously agreed to by each state and territory, was based on modeling by the Doherty Institute, an infectious disease research body. The institute estimates that with adequate vaccine coverage and moderate restrictions, Australia could reopen to the world with fewer than 100 deaths in six months.
“This is what living with Covid is all about. The case numbers will likely rise when we soon begin to open up. That is inevitable,” Morrison wrote in an opinion piece distributed to local media.
In his clinic in Perth, general practitioner Donough O’Donovan said a lot of his patients – particularly elderly people – are nervous about a potential Covid-19 outbreak in Western Australia.
“Those sort of people are very afraid of opening … they’re worried about what will happen, and people are telling them left, right and center that Covid is going to get in here and we’re going to be hit with it as bad as NSW,” O’Donovan said.
“There’s a great deal of fear.”
The states of Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania have managed to keep Covid-19 cases close to zero and, as a result, their leaders have been less keen to embrace Morrison’s push for open borders.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan said reopening prematurely to “deliberately import the virus” would be “complete madness.”
“We currently have no restrictions within our state, a great quality of life, and a remarkably strong economy which is funding the relief efforts in other parts of the country,” McGowan posted on Facebook.
“West Aussies just want decisions that consider the circumstances of all states and territories, not just Sydney.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk conceded that Covid would likely penetrate the state’s borders, but she demanded more detailed modeling about how opening up would affect unvaccinated children.
“Rather than picking fights and attacks, let’s have a decent, educated conversation, and there is nothing wrong with asking decent questions about the safety of families,” she said, after being accused of scaremongering by only focusing on the worst-case scenario of deaths.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) appeared to agree with the reluctant state leaders, warning in a letter to Prime Minister Morrison that Australia’s health system was not ready for a major Covid outbreak, vaccinations or not.
“If we throw open the doors to Covid we risk seeing our public hospitals collapse and part of this stems from a long-term lack of investment in public hospital capacity by state and federal governments,” AMA President Dr. Omar Khorshid said in a statement.
“Our hospitals are not starting from a position of strength. Far from it.”
Speaking on Friday, Morrison said the government was examining the Australian hospital system’s ability to cope with Covid infections ahead of reopening – and that preparation had been underway for some time.
Melbourne restaurant owner Luke Stepsys has had both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, but when he ran out of milk on Tuesday night he couldn’t leave his house to get more. It was already past Melbourne’s 9 p.m. curfew.
“I’m fully vaccinated and tonight I’m locked up like a caged animal,” he said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Melbourne has spent more than 210 days in a hard lockdown – the longest of any Australian city – and the stress is starting to show.
“I’ve had countless days where I would give anything to make this go away,” Stepsys said.
“You just feel so confused, so depressed, you just don’t have an answers. I’ve got to be strong for all of my staff, I’ve got to be strong for my family, but internally I’m just burning alive.”
On August 5, state authorities ordered Victorians into lockdown after a small number of cases crossed the border from New South Wales. Citizens are allowed to leave their homes only for essential reasons, such as to buy groceries.
Stepsys said his restaurants had remained solvent due to a last-minute decision in March 2020 to forgo a large business purchase, leaving him with substantial savings. But he said the hospitality industry as a whole had been “smashed.”
“I have a friend in Las Vegas who has a restaurant and he said to me, ‘Dude, did you shut down for five cases?’” Stepsys said.
Just across the border, New South Wales is recording more than 1,000 new daily Covid-19 cases, the highest numbers Australia has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
The leaders of New South Wales and Victoria have embraced Morrison’s plan to move away from a zero Covid strategy, with both promising more freedom to citizens once certain vaccine targets are reached. On Thursday, New South Wales became the first Australian state to reach 70% first dose vaccine coverage, and residents are now allowed unlimited exercise in certain areas.
Melbourne-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely said Australia’s zero Covid strategy was only ever a stop-gap measure until enough of the population was vaccinated or new treatments were discovered to make it safe to live with Covid.
He said living with zero Covid in the long term isn’t sustainable. But any reopening needs to be carefully managed, he added, suggesting the country should ensure all communities – particularly vulnerable ones – are 70% vaccinated.
“If you open up and the vaccine coverage in those areas is only 40% and it’s 90% elsewhere, you’ve got a real problem,” he said.
‘We’re just an island that stopped flights’
With the bickering and feuding, it’s not clear what will happen once Australia’s vaccination targets are met.
It could be that some Australian states open up to the rest of the world before people are allowed to drive from one state to another.
“You could have the ridiculous situation where someone in New South Wales could travel to Canada before they could go to Cairns, or someone in Victoria could travel to Singapore or Bali before they can go to Perth,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Monday.
With its eye on the economy several months out from an election, the federal government wants the country to reopen so Australia can leave its cave and rejoin the rest of the world.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Attorney General Michaelia Cash appeared to threaten legal action to force the states to open their borders. However, Cash later claimed she was misinterpreted, suggesting the federal government wants to avoid appearing like it’s bullying the states to do its bidding.
In Victoria, Stepsys is skeptical of promises that life will be freer once the state emerges from lockdown. He thinks the moment there is a major outbreak, local authorities will once again pull the “lockdown trigger.”
“I think they backed themselves into a corner trying to be the world beaters,” he said, referring to Australia’s past success in keeping Covid out.
“Australians sat back beating their chest – ‘look at us we’re smart, we beat the virus’. We’re not smart, we’re just an island that stopped the flights.”