It’s been a rough week in Australia. From a few cases in Sydney, COVID has returned once again to wipe our freedoms away. Across the country, Sydney, Perth, and Darwin are in lockdown while border closures and mask wearing returns for much of the country.
Queensland too has just announced that it will enter a three-day lockdown from 6pm tonight, with large parts of the state put under stay-at-home orders following two new coronavirus cases.
We thought we gotten past this. For a little while, it really felt like we had managed to figure this whole pandemic thing out. But, of course, COVID had other plans.
Countries around the world agree. Australia was once considered a COVID-free paradise, an alternate world beyond the grip of the pandemic that continues to rage across the world.
How long will this rolling cycle of lockdowns continue and when will lockdown end? What needs to change in order to escape this viral purgatory we find ourselves in? Here are the best answers we have right now.
It goes without saying that vaccination is basically our only way out of this mess. Right now, Australia has the lowest rate of vaccination of the OECD countries. If this was a race, we would be dead last.
How it started: Morrison claims that Australia is "at the top of the queue"
How it's going: Australia has the slowest vaccine rollout in the OECD. pic.twitter.com/l08ZgDQCHq
— Andrew Leigh (@ALeighMP) June 24, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a message to Australians last night saying he understood the fatigue and frustration of many of us for the current situation.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t really want sympathy. We want our vaccines. Cue this Sydney shop owner who managed to capture the spirit of the nation in a single message.
Dear @ScottMorrisonMP the 4% of Sydney fully vaccinated and the other 96% who are not, thank you for your contribution to this lockdown. It couldn’t of happened without you! #covidnsw #sydneycovid #sydneylockdown #nswpol #auspol pic.twitter.com/8XhaQlTgqR
— James Powditch (@james_powditch) June 26, 2021
The sign is actually not correct. 5% of the population have now been vaccinated and we have enough vaccine on order to ramp up our vaccine programme to the million-doses-per-week level in the coming months.
The issue is going to be those coming months. Australia was late to start its vaccine rate and supply chain issues and confusing advice from the government has plagued the rollout from the start. Leadership is really what’s been in short supply but it doesn’t look like we’ve got a lot of that on order right now.
The delta variant of COVID-19, with it’s super-high rate of transmission and great susceptibility for young people, coupled with our relaxed attitude to the rollout and a sort of wilful ignorance of the realities of the pandemic is basically the perfect storm for this new strain to wreak havoc across our unprepared country.
Because of this more advanced strain, lockdowns are pretty much the only way to stop it from spreading and turning into a nightmare scenario until we get vaccinated.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist from UNSW and an advisor to the World Health Organisation told the ABC that zero case figures are the only effective way to deal with this strain.
“You have to go for zero [cases] and you have to have zero for a few days,” she said.
“With Delta, you’ve got to go for zero,” she said.
“I fully appreciate that lockdowns are horrible, they are the least acceptable approach to control.”
When asked during press conferences over the recent days whether other, less-restrictive rules might be put in place for those already vaccinated, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it’s not something she would consider until 10 million doses had been administered in NSW, covering some 60% of the population.
With that target in mind, we are a fair way off being in the clear.
When are the vaccines coming?
All adults aged 40 and over are eligible for a vaccine in Australia. That doesn’t mean, however, that you are likely to get one.
Australia had initially gone for a GP and pharmacist led strategy, but that was deemed to be too slow. Mass vaccination centres were then the idea, but only a handful of these have been set up across the country.
Reports suggest that long wait times are already hampering the vaccine rollout, with people having to book a month or so in advance to get their jab.
Australia had a vaccination target of everyone in the country double jabbed by October. That was revised to a single dose by October before being abandoned altogether.
The fact that we currently don’t have any clear, stated vaccine goals is a big issue. The plan seems to be ‘get them out the door as fast as possible’ but the government appears hesitant to commit to any concrete numbers, likely out of fear of missing them.
45 million doses are what the country needs and, at the current rate, it will take us 11 months to hit that target.
Supply seems to be the biggest problem. Even with the lockdown-inspired surge in demand for vaccines, NSW is struggling to get them out to the people who want and need them simply out of a lack of capacity to do so.
From next week, we should have 2.2 million doses of AstraZeneca arriving each week, ordered before the decision to restrict the vaccine to the over 60s. The huge quantities of this vaccine is likely the prompt behind the new announcement that anyone who wants an AstraZeneca shot will be able to get one.
650,000 doses of Pfizer will be delivered from next week, each week, until September when we should start receiving Moderna.
Moderna and Pfizer are then supposed to land on our shores in the millions through to the end of the year.
This kind of ordering schedule suggests the government does not expect to be able to give out the requisite 45 million doses until at least next year.
What can we do in the meantime?
Fixing our leaky hotel quarantine system would be a good start.
Already Australia is starting work on purpose-built quarantine facilities across the country to stem the outbreaks that have originated in hotel quarantine and airline staff coming in and out of the country.
At a recent cabinet meeting, the Federal Government also announced that all aged-care staff will have to be vaccinated if they want to continue to work in aged care.
Mandatory vaccines for certain high-risk populations like aged care and air transport staff are definitely a good idea, but it remains to be seen how those sectors will react to the news.
A recent survey found that one-third of aged care staff in WA would rather quit than be forced to get a vaccine and the mandatory vaccine approach plays right into the hands of conspiracy theorists and the vaccine hesitant who are worried about government overstep.
We also don’t have a very strong national vaccine campaign. Other countries have employed celebs to encourage the rest of us to get vaccinated whereas Australia has done no such thing.
There is no confirmed start date for such a campaign as of yet, but the Federal Government has already allocated $41 million to educating Australians on the vaccines.
Is there an alternative?
Yes, but it’s not great. Ever since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government has been toying with the idea of allowing the virus to run rampage through the population in order to achieve herd immunity.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has even been reported to have suggested the country host ‘COVID parties‘, not unlike those your parents might have sent you to in order to get chickenpox when you were younger.
That type of strategy is simply not going to fly in Australia where we have such low numbers of the virus anyway and have sacrificed so much to keep it out, however, there are other approaches that could work.
Singapore has recently announced it’s going to give up on treating COVID like a pandemic and simply approach it like any other virus.
“The bad news is that COVID-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst”.
That is what Singapore’s Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, published in a recent editorial in the Straits Times.
Singapore’s plan is to spend the next three months prepping the country for a ‘new normal’ where it will simply have to be lived with.
That means no lockdowns, no isolation, and no restrictions. The country is not going to try and have no transmission, and will eventually stop announcing case numbers altogether.
It sounds mad for a virus that is far more deadly than the flu — even before it mutates.
Singapore’s approach however is largely predicated on the fact that they have vaccinated almost two third of their population with a single dose and will have two thirds fully vaccinated by August.
The plan, which could start at the end of September, only really works with high vaccination numbers.
So, in a roundabout way, there is really no alternative to getting the country fully vaccinated and until we do that, these lockdowns and setbacks are going to continue.