Australia had one of the world's most successful Covid responses. Then came delta.

  • In Health
  • 2021-08-23 10:21:54Z
  • By NBC News

SYDNEY - You would have forgiven Australians for feeling smug during much of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Early lockdowns combined with extremely strict border measures meant the virus was effectively snuffed out and, with the exception of one state, the country had been largely Covid-free since mid-2020.

As case numbers and death tolls skyrocketed around the globe, the majority of Australians enjoyed near-normal lives, packing restaurants, beaches and festivals inside what was dubbed "fortress Australia."

But then in June, one case of the delta variant breached the fortress walls and started an outbreak that could not be controlled.

With the highly infectious variant now seeping around the country, more than half of Australia's 25 million people are in lockdown, and a slow vaccination program has left many demanding to know what went wrong.

"[For a time] we were in a bit of a Covid-free paradise," Michael Toole, a professor at the Burnet Institute, a medical research center, said. "And I think it led to a level of complacency, both within the government and among the public … Now, it's all a mess."

'Game changer'

At the start of the pandemic, Australia locked down its population and then slammed shut the borders, only allowing a trickle of people back in, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine inside repurposed hotels or government facilities.

Image: A single sunbather remains following the closure of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia (Loren Elliott / Reuters file)
Image: A single sunbather remains following the closure of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia (Loren Elliott / Reuters file)  

When Covid cases leaked, states used forensic contact tracing or quick lockdowns - or both - to suppress the virus. Life would quickly return to normal - the big exception being Melbourne, which only controlled one outbreak with a 3 1/2-month lockdown last year.

Then in June, one case of the delta variant changed everything. An unvaccinated and unmasked driver in Sydney became infected after transporting international flight crews. Before long, the virus was spreading in his neighborhood and beyond.

Contact tracing and a Sydney-wide lockdown were used, but cases started to climb and then began popping up around the country. Within weeks, almost all major cities had some sort of lockdown, with various levels of success in taming the virus.

Meanwhile, just a single delta case that originated in the Australian outbreak has also plunged the whole of neighboring New Zealand into lockdown.

The lockdown in Sydney, which was initially supposed to be two weeks, is now in its ninth week. In the hardest-hit areas of the city, army personnel have been deployed and fines for breaking certain rules have risen to $3,700.

The state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, has gone from recording dozens of cases each day early in this outbreak to more than 800 cases and several deaths each day.

While this is dramatically less than in the United States - which is still recording upwards of 100,000 cases and hundreds of deaths each day - these numbers were unthinkable in Australia just weeks ago.

"We have to accept that this is the worst situation New South Wales has been in since day one," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently told reporters. "And it's also, regrettably, because of that, the worst situation Australia's been in."

Image: A near empty Sydney Opera House forecourt o (Brook Mitchell / Getty Images file)
Image: A near empty Sydney Opera House forecourt o (Brook Mitchell / Getty Images file)  

Or as earlier put by the state's chief health officer, Kerry Chant, the delta strain is "a game changer."

Toole said delta "is twice as infectious as earlier strains, so it's obviously more challenging."

He's part of a group of health experts calling for even harsher lockdown measures to contain the more infectious variant - particularly in the outbreak epicenter of Sydney where cases keep rising - including closing far more businesses.

Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne, has fewer cases but a much stricter lockdown - with a city-wide curfew, closed playgrounds and more businesses shut. But despite this, there are still dozens of new cases there each day.

Balancing health and economic priorities has proved a tightrope walk for leaders, with economists saying the latest rounds of lockdowns have already cost around $12.5 billion.

While unemployment remains low for now, there is concern that continued lockdowns could push the country into its second recession of the pandemic.

On Thursday, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg predicted the economy will contract by at least 2 percent in the September quarter.

A spokesperson for Australia's minister for health, Greg Hunt, told NBC News that "the Delta variant of Covid-19 is a global challenge not just faced by Australia, but we continue to work together to meet this challenge head on."

But making it all the more challenging is Australia's vaccination rate, which is lagging behind many other comparable countries.

'It's not a race'

Australia's initial success against Covid meant it did not pursue vaccines with the urgency and strategy of some other countries, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison (now infamously) claimed it was "not a race."

The rollout started in February, with locally made AstraZeneca as the main component, followed by limited supplies of Pfizer from overseas.

It's since been marked by vaccine shortages and community confusion around AstraZeneca.

After it emerged that AstraZeneca had an extremely rare blood-clotting risk, local health authorities recommended that it only be given to people over age 60. But then they backpedaled on this advice after the latest outbreak.

Image: A protester reacts to pepper spray used by police during an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne on Saturday.
Image: A protester reacts to pepper spray used by police during an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne on Saturday.  

The government "put too many eggs in one basket, mostly relying on AstraZeneca, because we could make it locally," Archie Clements, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Curtin University, said. "Then there was inconsistent messaging around it … when it's a very effective and very safe vaccine."

As a result of the early stumbles, 30 percent of Australians aged 16 and above are fully vaccinated, compared to 62 percent in the U.S. aged 18 and above.

For much of this year, Australia had the lowest vaccination rate as a percentage of population in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and it is currently ranked 35th of 38 countries.

The rollout ended up being "a huge policy and operational bungle," Toole said.

And there is alarm as the latest outbreak is spreading to remote Aboriginal communities, where vaccination rates are particularly low.

Australia's Aboriginal people were a priority group for vaccination, but in one remote area where delta is now present, only 8 percent of this population is fully vaccinated.

"This is absolute negligence," Toole said.

Just how bad is it?

The Australian government has set vaccine thresholds of 70 and 80 percent for a staged return to normal life, which likely won't be achieved until much later this year.

But the rollout is starting to pick up pace, with 1.8 million vaccines administered over the past week, meaning more than half of the eligible population has now received their first dose.

"On a per capita basis, that's on par with the best ever week in the United States and better than the best ever week in the United Kingdom," Morrison said on Monday.

Toole said the rollout will escalate even more later in the year, "because we've ordered a lot more Pfizer and a lot of Moderna vaccines."

Clements said despite the latest outbreak and accompanying lockdowns, the world should still be envious of Australia.

"This outbreak, we haven't seen the massive levels of mortality and the collapse of health systems that have happened in other countries. So we're still in a privileged position," he said.

During the entirety of the pandemic, there's been around 44,000 Covid-19 cases and just under 1,000 deaths in Australia. This compares to upward of 37.5 million cases and 628,000 deaths in the U.S.

"So we're still doing incredibly well," Clements said.


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