Last year, Australians and many others around the world looked on in horror as frightened residents locked down in cities across China, with reports that some even threw their pets from balconies in fear of the animals transmitting Covid.
The early days of the pandemic were marked by fear and uncertainty. Now, nearly two years later, the rest of the world is looking at Australia in the same way, after hearing that a local council in regional New South Wales shot dead a group of rescue dogs to prevent shelter volunteers from coming and picking the animals up. Their excuse? They claimed to be concerned that the volunteers would expose their community to Covid.
Australians are scared. But how did Australia get like this? After all, Australia is the country of funnel web spiders, blue ringed octopuses, numerous varieties of venomous snake, and so many examples of deadly fauna there’s not enough space here to list them all.
Australians, relatively sheltered in our bubble at the bottom of the world, never had a real first wave. Now, with Sydney in the grips of a significant outbreak of the Delta strain, it seems as if the Covid fear that most of the world has moved past, still has a firm hold in some parts of the community.
Shooting rescue dogs? That is not the Australian way. At least not the pre-Covid Australia most of us know.
Australia’s first wave of Covid looked more like a ripple by the time it reached our island, and for that reason, Australians were for the most part blissfully sheltered. As a Federation, States were able to dictate their own policies, many choosing elimination rather than suppression strategies. This, in turn, fuelled a false sense of confidence in optimistic yet entirely unrealistic Zero-Covid strategies.
What that means is nearly two years down the track, when the rest of the world is living with Covid, successfully and with confidence, tens of millions of Australians remain in lockdown as they race to lift vaccination rates.
Australia is an interesting case study if you’re wanting to look at the impact of having too much of a good thing. The vaccine roll-out has been criticised for being too slow, and the notoriously cautious Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has only just approved Moderna. They are still considering Novax, and Johnson & Johnson is not understood to be on the table. It is a fine balance between managing caution and risk, the evidence of which is clear as Australia feels the pangs of its isolation, internal division and ongoing rolling lockdowns.
Fewer than 24 per cent of Australians are vaccinated compared to 63 per cent in the UK and 52 per cent in the US. Thankfully, we are no longer the worst in the OECD for vaccinations, but we still linger near the bottom. A huge issue has been vaccine hesitancy, and the politicisation of this issue, again by some of the state Premiers, who have made public statements contradicting health advice in relation to Astra Zeneca in particular. The conversation on vaccination in Australia has been messy, at times poorly messaged, and fraught with internal politics – the fruit of never really having to deal with a significant first wave as compared to other countries.
Adding to the hesitancy is misinformation around efficacy, and a refusal again by some state Premiers to firmly commit to an opening strategy outlined by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
As it stands right now, even the fully vaccinated face quarantines, mask mandates, lockdowns, and fines. For those worried about the vaccine, this is just one more reason not to vaccinate.
These policies, the confusion and politicisation, are all a result of a fear driven narrative. Australia’s capital city, Canberra, locked down after just one case. The entire Australian Capital Territory remains locked down even with daily community transmission hovering around three cases.
The state of NSW has been in lockdown since June 26. So far that two-week lockdown is set to last three months. Measures include a 5 kilometer radius for travel, and people must have a specific reason for leaving home such as food, medicine, or exercise.
These restrictions are enforced with police checkpoints. In some local government areas, military personnel are involved. Some parts of greater Sydney have a curfew, with residents banned from leaving their homes for any reason between 9pm and 5am.
It is a time of challenge in Australia, and divisions are becoming more open and more fraught.
Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is a city that has endured amongst the longest days locked down of any city in the world. It is almost unthinkable. This past weekend the streets erupted in protest. One officer described the demonstrations as ‘the most violent protest he had seen in two decades.’ More than 4000 people attended despite the threat of fines or jail time. Police handed out over $1,100,000 AUD in fines and arrested 218 people.
Meanwhile, Lifeline, Australia’s leading mental health support and suicide prevention service, hit yet another all time record this month with 3,345 calls to its hotline in a single day.
The toll of ongoing lockdowns is terrible, and impossibly high. Countless Australians have lost their jobs, remain separated from their loved ones, and the vast majority of us are grappling daily with the challenge of loneliness and isolation.
If you ever needed any more proof that decisions made out of fear are never wise nor moral, look at the local council in a small country town in Australia that shot dead innocent rescue dogs rather than let them be cared for. Fear is a virus as bad as Covid, if not worse.
This article first appeared in 1828UK on 24 August 2021.