MELBOURNE, Australia—I am writing from one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world—or so people here like to say.
Since July 9, my city has been under strict stay-at-home orders in response to a second wave of coronavirus infections, with only four permissible reasons to leave the house: essential work, exercise, health care, and to purchase food and necessary supplies. Since July 23, masks have been compulsory outside the home. Since Aug. 2, we have been under a nightly curfew, banned from going more than 5 kilometers from home for essentials and limited to one hour of exercise per day, with the rest of the state of Victoria soon placed under lockdown too. Melbournians cannot leave the bounds of the city; Victorians aren’t allowed into other states; we’re all banned from leaving the country. Though we are now entering a phased reopening, the Melbourne stay-at-home orders will remain in effect for at least another month, possibly more, with other restrictions to stay in place much longer. By the time we are free to go out for any reason, Melbourne will have endured more than 100 consecutive days of lockdown.
So it might surprise you to learn that we recorded just 28 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday, in a city of 4.25 million people. There are currently 620 active cases in the state. At the outbreak’s peak, in early August, the state had 6,784 active cases—fewer than most U.S. states have right now.
Sound crazy? Or does it sound like something a responsible government would do, as, anecdotally, many Americans have enviously remarked to Australian friends and colleagues? You can find supporters of both stances right now in Melbourne—a city divided, not over whether to go into lockdown, but whether to come out, where the general consensus we’ve had regarding lockdowns and containment measures is starting to fray.
A panicked Australia was broadly accepting of its original March lockdown and of decisions to quarantine returning Australians in state-managed hotel facilities. The compliance paid off: By early May cases were firmly under control, with daily national numbers in the low teens, and states began cautiously rolling back restrictions. But a late May breakdown in Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system, blamed on the state’s decision to use private security over the army or police, saw a new strain of the virus spread unchecked through June. Gathering limits were rolled back from June 20 onward, but cases continued to climb, and it soon became apparent that another lockdown would be needed, with the second outbreak far more severe than the first. (The rest of Australia has kept the virus very much under control, and multiple states haven’t seen a locally acquired case in 100-plus days.) After approximately 40 days of lockdown followed 40 days of limited freedom, and with just over 1,000 active cases, Melbournians returned to their homes.
Melbourne’s “second lockdown” was mostly uncontroversial going in, with the exception of the order in which it was implemented. The government made an appalling decision to lock down those in public housing on July 4 with no warning and no reasons to leave their homes for five days, to contain an outbreak. But once it was applied to everyone, Melbournians were stoically accepting of the return to lockdown, glad their progressive state leader Daniel Andrews was taking things seriously. Sniping about “Dictator Dan” was generally confined to the conservative opposition and Murdoch media—the same group complaining about the first set of lockdowns back in March and April. Though we had our share of anti-maskers, most of us were quick to put them on. Even in August, when the restrictions were significantly tightened in response to still-growing numbers, 67 percent of those polled thought it was appropriate: 72 percent approved of the curfew, 71 percent of restrictions on leaving the house, and 70 percent of the 5 km radius. The curve began to flatten soon after.
But as time has gone on, and lockdown end dates continually pushed back, gripes have begun to come from all corners—academics, epidemiologists, ethicists, even the federal government. No one expected it to go on this long, nor the targets to be so lofty; family members are breaking out into fights on social media, and active dissenters, though still in the minority, have gotten louder, with police being forced to shut down small protests every weekend. A highly cautious “reopening roadmap,” released Sept. 6, seems to be the final straw for many: While the rest of the state of Victoria has now had its monthlong stay-at-home order lifted, Melbournians won’t have restrictions on leaving home lifted until our daily case average is under five. Even for those who are pro-lockdown, it’s a lot to take. Why is Melbourne still shut?
There is no doubt Melbourne’s lockdown was and is particularly extreme for its circumstances. There are cities in the world under comparably lengthy lockdowns, like Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile (lockdowns that, despite Melbournians’ fondness for referring to ours as the strictest and longest, were even stricter and longer). But these cities have far worse outbreaks than ours, especially now. What’s more, Melbourne’s goal posts for ending restrictions are far stricter than those of our fellow capital cities, or even for us the first time around. Privileges that residents of Sydney currently enjoy with their limited cases—having parties of 20, eating inside restaurants—won’t come back to us until we go 14 days without a single new case. So, it’s reasonable that many are beginning to question whether we are being too extreme.
Many voices in the federal government and mainstream media are now claiming that it’s time for Melbourne to lift the lockdown, and do it at a faster rate than the current one. The targets are ambitious, and at 11 cases, it does seem bizarre that we will be here for another month. But as Andrews stressed while announcing the road map, the last thing Victoria wants is a relapse, a third wave, and a return to lockdown, wasting all its efforts. Victoria having been the only state in the country with a second wave has made Andrews particularly cautious.
Some academics are now saying we may have gone too hard with this “sledgehammer” approach—that the same effect could have been achieved eventually with less draconian measures and at lower cost (ignoring the additional deaths that a slower flattening would have caused, and the fact it would likely never have brought us down to zero). Others now say that such intense targets, from the position we were in, were folly to begin with; Victoria may have been a victim of its early success, with our quashing of the first outbreak creating unrealistic expectations of what was worth striving for. Europe, some note, has turned away from lockdowns for its second wave, with leaders arguing life must go on, although New Zealand, another country that used severe lockdowns to great effect early on, recently returned Auckland to one for 18 days to tackle a minioutbreak. (That country, too, started to see small but regular protests.) Many beyond the pages of the Murdoch media are beginning to question the appropriate value to place on saving elderly lives, and whether we here in Melbourne paid too high a price.
Still, there’s a difference between being fed up with lockdown and actively opposing it. While anti-lockdown protests have been increasing in frequency, they remain fringe events, widely mocked ones at that. Retrenched workers are suing the state for damages in a class-action lawsuit, but Australian union boss Sally McManus says Victoria’s sacrifices have saved the rest of the country. And while voter dissatisfaction with certain restrictions is understandably growing by the week, those polled remain generally supportive of the lockdown. The latest poll shows that 54 percent of Victorians feel the restrictions were appropriate, compared with 37 percent who say they were too strict and 6 percent who say they were too lenient. While many are calling for a recent improvement in numbers to trigger our next “step” out of lockdown early (the steps have minimum dates as well as minimum case targets, and we’ve hit our Sept. 28 target), those polled are still more concerned about relaxing restrictions too quickly than too slowly.
Victoria isn’t the only jurisdiction taking things “too seriously.” A number of states that have eliminated the virus have sealed their state borders and refuse to admit outsiders without quarantining them, even if they’re coming from other “safe” states, much to the federal government’s annoyance. (Western Australia, which has seen no locally acquired cases for about 134 days, refuses to admit nonresidents even if they agree to quarantine. The Trumpian mining magnate and Titanic enthusiast Clive Palmer is suing WA, though the feds have now pulled out of the legal challenge.) The federal government, meanwhile, has put controversial caps in place for Aussies returning from overseas in order to strictly manage their return, leaving tens of thousands of Australian citizens locked out of their own country in the middle of a pandemic. Flights are still running but are regularly canceled at the last second to ensure returns remain under the cap—they have been known to fall far below them. Our national borders are, unsurprisingly, closed to foreign nationals, but Australians are also not allowed out of the country, at least not without a government exemption. Melbourne may be more severely restricted than our neighbors, but we’re part of one giant national lockdown.
We’ll all be debating the efficacy of different strategies for years to come: At what stage of an outbreak is a lockdown worthwhile, effective, and achievable, and when is it not worth the pain? At this stage, a short, sharp lockdown could help the U.S. bring the virus slightly under control, but it would take a devastating amount of time to bring it back to zero.
Victoria’s lockdown was intense and, I’ve come to realize, a rather unique feat. While a small number of countries and regions have (temporarily) eliminated the virus, few have done so from the verge of catastrophe; when Melbourne is done, it will join cities like Wuhan and Singapore in bringing a serious outbreak back to just a handful of cases. Returning to where the rest of Australia sits is both possible and worth striving for: a seminormal life back, without the accompanying death rate.
Melbourne, Australia’s culture capital, has been laid low by this outbreak. Victoria has lost 763 people to COVID-19—90 percent of Australia’s death toll—but we know it would have been so much worse without our sacrifices. But beyond what we’ve averted, there’s also what we’ve gained: a hopefully COVID-free summer ahead, guilt-free trips to the pub, fear-free hugs with our loved ones. Life will not be one calculated risk after another. I may not have eaten in a restaurant or seen my friends since June, but I know even without a lockdown that would have been the right thing to do. The choices Americans are faced with every day—should I go to this restaurant, should I attend a party—were taken out of my hands, and out of my neighbors’ too, and I’m grateful for it.
The price has been high, but that first beer with my friends in our COVID-free state is going to be worth it.