Australia's Covid-19 measures highlight debate over personal liberties

Residents passing an empty cafe near the Opera House in Sydney on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - In the war against the coronavirus' Delta variant, few if any democracies have demanded as much of their people as Australia.

In the middle of the latest lockdowns, the police in Sydney gave hefty fines to three moms with strollers chatting in a park. Melbourne's playgrounds were wrapped in police tape, and travelling between a state with Covid-19 to one without - for the lucky few granted permission by the authorities - requires two-week stints in quarantine at a hotel or a remote former mining camp.

There are now two Australias. In Perth, offices, pubs and stadiums are crammed and normal as ever - the payoff for a closed-border approach that has made Western Australia an island within an island.

In Sydney, residents are approaching their 14th week of lockdown. The working-class areas with the highest infection rates have faced a heavy police presence, and, until recently, a 9pm curfew and just an hour of outdoor exercise per day.

Is the sacrifice worth it?

Australia is at a crossroads with Covid-19. The confidence and pride of last year, when lockdowns and isolation brought Covid-19 outbreaks to heel, have been replaced by doubt, fatigue and a bitter battle over how much freedom or risk should be allowed in a Delta-defined future.

"We might be looking at the country turning the clock back on itself," said University of Sydney political theorist Tim Soutphommasane. "There is an explicit insularity and parochialism that now dictates debate."

The world has come to see the country through that lens - through the actions of its blinkered politicians. To some American conservatives, Australia has even become the world's largest prison - its citizens all but barred from leaving or returning to the country, with governments reflexively locking people in their homes at any sign of the virus.

But many Australians, while frustrated, see something else. Asked if the sacrifices have been worth it, they look to their neighbours, their community leaders, the millions of people waiting in long lines for vaccines and the tens of thousands of Australians who would have died of Covid-19 without all the restrictions.

Their answer, with caveats or zeal, has generally been the same: "Yes, it is worth it," or "Yes, we believe it will be."

To understand why, I explored both Australias, the one with Covid-19, where roughly half the country's population is trapped at home, and the one that has so far managed to keep it out.

In both, I heard the same message - critics need to reimagine freedom not as the personal autonomy that Americans cherish but rather as a collective right with responsibilities. Epidemics are a test of society's commitment to the greater good, they argue, and if any country has failed, it's the United States, not Australia.

Western Australia is roughly six times the size of California, but it has just 2.7 million people. It combines a vast, red Mars-like landscape in the north and east, rich in minerals, with a fertile southwestern coastal section that includes the city of Perth and the wine and surfing region of Margaret River.

Travelling through nearly all of it in August after 14 days of quarantine 3,200km away near Darwin, I heard two refrains about Covid-19: "We've been so lucky" and "It's because we're so compliant."

Only nine people have died from Covid-19 in Western Australia. If it were a country, that would place its death rate below just about every nation.

It was like travelling back to 2019. Pubs and stadiums with people hugging. Hospitals quiet. No masks - anywhere.

"If the question is why do we put up with these restrictions, it's because in most cases we've been able to put up with them for a pretty short period of time," said Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virus and risk expert at the University of Queensland, another state enjoying life without a current outbreak.

More important, he added: "We've saved even more lives than we expected to save."

In the US and Britain, nearly 2,000 people per million have died of Covid-19. In Australia, that figure is less than 50. More people have died in Florida of Covid-19 this week than in Australia during the entire pandemic.

No one claims the approach has been without cost. In Margaret River, I met Mr Rob Gough, a Californian who moved to Australia in 2003. Inside the popular pub that he and his wife own, with surf photos on the walls and Eye Of The Tiger playing over the speakers, his eyes filled with tears as he spoke about missing his mother's 80th birthday a few weeks earlier.

"It's like, I just want to go there and give her a hug," he said. I eased into the question. Is it worth it? "As long as you have zero Covid-19 here, you may as well run with it," he said.

In Sydney, communal responsibility has become both accepted and suffocating. The communities hit hardest are filled with young essential workers whose movements have kept Delta going, albeit with a reproduction rate far below what the variant would be doing without lockdowns.

Police officers on bicycles stopping a group of young men to enforce Covid-19 rules outside a service station in suburban Sydney on Sept 9, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A cleaner on a nearly empty ferry in Sydney on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

When I called Mr Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and leader in the South Sudanese community whom I'd written about four years ago, he said he'd been busy.

"I've been dealing with it in so many ways, because a lot of families and community members and youth are affected by the lockdown and actually the virus," he said. "We have 85 families sick, about 700 people."

To help, he'd been delivering food and hosting online question-and-answer sessions about vaccines. He'd even created a committee of his former players who were working with the police to explain to young people why staying home and getting vaccinated were important. "The government is imposing a lot on us," he said, "but the virus is what has locked people in."

Many Australians see overreach all around them. There is little scientific evidence to support curfews, and Australia's lockdowns have exacted a heavy and unequal toll.

The lack of freedom has certainly produced a new sense of urgency around vaccination. About 83 per cent of New South Wales residents 16 or older have now had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

People lining up to be vaccinated in Sydney on Aug 27, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In Blacktown, where Mr Chagai lives, that figure is past 90 per cent. And after three months of lockdowns, case numbers have finally started falling in New South Wales, to around 1,000 a day. Last Wednesday, Sydney's curfews were lifted, and restaurants will open soon for the vaccinated.

In Melbourne, playgrounds are alive again with the sound of children.

So while Australia's critics in America shift their attention to rising deaths, many Australians are looking forward to a summer with fewer restrictions - and less fear than most of the world.

"We should feel proud," said Prof Mackay, the Queensland virus expert. "We're still doing well."

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