As 2021 drew to a close, many Australians were cautiously optimistic that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic was behind them.
The country had surpassed ambitious vaccine targets, meaning its rolling lockdowns could cease, both internal and international borders would reopen, and as Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared, it was now possible to “live with this virus.”
But as Australia moved to change course on its pandemic strategy, the highly transmissible omicron variant hit. In just over a month, cases have risen from around 1,000 a day to more than 100,000 a day. Hallmarks of the pandemic that Australia mostly avoided began to emerge. The health system is buckling. Many supermarket shelves are bare as sick workers stay home.
Despite this surge in cases, most Australian states and territories are holding the line and allowing the virus to circulate in their communities, which critics have labeled the “let it rip” approach. But is it all bad news?
For much of the pandemic, Australia aimed for zero Covid cases, employing regular lockdowns (the country’s second-largest city, Melbourne, was in lockdown for more than 260 days) and extremely strict border policies. And it worked — the nation’s Covid mortality rate has been among the lowest in the world.
But as the pandemic ground on, the government decided restrictions could start to be dramatically loosened when a state or territory vaccinated 80 percent of its over-16 population. All states and territories achieved this in the final months of last year.
Practices that had become part of everyday life, such as wearing masks in certain settings and checking into venues via government apps for contact tracing purposes, were soon relaxed. (Australia did require that international arrivals be vaccinated, leading to the Novak Djokovic saga.)
Alexandra Martiniuk, a professor and epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, said the timing of Australia’s U-turn was not ideal.
Some convenience stores and restaurants have been selling rapid tests via the Uber Eats app at inflated prices, and one Australian has created a website to help people use a live map of their towns and cities to find where a rapid test may still be available.
With cases spiking so quickly, workers of all stripes have needed to take time off because of sickness or to meet isolation requirements, affecting many industries and supply chains.
Supermarkets are short of certain products. Trains in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, are running on a reduced timetable due to a lack of staff. And KFC restaurant outlets are facing a chicken shortage.