By Alexandre Dayant, researcher at the Lowy Institute (Australia)
For most of the past 18 months, Australia has been praised for its exemplary handling of the pandemic. But today, as Europe and the United States reopen their doors, several of the southern country’s major cities are once again confining themselves. Last week, the federal government presented its plan to restore some semblance of normalcy. But the details and timeline of this plan are still obscure.
New containment measures extend for a week in Sydney, while on the other side of the world, many countries are reopening their doors.
In Europe and the United States, where the pandemic has decimated thousands of families, and where millions have been confined for months, life is resuming its course, with a semblance of normalcy.
In Australia, the contrast is poignant. The largest cities are reconfiguring themselves and the territories are closing themselves off from each other. It is a return to square one for the island-continent, penalized for not having developed an effective system for living with the virus.
The evolution of the Australian vaccination campaign is the main reason for this backtracking. Although vaccines do not always prevent the transmission of the virus, they usually prevent symptoms that lead to hospitalization, thus giving the local health system the capacity to function properly.
On the other side of the world, when the pandemic was raging, the governments of the most affected Western countries scrambled to launch massive vaccination programs, especially in the United States and across Europe. This is why today, nearly half of the American population is fully vaccinated, just like in the United Kingdom.
In contrast, in Australia, only 9% of the population is fully vaccinated, while less than 20% have received a first dose. The country has the lowest vaccination rate in the OECD. By virtue of its good initial crisis management, Australia finds itself vulnerable to new epidemics, and therefore to new confinements.
In order to counter the growing annoyance of the local population, the Australian government has proposed two plans to break the deadlock.
The former was mentioned by Prime Minister Scott Morrison two weeks ago, during a press conference after the National Cabinet meeting. Responding to reporters on questions relating to the limited stocks of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine obtained by the government, the Prime Minister suggested that young Australians request the AstraZeneca vaccine if they so desire. However, since the first cases of thrombosis across the world, this vaccine has only been medically recommended in Australia for those over 60 years of age.
This counter-current proposal was badly received by the Australian public, already confused and hesitant about the national immunization program. For a week, Mr Morrison was the target of political attacks from all sides, from both Labor and his own.
As a result, the Prime Minister presented himself to the public again last week, this time with a four-phase crisis exit plan. According to him, the objective of this new plan is to establish a roadmap to avoid lockdowns and allow the gradual reopening of international borders.
The first phase of this plan is what Australia has been in since January / February of this year. It consists of “vaccinating, preparing and piloting”. On the one hand, this phase involves the implementation of the national vaccination plan offering every Australian the opportunity to be vaccinated as soon as possible. On the other hand, it offers the government a certain largesse to be able to experiment with new ideas, for example quarantine at home – rather than in specialized complexes – for vaccinated travelers. In this phase, confinements will only apply in the event of the last necessity.
The second phase is that of post-vaccination. According to the government, it could take place in the second half of 2022. The country will not be able to enter this phase until the majority of its population is vaccinated. More international travelers would be allowed to reenter the territory, provided they are vaccinated. A week of quarantine, instead of two, will still be necessary.
The third phase is called the consolidation phase. It is in this phase that the public management of COVID-19 begins to resemble the management of other infectious diseases. It is from this third phase that the government hopes to lift the use of containments as well as the caps on international travelers, precisely because Australia will begin to treat COVID-19 like the seasonal flu. There will be contaminations, but the number of deaths will not be as high, because, as in Europe and the United States, the majority of the population will be vaccinated and the country will have put in place treatments to manage the symptoms of the virus.
The fourth and final phase is that of a return to normalcy, similar to that before the pandemic.
While this plan is attractive, it still lacks details. For example, there is no precise timetable for the implementation of these phases, nor even a strategy to access them. Faced with these criticisms, the government says it is working on modeling this plan, as well as on the type of collective immunity to be achieved to move from one phase to another, but nothing is clear.
Beyond these gray areas, the current situation raises the question of why Australia has taken so long to develop this plan. It has already been 18 months since the pandemic began, six months since vaccines are available and despite this, the government is only beginning to develop its strategy to end the crisis. This is fueling growing frustration as part of the country is confined.
Today Australia could be in a situation similar to that of many countries, where people are starting to plan for their future. Instead, the government preferred to capitalize on its luck rather than doing substantive work on a possible way out of the crisis. It was because the situation was under control that Canberra did not feel this sense of urgency to come out of the crisis. A paradox that risks being expensive for Australians.