Has COVID Cost Australia Its Love for Freedom?

Residents passing an empty cafe near the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, last month. (Matthew Abbott for The New York Times)

SYDNEY — In the war against the coronavirus’s 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 traveling between a state with COVID 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 9 p.m. curfew and just an hour of outdoor exercise per day.

Is the sacrifice worth it?

Australia is at a crossroads with COVID. The confidence and pride of 2020, when lockdowns and isolation brought COVID outbreaks to heel, have been replaced by doubt, fatigue and a bitter battle over how much freedom or risk should be allowed in a delta-defined future.

Some states are trying desperately to hold on to what worked before, while New South Wales and Victoria, home to the country’s biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are being forced by delta outbreaks to find a more nuanced path forward.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has thrown his weight behind a plan to reopen when 80% of adults are fully vaccinated. But the road ahead may not be smooth — as shown by protests this week over a vaccine mandate — and state leaders are still insisting that they will go it alone.

“We might be looking at the country turning the clock back on itself,” said Tim Soutphommasane, a political theorist at the University of Sydney. “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 neighbors, 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 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, 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.

Visiting the Pre-COVID Past

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.

Traveling through nearly all of it in August after 14 days of quarantine 2,000 miles away near Darwin, I heard two refrains about COVID: “We’ve been so lucky” and “It’s because we’re so compliant.”

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

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

“For us over here, it feels so surreal to see what’s happening in the eastern states,” said Kate Harris, the manager of a bookstore in the trendy area of Fremantle. “We’re pretty happy.”

That experience is the nucleus of Australians’ tolerance for restrictions. Less liberty is medically necessary — because only 49% of the country’s adult population has been fully vaccinated under the initially plodding campaign — and it is accepted because life without COVID still feels possible.

Western Australia, which has had only a few short, sharp lockdowns, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Off the back of a surge in iron ore prices, the state recently announced its largest budget surplus ever.

“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 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 United States and Britain, nearly 2,000 people per million have died of COVID. In Australia, that figure is less than 50. More people have died in Florida of COVID this week than in Australia during the entire pandemic.

No one claims the approach has been without cost. In Margaret River, I met 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 here, you may as well run with it,” he said.

A day earlier, I’d been at the CinefestOZ film festival, with events at Margaret River wineries, brewpubs and crowded movie theaters. I could see a freedom there that few Americans now know: a freedom from fear.

Judi Levine, an Australian producer who had returned from Los Angeles for a project, told me she was less appalled by the rules in Australia than by the way Americans had behaved. Her daughter works at a university in Ohio where students who had tested positive for COVID were found to be hosting a party a few days later.

“The U.S. takes this business of civil liberties to a place which doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the greater community,” she said. “So where Australia says we are doing this for the greater good and taking care of yourself and your fellow people is the priority, Americans tend to say, ‘Oh, well, you’re entitled to do whatever you want; put yourself first.’ ”

Living With COVID

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.

When I called 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.

Rosanna Barbero, who runs a community organization in Western Sydney, cited the long-term costs: families with many children and only one computer for remote schooling; small-business owners drowning in debt.

“It’s so much easier to follow the lockdown rules if you’re in a position of privilege and comfort,” Barbero said. “There’s a gender element, a race element, and there’s a class element.”

But even she said that while more help was needed, the lockdowns were worth enduring.

The lack of freedom has certainly produced a new sense of urgency around vaccination. About 83% of New South Wales residents 16 or older have now had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. In Blacktown, where Chagai lives, that figure is past 90%

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 Mackay, the Queensland virus expert. “We’re still doing well.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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