Last week, an increasingly irritated Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison used an animated film to make the case that the country must reopen, Covid or no Covid.
“It’s like that movie ‘The Croods’,” he said, referring to the 2013 movie about a prehistoric family forced to leave their home. “People wanted to stay in the cave … We can’t stay in the cave and we can get out of it safely.”
Since then, the debate has devolved into a less-than-fun slinging match between states over a national plan to open internal borders before the holidays.
The issue is that not everyone in Australia is eager to get out of the cave as soon as possible.
Rising Covid-19 infections in Australia’s largest eastern cities, Sydney and Melbourne, have resulted in months-long lockdowns and strict restrictions on who can travel interstate.
Businesses are suffering, families are splintering, and people’s mental health is suffering as a result of the ongoing uncertainty.
However, in areas of the country where Covid-19 has been contained, such as Western Australia and Queensland, there is little appetite to open borders and let the virus in.
After celebrating their success in keeping Covid out for the past 18 months, Australian politicians are now being forced to shift from a zero-Covid strategy to coping with the virus.
The question is how they will persuade Australians to support the national plan when some state leaders are opposed to it, with one state premier calling it “complete nonsense.”
For a time, Australia’s success, along with that of neighboring New Zealand, made it the envy of much of the Western world. As the number of Covid cases and deaths worldwide increased, Australia remained mostly Covid-free.
In March 2020, shortly after the first global outbreaks began, the Australian government closed the country’s borders, and any infections inside the country have been strictly controlled since then.
Then, in New South Wales, the state where Sydney is the capital, a major outbreak of the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant occurred.
The local government imposed light restrictions at first, but as the number of cases increased, they had no choice but to impose a lockdown. Infections have since spread to Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, and then to Canberra, the nation’s capital.
More than half of Australia’s 25 million people are on lockdown as of Friday, including the entire populations of three states and territories: NSW, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory.
On August 22, Morrison announced the beginning of the end of Australia’s zero Covid policy in the face of mounting economic pressure, rising case numbers, and violent anti-lockdown protests.
He wants Australians to follow the lead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, which have begun to accept Covid as a way of life, using vaccines to reduce hospitalizations while allowing some forms of free travel.
When at least 70% of eligible people have received two vaccine doses, the country will reopen with limited restrictions, according to Australia’s national plan.
However, due to a lack of urgency and insufficient supplies, the country has struggled to vaccinate its citizens. As of Friday, about 37% of Australians over the age of 16 had received two doses, compared to at least 60% in the United States and more than 80% in the United Kingdom.
The Australian plan was based on modeling by the Doherty Institute, an infectious disease research organization, and a version of it was previously agreed to by each state and territory. According to the institute, with adequate vaccine coverage and moderate restrictions, Australia could reopen to the world in six months with fewer than 100 deaths.
“This is what living with Covid is all about. The case numbers will likely rise when we soon begin to open up. That is inevitable,” Morrison wrote in an opinion piece distributed to local media.
Donough O’Donovan, a general practitioner in Perth, said many of his patients, particularly the elderly, are concerned about a possible Covid-19 outbreak in Western Australia.
“Those sort of people are very afraid of opening … they’re worried about what will happen, and people are telling them left, right and center that Covid is going to get in here and we’re going to be hit with it as bad as NSW,” O’Donovan said.
“There’s a great deal of fear.”
Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania have kept Covid-19 cases to a bare minimum, and as a result, their leaders are less enthusiastic about Morrison’s push for open borders.
Reopening prematurely to “deliberately import the virus,” according to Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, would be “complete madness.”
“We currently have no restrictions within our state, a great quality of life, and a remarkably strong economy which is funding the relief efforts in other parts of the country,” McGowan posted on Facebook.
“West Aussies just want decisions that consider the circumstances of all states and territories, not just Sydney.”