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‘Living with the virus’? For Australians, it’s done in a familiar way.

MELBOURNE, Australia – Nearly 95 per cent of adults are vaccinated. Coronavirus is now milder. It’s the heart of summer, after a year and a half of flash lockdowns and border closures.

The Australian government said it was ready to “live with the virus”, ready to let the government get out of people’s lives and let them make their own decisions about their health. Hit the pub, enjoy life, spend some money.

But it seems many Australians are still not ready.

When one state announced that it was ending intensive contact tracing, a Facebook group popped up so people could do it themselves. After Australia’s prime minister declared lockdowns a thing of the past, many residents of the country’s two largest cities remained indoors as Omicron spiked that it was labeled a “shadow lock”. And even as the country’s borders open for the first time since March 2020, the tourist-loving nation has mostly stayed put.

“That change from ‘Covid is the worst thing imaginable’ to sudden“ It’s okay, we just need to open the floodgates now, ”I think that caused a lot of insecurity for the people. people,” said Simon Benson, a doctor in Melbourne who was flooded with calls from patients not knowing what to do after testing positive.

Perhaps more than any other country, Australia has in recent weeks experienced a dizzying turn in its approach to the pandemic. In 18 months, it has quelled any outbreak of Covid, often through significant public sacrifice. Then, late last year, the government announced it had done with all of that: Australia would now “start” at Omicron and “not look back”.

Suddenly, a country that once imposed lockdowns on a handful of cases is dealing with half a million active infections. The deaths, while still small by US or UK standards, have hit a record high. Australians are used to following official guidance and taking collective action to stop a dangerous virus feel the pain. And as the number of cases began to drop, anxiety led to resignations.

Peter Collignon, doctor and professor of microbiology at the Australian National University, said the country had gone from “lockdown where you can’t even let another person visit your home to pubs, full club, “don’t worry about it”.

Australia has taken the lead that other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have not been able to catch.

When Omicron started circulating, many people halted or pushed back the time they promised to reopen. Japan reversed a decision to start allowing some students and business people, South Korea suspended quarantine exemptions for incoming travelers, and Thailand halted a newly launched program to bring in tourists. come back.

But Australia stuck to its plan, relaxing mask rules and other restrictions and reopening its borders to international students and other visa holders. With a federal election looming and many Australians already enduring hundreds of days of severe sanctions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country must “move from a culture of mandate to a culture of accountability”.

Mr Morrison said the key to regaining Australia’s suspended freedoms was its vaccination campaign. Nancy Baxter, head of the University of Melbourne’s school of global health and population, said Omicron had reinforced confidence that high vaccination rates would put an end to the risk of large-scale outbreaks.

“It’s the narrative: ‘We’ll all get vaccinated, and then we’ll be able to party like 2019,’ she said.

Instead, the number of applications has grown to previously unimagined highs. The Omicron tide peaked at 150,000 new daily cases on January 13. Before this wave, the country had never reached 3,000 in a single day. And last Friday, Australia had its deadliest day of the pandemic, reporting 98 deaths.

The speed at which the variant spread gave authorities little time to acclimate populations to the idea of ​​widespread infection.

“It’s a ‘hope for the best and plan for the best approach,’” says Professor Baxter. “So I think there’s a lot of outrage right now about vaccines. not enough – while they will never be enough.”

This week, Mr Morrison admitted that the government had raised public expectations of a summer rebirth too high.

“I think maybe we were too optimistic and we could have communicated more clearly about the risks and challenges we still face,” he said.

For some in Australia, the abrupt change looks like a political decision after months in which the response to the pandemic is Nonpartisan and led by scientific expertswith clear lines of communication from government to residents.

It is unclear how the reopening will affect the election, which must be held in May. However, Mr Morrison, a conservative who first took office in 2018, is trailing behind in the polls and faces criticism as systems to respond to the virus have struggled. under Omicron.

The country’s testing program, designed to quickly find and contain small outbreaks, was quickly overwhelmed, with residents queuing outside centers overnight and some samples failing. because they sit around for too long. Rapid antigen tests are also in short supply, prompting retailers to charge more and prompting an investigation into allegations of price gouging.

With pomelos skyrocketing, labor shortages are exacerbated, affecting supply chains and leaving supermarket shelves empty. The situation was so dire that the government quickly considered to minors driving forklifts.

Hospitals have canceled elective surgeries and advised patients not to go to emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary. The number of nursing home deaths spiked, accounting for a third of all coronavirus-related deaths in January.

Faced with these issues, several states reintroduced mild restrictions in early January, closing nightclubs and introducing density limits. Western Australia, the only state still trying to contain the virus, has delayed reopening its borders to the rest of the country.

However, the worst of this Omicron wave may be over. Hospitalization rates have stabilized, and the health care system has avoided collapse. Mortality rate remains among the lowest for rich countries.

Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, said: “If we want to compare ourselves to the rest of the world, we are doing very well.

But that is not a standard all Australians are happy to use, having given up so much time to keep hospitalizations and deaths as close to zero as possible. “And I’m not sure I either,” said Professor Mackay.

In Melbourne, where residents endured a total of 262 days of lockdown, only able to leave their homes to buy food or exercise, the beating was particularly severe.

One resident, Laura Brennan, 26, said: “We have been told that it is important to do everything we can to prevent the spread, and now all of a sudden we are being told that we are not. need to do so. glider. ”

Ms Brennan said she was so mentally exhausted that she had no energy left to fear or panic when the infection spiked. While still subject to government restrictions, she said, she is trying to live a normal life, hanging out with friends and vacationing in Tasmania.

Others, like 36-year-old Lisa O’Halloran, fell into self-isolation as filing numbers grew, getting groceries delivered and severely limiting time outside the home.

As the number of cases has dropped, Ms. O’Halloran has loosened up a bit but remained cautious. “I’m trying to find a balance between not being agitated and the physical health risks,” she says.

In South Australia, where the contract tracing Facebook page was started, its activity has declined. Luke Anderson, moderator of the group, which has more than 190,000 members, added many people are used to the idea of ​​living with the virus.

Leaving aside problems like the lack of rapid antigen tests and supply chain troubles, “life isn’t really that bad,” he said.

“It took me quite a while to deal with that myself,” he added. “I think it took a lot of people for a while. But I think it’s the right way.”

John Yoon and Manan Luthra contribution report.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/03/world/australia/australia-covid-policy.html ‘Living with the virus’? For Australians, it’s done in a familiar way.

Fry Electronics Team

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