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Explained: What led to Sydney’s ‘scariest period’ since the pandemic started?

Australia was widely considered a Covid-19 success story after it managed to contain the pandemic. But the emergence of the Delta variant has raised concerns, particularly since the country’s vaccination rate is especially low.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: June 27, 2021 8:21:44 am
Transport workers sit together on a train platform devoid of passengers at Central Station in Sydney, June 26, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Loren Elliott)

Amidst a recent uptick in new locally-acquired cases of Covid-19, Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), is experiencing what the state’s Premier Gladys Berejiklian described as its “scariest period” since the pandemic first started. The culprit behind the latest outbreak is the highly-contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, which was first identified in India and has prompted governments around the world to prepare for potential new waves of the deadly infection.

On Friday, more than a million people in the city of Sydney were placed under a strict lockdown — its first since December last year. Before fresh clusters of cases emerged in some of Sydney’s central and eastern suburbs this month, life was starting to return to relative normalcy following months of a consistently low daily coronavirus caseload.

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Australia was widely considered a Covid success story after it managed to contain the pandemic largely by shutting its borders early and imposing snap lockdowns, tough social distancing rules and efficient contact tracing. But the emergence of the new Delta variant has raised concerns, particularly since the country’s vaccination rate has been especially low.

Why were fresh lockdowns imposed in Sydney?

With Sydney reporting its most significant rise in coronavirus cases since December, residents of four eastern and central neighbourhoods in the city were ordered to stay at home for at least one week. In the last two weeks, 65 fresh cases have been reported in the latest flareup, the first of which has been linked to a limousine driver who is believed to have been infected while transporting an international flight crew to a local hotel.

“Since the pandemic has started, this is perhaps the scariest period that New South Wales is going through,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters. All residents of the four neighbourhoods under lockdown have been urged to remain at home and to only venture out for essential goods, medical care or exercise. Non-essential businesses, including gyms and nightclubs will be closed, and exercise will be limited to groups of 10 outdoors.

“We don’t want to see this situation linger for weeks, we would like to see this situation end sooner rather than later,” Berejiklian said. Residents of Sydney’s virus-hit suburbs are also banned from leaving the city. Authorities in neighbouring Queensland and Victoria said that several passengers from Sydney who attempted to fly down to these states were sent back.

However, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) says these restrictions are not enough to curb what could be an aggressive new wave of cases. The body has called for a complete lockdown in the city, to prevent the virus from spreading.

Have fresh restrictions been imposed in NSW?

While authorities have held off from imposing a hard lockdown in the state, restrictions on movement as well as mandatory mask wearing in all indoor locations have been extended till July 2. These restrictions were earlier scheduled to end on Wednesday.

The state reported 22 local cases on Friday, the biggest rise in infections in over two weeks. As many as 19 of these cases have been linked to known sources, while three are still being investigated. The state’s Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant told The Guardian that a “large number of cases” are expected in the coming days.

NSW is practically isolated from the rest of the country, as several neighbouring states have imposed strict border restrictions, limiting the entry of people from Sydney and other virus-hit areas.

Earlier, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern announced that she was postponing an upcoming trip to Australia due to the recent rise in cases. New Zealand has already suspended the travel bubble between its capital, Wellington and Sydney to prevent the spread of Delta plus infections in the country.

Have Delta variant cases been reported in other parts of Australia?

A handful of cases have been reported in some other parts of Australia as well. In Victoria, two new cases were announced on Thursday, both of which were likely linked to the Sydney outbreak. In Queensland, too, two new cases were detected.

Australia was considered a Covid success story. What went wrong?

Australia has been widely considered a trailblazer in the global battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. The government started imposing strict lockdowns and a high level of vigilance since the pandemic first made its presence felt last year — a major factor that has contributed to the country’s low coronavirus caseload. Australia has had fewer than 30,300 cases and 910 deaths.

With cases steadily declining, restrictions were slowly being revoked across the country and life was starting to return to normal. That was until the emergence of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent surge in cases.

People queue in their cars to get tested for Covid-19 at a pop-up testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney Friday, June 25, 2021. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image via AP)

The country has been criticised for its low vaccination rates. While Australia’s vaccination programme began in February, it still remains open only for people above the age of 40. So far, a mere 3 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated, while 25 per cent have received at least one dose of the vaccine — placing Australia way behind other Western nations that have managed to inoculate a vast majority of their adult population.

Apart from the government’s inability to secure enough vaccines, widespread vaccine hesitancy is also to blame for Australia’s poor performance in inoculating its citizens against Covid, making herd immunity a distant dream.

The Australian government’s recent decision to raise the recommended age group for AtraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine to 60 and above, due to the risk of contracting a rare blood-clotting syndrome, has further heightened fears. Since the health guidelines were updated on Thursday, Australian doctors have noted a surge in the number of people cancelling their appointments to get their second dose of the jab.

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