Victoria’s eased restrictions are good news but virus fight goes on

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Just over 17 months ago, a man from Wuhan, China, flew to Melbourne infected with COVID-19. His was the first detected case in Australia. At the time, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt wanted to assure the public that things were in hand: “Australia has a world-class health system with processes for the identification and treatment of cases, including isolation facilities in each state and territory. These processes have been activated.”

It was a naive statement, but we can forgive him for that. Few would have foreseen then the upheaval that would be wrought by the coronavirus in all our lives, or the pressures the virus would place on those responsible for its containment.

Acting Premier James Merlino at a COVID-9 media conference this week.Credit:Joe Armao

The pandemic has thrown into turmoil our cities, our psyches and our interstate and international relations. As the Victorian government announced an easing of restrictions on Wednesday, Sydney was almost simultaneously enforcing tighter ones to try to contain its latest outbreak, one linked back to a limousine driver at the airport. It reminds us that every day without community transmission of COVID-19 is one to be grateful for.

We have also learnt a lot in the past year and a half, including that there is no silver bullet to make the virus go away. Melburnians know that better than most. COVID-19, and its increasingly contagious variants, have proven equal to all the enhancements and fine-tuning of hotel quarantine.

We have also learnt more than we believed possible about contact tracing. Victoria’s latest outbreak showed how comprehensively that had been improved, as had a testing regime capable of ramping up at short notice. But the outbreak also highlighted gaps: we were using the QR-code check-in system sporadically at best, vaccinations in the aged care system had fallen well short of expectations, and the vaccine rollout in general has verged on the chaotic.

With everything we have learnt, and with the experience of four lockdowns very much in mind, many Victorians are now looking north to Sydney’s latest challenge with a sense of how badly things could still go wrong. The NSW government has long treated outbreaks differently. Premier Gladys Berejiklian and any number of federal politicians have lauded the state’s “gold standard” approach and “proportionate response” – based on a belief that it is possible to fight this virus and its variants with graded restrictions and without resorting to the statewide lockdowns employed elsewhere.

That belief is now under serious challenge from the Delta variant of COVID-19. If more-limited restrictions succeed in NSW, as they have in the past, they offer hope to us all for a way forward. If they do not, the people of NSW might pay dearly in terms of their health and their livelihoods. We can do nothing but watch and wish them well in their endeavour.

Over the longer term, we must all hope that widespread vaccination will allow us to open up and relax a little. There will be new challenges, of course: persuading enough people to accept the vaccine will be one. Another will be opening up to the parts of the world hit worse than Australia has been. Herd immunity is not the same as eradication, which means COVID-19 will be with us, in a limited form, for many years to come.

Meanwhile, we’re in a holding pattern. Further breaches of hotel quarantine are more likely than not. NSW might not succeed with its “proportionate” response. The cumulative impact becomes harder to gauge as most people adapt their lives to the new normal, which is not normal at all. Fatigue and frustration is growing.

But, for now, Victoria’s restrictions are easing. The state appears back on track. We should be able to go back to the football, welcome our family and friends into our homes and reacquaint ourselves with the office. Enjoy the moment. Take time to reflect and enjoy life, within the bounds of the restrictions still imposed on us. Because tomorrow will no doubt bring more challenges.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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