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Australia's Zero Tolerance Policy For COVID-19 Cracks With New Wave Of Cases

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Australia has successfully kept COVID case numbers incredibly low throughout the pandemic, with a strategy that included closed borders, testing, stay-at-home orders and contact tracing. And Australians had enjoyed some degree of normalcy, like sports games, concerts, festivals, while elsewhere, people were stuck at home. But it seems now some Australians are fed up with lockdown measures. Thousands have taken to the streets in recent protests that have at times turned violent.

Here to help us understand how Australia got to this point is Georgina McKay, a reporter at Bloomberg News in Sydney. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GEORGINA MCKAY: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. It seemed like Australians have had to put up with some pretty restrictive lockdowns and rules from the beginning of the pandemic, rules that would have gotten a lot more pushback in other parts of the world. But Australians just seemed to tolerate it more back then. Why do you think that was?

MCKAY: I think the way to look at it, Ailsa, is that last year, Australia committed to a COVID-zero approach. We shut our borders. We imposed strict quarantine measures for returning residents, and we locked down our cities. And I think the reason that Australians tolerated these measures is they saw what was going on around the world with high death tolls and high rates of hospitalizations that Australia largely avoided because we kept COVID out of our communities. And now the delta variant is pushing Australia into a corner with that existing playbook.

CHANG: Right. And it seems thousands of Australians now have just had enough, right? I mean, they are protesting lockdown measures on the streets of Sydney and elsewhere - in violation of those very lockdown measures. Is the delta variant the factor that changed, or are there other factors that account for why so many Australians right now are done with these lockdown measures?

MCKAY: So on the one hand, there is probably some level of COVID fatigue, but the portion of the community is small but loud in reacting to these current lockdown measures being imposed across the country. And there's been upwards of 10,000 tip-offs since the weekend of members of the community dobbing in those who attended the protest. A poll that came out early this week shows that only 7% supported the anti-lockdown protests.

CHANG: Interesting.

MCKAY: Yeah. So while around the world it might look like a lot of Australians are fed up, it is only a small minority.

CHANG: Can you just put into context the scale of these outbreaks, say, compared to other parts of the world that are seeing surges of coronavirus cases now because of the delta variant?

MCKAY: So globally speaking, the case numbers are quite low. It's been in the hundreds for about seven days in a row. There are reports that this week cases may get somewhere over 200. So, yes, they sound low, but in Australian terms, they are concerning figures...

CHANG: Right.

MCKAY: ...Considering the level of lockdown that's currently happening across Sydney, the lockdown being one of the strictest since the beginning of the pandemic.

CHANG: So as the delta variant continues to spread in your country, what additional measures do you expect from the government in Australia to control that spread?

MCKAY: The only current options are vaccine, increasing that vaccine rate, getting jabs into arms and sticking to these strict lockdowns. The New South Wales state government has repeatedly said that until the vaccination rate is higher, Sydney can't really open up. Otherwise, we risk overrunning hospitals that haven't seen the level of hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths that the rest of the world has throughout the course of this pandemic.

CHANG: Georgina McKay has been covering the pandemic in Australia for Bloomberg News. Thank you very much, and stay safe.

MCKAY: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAME IMPALA SONG, "IS IT TRUE [FOUR TET REMIX]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.