Since the last year, Australia has been gliding along, almost blissfully standing apart from the global pandemic. It had acclaimed the stage of a “Covid normal” where people could visit restaurants and nightclubs and join crowds at festivals and theatres.
The country’s strict Covid defences – border closures and mandatory quarantine – proved effective 99.99% of the time.
When cases leaked, officials acted swiftly, locking down cities and following every infected contact.
Sydney – Australia’s biggest and the wealthiest city – managed to avoid regular snap lockdowns enabled by a “gold standard” contact-tracing system.
But in the previous fortnight, the Delta variant has proved powerful to breach the city’s defences. In one week, positive cases have increased to more than 100.
On Friday, 25 June, officials had agreed to the need to put Sydney into lockdown, and by the following Monday, the crisis had become a national one with surges in four states and territories.
Sydney, Darwin, Perth and Brisbane – all capital cities – are presently in lockdown.
More than 20 million Australians, which is around 80% of the population, is under restrictions. It is the highest number since a national lockdown at the start of the pandemic.
In an emergency meeting on Monday, federal and state governments tried to plug the holes by expanding vaccine access.
However, many Australians question why they’re back living under restrictions, seven months after the world initiated mass vaccinations.
How Delta immersed through the weak spots
Epidemiologists state the Delta variant has proven to be the most infectious and transmissible of all the strains so far. Where there were blows in Australia’s defence system, it succeeded in exploiting them.
The nation’s border and quarantine system had been increasingly challenged since the first variants emerged in late 2020. Officials recorded cases where travellers were catching the virus in quarantine, despite residing in separate rooms.
Experts showed apprehensions about air recirculation and the lack of fresh air in city hotels.
Around 370,000 people underwent the system. But there have been ten breaches resulting in outbreaks.
Australia has been stringent on gatekeeping who’s allowed into the country. There have been weekly limits on the number of returning citizens and straight bans from some virus hotspots.
When people step off their plane, returnees are welcomed by an intimidating coterie of soldiers, police officers and nurses – masked-up and gloved to accompany arrivals straight to quarantine.
However, the same meticulousness isn’t applied to other workers – like drivers transporting arrivals.
Patient Zero in the Sydney outbreak was a limo driver in his 60s who got infected by a passenger. He was not inoculated, was just wearing a mask, without any regular test- and he didn’t need to as per the rules at the time.
Despite these flaws, experts mention that Delta is a “formidable foe” due to its high infection rates. In New South Wales, of which Sydney is the state capital, officials are finding nearly 100% household transmission compared to 25% for earlier strains. People there have caught the virus just from passing one another in a shop.
“Delta is just extremely, highly contagious. And even with the vaccinated workforce there’s still potential to transmit,” mentions Prof Nancy Baxter, head of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.
She points out that officials had witnessed Delta cases where “they can’t even identify how the transmission occurred” earlier to the epidemic”.