SYDNEY, Australia — Around 40 friends gathered for a birthday party three days after the discovery of a rare Covid-19 case in Sydney. There was a hidden threat among the cake and laughter: one of the guests had unknowingly crossed paths with that single Covid case, an airport driver who had caught the Delta variant from an American aircrew.
Two weeks later, 27 members of the party, including a 2-year-old child, and 14 close contacts, have tested positive. What about the seven people who were not infected at the gathering? They were all immunised.
The party emphasises the enormous challenge that Australia’s wildly successful policy of total Covid suppression now faces. The vaccines and the highly contagious Delta variant went head to head in a simple suburban setting, and because too few Australians have been immunised, the virus spread.
The gathering in western Sydney serves as a warning to Australia and every other country pursuing a so-called “Covid zero” approach, including China and New Zealand: Without blanket vaccinations, the fortress cannot hold without ever more painful restrictions.
“This is the beginning of the end of Covid zero,” said Catherine Bennett, epidemiology chair at Deakin University in Melbourne. “We might be able to keep it under control this time, but it will only get harder and harder.”
The Delta mutation has already spread across Australia, being carried on flights and by people visiting schools, hospitals, hair salons, and a mass vaccination centre. Half of the country’s 25 million residents have been ordered to stay at home as the caseload, which is now around 200, grows by the day. State borders are closed, and frustration is growing — another lockdown 16 months into the pandemic?
It is a surprising turn in a country that has spent the majority of the year celebrating a remarkable achievement. Australia has quashed every previous outbreak with closed borders, widespread testing, and efficient tracing, despite the fact that almost every other country has lived with the virus’s constant presence, often disastrously.
In Australia, no one has died as a result of Covid-19 in 2021. While New York and London were spared a viral onslaught last year, Sydney and the rest of the country saw “Hamilton” fill stadiums, restaurants, classrooms, and theatres.
That sense of normalcy, which has been harmed only by a lack of overseas travel, mask mandates, and snap lockdowns, is what Australian politicians, from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to local officials, are fighting to preserve. Keeping Covid out, whatever it takes, remains a winning strategy for them.
On Friday, Australia doubled down on this strategy, announcing that the weekly influx of a few thousand international arrivals (who must be quarantined) would be cut in half.
It’s a tried-and-true strategy. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, Australia closed its borders to international visitors for a year and reopened later than the rest of the world. Most Australians were willing to accept isolation once more, assuming it would keep them safe. Until Delta, that is.
Now, government officials are scrambling to combat a variant they’ve dubbed a formidable foe, as if it were a Marvel villain.
Contact tracers discovered video evidence of one case of transmission in a Sydney department store, when the man who started the outbreak simply walked by someone else. Delivery drivers have also spread the virus through brief interactions, and health officials have warned that in most households, one person infected with Delta typically infects everyone.
The variant has compelled officials to move more quickly and forcefully with restrictions than before.
Previously, New South Wales avoided a full lockdown during Covid outbreaks, including one last December that was contained with three weeks of suburb-specific restrictions. Gladys Berejiklian, the state premier, tried a similar strategy this time, but Delta moved too quickly to be contained.
It’s a similar storey all over the world. At least 85 countries have been found to have the Delta variant. It is now the dominant strain in England and India, where it first appeared, and it was the source of last month’s outbreak in southern China, which prompted a ferocious response from authorities.
Many countries anticipate a protracted conflict. Chinese officials announced on Monday that they planned to construct a massive quarantine centre in Guangzhou with 5,000 rooms to house international travellers.
Australia, too, has stated that the reduced quota for international arrivals will be in effect until the end of the year or longer, depending on how quickly mass vaccination can be accomplished.
Officials and economists are now concerned that the social costs of these harsh measures will only rise. The 34,000 Australians who are still waiting to return home will have to wait even longer. Businesses that were beginning to recover face many months of uncertainty.
Melbourne, which has experienced more on-and-off lockdowns than any other Australian city, may provide a preview of what is to come. Empty storefronts already dot the city’s central business district. Even when there are no current cases of community transmission, some people in the area are still so traumatised by fear that they rarely leave their homes.
Even economists who recognise Australia’s economic benefits argue that policymakers have become overly reliant on border control and locking down at the first sign of trouble. Throughout Sydney’s current outbreak, no more than three people have been admitted to intensive care, despite the fact that 12 million Australians have been quarantined.
According to Richard Holden, an economist at the University of New South Wales Business School, the measurable economy, which has kept employment high due to continued trade and government support, conceals incalculable costs.
“It’s the weddings and funerals that can never be replaced; it’s the people who can’t be by someone’s bedside when they die,” he explained. “It’s difficult to put a monetary value on that.”
What irritates Australians the most, he adds, is that the country should be further along. After mastering Covid testing, Australia made the mistake of putting too much faith in two vaccine options, the AstraZeneca shot and one proposed by the University of Queensland. The latter failed in early trials, while the former has been caught up in an Australian debate over whether the low risk of blood clots should prevent it from being used by anyone under the age of 60.
As a result, the country was late in receiving the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and it was light on planning and promotion of its immunisation campaign. Less than 8% of Australians are fully immunised.
Nonetheless, the birthday party demonstrates that the best vaccines do more than just protect against serious illness; they also appear to suppress Delta transmission.
The challenge for Australia and many other countries over the next few months will be to ensure that most people are vaccinated and only a few are not.
When this occurs, epidemiologists believe that deaths, rather than infections, should be used to guide policy.
“It used to be that Covid would kill one person every 100 or 200 cases,” said Peter Collignon, an Australian National University physician and microbiologist. “Once enough people are vaccinated, it drops to 1 in 1,000.”
Even Australia’s prime minister, who has been slow to accept responsibility for his government’s vaccine failures, admitted on Friday that Australians would eventually have to abandon their goal of zero Covid.
“Once you move from pre-vaccination to post-vaccination, our mindset on managing Covid-19 has to change,” Mr. Morrison explained. The ultimate goal, he added, is to “treat it like the flu, which means no lockdowns.”