Aug 9, 2021 - World

Cabin fever in "Fortress Australia" due to slow vaccination rate

An empty stretch of Bondi Beach in Sydney. Photo: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the possible exception of North Korea, no country has gone to greater extremes to cut itself off from the world during the pandemic than Australia. 

Why it matters: Australia's approach of shutting down at the first hint of an outbreak and keeping the borders hermetically sealed — including to its own citizens — have proved both effective and popular, until now. With vaccinations lagging, some Australians are wondering how long they can go on like this.

Driving the news: Most citizens are banned from leaving the country except in exceptional circumstances, and as of Wednesday, that will include even expatriates attempting to return home from Australia.

  • There's also a backlog of 35,000 Australians hoping to return to the country — which requires two weeks in a quarantine hotel — because only around 3,000 people are allowed to enter each week, per the Sydney Morning Herald.
  • Australia went so far as to bar its citizens in India from returning in the spring, stranding them in the midst of a brutal COVID-19 wave and threatening to fine or jail anyone who defied the ban.
  • The "Fortress Australia" approach has left families divided, but it also won the approval of most Australians.

As the pandemic raged elsewhere, Australia capitalized on its geography to keep all but a few cases out and employed swift lockdowns whenever they were detected.

  • The "new normal" arrived early. Pubs and stadiums filled, with case counts near zero.
  • Several European countries have endured higher single-day death tolls than the 940 Australia has recorded over the entirety of the pandemic.
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison's approval rating doubled from 33% to 67% in the early months of the pandemic, per Morning Consult's tracker, but recently slid under 50%.

Vaccines have been his undoing.

  • 36% of Australians have had a single dose and 18% are fully vaccinated, putting Australia 35th of 38 in the OECD club of rich countries, per The Guardian.
  • Morrison's government intended to use a mix of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but didn't secure enough of the former and suspended the latter for under-60s due to blood clot concerns, before resuming its use.
  • The government has been scrambling to catch up. Morrison announced today that Moderna had been approved and doses would arrive in late September.

Meanwhile, Australia's two largest cities are under strict lockdowns as the Delta variant spreads.

  • There have been large protests against restrictions in greater Sydney, where residents can only leave home for a handful of reasons, like exercise or medical care.
  • The hair-trigger lockdowns have meant that a coastal region and rural town, both yet to record a COVID-19 case, locked down today because they'd been visited by an infected person.
  • "I know they're sick of it. I know they're angry, and I know they want it to stop and for life to get back to where they knew it," Morrison told reporters today of the local and regional lockdowns. "But there can be no shortcuts."

What's next: Morrison has said that the reopening can begin and travel bans can be eased once vaccination rates among the eligible population hit 70% and 80%, respectively.

  • The government is aiming to offer a first dose to any adult who wants one by the end of this year.

The bottom line: Australians were shielded as cases spread widely in other large, rich countries. But as vaccines began to proliferate, Australia was left watching from afar.

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