Melbourne, Australia Protest Shows The U.S. Is Not Alone In Pandemic Restriction Fatigue
The Australian city of Melbourne - once deemed the world’s most livable, is now one of the most locked down.
Parliament has been repeatedly suspended, state borders closed, curfews enforced, masks made mandatory, and vaccine passports are imminent - all the while residents have been confined to their homes for more than 220 days and counting.
While the majority of residents take COVID-19 and vaccinations seriously, there are growing fears that freedoms taken away won't return under the ‘new COVID normal.’
Melbourne citizens protesting in the state of Victoria are concerned.
So concerned, they’ve decided to break strict COVID lockdown laws to demonstrate against the State Government’s restrictions.
While it’s the images of clashes between police and hardline protesters that make the news and gain traction across social media - behind the frontline, many of the more personal stories receive less attention.
“I want my freedoms and democracy back, I want parliament to be open, I want discussion, I want full disclosure, I want dissenting voices to be heard. I came here from a communist country when I was five, so yes I’m a true blue Aussie, but I also have that other background of what my parents escaped from.”
The woman, like most of the demonstrators, is unwilling to be identified, as protesting is now outlawed, risking arrest and $5000-plus fines.
It’s unfamiliar territory for one of the world’s oldest and most stable modern democracies - which has afforded Australians a degree of nonchalance, and even dis-trust towards political activism.
An island nation, Australia’s geographic isolation has shielded the country from many of the globe’s crises and conflicts over the last century and a half.
And so it seemed, with the outbreak of COVID-19. Australia was quick to shut borders and prevent incoming infections.
Per ratio, Australia has suffered far fewer deaths than other developed nations, such as the US and UK.
The nation’s closed border policy and strict social distancing restrictions were declared a success by much of the political and media establishment.
But while the UK, Europe and the US have opened up - Australia remains closed for the foreseeable future. The population is prohibited from leaving, while thousands of overseas citizens have been locked out, unable to return home.
And, while it has kept case numbers down, the lockdown mentality has caused wide ranging and deeply impacting collateral damage; from a general and mental health, as well as a social and economic perspective.
Particularly in Melbourne, which has now been in a state of lockdown for more than 220 days. Schools are shut, businesses closed, curfews enacted, and apart from essential travel and exercise, residents are confined at home.
On top of that parliament has been repeatedly suspended and curtailed under state of emergency powers - restricting political scrutiny and accountability.
While opinion polls over the last 18 months show most residents have been supportive of Victorian State leader Daniel Andrews’ strict lockdown measures, there are signs it’s starting to wane.
A recent YouGov poll shows residents are more concerned about the impact of lockdown on mental health and jobs than contracting the virus.
While most average residents are unwilling to break the lockdown laws, many of the more desperate have been compelled to join more hardline political dissenters at the protests.
“It’s very simple, I’m here for my daughter, who is 18 months old, she’s as old as the pandemic. She hasn’t seen anything other than the park and the lounge room - she deserves better than that - I’m not here to fight,” says one Melbourne mother, also unwilling to be identified.
This protest was originally planned to take place in Melbourne’s CBD, but in response police sealed off the city and suspended public transport.
It was hastily moved to the nearby suburb of Richmond by organisers, who believe the police’s attempts to shut down the protest, further reinforces their need to demonstrate, so their voice can be heard.
“I lost my work, I had a thriving business, I lost it,” says a young man who also doesn't want to be identified.
“I don’t think for a second that the virus doesn’t exist. But I think the actions taken have been unwarranted.
“We’re young people, we need to move the %#^# on. That’s all I have to say.”
While Australia’s closed border, lock down strategy worked well for the first phase of the virus, the new more infectious delta variant has made it increasingly clear to health authorities that eliminating COVID-19 is not achievable.
Instead, ‘learning to live with COVID’ has become the new mantra - but that means very different things to different people.
The Victorian government is cautiously trying to chart its way out of lockdown, recently announcing a road map to greater freedoms.
At this stage Melbourne will remain in lockdown until late October once vaccination rates reach sufficient levels, from there, a staged resumption of schooling, and some community events will begin.
Under the plan, activities and freedoms will only be available to fully vaccinated people and the Government is also moving to make vaccines mandatory for all authorised workers, teachers, childcare workers, as well as hospitality workers and patrons.
Greater practical everyday freedoms for some, but more government mandates and restrictions for many others.
With the state of emergency - declared in March 2020 - coming to an end in December, the State government is now working to develop new pandemic laws to replace the emergency powers scheme.
However, demonstrators fear freedoms taken away amid the crisis stage of the pandemic won’t return under the new regime - and that living with COVID, means a lurch towards authoritarian rule.