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Australia’s rules and regulations in response to the coronavirus pandemic are some of the strictest in the world. It closed its borders to inbound and outbound travel in early 2020. States also closed theirs, restricting movement within the country. In Melbourne, where I live, five million residents have spent a cumulative 262 days in lockdown, only able to leave their homes to exercise, buy groceries or work.
The measures kept Australia’s death rate well below other countries in the early days of the pandemic. Although it abandoned strict measures and switched to a “live with the virus” strategy, its death rate remained around 20 percent that of the United States.
But the cost, for some, is high. Tens of thousands of citizens were stranded abroad when the borders closed. State border closures have prevented residents from attending funerals for loved ones and delayed some from getting essential medical care. Tens of thousands of people have received fines for defying strict, ever-changing public health rules – sometimes for actions as simple as sitting in a park. Experts are still concerned about the long-term effects of prolonged school closures on children.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected in May 2022, has long promised an inquiry into Australia’s response to the pandemic. This week, he made good on that promise, announcing a year-long review of the government’s response and how Australia is preparing for a possible future pandemic. The inquiry will look at issues such as vaccines and medical supplies, financial support, and assistance for Australians overseas.
“We’ve gone through it, and we’ve gone through it in a positive way for the most part,” Mr Albanese said, announcing the inquiry on Thursday. “But we must examine what is right, what can be done better, with a focus on the future.”
However, experts and politicians criticized one exception: The inquiry will not investigate decisions made “unilaterally” by the heads of states and territories in Australia – leaders who govern some of the most important pandemic measures, such as closing borders between states, lockdowns, school closures and mandates to wear masks and get vaccinated.
These responses to the pandemic also need to be evaluated because they are often “directly affected by people,” said Dr. Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert at the Australian National University.
“We need to look at what is working, and even if something is working, what is the cost of that?” he said, adding that he hoped the inquiry would examine whether the severity of the measures used during the pandemic was proportionate to their effectiveness.
“I think we have too many black and white rules – we need to work out how to do the shades of gray better,” he said. “My own feeling is that stopping people like we do – saying you can only be outside for an hour and you have to walk all the time – that has a huge psychological and social cost, and how much good have we done. get from restrictions?”
In addition to checking deaths from the coronavirus, equally important, said Dr. Collignon, to look at those suffering from health because, for example, state border closures prevent them from getting timely medical help for pre-existing conditions.
The impact of the pandemic restrictions is also not felt equally everywhere. In Melbourne, one of the most extreme measures was put in place in a group of public housing towers whose residents were effectively placed under house arrest for up to two weeks without notice, even under police surveillance. The state ombudsman later ruled that the emergency measure violated residents’ rights.
In New South Wales, police have issued more than $36 million (56 million Australian dollars) worth of fines for failing to comply with public health restrictions. These penalties have particularly targeted residents of some of the state’s poorest suburbs, including Aboriginal communities, said Luke McNamara, a law professor at the University of New South Wales. He led a study on the issue and found that the state’s response to the pandemic created “disproportionate effects, and I don’t think we took that into account.”
Tens of thousands of fines were overturned after a resident – ticketed for sitting on a park bench – challenged his fine in court. But there are “families still struggling with debt in different parts of the country as a result of the fines that have been issued in the various lockdowns,” Mr. McNamara said. “Also, in a broader sense, the damage done to community-police relations in many parts of the country has yet to be addressed.”
He added that he would like to see a discussion on whether punitive responses are the best way to implement certain public health measures. “Governments have decided that the best way to control communities is to make strict public health orders and attach high penalties to them,” he said. “That mentality needs to be rethought.”
Now for this week’s news: