That changed on Monday as Sydney, Australia’s largest city and the capital of New South Wales, emerges from a strict lockdown imposed in June to contain an outbreak of Delta.
McTighe said she was “excited” to start her life over and see her loved ones, but worries about what Covid-19 in the community could mean for the city of 5.3 million people.
“I think until everyone understands this thing better and how it keeps changing, we have to worry,” she said.
For more than 18 months, Australia has cut itself off from the world, closing borders and imposing strict lockdowns to eradicate outbreaks of Covid-19 in a bid to eliminate the virus.
As of Monday, the fully vaccinated Sydneysiders, who make up more than 70% of the city’s adults, can return to restaurants, bars and gyms – and many like McTighe are now able to reunite with loved ones in care afterwards. months apart.
But all this hard-earned freedom will come at a cost – national modeling suggests Sydney will see thousands of new infections and inevitable deaths.
Questions remain about how the hospital system will cope with any wave of new cases, the impact on vulnerable people and how quickly Sydney can adjust to life with Covid.
What happens next will be critical for the city and Australia. But other zero Covid countries in the Asia-Pacific region will also be watching closely whether Sydney can succeed in keeping the number of cases and deaths low enough to avoid overwhelming hospitals, while allowing business to resume and people to recover. continue their life.
The end of zero Covid
For the first year of the pandemic, Australia has been one of the few major nations to successfully control Covid-19, thanks to strict border restrictions, mandatory quarantine and temporary lockdowns.
But in June, a Delta epidemic in Sydney quickly spread to neighboring Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
Delays in the vaccination rollout in Australia, in part due to low supplies, have left the population vulnerable – forcing authorities to impose local closures.
“I always believed we could have eliminated the non-Delta Covid … but I concede that blockages with Delta are often going to be an impossible competition to win,” said Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
As the number of cases increased, it became clear that keeping people indoors was not sustainable – for economic and health reasons – and Australian authorities drew up a plan to vaccinate the country. out of the pandemic.
Once the supply issues were resolved, the immunization program shifted into high gear.
Last week, NSW became the first state to meet the initial 70% double vaccination target. More states are expected to reach that number in the coming weeks, and by the end of the year, the entire country is expected to open.
But experts warn it’s not without potential dangers – and some people take more risk than others.
Australia’s plan to reopen is built around total adult immunization rates in each state, but immunization statistics are not evenly distributed.
In some suburban areas of Sydney, full vaccination rates are as low as 30%, according to government figures.
The state’s Indigenous population also lags statewide numbers. For example, as of October 6, less than half of Indigenous people aged 15 and over on the central coast of New South Wales had received both doses of the vaccine. This is a problem because Indigenous people generally suffer from more chronic health conditions than non-Indigenous people, which puts them at greater risk of complications from Covid.
And young people are also affected. In New South Wales, only 58% of people aged 16-29 have been fully vaccinated – the lowest of any age group besides 12-15 year olds, who only had access to vaccines recently.
McLaws of UNSW said young people would likely be among the first to take advantage of the freedoms offered by the reopening, so making sure they’re fully immunized is especially important.
She compared it to pieces of dry kindling that, if ignored, could eventually start a bushfire. “Young people, they light the fire, then the groups at risk (…) are the vulnerable people and the indigenous population and generally the regional areas outside the big cities”, she declared.
Australia’s strict border controls and quarantine measures helped the country avoid the chaos experienced in other countries in 2020, when Covid cases spread from hospitals to temporary medical units.
However, despite 18 months of preparation, health groups have warned that the NSW hospital system may not be able to cope with a wave of new infections.
Last month, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association urged the state government to increase staff levels, citing research showing the system was under pressure even before the latest Covid outbreak.
And on Thursday, after the new NSW prime minister announced a plan to reopen faster, Omar Khorshid, head of the Australian Medical Association, urged authorities not to be “reckless.”
“The ultimate results of opening too quickly or too soon will be preventable deaths and the reintroduction of lockdowns and other restrictions – things no one in NSW wants to see,” he said in a statement.
“Sydney must take this opportunity to show the rest of the country how to live with COVID while protecting health and healthcare. “
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said states across the country have had 18 months to prepare for higher Covid cases – and that “the planning is well in place”.
He also urged Australians to play a role in reducing the pressure on the system.
“Where there are no cases, or if there are 500 cases, even 1,500 cases per day. The best thing you can do to support nurses and everyone who works in hospitals is to get vaccinated, ”he said.
“Give a” good example “
Australia is starting its transition from zero Covid to living with the virus thanks to a high vaccination rate – but it is not the first country in the region to do so.
In June, the Singaporean government announced it would focus on limiting severe cases of Covid-19 and reducing hospitalizations rather than infection rates. Singapore has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world – 83% of its total population is fully vaccinated.
But after starting to ease restrictions, Singapore has seen Covid-19 cases reach their highest number since the start of the pandemic. In early October, the country reimposed some restrictions to curb the rise in infections and ease pressure on the health system.
Last week, the number of people allowed to assemble fell from five to two, working from home became the norm, and classes were suspended or moved online for students aged 12 and under.
Australia also expects the number of cases to increase – it’s inevitable as people start to mix, even following other public health advice, including wearing masks.
National modeling from the Doherty Institute predicts that with “partial public health measures” and a double vaccination rate of 70%, the number could reach 385,000 cases and 1,457 deaths over six months, more than the total toll of Australia on the whole pandemic. Greater vigilance could see these numbers drop, he added.
Ahead of the reopening, Australian leaders were careful to prepare their citizens for more deaths, seeing it as the cost of returning to normal life.
But like Singapore, Australia is not ruling out reintroducing stricter restrictions if cases increase too quickly.
Apart from Singapore and Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam have all spoken of abandoning a phase-out strategy. In some of those places this has already raised concerns – in New Zealand, commentators have raised fears the move could spell disaster for the country’s most vulnerable.
Experts said countries in the region will look to Sydney to see how successfully it is about to reopen – and to learn from its mistakes.
And not just other countries – Morrison wants to move forward quickly with a nationwide reopening, and other Australian states and territories will be watching New South Wales closely.
Victoria, Australia’s second-largest state, will likely be the next to reopen later in October.
Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Mater Health Services, said other governments would be particularly interested in holding Sydney’s health care system after it reopens.
“I don’t think the number of cases will be the key measure,” he said. “I think these will be markers of significant illness, ICU admission and, of course, the death rate. “
If hospitals are overwhelmed with infections and cannot provide normal services safely, that would be a “red flag,” he said.
McTighe, the Sydney resident, said she still believed the initial lockdown was necessary and didn’t expect the reopening to necessarily be smooth – there could be an increase in cases and a reintroduction of restrictions , she said.
But for now, she said she was very excited to be “living a normal life again”.
“You can see some light at the end of the tunnel. “