By Lucie Morris-Marr of Melbourne
You could call it our rather naive last supper, as we tucked into our seafood Christmas platters back in December – an entire nation, including 1.2 million British-born expats, feeling quietly smug regarding our tough coronavirus response.
In the preceding months we'd seen our total Covid death tally leap from around 100 to 900 due to a hotel quarantine breach in Melbourne, but we knew we were still the envy of the globe, along with our New Zealand neighbours.
On a personal level, having moved to Australia from England 15 years ago to work as a senior editor on Marie Claire Australia, the relief was twofold and profound; I'd just been given a clean bill of health after a year-long bowel cancer fight. It had been a year from hell, enduring 600 hours of chemotherapy amid two long Melbourne lockdowns, while juggling home schooling.
The Australian policy of issuing swift stay-at-home orders, even for just a handful of cases, was harsh, economically and mentally, yet had proved highly effective since the start of the pandemic last March. Internal borders were slammed shut at a moment's notice, in effect creating mini countries out of our six states and two territories, with potential escape routes closely monitored by drones, helicopters and police en masse. Lives were saved in the thousands.
Meanwhile, it was terrible to witness the loss and pain in the UK and across the world. Why were they not learning from us?
Our testing facilities and contact tracing resources had ramped up to excellent standards, and the Australian population of 25 million had generally followed the rules, besides a few anti-mask rebels and ambitious runaway yachts. Apart from a troubling cluster in the northern beaches of Sydney, there had been zero local cases across the rest of the country in the final days leading up to the festive period. Zero.
Back in Blighty, as the Kent variant took hold and Christmas was effectively cancelled, it must have seemed like Australia had first class tickets out of this hideous global pandemic horror story.
But oh, how things have changed from victory to calamity, in just a matter of months.
Our relief and sense of security has now vanished, replaced with fear, panic, confusion, political infighting and, in recent days, violent protests. Where did it all go so terribly wrong?
In essence it's been sparked by a perfect storm; a low-vaccine rollout colliding spectacularly with the rude intrusion in April of the doubly-infectious Delta strain. Add a misplaced hesitation to lock Sydney down hard and early, as new clusters broke out in the city last month, and suddenly we are facing severe strife.
For those of us with underlying health conditions – in my case a recent bowel cancer recurrence – the current situation feels both shocking and overwhelming.
Though Melbourne's latest "hard and sharp" lockdown thankfully lifted last week, Greater Sydney is currently facing at least four more weeks of increasingly strict restrictions – people in the western suburbs must stay within 5km of their homes – which first started on June 26. Thursday saw the worst day on record for New South Wales (NSW) with 239 new cases; on Friday there were 170 and yesterday there were 210 more, with 53 patients in intensive care.
They are numbers that may seem small from afar, but the unsavoury truth is that we are currently a largely unvaccinated nation. We are in serious danger of Delta sweeping NSW and possibly infiltrating the rest of the country, with more human loss at stake than any bushfire we have ever experienced.
The embers are already falling, with a major school in Brisbane, Queensland, closing on Friday after it emerged a 17-year-old student had tested positive with no known link to another case. Yesterday, southeast Queensland entered a snap three-day lockdown after six further cases were linked to the student.
As it stands, approximately only 16 per cent of adults here have been double jabbed, with only 30 per cent having received a single jab.
We have fridges full of AstraZeneca, invented in Oxford but produced here in Australia, waiting ready to go. But the advice regarding the blood clot dangers for younger age groups has led to an overall aversion across all ages. The result? An utter debacle. Many here, even the elderly and vulnerable, are simply – and possibly fatally – deciding to hold off until the promised extra shipments of Pfizer arrive in September and October.
This week Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, facing intense personal criticism over relying too heavily on AstraZeneca in the first place, made a desperate plea from Canberra to those in Greater Sydney in particular: anyone over 18 should get jabbed with the brand-damaged vaccine after all. And now. In the past week alone several unvaccinated people have died, including a woman in her 30s.
NSW state premier Gladys Berejiklian (herself under fire for not locking down Greater Sydney earlier) announced that thousands of extra police officers, plus 300 army personnel, would be sent to enforce restrictions in the worst affected areas. Whether these tougher decisions will be a circuit-breaker is yet to be seen – the entire country is collectively holding its breath.
The tension is certainly palpable; last Saturday thousands took to the Sydney streets to protest about the increasing restrictions, resulting in 60 arrests and 148 infringement notices. It was part of a wider 'World Wide Rally For Freedom', which also resulted in ugly clashes between Melbourne protesters and mounted police. Free speech and peaceful assembly is allowed in Australia, of course, but breaching health orders and violence is not.
"Do not give the people you love a death sentence," Berejiklian warned those who were considering joining the furious mob again this weekend. Thankfully, the expected unrest wasn't repeated.
In the meantime, like many of the British expats living here, unable to leave the country, except for special exemptions, my hopes of seeing my family any time soon have faded. Even fighting cancer doesn't automatically mean family can enter Australia to visit or help.
My own children, aged 11 and 13, are rapidly growing skywards, but have not been hugged by their British grandparents since their hands were smaller than theirs.
All expats here have always lived in fear of "the call" – the moment when you need to jump on a plane to the UK to get to an ailing relative in time, or to attend a funeral.
However, now it's close to impossible to do either in both directions, amid the complex red tape, caps on flights, spiralling costs and arduous two-week long quarantine requirements on return to Australia. The border will stay closed until 80 per cent of our adults are vaccinated, Morrison said on Friday. In short, we are effectively trapped.
Funerals are watched live on Zoom, marked as best as possible with candles, flowers and helium balloons released into the night sky, willing them to reach home. Rose petals are scattered in the sea.
Digging deep is key here, now – and being grateful for the beautiful natural wonders we do have access to, in between the lockdowns. We can't invest in holidays home, so, like many others, we have pimped up our camping gear from tent to caravan, ready to explore our beautiful state from beach to bush when winter turns to spring.
I try to cheer up my British friends, despite all of us being torn apart from our families back home with no fixed dates for reunions on the horizon.
"Let's try and make the Queen proud," I joke, and they manage to smile, despite the heartbreak in their eyes. The global storm may be switching hemispheres, but I can't lose hope that my children will meet their grandparents again one sunny day.