It's a bright cold day in October and the clocks are striking nine. That's the time when residents of my home town of Melbourne, Australia, must obey a curfew or face crushing fines for breaching health orders. It's not quite Orwell's Oceania, but Australia's second city shares some alarming similarities with the totalitarian regime from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Melbourne holds the dubious record of being the most locked-down city in the world: 260 days and counting. Watching television footage from Italy, India, New York and even London at the peak of their outbreaks terrified many Australians into relinquishing all their civil liberties.
Unlike in the UK, where advice is formulated by Sage, Australian state health officers issue restrictions without explaining the science underpinning them. Many experts doubt that rules like curfews curb Covid at all. As cases in locked-down Melbourne reached a record high of 2300 per day, officials in Sydney ended lockdown early after a vaccination drive. The reason for the spike is that Melbourne's lockdown-fatigued citizens are secretly breaking all the rules, even those that actually work.
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Democracy has crumbled under zero-Covid, with parliaments shut for months under health orders. The twitching curtain brigade, encouraged by government campaigns urging them to inform on their neighbours, watch for rule-breakers and use special hotlines to summon the police. Melbourne police were recently ordered to patrol playgrounds until a public outcry forced a U-turn. In a park near me, children on scooters flee as a police car pulls up. It's like a scene from RoboCop.
Masks are mandatory outdoors even if walking on a windswept beach or a deserted street. Those caught disobeying may be fined, handcuffed, forcibly masked and arrested if they refuse to comply. In another Orwellian twist, health orders banning protests are issued by bureaucrats reporting to the very leaders the protesters are demonstrating against. Protest organisers, including a pregnant woman, have been arrested in their homes and hit with conspiracy charges. Religious worship, even in small groups outdoors, has been banned.
Getting into Australia has been near-impossible. Getting out requires a North Korea-style exit permit. Border closures have separated families and caused untold hardship. Babies have died, unable to access urgent medical attention at the nearest hospital across a locked state border. Thousands of holiday-makers who were travelling when border closures were imposed have been made homeless, some having to sleep in cars or live for months in refugee-style campsites, unable to return home even if they are double vaccinated. Some have been prevented from visiting dying relatives in other cities. Yet state leaders have held firm, only lifting interstate bans for celebrities and sports stars.
Many abroad envy Australians, believing we have escaped the worst of the pandemic, but the true cost of our lockdown policy is yet to be fully understood. While deaths have remained low, other metrics paint a disastrous picture. Psychologists and GPs report a surge in substance abuse, eating disorders, domestic and child abuse, truancy, depression, anxiety and self-harm. Even high vaccine uptake may not protect the most vulnerable from Covid; let alone the other illnesses that could ravage Australia due to the "immunity debt" caused by much lower exposure to other viruses.
While Sydney opens up, some states are still pursuing doomed zero-Covid policies. The irony is that flights between Sydney and London will resume long before Australians can travel freely within their own country.