By Bridie Golding
Australia’s largest states are in crisis during the country’s biggest wave of COVID-19 infections, sparked by a Sydney hotel quarantine leak in June. The virus has spread to vulnerable regional areas with high proportions of First Nations people, and despite state leaders’ insistence, the New South Wales health system is struggling to cope with contact tracing and hospital capacity. Victoria is undergoing its sixth lockdown with no end in sight, recording the highest case numbers of the year.
New South Wales recorded 1,405 new cases on Thursday. Almost all of them were recorded in southwest and western Sydney, a culturally diverse area. Large households and a large proportion of essential workers pose additional challenges for both contact tracing and combating misinformation about the outbreak and vaccines.
Although NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian heralded NSW Health’s contact tracing system as a “gold standard” throughout last year’s Victorian outbreak, it has now broken down after 14 consecutive days of over 1,000 new cases. By now, NSW Health has stopped listing metropolitan Sydney exposure sites, in favour of prioritising regional sites and stopping the spread in those vulnerable communities.
Despite First Nations people being prioritised in the vaccine rollout that began in March, there is a large gap in vaccination rates between Aboriginal and white people across the country. Guardian Australia reported that, as of Monday, over 1,000 Aboriginal people, including in remote towns in the far west of the state, such as Wilcannia that has a population of 750, have tested positive for COVID-19. Over 63% of the confirmed cases in the Far Western Local Health District (LHD) are Aboriginal people. Tragically, three Aboriginal people have also died of COVID-19, all of whom were from western NSW.
There have also been increasing questions about the NSW hospital system’s ICU capacity, with a number of hospitals running out of ICU beds and becoming forced to assess COVID-positive patients in ambulances. This is occurring despite the insistence of Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard that the state has the surge capacity to treat all patients.
Victoria recorded 324 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest number for over a year. The state is ramping up its vaccination rollout, aiming to vaccinate all Year 12 students as well as to reach the 70% target heralded by state and federal leaders. There is a tangible sense of anger in Victoria, both at the federal government about the vaccine rollout and at the NSW government for failing to impose lockdown measures earlier and prevent the spread into Victoria.
“I signed up for a national plan to vaccinate our nation, not a national plan to vaccinate Sydney,” said Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has been fiercely critical of both Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s response and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s vaccine rollout. Andrews ramped up his criticism on Tuesday, accusing the PM of allocating NSW an “unfair” amount of vaccines and “shortchanging” Victoria. The Premier said that NSW was being set up for a “sprint,” leaving the rest of the country to run an “egg-and-spoon race.”
The Australian Capital Territory is in its fourth week of lockdown. It is faring far better than NSW or Victoria in stopping the spread of the virus with only 10 to 20 cases reported each day. The ACT has been left relatively untouched by COVID-19, with no cases reported in the territory for over a year until August 12th.
There is also a mounting sense of anger that the federal government has botched its responsibility to purchase enough Pfizer vaccines for the younger population. Despite months of attempts to reassure the population that the vaccine rollout “is not a race,” the Morrison government has resorted to vaccine swaps with nations including the U.K., Singapore and Poland.
Although Australia’s COVID-19 numbers are tiny compared to the U.S. or U.K.’s winter peaks, they are far higher than the isolated country has ever seen. In the midst of its COVID crisis, Australia has a tense leadup to a federal election that could be held any time before May.