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Sydney Mockdown: The Delta Variant Strikes

“Dear customers, if you are standing there reading
this sign you are part of the problem. STAY THE **** HOME!
Best, Sydney.”

– Note on store front, Sydney, Twitter,
July 10, 2021

It is proving to be an unfolding
nightmare. For a government that had been beaming with pride
at their COVID contract tracing for months, insisting that
people could live, consume and move about with freedom as
health professionals wrapped themselves round the virus, the
tune has changed. The Delta variant of the disease has
proved viciously wily in Sydney, New South Wales. Admissions
to intensive care units are growing. The first death has
just been reported. The number of infections recorded on
July 10: 50; the number the next day: 77.

Of concern
are the numbers of people who were moving in the community
during all or part of their infectious phase. Of the 50
reported cases on Saturday, 37 of those qualified. “That
is the number we need to get down to as close as zero as
possible,” stated
an alarmed Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “The only
conclusion we can draw from this is that things are going to
get worse before they get better.”

The 11am press
conferences are proving grim affairs tinged by panic. The
questions asked are the same as those in other states in
Australia where outbreaks took place. What are essential
shopping items? How many people are permitted in your home?
On each successive occasion, the Premier seemed panicked,
even shrill. “Zero means zero!” she has stated at
various points. “No visits!”

The most telling
element behind the surge of cases is the blithe approach
taken to the health orders by the citizenry of Australia’s
largest city. This is understandable, given the erratic
changes in Berejiklian’s approach to communicating health
orders. With an almost manic insistence on keeping areas of
the city open, she has confused rather than clarified,
hoping that the virus might be contained within various
local government areas (LGAs). Erin O’Leary, manager of a
café in Newtown, noted
in late June the distinct irony of having the front of her
store in lockdown, and the back, not. Andrea Chapman, owner
of a design store, had a few words
of wisdom
that might well be ringing in the ears of the
Premier. “Sometimes you’ve just got to hit everyone hard
and everyone sucks it up, then we can move on.”

Premier has been the victim of her own success, telling
Sydney residents and those in New South Wales that the state
was that different from the rest of Australia. They were the
“gold standard” to be emulated by all in terms of
containing the pandemic. On June 1, the often fawning
Herald Sun from the Murdoch press stable praised
the Berejiklian government for getting everything right
where its Victorian counterpart had failed. “One state is
NSW, led by a competent woman who has displayed a sense of
proportionality throughout the Covid crisis and has kept
people safe while ensuring their livelihoods and liberties
are not needlessly destroyed, the other is

Through that same month, as the Delta
variant was starting to show heft, there was no reason to
worry: sagacious Gladys had things under control, as did
everybody else. Those in Sydney could
their highly attuned “common sense” and “make
individual decisions based on their own circumstances.” On
June 18, she cautioned against mass gatherings. “Unless
you absolutely have to, our strong preference is that you do
not engage in any activity.” Business owners were left to
decide on how best to operate in the changing

Even as the virus had harnessed itself
and trotted through the city, the Premier resisted any
reference to the “lockdown” term, opting for the softer,
milder “stay-at-home” order. Lacking the necessary
gravity to be persuaded, individuals moved about with
liberty, dropping off children before heading to work, or
continuing visits to family members.

Sounding at
points comically maternal, Berejiklian has been telling
those in Sydney to be honest about where they have been for
reasons of contact tracing. Some accounts supplied to the
tracers have been inaccurate. Chief Health Officer Kerry
Chant has
“having difficulty getting ahead of
[transmission] chains”. “We haven’t got time to waste
unpicking stories, going back, cross-checking and
verifying.” Her advice: “It’s critical that [people]
tell the truth the first time.”

Parties and
gatherings are being held and a number
of infringement notices
have been handed out by police
(167 of them on Friday alone). On social media, the hashtag
“SydneyMockdown” is trending. The man behind
Australia’s punchy response to combating the HIV/AIDS
pandemic, Bill Bowtell, has been regular in his scathing assessments.
“Nothing like lockdown lite. No outdoor mask mandate,
retailing open and no kilometre radius restriction. Neither
short nor sharp as in [Western Australia] or

The haphazard approach to public
health policy is also to be found in the government’s
response to shopping and trading practices. The decision
to keep non-essential shopping outlets open, including large
retail centres ripe for transmission opportunities, has
meant free movement of both people and the virus.
Berejiklian “thinks people understand what is required”;
a stricter enforcement of orders would produce unintentional
“suffering” to those who “can’t access something
they really need”. Simon Chapman, professor emeritus in
public health at the University of Sydney, could only express
his bemusement. “It’s not rocket science to show that a
place with large numbers of people in it is going to be far
more of a superspreading environment than a place with small
numbers of people.”

Within the New South Wales
cabinet are the business-as-usual types such as Treasurer
Dominic Perrottet, who argued with colleagues that the
lockdown should not be extended to July 16. He now concedes
that the already extended lockdown may well have to move
beyond this coming Friday.

Looking wistfully at
vaccination rates in the United Kingdom and the United
States, Perrottet has this message
for those in his state: “We’ve got to get to a point
where those who want to have a vaccine, get access to one.
And at that point, we’ve got to open up our society, and
have the freedoms that we had operating prior to the
pandemic.” Few would demur from this; the problem lies in
the former remark: access to vaccines. On that score,
Australians continue to dream, supply continues to be short,
and the federal government continues to bungle. Gold
standards have, in the meantime, turned into rusted

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:

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