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More than a year and a half into the pandemic, Australia is facing its worst COVID-19 crisis yet with experts saying a lockdown of its biggest city needs to be ramped up to prevent further deterioration of the nation’s successful record in stamping out the virus.

Though Sydney has been in lockdown for nearly two months now, the curbs are generally looser than those that helped Melbourne beat back the pathogen last year; daily infections have surged from 12 on June 26, when the stay-at-home order was first announced, to records of around 350 this week.

The situation is putting Australia — which had driven locally acquired cases to zero just a few months ago — in the worst of both worlds. Half the population of 26 million people are cooped up again, but the delta variant is still spreading to new cities and regions hundreds of kilometers away, just like it is in reopened economies like the U.S. and U.K.

Canberra on Thursday became the latest to order a lockdown after one case was found.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian is now under increasing pressure from other regional leaders and some health experts to tighten social distancing restrictions to stem the outbreak, as her playbook of keeping the economy relatively open while trying to contain delta seems no match for the variant’s contagiousness.

While residents of Sydney, the state capital, and other locked-down areas have been told not to leave home unless it’s unavoidable, there’s a lengthy list of exemptions such as for outside exercise or essential work that some people are using liberally.

“COVID Zero is clearly not holding up under delta — it’s so much more contagious,” said Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales. Unless Berejiklian changes tactics, “it will keep spreading and the case numbers will keep rising, and it will pose a greater threat to the rest of Australia.”

MacIntyre said the only way to get Sydney’s outbreak back under control was to enforce citywide night-time curfews, curtail the number of retailers allowed to open, and circle the city in a “ring of steel” to ensure residents can’t leave — as was deployed in Melbourne last year during one of the world’s most stringent and longest lockdowns.

It’s a dilemma also facing other countries that have taken a zero-tolerance approach to COVID, among them China and Singapore. With delta being so much more transmissible than the original virus, these governments need to ramp up the strictness of their containment measures to slow down spread and eliminate the virus again, a strategy that has led to periods of relative normality for so-called Covid Zero economies. But fatigue with 18 months of stop-start lockdowns is growing.

A volunteer distributes face masks in the Bankstown suburb of Sydney on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
A volunteer distributes face masks in the Bankstown suburb of Sydney on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

Australia’s slow nationwide vaccine rollout is the biggest obstacle in the way of the country’s path to longer term normalization and international reopening after its borders were closed in early 2020. Only 36.2% of people have received a first dose, one of the lowest levels among developed economies, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

There’s also concern the decision to tier the outbreak response in different parts of Sydney is causing social unrest. Some areas of its south and western districts hardest hit by the outbreak — which also have relatively large multicultural populations and wider socio-economic problems — have been dealt stricter travel restrictions than those in the more affluent eastern and northern suburbs.

Mistrust of authorities has been fueled by military patrols in those areas aimed at supporting the police in enforcing lockdown rules.

Berejiklian has been criticized by health experts who say she didn’t enforce Sydney’s lockdown early enough after delta was initially seeded in the community in mid-June by a limousine driver who came into contact with infected international flight crew. Still, the state premier insists the lockdown measures are the toughest implemented in Australia, and the outbreak’s spread is due to delta’s virulence and noncompliance by a minority of residents.

The dangers of relying on people to self-police given high levels of lockdown fatigue was evident in a high-profile case of an infected Sydney man who traveled almost 800 kilometers to look at real estate. He did not use his phone to “check in” at venues he visited as required, and the tourist hub of Byron Bay and other towns he visited were this week locked down as a result.

“Many smaller cities are now in lockdown, with all the economic and emotional issues that come with that,” said Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University Medical School. “That could have been avoided if those people simply hadn’t left Sydney, the center of the outbreak. It only takes a small minority of people to be noncompliant to cause a lot of damage.”

Other state leaders, who have implemented their own hard borders against Sydney residents, are losing patience with Berejiklian, saying the deteriorating situation in New South Wales is threatening their own Covid Zero strategies that have so far kept coronavirus deaths in Australia to below 1,000.

Earlier this week, Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews urged Berejiklian to build a “ring of steel” enforced by police around Sydney, even as he battles another outbreak in Melbourne that’s placed the nation’s second-largest city in lockdown for a sixth time.

Western Australia state Premier Mark McGowan — perhaps the nation’s strictest adherent to the zero-tolerance approach — told reporters on Wednesday that New South Wales authorities “don’t have the backbone to do what is required.”

Meanwhile Berejiklian, who hasn’t ruled out tightening some of Sydney’s rules, is now backing away from indicating that she could ease restrictions by the end of the month should case numbers fall and her state’s adult vaccination number reaches 6 million. It’s at about 4.7 million now.

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison is promising every adult will have access to a vaccine by the end of the year, he said on Thursday that there are no other options in the meantime but to enforce strict stay-at-home orders where necessary.

“Suppress and vaccinate — that is the phase we are in,” Morrison told Parliament in Canberra, just hours before the city entered its first lockdown for more than a year. “Whether in Europe, the Netherlands or Singapore or Japan or other countries: where they have sought to open up, the delta variant has had a very different view.”

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