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How Australia kept COVID in check, and what lessons the world can take from it

Australia has been one of the most successful countries in the world at keeping COVID-19 in check. It combined strict lockdowns with consistent messages from scientists and politicians. While the daily average number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. over the last week was 39,000, Australia’s was just 13 — despite low vaccination rates. Nick Schifrin reports on the factors that made that possible.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Australia is one of the most successful countries in the world at keeping COVID in check. It combined strict lockdowns with consistent messages from scientists and politicians.

    While the daily average number of COVID cases in the U.S. over the last week was 39,000, Australia's was 13, not thousand, just 13, despite low vaccination rates.

    Here is Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On a recent evening in Melbourne, drinks with friends provide the taste of freedom.

  • Anna Bailey:

    Sometimes, you kind of forget that there's a pandemic still going on. Many of us are leading normal lives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Graduate student Anna Bailey and people across Melbourne are enjoying the normality of zero, zero local transmission of COVID-19 in the city and the surrounding state of Victoria and, across the country, almost zero community transmission.

    Everywhere they go, they check in electronically for contact tracing and to keep the city safe.

  • Anna Bailey:

    Theater is back in person. So I have gone to, like, a couple of plays, which has been really good. Pubs and galleries and all that life is starting to come back to life. And that's that's so nice to see.

  • Dr. Sharon Lewin:

    God, it felt good to be in live performance and sort of a normal life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sharon Lewin is head of the University of Melbourne's Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, the first lab outside of China to grow the COVID-19 virus.

    She's also a music fan, and recently attended the Adelaide Festival, with more than 160,000 fans.

  • Sharon Lewin:

    There were thousands of people on the street at night, eating, going out, completely COVID-safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, COVID-safe means Melbourne's key commuter hub, Flinders Street Station, is buzzing and full of passengers. Australia kept COVID in check, thanks to consistent messaging across Australia's federal and state governments and across political parties.

    Lewin has met with Prime Minister Morrison from the Liberal Party, and helped advise Victoria state's top officials from the Labor Party.

  • Sharon Lewin:

    I actually really credit political leadership. Our premier, which is equivalent to your governors, came out in front of a press conference every single day for 111 days straight and just continued to reinforce the same message.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews last June.

  • Daniel Andrews:

    We have always followed the advice of our public health experts

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And this February.

  • Daniel Andrews:

    All of our experts advise us this is what must be done, and that it will be effective.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The consistent messaging, backed up by science, strengthened public support for the government's health measures. In March 2020, Australia closed its international borders. Much of the country was under some form of lockdown for about two months.

    When Melbourne reopened in June, it became the epicenter of Australia's second wave. In response, the state imposed one of the world's strictest and longest lockdowns, 111 days. For most of that time, people were only allowed out of the house between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. for caregiving, essential work, exercise for one hour, and one person per household could shop for food or medical supplies.

    Mask-wearing was mandatory. Violators faced heavy fines.

  • Anna Bailey:

    The police could ask you for paperwork for proof of, like, where you were living. It was so restricted and heavily controlled. And, at times, it was really scary. Like, you would be out for a walk, and even though you are doing nothing wrong, if you would see a policeman, you kind of have, like, this fear that jumps into you.

  • Sharon Lewin:

    The government held fast. It was this sort of relentless fronting up and leadership confidence in the science, and essentially not budging.

  • Duy Huynh:

    During lockdown, the city was just a standstill. There was tumbleweeds on Flinders Street Station. It was quiet.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Duy Huynh is the CEO of the Melbourne Vietnamese street food franchise Ba'get.

  • Duy Huynh:

    From 1,000 transactions a day, we went to 20 transactions a day. It really pushed us to the brink of, what are our financial reserves? Can we afford to keep this going?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ba'get is a family business. And the sandwiches he helps make are family recipes. His parents are Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia when he was 5 years old in 1980.

  • Duy Huynh:

    It comes from that sort of — that time when my grandma was just trying to live a subsistence life. And from that, we wanted to take those recipes and that food in that form to a broader audience. And that's our impetus for creating Ba'get.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To try and save local businesses, the federal government created the JobKeeper program to subsidize employees' salaries. Ba'get held on for a while, but eventually had to close three of four locations. This is the only one left.

    But Huynh says the economic heartache was worth it.

  • Duy Huynh:

    Despite the fact that it's been quite difficult, I really — I do support lockdowns. And I support the — I support the science. Whatever short-term financial consequences there are, that's sort of a better outcome to me than to say, hey, it's acceptable that a whole bunch of people die.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The government's response has its critics. It banned even Australian citizens from returning home from India. That's been labeled extreme.

    Government-run hotel quarantine facilities came under fire after several staff got sick and caused outbreaks. And some groups were left out from federal assistance.

    Bailey didn't receive the federal help accessible to Australian citizens because she's a British-Canadian student. At the start of the pandemic, she lost her hotel catering job. She received weekly food aid from a nonprofit set up to help temporary visa holders like her.

  • Anna Bailey:

    Anyone who was kind of like on a study visa or a working holiday visa, they became vulnerable, but they weren't vulnerable at the beginning of this. It's the groups like people seeking asylum and refugees that already had absolutely nothing. They were left with less than nothing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Some indigenous Australians say they were left out of the initial government response.

  • Teela Reid:

    It was different because we really didn't know what the messaging was from governments or what they — we needed to do in the community.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Teela Reid is an indigenous lawyer based in Sydney. When COVID-19 arrived, she helped her family in the small rural town Gilgandra take matters into their own hands.

  • Teela Reid:

    I created a Facebook page, which was the Gilgandra Lockdown page, and it meant inviting my family and friends and the local community in to deliver key messages, like don't go near your auntie or don't go near your grandparents or don't go near your uncle. It was about delivering a consistent message that meant, keep our elders safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Her Facebook page and other indigenous-led community health initiatives helped protect Australia's 790,000 indigenous people. No indigenous person has died from COVID-19.

  • Teela Reid:

    Our communities needed to respond really rapidly because of the risk of essentially wiping out our people. Messaging traveled with authority when it came from our own communities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Over time, Australia has continued its aggressive approach. State governments are willing to shut their own borders and impose new restrictions at even the smallest of outbreaks, like the one caused by a bachelorette party recently in the beach town Byron Bay.

  • Sharon Lewin:

    One person had been infected at the next table to where they had had their dinner. One community transmission in Byron, Bluesfest canceled, lots of the restaurants closed, mandatory mask-wearing, which we saw everywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One person does not seem all that threatening sitting here in the United States, where we still have tens of thousands of people getting infected every day.

  • Sharon Lewin:

    In a country that has effectively eliminated COVID, to stop it spreading, you have to act early and aggressively. So, it's a combination, strong political leadership, science informing policy, closing our borders, community engagement and empowerment, really. And here we are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Most Australians are still awaiting a vaccine. But even without one, Anna Bailey and her friends can celebrate her new job and raise a glass to freedom.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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