Australians try to fathom why state of Victoria has fared worst with Covid-19

SYDNEY – In recent weeks, the 6.7 million residents of the Australian state of Victoria have found themselves in a familiar situation as they were forced to go into lockdown while the 19 million people in the rest of the country continued as normal.

Victoria’s state government on Wednesday (June 9) announced that the lockdown in the capital, Melbourne, will be eased from Friday but residents will be barred from visiting other homes and must limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people.

In regional areas, the restrictions will be lighter. The state’s two-week lockdown was initially due to end on Friday but has been extended for a week. One local case was recorded on Wednesday, down from two on Tuesday and 11 on Monday.

“We know that this isn’t over yet and until we have widespread vaccination across Victoria and across our country, the virus will still be with us,” the Acting Premier, Mr James Merlino, told reporters on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, for Victoria, especially Melbourne, residents are now depressingly accustomed to this sudden return to a prolonged and indefinite lockdown.

Last June, Melbourne endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns in 2020 – 111 days – after an outbreak ravaged the city. This followed an initial nationwide lockdown in March. Another lockdown in Victoria was also imposed in February this year.

This torrid run has taken a heavy toll on Victoria’s economy. It has also raised debate about why the state is perennially being thrust into lockdown, while other areas in Australia, including New South Wales’ Sydney, the most populous city, have avoided a similar fate.

Some analysts have blamed Victoria’s contact tracing system, which was poor but seems to have been mostly fixed; its popular public transport system, which leads to additional crowding; its poorer weather; or its younger and more multicultural demographic.

Epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws, from the University of New South Wales, said Melbourne has higher rates of people aged 20 to 39 in its city centre than Sydney and that this younger demographic tends to move around and has a high number of social contacts.

“You are hyper-connected socially,” she told ABC News. “Your city has younger people than Sydney has and they like to go out.”

But others have questioned whether Melbourne’s demographics or culture have affected its outbreaks.

Australian National University demographer Liz Allen said it was crucial to consider population characteristics and behaviours when assessing outbreaks. But Sydney and Melbourne actually have similar commuting times, migrant numbers and age distribution, she said.

“When you look at the numbers, Victoria and NSW just aren’t all that different,” she wrote on The Conversation website.

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Other commentators have blamed the relatively slow vaccination rates across Australia or have accused the state government of imposing lockdowns that are stricter and longer than necessary.

Political commentator Troy Bramston said this week that the latest lockdown was a “heavy-handed” response to a relatively small outbreak.

“A limited lockdown for a short period of time or confined to a specific area, as adopted in other states, is viewed as an anathema in Victoria,” he wrote in The Australian newspaper.

But others have defended the state government, saying that it had learnt from previous problems with its quarantine facilities and contact tracing.

Political and social commentator Waleed Aly said the latest outbreak could have happened anywhere. He said the Victorian government was forced to impose the lockdown because potentially infectious cases happened to have visited venues such as bars and clubs.

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“Unfortunately this lazy Melbourne exceptionalism… risks tempting every other major city into a false sense of security on the assumption that such outbreaks are simply a Melbourne thing,” he wrote in The Age on Wednesday.

Indeed, many experts have concluded that Melbourne’s torrid run through the pandemic so far could have happened elsewhere and that the city had suffered – above all – from bad luck.

An epidemiologist, Professor Catherine Bennett, from Deakin University, told ABC News: “You don’t need a magic set of things working against you… All those things don’t really matter if you’ve just got people who are quite infectious and mixing.”

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