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Australia Braces for Life After Covid Zero

The country spent much of the pandemic isolated and living like it was 2019. The delta variant is forcing it to confront realities the rest of the world faced up to long ago.
Covid-19 messaging at Sydney’s Bondi Beach in November 2020.

Covid-19 messaging at Sydney’s Bondi Beach in November 2020.

Photographer: Lee Hulsman/Getty Images

Like many in Australia, Maherau Arona saw the coronavirus as a distant threat, at worst, long after it became a daily reality in most of the world. Following a month and a half of lockdown, the Sydney suburb where the 53-year-old social worker lives returned mostly to normal in May 2020. Protected by a hermetically sealed border, people there and in the rest of the country lived for the next year largely as they had before Covid-19. They could holiday on the beaches of Byron Bay and Noosa, pack into pubs and cafes, and even see Hamilton onstage. Few were in a hurry to get vaccinated, and the national government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, didn’t seem to view distributing shots as urgent. While there were some setbacks, including a surge of cases that threw Melbourne into a lengthy second lockdown, Australians essentially skipped the trauma that was transforming societies elsewhere.

But when the delta variant arrived in June—first spread, apparently, by a limousine driver who transported overseas air crews—the fragility of this normal life suddenly became clear. The government of New South Wales, the state of which Sydney is the capital, imposed sweeping restrictions on movement, while other states rushed to close their domestic borders, implementing snap lockdowns. With the virus racing across Sydney’s western suburbs, a vast sprawl that’s home to many working-class immigrants, people were largely forbidden from leaving their residences. But in New South Wales and in neighboring Victoria, where similar containment measures failed to halt a growing delta outbreak, the number of cases and deaths kept rising.