SYDNEY — As 2021 drew to a close, many Australians were cautiously optimistic that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic was behind them.
The country had surpassed ambitious vaccine targets, meaning its rolling lockdowns could cease, both internal and international borders would reopen, and as Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared, it was now possible to “live with this virus.”
But as Australia moved to change course on its pandemic strategy, the highly transmissible omicron variant hit. In just over a month, cases have risen from around 1,000 a day to more than 100,000 a day. Hallmarks of the pandemic that Australia mostly avoided began to emerge. The health system is buckling. Many supermarket shelves are bare as sick workers stay home.
Despite this surge in cases, most Australian states and territories are holding the line and allowing the virus to circulate in their communities, which critics have labeled the “let it rip” approach. But is it all bad news?
For much of the pandemic, Australia aimed for zero Covid cases, employing regular lockdowns (the country’s second-largest city, Melbourne, was in lockdown for more than 260 days) and extremely strict border policies. And it worked — the nation’s Covid mortality rate has been among the lowest in the world.