Australia’s coronavirus ‘dictator’ enforces a drastic lockdown. He’s still popular.
James Ross EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
SYDNEY — Detractors call him “Dictator Dan.” Supporters declare, on social media, #IStandWithAndrews. To residents of Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, he is Daniel Andrews, the premier, or governor, of Victoria state and the politician responsible for inflicting upon them some of the most stringent pandemic control measures on Earth.
The city named repeatedly over recent years as the “world’s most livable” has been locked down since July 9. A week ago, Andrews declared that a citywide curfew will not be lifted until Oct. 26 — and then only if the coronavirus is almost eliminated.
That would leave Melbourne’s 5 million residents confined indoors for 115 days, longer than the 92-day lockdown in Manila, 76 days in Wuhan, China, 58 days in Italy and 33 days across New Zealand.
In Melbourne, public life has essentially come to a halt. Schools are shuttered. Roads are empty. The only shops open are gas stations, supermarkets and drugstores.
People who don’t work in an essential industry are only allowed to leave their houses for two hours’ exercise a day, or to buy food, care for others or seek medical attention. Soldiers go door-to-door checking infected people are in isolation. Police ask cyclists for identification to ensure they aren’t breaching a rule allowing exercise only within 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) of their homes.
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Federal officials, managing their first recession in 29 years, have pleaded with Andrews to loosen rules that are dragging down Australia’s economy. The number of people in Melbourne receiving government unemployment benefits has risen 7.2 percent to about 410,000 since June 26, and spending by individuals in Victoria is down 30 percent, according to the federal Treasury Department.
Derided by his critics as one of Australia’s least-charismatic political leaders, with no professional experience outside the center-left Labor Party or state government, Andrews argues that the pandemic needs to be aggressively suppressed now to avoid future lockdowns caused by new virus waves that could inflict worse damage.
Police officers patrol the Shrine of Remembrance during an anti-lockdown rally in Melbourne on Sunday.
A man continues to shop for produce as riot police clear Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market of anti-lockdown protesters during a rally on Sunday.
“We have to get the numbers low and keep them low,” he said on Monday. “That’s exactly what we will achieve by everyone working together.”
By stoically explaining his position and reasoning every day in news conferences that have become a surprise television ratings hit, Andrews seems to have convinced Melburnians the tough measures are necessary.
An opinion poll last week by Roy Morgan Research reported 62 percent of voters in the city didn’t want the curfew ended right away and more than two-thirds of voters across the state approve of Andrews’s performance.
But health experts — even those who want the novel coronavirus eliminated from Australia, something no large country has achieved — are concerned Andrews may have gone too far to control a disease that has killed a similar number of people in Melbourne as the District of Columbia, which has one-eighth of the Australian city’s population and a death toll of 616.
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“I do find that strange as an epidemiologist that we have to go such extremes when the case numbers are manageable,” said Catherine Bennett, an infectious-diseases expert at Deakin University, in an interview.
On Tuesday, Andrews’s health department recorded 42 new coronavirus cases and no deaths. On Thursday, most restrictions will be lifted outside Melbourne following a drop in cases.
Throughout the lockdown, Andrews’s government has responded to isolated acts of defiance with displays of force. Public demonstrations, and encouraging others to participate in them, have been declared illegal. Some workers have arranged clandestine meetings with colleagues in supermarkets.
On Sept. 2, state police officers arrested and handcuffed a pregnant woman wearing pink pajamas in front of her child and husband for trying to organize an anti-lockdown protest through Facebook in the regional city of Ballarat.
Then, on Sunday, activists, including some virus conspiracy theorists, used an encrypted messaging app to arrange a protest in Melbourne’s central food market, where they could conceivably pretend to be shopping.
When news of the protest was posted on social media an hour in advance, police swamped the area with officers on horseback and others wielding batons and thick plastic shields.
People stand on a pier in Williamstown, a Melbourne suburb, on Sept. 9.
As protesters yelled “freedom,” the police arrested 74 people and issued the equivalent of $ 200,000 in fines. “Protesting is stupid, protesting is selfish and protesting is dangerous,” Andrews said afterward.
“Are we in the hands of a mad man?” responded Chris Lucas, one of the city’s prominent restaurateurs, in an interview.
That evening, the rules were relaxed a little in response to an earlier decision. The curfew now begins an hour later at 9 p.m. People who live alone are allowed to designate another individual for brief social visits.
But until Oct. 26, most children will not be allowed to return to school, nor will adults be able to move freely. To meet that target, there will have to be fewer than five cases on average every day for two weeks, and fewer than five cases a day that can’t be traced to an existing outbreak over two weeks, under the Victorian government’s strategy to defeat the virus.
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Nick Baker, a 43-year-old Melbourne resident and aviation-industry worker, said he supports the lockdown but is struggling with the lack of physical contact with friends or family, apart from his wife, Janis.
The couple planned a vacation to Las Vegas last month for her 40th birthday. Australia has banned most foreign travel, and the Bakers’ backup plan, a trip along Victoria’s scenic Great Ocean Road, is now illegal.
Instead, Baker bought his wife a cake baked to look like the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip.
“This morning it hit me that the day Stage 4 [restrictions] were meant to end is actually the beginning of another six weeks until we can have friends visit or get out of our 5-kilometer radius,” he said in an email Sunday.
“The road map out doesn’t give a lot of hope. I think it’s necessary but that doesn’t make it any easier. We just want to go for a drive to the beach.”
Battling second virus wave, Australia puts city of Melbourne under lockdown
Israel heads to a second lockdown as coronavirus cases soar
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