Wed, August 10, 2022


Sydney starts to live with covid after 106-day lockdown. First stop: the pub.

SYDNEY - On a rainy Monday morning, John Church sat near the door of the Corner Pub holding a pint with the affection of a new father.

"I couldn't wait to get my first draft beer," the 65-year-old retired wool packer said as he sank his mustache into the glass of Victoria Bitter.

But this beer wasn't his first. That had been five hours and four pubs ago, when he lined up before dawn outside another bar for a taste of Sydney's newfound freedoms.

For the first time in 106 days, pubs swung open their doors for vaccinated patrons on Monday. Barbers broke out their clippers, cafes dusted off their china and gyms cranked up the classic rock. Sydney was alive again.

Soaked with rain, relief and alcohol, the reopening marked the easing of one of the world's toughest lockdowns. And few parts of the city had endured more than Church's, one of a dozen areas put under a curfew barring people from venturing out at night.

"I've been locked up for three months like a prisoner," he said, as he drank with a friend. "I just needed to talk to people."

Since an outbreak of the delta variant began in June, Sydney's 5 million residents have been barred from traveling more than a few miles from home. Friends and family members have been unable to visit one another, let alone pop down to the pub.

The loss of freedom was a shock for a beer-swigging, jet-setting city that had largely dodged the pandemic because of Australia's once-successful "covid zero" approach.

Now, Sydney's reopening poses another shock, as soaring vaccination rates have enabled Australia's largest city to become the first to ease lockdown despite the ongoing outbreak.

"We want to lead Australia out of this pandemic," New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Sunday from - where else - a pub.

"It's been 100 days of blood, sweat, and no beers," he added, moments after spraying suds on his face while ceremonially tapping the first keg of Australia's post-covid-zero era.

Sydney's reopening has been powered by a surge in vaccinations. When the outbreak began in June, Australia's sluggish vaccination rollout went into hyper drive. In just over three months, Australia's inoculation rate went from single digits to rivaling that of the United States.

In New South Wales, the ramp-up in vaccinations has bent the pandemic's curve downward and empowered officials to ease restrictions for vaccinated people, after the state fully inoculated 70 percent of people 16 and older.

By Monday, the tally had neared 75 percent. More than 90 percent had received at least one dose.

Sydney had had its shots. Now it was time for the chaser.

As of Monday, the fully vaccinated can visit pubs, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, shops, hairdressers, nail salons and places of worship, although under reduced capacity. They can travel anywhere in the city and host up to 10 fully vaccinated adults at home.

Restrictions will ease further when double doses hit 80 percent later this month. But unvaccinated people will largely be left out until Dec. 1.

Other states and territories are due to follow, starting with the capital, Canberra, and then Victoria, which hit a national record of 1,965 new cases on Saturday - roughly four times the number in New South Wales.

Sydney's staged reopening is far from the raucous "Freedom Day" celebrations seen in Britain, said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.

"That's always been the plan, to ease out rather than fling open the doors," she said. But even a phased approach has proved divisive in a country where covid zero became an article of faith for many.

"There are people who think we shouldn't come out of lockdown, there are people who think we should have been out of it ages ago, and then there are a lot of people caught in the middle," Bennett said.

Adding to the division is the uneven way the pandemic unfolded across Sydney. In the wealthy east, where the outbreak began but cases remained low and beaches have been crowded for weeks, some bars opened their doors at midnight.

But in the working-class west, which bore the brunt of infections and deaths, the mood ahead of Monday was one of relief, said Elfa Moraitakis, CEO of multicultural services organization SydWest. Residents felt targeted by curfews, extra restrictions and heavy policing.

"There is a feeling that we are finally free as human beings," she said.

In Church's area of Liverpool, one of 12 that endured curfew, city councilor Nathan Hagarty said frustrations had been building.

"There was this police mentality from the government . . . they sent in helicopters, they sent in the army," he said. "People were very angry and upset."

Hagarty hoped easing the lockdown would "let some of the steam out."

Perrottet has acknowledged the lockdown hit western Sydney hardest, and said Sunday he didn't want to see "a tale of two cities."

But in Blacktown, another curfew-hit area where playgrounds were closed at one point to keep young people away, some worry reopening will be policed differently as well.

"There is always one rule for the west and another rule for the east," said Mayor Chagai, a basketball coach and South Sudanese community leader. He said he and others had to push the state to provide sufficient vaccinations for Blacktown, a rapidly growing area that is home to more than 400,000 people.

The vaccination rates in Blacktown, Liverpool and other hard-hit western areas are now on par with the east. But the pride is mixed with fear.

Whenever Nahreen Kaae thinks of the lockdown lifting, she sees her husband's sunken face and blue-tinged lips. The couple had just received their first vaccine dose when their eldest son brought the virus home from his job as a carpenter. Within days the family of four was sick. One morning, Kaae made her husband tea but he wouldn't drink it. When she called his name, he could only move his eyes.

As an ambulance took away the previously healthy 52-year-old, Kaae thought to herself, He's not going to come back, and collapsed on her front lawn.

Her husband spent nine days in intensive care but survived, though he and Kaae are still recovering. Kaae and her son are back at work but terrified of bringing the virus home.

"To be honest I'm scared to go out," she said. "I just feeling like life is not going to go back to normal."

As they ate lunch at a busy indoor mall in Liverpool, Mark and Rosemary Dickens felt things were going back to normal. The middle-aged couple had both battled cancer in the last year. They were expecting their first grandchild in a few weeks.

"You can't live life without any risk at all," Rosemary said as shoppers streamed past.

At the Corner Pub a few blocks away, Church was looking forward to visiting his daughter. But not before a few more beers with his friends.

"Come over here and sit," he beckoned to a regular who gave her name only as Debbie.

"Churchie, have a heart attack," she answered, taking a seat nearby instead.

Church smiled and took a swig.

Published : October 12, 2021

By : The Washington Post