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In Australia, 233-day lockdown triggers violent protests, rioting mobs on rampage

The Times of India logo The Times of India 22-09-2021 Priyanka A Chokhani
a person riding a skate board on a city street © Provided by The Times of India

MELBOURNE: Melbourne ranks among the most liveable cities in the world, with a thriving nightlife and a vibrant art scene. But on March 23, 2020, pubs closed their doors and galleries their entrances. The city went into lockdown amid a rise in Covid-19 cases.

Since then, Melbourne has had six lockdowns, over 233 days. The sudden loss of mobility has hit people hard. Anti-lockdown protests — that erupted sporadically since 2020 — turned violent on Saturday as hundreds took to streets chanting ‘We will not comply’ and ‘We serve us’.

At least 235 people were arrested after violent clashes with police. In Sydney, too, hundreds marched demanding their “right to movement and freedom”. Police are now mulling use of a specially equipped Public Order Response Team to crack down on such protests and to treat protestors as rioters.

But why has public anger boiled over? The lockdown in Australia is among the world’s harshest. The country has had a no entry-no exit policy since the pandemic. Over 20,000 Australians are stuck overseas, waiting for the government to open borders.

The government has declared it would ease restrictions only once the country touches 80% vaccination. But that seems a long way off. At 43%, the percentage of fully vaccinated people in the country is low compared with other developed nations like the UK where 67% of the population is now vaccinated.

The slow vaccination can be attributed to delayed roll-out. In February, Italy blocked export of AstraZeneca — 2,50,000 doses — produced in Italy that was destined for Australia. The shipment was blocked since the company providing the vaccine had failed to meet its obligations to the EU. Then there was hesitancy due to reports of a rare side effect, blood clots, of the vaccine.

While AstraZeneca is now available for walk-in, many are preferring to opt for Pfizer's vaccine. But demand has exceeded supply and the wait for an online booking can extend to days, even weeks.

Experts say the country is in the midst of a third wave, with an average of 1,500 cases being reported daily. Melbourne residents, used to queuing up only for sporting events, are now lining up for Covid tests since the increase in cases have resulted in centres reaching testing capacity in hotspots.

Doctors’ appointments have to be booked days in advance — many are only taking online consultations — and non-emergency surgeries remain shelved.

The long shutdown has changed the city and lives in unexpected ways. One can step out only for groceries, exercise, medical help, permit with work and vaccination. There is a curfew from 9 pm to 5 am. Recently, a group of 69 people flouted stay-at-home orders for an engagement party. They were slapped with a hefty $305,000 fine.

In the past year, residents have also grown accustomed to heavy police presence on the roads. Cab rides once taken for granted can take anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes to arrive now.

Social isolation has taken a toll and mental health helplines have recorded a 30% increase in calls this year. According to professor Jayashri Kulkarni, Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, “In 2020, there was panic at the start of the pandemic. This year, the panic has subsided, but people are no longer able to cope with the changes they once thought would be temporary. They are increasingly resorting to drug and alcohol abuse.”

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