After nearly two years without widespread COVID-19 infections, Australia now has one of the highest new daily infections per capita in the world.
Australia’s current cases didn’t come about through the virus escaping contact tracers, but rather as part of the country’s plan to re-open once 90 percent of the adult population became fully vaccinated, a target hit in December.
Despite the plan to open up and the understanding that this would allow the virus to spread, the sheer speed of transmission has caught the country off guard.
Dr. Nick Coatsworth, Australia’s ex-deputy chief medical officer, tweeted last month that modelling that showed cases rising to 25,000 a day was not accurate.
Health Minister Greg Hunt, speaking on the tens of thousands of cases in the Netherlands at the time, said: “We don’t see that as a likely situation in Australia.”
But on Wednesday the country recorded 150,000 new cases in just 24 hours. Australia is now ninth on the list of countries ranked by active cases per 100,000 people, surpassing both the U.S. and the U.K. The country has recorded close to a million cases in just the last two weeks. It has recorded just 1.4 million since the pandemic began.
Despite the Omicron variant being less severe, the sheer increase in numbers has seen hospitalizations and deaths increase to numbers unseen in Australia before. There are 4,399 people in the hospital, while 367 are in intensive care. On Friday, 53 people died with the virus, the country’s second deadliest day since the pandemic began.
Vaccines are keeping the vast majority of Australians safe, however, with 92 percent of the population above the age of 16 fully vaccinated.
Of course, much of the planning to reopen was done prior to Omicron, but after two years cut off from the rest of the world, and the country’s two largest states, New South Wales and Victoria, in and out of lockdown, politicians were reluctant to tell Australians, especially in an election year, that they would have to go back into lockdown.
Instead, the country has pushed on. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country will stare Omicron down.
“In dealing with Omicron, we are determined to ensure that we do stare it down and we don’t go back. We have to face it down. We have to live with this virus,” he said.
But the reality on the ground is far from the happy ending some may have been holding out for. Social media and local news are dominated by reports about waiting up to a week to receive a COVID-19 test result, the national shortage of rapid antigen tests, and bare supermarket shelves.
With such large numbers of people becoming infected at the same time, there is also now a nationwide skills shortage.
On Thursday, Morrison announced that workers from a bevvy of industries, including transport, freight, logistics, emergency services, energy, resources and water services, education and childcare, and telecommunications, broadcasting, and media could skip isolating if they’re a close contact of a COVID-19 case. The rule already applied to healthcare workers and food suppliers.