Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘Aussies are a relaxed bunch, but this will test us all’: Australia closes borders for 6 months and braces for the end of summer

FREMANTLE, Western Australia — Just last week my daughter was reading dystopian texts for high-school English. One short story, “The Pedestrian,” begins with a robotic police car pulling up to the only man in a city of millions walking alone along an empty street.

I wonder whether our port city of Fremantle, Western Australia, will be like that soon.

Australia can learn from countries further along the curve about what slowed the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus SARS-CoV-2. There have been over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia and more than half-a-dozen deaths.

As of Saturday evening, there were 304,544 confirmed cases and 12,974 deaths worldwide, according to data from the database of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering; the database also reported 91,540 recoveries. The U.S. has had at least 25,493 confirmed coronavirus cases and 307 deaths, John Hopkins added.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the Liberal Party, told Australians on Wednesday not to travel abroad and introduced a ban on all indoor gatherings of 100 people or more. An earlier ban on all outdoor events or meetings with 500 people or more remains in place.

The next day, he closed the borders to all non-Australians for six months. “About 80% of the cases we have in Australia are either the result of someone who has contracted the virus overseas or someone who has had direct contact with someone who has returned from overseas,” he said.

On Saturday, the government of New South Wales instructed beaches that cater to more than 500 people to close. This follows photos of a crowded Bondi Beach. “What happened at Bondi was unacceptable,” federal health minister Greg Hunt told local media.

The Department of Health has introduced guidelines, telling people that they should practice social distancing, regularly wash and sanitize their hands, use “tap and pay” to avoid handling cash and credit cards between sales clerks and customers, and commute at off-peak hours when possible.

While governments are doing something now, many people — including medical experts — are clearly becoming frustrated with the timidity of the response. As people have said based on the delayed action in other countries, what may seem like an overreaction before the pandemic-really bites will seem like an underreaction afterward.

Tony Bramston, a correspondent for The Australian newspaper, wrote on Twitter

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: “Why are people getting off a plane with zero testing and minimal observation then walking straight into a crowd of people waiting, getting in taxis, buying drinks/food and duty free?”

Much of Australia is still reeling from the recent devastating bush fires. We’ll soon enter the southern hemisphere’s flu season. Aussies are a relaxed bunch, but this will test us all. Australia may still be in a position to “flatten the curve” so the health system can cope with fewer cases at a time.

The ban on large outdoor and some indoor events — and free testing centers in states — and even a drive-thru testing clinic — is a good start, but we believe the moment has arrived to consider measures like proactively closing schools rather than waiting until it’s too late.

With school holidays a few weeks away for much of Australia, many people think the government should have declared that schools were on holiday last week, or at least this week. After all, schools are an everyday mass event of hundreds of people in each other’s faces for six hours a day, five days a week, and schools have unkindly been described as a Petri dish of nasties.

Some of us with family overseas may have a keener sense for how bad it’s going to get. It just didn’t seem like others were in the same frame of mind. Except for the toilet paper. Ads for toilet paper now appear on Gumtree (Australia’s Craigslist). It was the first thing that flew off the shelves here when people heard about the coronavirus.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought enough groceries to last two weeks in case we were suddenly quarantined. I remember the date because I ordered some hand sanitizer online when there was still plenty.

A few days later a friend forwarded a message from a doctor who was working when Australian patients from the Diamond Princess — the cruise ship with 3,700 people aboard quarantined for two weeks off the coast of Japan — arrived at the hospital to get treated. Seven people who were on that ship died.

Despite that, he was not alarmist but — based on what he’d witnessed — he said it would be sensible to gather essential items for an extended stay at home. I now knew we weren’t crazy for buying some canned soup and fruit.

Since then, with only a small number of cases in Western Australia, most of whom contracted the disease while traveling overseas, more workplaces have been talking more seriously about the need to require staff to work from home.

Now, a few weeks after our first quarantine grocery-shopping trip, there is no doubt in our mind that we will all need to stay home from next week.

Morrison also said he would still be going to a rugby match, which was due to take place last Saturday. “The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks; it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time,” he told reporters.

He has since changed his mind, most likely because the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, just announced that he’d tested positive for the virus. As of Thursday morning local time, 565 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in the country. It’s starting to get very real.

On Saturday, the nonprofit organization I work for postponed a national conference scheduled for next week. Today, the environmental campaign my husband runs also postponed a major part of the effort that he and his team have been preparing for weeks.

My husband’s lingering cough kept us from attending a play based on a book written by a dear friend. A crowded theater is no place for even an ordinary cough these days. I paused my gym membership and took our son out of his martial-arts class.

The implications of coronavirus are starting to hit home. After a day of work and social decisions — which will undoubtedly seem trivial soon — and sobering conversations with family overseas, we went to Cottesloe, Perth’s famed beach, where locals and tourists gathered as another hot, fiery-skied day ended.

From where we sat, it did appear that many were maintaining a 6-foot buffer zone. The mood was light, but the sunbathers all seemed to be talking about coronavirus.

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, “Dispatches from the pandemic” from around the world. If you would like to submit an essay, please email qfottrell@marketwatch.com

Cottesloe Beach in Perth.

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