The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.

Australia’s rules and regulations in response to the coronavirus pandemic were some of the strictest in the world. It shut its borders to both inbound and outbound travel in early 2020. States closed theirs, too, restricting movement within the country. In Melbourne, where I lived, five million residents spent a cumulative 262 days in lockdown, only able to leave their homes to exercise, buy groceries or work.

Those measures kept Australia’s death rate far below other countries in the early days of the pandemic. Even after it abandoned the strict measures and moved to a “live with the virus” strategy, its death rate remained about 20 percent that of the United States.

But the cost, for some, was high. Tens of thousands of citizens were stranded overseas when the borders closed. State border closures blocked residents from attending funerals of loved ones and delayed some from getting vital medical care. Tens of thousands of people received fines for contravening the strict, often changing public health rules — sometimes for actions as simple as sitting in a park. Experts still worry about the lasting impact of prolonged school closings on children.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected in May 2022, had long promised an inquiry into Australia’s pandemic response. This week, he made good on that vow, announcing a yearlong examination of the government’s response and how Australia could better prepare for a possible pandemic in the future. The inquiry will look at issues like vaccines and medical supplies, financial support, and help for Australians abroad.

“We got through it, and we got through it in a way that was positive in most respects,” Mr. Albanese said, announcing the inquiry on Thursday. “But we need to examine what went right, what could be done better, with a focus on the future.”

However, experts and politicians have criticized one exclusion: The inquiry will not investigate decisions made “unilaterally” by the premiers of Australia’s states and territories — leaders who oversaw some of the most significant pandemic measures, like the closing of borders between states, lockdowns, school shutdowns and mandates to wear masks and get vaccines.

These pandemic responses should also be examined because they often “affected people directly,” said Dr. Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert at the Australian National University.

“We need to objectively look at what worked, and even if something worked, what was the cost of that?” he said, adding that he hoped the inquiry would examine whether the severity of measures used during the pandemic were proportionate to their effectiveness.

“I think we had too much black and white rules — we need to work out how to better do shades of gray,” he said. “My own feeling is that stopping people as much as we did — saying you can only be outdoors for an hour and you have to be walking all the time — that had a lot of mental and social cost, and how much benefit did we actually get from those restrictions?”

In addition to examining deaths from the coronavirus, it is equally important, Dr. Collignon said, to look at those whose health suffered because, for example, state border closures prevented them from getting timely medical help for pre-existing conditions.

The impact of pandemic restrictions was also not felt evenly everywhere. In Melbourne, one of the harshest measures was put in place at a group of public housing towers whose residents were effectively placed under house arrest for up to two weeks with no notice, even being guarded by the police. The state’s ombudsman later ruled that the rushed move breached the residents’ rights.

In New South Wales, the police issued over $36 million (56 million Australian dollars) worth of fines for failure to comply with public health restrictions. These penalties heavily targeted residents in some of the state’s most disadvantaged suburbs, including Aboriginal communities, said Luke McNamara, a law professor at the University of New South Wales. He led a study into the issue and found that the state’s pandemic response created “disproportioned effects, and I don’t think we ever reckoned with that.”

Tens of thousands of those fines were reversed after one resident — ticketed for sitting on a park bench — challenged his fine in court. But there are “families still struggling with debt in different parts of the country as a result of the fines issued during various lockdowns,” Mr. McNamara said. “Also, in a broader sense, the damage done to community-police relations in many parts of the country have never been addressed.”

He added that he’d like to see a discussion about whether punitive responses were the best way of enforcing some public health measures. “Governments had decided that the best approach to controlling communities was to enact strict public health orders and attach high penalties to them,” he said. “That mentality has to be reconsidered as well.”

Now for this week’s news:


Author: Yan Zhuang