Lessons from Australia: Victoria shows the world what a real lockdown looks like

It's clear that Manitoba is nowhere near as serious about clamping down on COVID-19 this fall as Victoria was a few weeks into the Australian winter, when it began a brutal 113-day lockdown.

Manitoba's second-wave effort still amounts to pleas to do the right thing. So far, that isn't working

A woman exercises in Melbourne's central business district in August, when the Australian city was in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. Jogging solo was allowed outside the home. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

At the start of what passes for winter in the southern hemisphere, the Australian state of Victoria entered into one of the most restrictive pandemic lockdowns on the planet after an unprecedented number of new COVID-19 cases were announced.

On July 7, 191 new cases were disclosed in the state of 6.5 million people.

When you adjust for population, 191 new COVID-19 cases in Victoria is like 41 new cases in Manitoba, home to slightly less than 1.4 million people.

The Australians, however, don't mess around when it comes to pandemic restrictions.

At the stroke of midnight on July 9, residents of Victoria, which includes the major city of Melbourne, were all but restricted to their homes.

They were only allowed to leave their homes to exercise, seek medical care, shop for essentials (such as groceries) or go to work or study — the latter only if the work or schoolwork could not be done at home.

Cleaners walk down a Melbourne street as the city operated under lockdown in September. (Erik Anderson/AAP Image/Reuters)

Victorians weren't allowed to have any visitors at home except for caregiving, compassionate reasons or to allow services such as plumbing to occur.

They weren't allowed to visit friends and family outside their homes except to visit lovers, provide care or services, to hand off or receive kids as part of joint-custody arrangements or for compassionate reasons.

As for exercise, Victorians were only allowed to, say, go running with members of their own households — or one other person, if they lived alone.

If that sounds like a lot, residents of Melbourne were also subjected to a curfew on Aug. 2, when Victoria reported 671 new infections in a single day.

That figure is equal to 142 new cases in Manitoba, again when you adjust for population.

It is clear that Manitoba is nowhere near as serious about clamping down on COVID-19 this fall as Victoria was a few weeks into the Australian winter.

Can't sustain more cases

On Monday, Manitoba disclosed 392 new cases, which would translate into 1,848 new cases in Victoria.

On the very same day, Manitoba health officials declared the province can not sustain many more days with case counts in the hundreds because the health-care system is already at capacity.

"We can't sustain this number of cases in our health-care system," said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.

"There is no plan that can prepare us to manage the demand on our hospitals that 400-plus cases per day for a sustained period of time is going to create," said Lanette Siragusa from Shared Health.

"Our health-care workers are getting tired. They are feeling stretched, and they're not going to be able to keep this up forever."

That is not hyperbole. Manitoba's intensive care wards are almost full, even though the number of beds has been expanded to 99 across the province.

At Steinbach's Bethesda Hospital, nurses are triaging patients in their vehicles. Shared Health is asking doctors and nurses with acute-care experience if they could relieve exhausted staff by picking up ICU shifts.

The fear is Manitoba will run out of health-care workers capable of caring for COVID-19 patients before the province runs out of beds.

Roussin and Siragusa implored Manitobans to stay home as much as possible and reduce their number of contacts. It's the same message they've been conveying ever since September, when the number of cases in Manitoba started initially climbing in Winnipeg.

It is clear at this point enough Manitobans have ignored these pleas to ensure the daily case counts keep rising.

Counting on buy-in, not just orders

Dr. Roussin, however, has made it clear he is not considering tougher restrictions, at least not in the near future. 

Not only is a Victoria-style lockdown off the table, Roussin is not pursuing any version of a household-only socialization order.

That is something he announced would be imposed in Manitoba one week ago before he declined to enshrine that measure within Manitoba's latest pandemic public-health order.

"Our approach can't only be orders," Roussin said Monday. "We need to get the buy-in from from people. Even if we put that order and we can't be everywhere and enforcing everything."

Premier Brian Pallister also said Manitoba does not need orders tougher than a regime of restrictions he described as the toughest in Canada.

"We have and we continue to we maintain some of the most restrictive measures," the premier said Monday, taking particular care to source that claim by crediting Andre Picard, the health columnist for the Globe & Mail.

Picard has indeed written about Manitoba recently.

"Manitoba is a striking example of the price that is to be paid for smugness," Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail on Nov. 2.

"If there is one lesson we can learn from countries that have weathered the pandemic best, it is this: Shut down swiftly, and reopen cautiously.

"That should be our mantra. Yet, time and time again in Canada, we do the opposite. We shut down slowly and reopen prematurely. When cases climb, we watch and fret instead of bringing the hammer down."

Victoria's victory came at a cost

In Australia, Victoria brought the hammer down decisively. But the lockdown wasn't easy and lasted longer than most Australians expected.

It was only lifted in October after a difficult 113 days.

"Everybody was basically cooped up at home for over 100 days," said Duncan Rhoda, a former Winnipegger living in Melbourne, which also imposed travel restrictions within the city to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"My in-laws are just across the city — basically 20 kilometres away — we haven't been able to see them for months, so it's been really strange.

"People just haven't been able to see their friends and family. There's lots of financial insecurity and economic hardship."

The sacrifice made by Victorians was immense, and not just in terms of the devastation to the local economy. The mental health impacts of the isolation, especially for school-aged children, may last years.

"Fundamentally, this belongs to every single Victorian who has followed the rules, stayed the course, worked with me and my team, to bring this second wave to an end," Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said in October when he announced the end of the lengthy lockdown.

Epidemiologists are already debating whether the Victoria lockdown was effective, given the cost.

One thing, however, is clear: Manitoba's toughest-in-Canada restrictions still largely amount to pleas for the public to do the right thing.

Thus far, those pleas have proven ineffective.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

With files from Janice Grant and Sam Samson


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