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It was late Sunday afternoon when South Australian health authorities announced the new coronavirus cases, beyond the usual run of international travellers returning home.
Until that moment the collective experience of South Australia had been one of relative calm. More than 1.3 million people globally – roughly the population of Adelaide – have died during the pandemic. But here the infinite blue skies stretched out to the horizon and it was possible to sit in a cafe for hours without the risk of getting sick.
It would be wrong to put down what has happened to complacency. The mood had been hopeful. The hard border had offered protections. Three straight months of zero cases meant the last restrictions, a hangover from the opening days of the pandemic, were due to be lifted. With the warm summer months, the festival state was looking to shake off a horror 2020 with a party. Over the next week the festival line-ups were to be announced.
Now there is only doubt. As soon as the first cases were announced, people began doing the mental math. If there were four cases on Sunday afternoon, with two of unknown origin, what was the multiplier again? How many more would that mean for tomorrow?
On Monday we learned the detail. An 80-year-old woman had checked herself into emergency at the Lyell McEwin hospital in Elizabeth, a working-class suburb with 40% unemployment and a stone’s throw from the old Holden factory, thinking something was wrong. Overnight, 17 new cases were diagnosed, 15 from within her family.
The woman’s daughter-in-law, who worked in one of the hotels where returning international travellers were quarantined, had become infected and passed it to the family.
As the contact tracers went to work, a growing list of exposure sites tracked an artery from the centre of Adelaide through to the working-class neighbourhoods in the north and west. Those who had followed what happened in Melbourne began to watch an eerily familiar story play out. Neighbourhoods broadly comparable to Werribee or the electorates of Hume and Wyndham were the first to be exposed. Schools in the area shut while it was confirmed two aged care homes had been exposed, as had the 431 prisoners at Yatala labour prison, who have been put into secure lockdown.
As soon as officials announced new restrictions, no one wasted a moment. Everyone remembered what happened in Melbourne. Businesses moved back to working from home in anticipation of the worst. Adelaide Festival and Womad 2021 have been thrown into doubt. Panic buyers stripped shelves of toilet paper.
Now people are watching and waiting. The latest numbers have picked up only three additional cases, all from the same family. The questions can only be answered with time. Is this an iceberg? Or a stray ember? Will it fade away before it overwhelms?
No two places have shared the same experience of the pandemic. There are many similarities to Melbourne, but there are also differences.
There are fewer unknowns, so people have a rough idea of what to expect. People share information about where to get tested and find reassurance in the comprehensive updates released by SA Health. On Monday more than 4,500 people were tested.
The state government still has not mandated wearing a mask in public. There is the usual confusion about contradictions in the latest restrictions, such as how can pubs stay open, but gyms must close. All eyes are on the daily updates of the chief health officer, Nicola Spurrier. Those in the country say their worry is people in the city will flee for the regions and bring the virus with them. Some – especially those with family overseas – describe a sense of guilt: do they have a right to worry when Adelaide has had it so good for so long?
People living close to the outbreak have been quick to act. Almost as soon as quick-response test sites were announced, the queues that formed could be measured in either time or distance. Made to wait hours for a test on Monday, many had to come back the next day. They say the sites have been overrun – a frustration felt most acutely by those in isolation and nervously waiting for answers about their status. The government had six months to prepare for this possibility, they ask. Why do they seem overwhelmed already?
If Adelaide proves anything, it’s how quickly a horizon can shrink. Last week people could have told you what the next six months look like, today no one knows. Yesterday people were safe, today they may not be. The latest is that 4,000 people have been told to isolate and there are 14 suspected new cases. Now people just wait for more data and hope the good news holds.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: From zero to outbreak: how Adelaide’s Covid calm was shattered | South Australia