by Max Kanuk
What You Can Do
- Do your own research about different forms of government public health restrictions. What is your government allowed to do, and how does that compare to what they are doing in the face of the current pandemic? How is the public reacting to your government’s actions, and how does that correspond with the results of those actions? What would you be comfortable with in the face of a public health emergency? When the next situation emerges when the government will need to be trusted to keep public safety, what kinds of government interventions will you be prepared for?
The past two years of the COVID-19 global pandemic has had an impact on the world in countless ways, from the reshaping of laws to the drastic change of the realities of public life. Across the planet, countries have responded to the pandemic in very different ways ranging from minimal state interventions as seen in many places in the United States, to significantly more government involvement like in China. The international attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 produced a wide variety of infection-fighting strategies that different countries employed in their efforts to keep their populations safe. One particularly large – and for many, shocking – example of these strategies was the Melbourne Lockdown in the Australian city of Melbourne, Victoria. As the longest lockdown in the world, spanning 262 days composed of six individual lockdowns , the Melbourne Lockdown was one of the most intense examples, particularly in Western democratic countries, of the power of government in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.
The major players involved in orchestrating the lockdown included the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison, and the Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews. Both the federal government and the Victorian state government played roles in managing the Australian long-term COVID strategy and the management of regional outbreaks. Today, we can view the Melbourne Lockdown as a demonstration of governmental powers in reaction to a public health emergency, and how effective the use of those powers were in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia’s second largest city with over 5 million people.
So how did the Melbourne Lockdown start, and what were the conditions that led to its conception?
In early 2020, before the world truly understood the reality of the COVID-19 infection, the Australian COVID strategy consisted of an ideal zero-COVID scenario, where the virus would be prevented from entering Australian borders at all by closing borders to most international travelers and implementing strict quarantine measures for those who do enter, which would ideally keep domestic life largely unaffected. By mid-2020, it was clear that this strategy had failed as COVID had already entered the Australian population. In response to this, a new comprehensive long-term strategy was drawn up by the federal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison which consisted of a four-stage plan to reduce infection rates and quickly contain regional outbreaks, all the while gradually re-opening the country as vaccination rates climbed. Phase A dictated that international borders would remain closed while domestic infections were minimized through various regulations, and outbreaks would be managed with lockdowns . Phase B – achieved after a 70% vaccination rate – would reduce government COVID regulations and gradually allow greater international travel, while still imposing lockdowns when necessary . Phase C – achieved after an 80% vaccination rate – would prioritize further vaccination of the population while reducing domestic COVID regulations and easing international travel . Phase D would see open international borders and minimal government COVID regulations to combat smaller outbreaks wherever they occur . The Melbourne Lockdown began during Phase A of the federal COVID plan on March 30th, 2020, in response to COVID cases growing dangerously large in the city at the time. This was the first of six lockdowns, the last of which officially ended October 21st, 2021.
So what was the Melbourne Lockdown?
The city of Melbourne experienced six individual and distinct lockdown periods between the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and the lifting of the lockdown in October 2021, totalling to 262 days in lockdown. During lockdowns, many hospitality venues, retail establishments, and other businesses were prevented from opening  or receiving patrons/customers. Residents in the city were not permitted to leave their house unless for food or a daily 1-hour outdoor exercise period , and were only allowed to roam within 5 kilometers from their homes . Enforcement of these rules was taken very seriously; if you sat down on a bench at a park during your daily outdoor exercise period, police would order you to either continue exercising or go home. A curfew was imposed dictating that residents were not allowed to leave their homes between 9 PM and 5 AM . Soldiers from the Australian Army were stationed around Melbourne to assist police in enforcing the lockdown laws, preventing travel in and out of the city, and undertaking door-to-door check-ins on infected individuals or those flagged for quarantine . While these rules were in place – which many both domestically and abroad considered “draconian”  – the city experienced extremely successful suppression of COVID outbreaks in the city and consequently reduced the spread of the virus throughout the state.
The first lockdown began March 30th, 2020, lasting 43 days ending May 12th . March 30th, 2020 – the day of the lockdown’s start – marked a peak of COVID cases in Melbourne with 46 new cases . Once the lockdown began, cases immediately started dropping, eventually reaching zero new cases only 13 days later on April 12th . The second lockdown had a different impact, with a large swell in cases in the first month of the lockdown starting July 8th, but by early September, daily new cases were consistently under 100 . The remaining lockdowns had similar results, showing reduced daily new cases as the lockdown period continued.
By late October 2021, a near 70% vaccination rate had been achieved in both the national and Victoria-state theaters . These numbers justified the entrance into the second phase of the federal COVID plan and the subsequent easing of federal COVID restrictions as public life gradually began returning to normal. The sixth lockdown in Melbourne was lifted by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at 11:59 PM on October 21st, 2021  .
Overall, data from the Victorian Government shows that the implementation of the Melbourne Lockdown was ultimately successful in minimizing COVID infection rates throughout the state until vaccinations could be distributed among the population. Between March 2020 and October 2021, during the lockdown period, Victoria experienced very few COVID cases compared to the spike that occurred once the lockdown was lifted and restrictions began to ease.
Daily New Cases in Victoria
So what can we ultimately learn from the Melbourne Lockdown?
The Melbourne Lockdown was a dramatic display of government power in the face of a public health emergency. The Melbourne people saw many of their freedoms taken away in order to combat the infection and minimize the impact of COVID on the public’s health. Regardless of the seemingly “Draconian” nature of the lockdown laws, results show overwhelmingly positive feedback from both statistical analysis of COVID rates and public opinion.
A poll conducted by Roy Morgan, a Melbourne-based research firm, showed that 70% of Victorians voted in approval of Daniel Andrews’s management of the pandemic and 63% voted in favor of keeping the overnight curfew until it was more appropriate to end  . A poll conducted by The Guardian  showed that 72% of Victorians agreed with the overnight curfew, 71% agreed that people should not be allowed to leave their homes, and 70% agreed that people should not be allowed to travel further than 5 kilometers from their homes . Regardless of these “Draconian” restrictions, public opinion approved of the government actions to combat the spread of COVID-19.
What does this ultimately tell us? Major large-scale government interventions to combat the spread of an illness in the face of a public health emergency do prove to work. In Australia, the successes of these interventions in managing COVID outbreaks accompanied a public opinion favoring the restrictions and the government imposing them. Governments around the world have powers capable of combating public health emergencies and other threats to public life. The Melbourne Lockdown was a dramatic display of these powers, and the impacts they have. Ultimately, these powers were not abused nor overstepped, and public reactions to government actions responded to that fact.
A government that is trusted by its people, and one that can prove that it has earned that trust, wields a significant amount of power and is substantially more capable of dealing with internal threats that might emerge. The Melbourne Lockdown can ultimately be viewed as an experiment, demonstrating how a trusted government can effectively combat a public health emergency using the powers it possesses. Overall, governments around the world should learn from the Melbourne Lockdown in its ability and ultimate success in fighting COVID.