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Ring of steel goes up in Australia as nation sweats on city's battle

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-07-10 07:58
Healthcare workers wait to test residents inside a public housing tower, locked down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, in Melbourne on Wednesday. [Photo/Agencies]

Melbourne's 5m people locked in for 6 weeks in bid to halt virus' spread

Police and military have thrown a ring of steel around the metropolitan area of Melbourne, Australia's second-most populous city, in a bid to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that has intensified since restrictions were dropped last month.

As of midnight on Wednesday, 5 million people in the Victorian capital are being restricted to their homes for the next six weeks as medical teams try to get on top of the virus and stop its spread.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a news briefing on Wednesday that the lockdown will cost the national economy about A$1 billion ($693.5 million) a week.

The state of Victoria is the second-largest economy in Australia, behind New South Wales state, according to Reserve Bank of Australia data.

At midnight on Tuesday-for the first time since 1919 during the great influenza pandemic-NSW closed its border with Victoria, throwing the lives of thousands in the border city of Albury-Wodonga into chaos. The border divides the city, with Albury located in NSW and Wodonga in Victoria.

Police and military using drones are now patrolling the border, with heavy fines and even potential jail time for those trying to cross without permission.

Those allowed to cross include essential workers and those with passes issued by the NSW government to allow those living in either part of the city to go to work or school, to shop, or seek medical treatment.

The decision to close the border came as a surprise to many living in the city, with workers waiting for hours on either side of the border on Wednesday to go to work.

Victoria on Wednesday reported 134 new COVID-19 cases overnight, with 75 of them in nine low-end housing towers that were closed on Saturday. The towers house 3,000 people.

It was the third day in a row that Victoria had recorded more than 100 cases, and 134 was the state's second-highest single-day total after a record 191 on Tuesday.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told a media briefing on Wednesday that more than 1 million people had been tested for the coronavirus since January, with 29,424 tests conducted on Tuesday.

An expert in influenza and emerging infectious diseases, Raina Mac-Intyre, said the situation in Victoria is "extremely serious".

"We have seen outbreaks in a wider area over the past week, from northwest Melbourne to inner Melbourne and even at the border town, Albury-Wodonga," said Mac-Intyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales.

More serious situation

She said the surge in cases over the past week is worrying.

"It is possible there has been seeding of infection to other states, and silent epidemic growth which has not yet been detected. I would not be surprised to see epidemics detected in NSW and other states within the next few weeks," MacIntyre said.

"The situation we are in is more serious than late March, because we have community transmission, which is much harder to track than infection in returned travelers."

Rob Grenfell, biosecurity director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Australian government's agency responsible for scientific research, said: "The problem we're facing is that the increase in cases across Melbourne now is the result of what happened about 10 days ago, due to the virus' long incubation period, and this roughly coincides with when restrictions were lifted."

He said one could argue "we're still in the first wave because we've protracted it by suppressing the curve through lockdown measures earlier this year", which "has given us the time to get our health services ready, prepare for increased hospitalizations and intensive care cases".

Because of the delay in symptoms and the disease manifesting, it could be another week before the corresponding increase in cases requiring hospitalization was seen.

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