Sorry to move to Sydney

Australia's hesitant response to the corona crisis

Like many foreign travelers, I recently took an emergency flight home. I left Germany in the middle of the Corona crisis, arrived in Australia and wondered if I had ended up in a completely different reality. The busy streets of Sydney seemed eerie to me, given the empty city centers and serious conversations about civic duties and solidarity I'd experienced in Germany.

Just this week the Australian government passed strict regulations to reduce social contacts. Since Tuesday (March 31, 2020) citizens in New South Wales (including Sydney) have only been allowed to leave their homes for important reasons. The New Zealand government, on the other hand, ordered a full curfew last Thursday (March 26, 20209) despite proportionally fewer corona cases.

The popular Bondi Beach in Sydney in March 2020

But it is not only the government that is hesitant to adapt to the crisis. About two weeks ago, more than 500 people romped around Sydney's popular Bondi Beach and completely ignored the ban on gatherings. In the past few days, the police had to break up several larger barbecues in private gardens.

Where does this serenity come from?

With the exception of the most recent bush fires, Australians have largely been spared international crises over the past few decades. The country is registering the world's longest-lasting economic growth in its history, based on abundant natural resources and strategic relationships with China, the USA and Europe.

We Australians have a strong feeling that our island nation is in some ways isolated from the world's problems. Our continent weathered the global financial crisis well in 2008 and avoided a recession. And apart from the expropriation of our indigenous people, there has never been a war on Australian soil.

Everything will be fine ... really everything?

Often times, when Australians face a dilemma, "everything will be fine" is the motto. But now it is not clear whether the demonstrative serenity towards the global corona pandemic will be our downfall or whether we will be lucky one day.

Sean Goodwin was a DW intern and is now in quarantine in Australia

According to Richard White, retired professor of Australian history and author of Inventing Australia, Australia has always been "the happy land". "It all started with being able to take away their land from the indigenous owners and benefit from it. This gave rise to the idea that things would turn out all right."

White explains that the government's response to the Corona crisis is an example of this extremely optimistic mentality: "I suspect that the 'everything will be fine' card is being played by the government." While the government is demonstrating calm about the corona pandemic, there is another danger in the Australian culture of "larrikinism" (in English: hooliganism), which the population shows by consistently disregarding conventions.

Hooligans as cultural icons

Post-colonial Australian culture has iconized characters who defy danger and authority. Outlaws, rowdies and renegades like the famous bushranger Ned Kelly (1855-1880), the ranchers in the poems of Banjo Paterson and the thieving drift from the Australian folk anthem "Waltzing Matilda" are revered icons who embody this ideal.

In addition, the Australian humor is extremely disrespectful. The comedians Barry Humphries, Paul Hogan and Chris Lilley exemplify the position that no situation, no status or authority symbols should be exempted from ridicule or taken too seriously.

Exit restrictions were accepted only hesitantly

Is Australia getting off happy again?

Despite the relatively casual demeanor, it seems Australia could get away with a few more scratches while other countries suffer immeasurably. Due to its proximity to China and the large Sino-Australian population, the country was one of the first to detect cases of the novel coronavirus at an early stage. The spread didn't accelerate until March 2020 when the daily growth rate reached 30 percent.

In the meantime, however, it has fallen back to just nine percent. However, this decline should not be taken as confirmation of the effectiveness of the country's hesitant distancing policy. After the government asked all Australians to return home, there was an influx of imported corona cases.

It has now slowed as most nationals have returned and flight connections have been restricted. The increase in domestically transmitted infections is difficult to assess, especially given the limited number of tests available.

Meanwhile, traffic has come to a standstill in large cities like Sydney

Road traffic is gradually reducing

History professor Richard White says it is difficult to lump the entire population together: "There are people who cheekily break the rules and there are others who really close the doors."

When I look out of the window of my apartment during the prescribed quarantine, I notice that although the traffic volume in Sydney is still high, there are a few fewer cars on the road every day. It's hard to say if that's enough. Or whether the words "everything will be fine" will be filled with regret in the months to come.