On Sunday 29 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia would enter stage three lockdown, with public gatherings limited to two people, and Australians over the age of 70 urged to stay indoors. At the time of writing, “non-essential services” are closed: these include hotels, bars, pools, restaurants, beauty salons and places of worship. Services allowed to stay open include not just schools, hospitals, petrol stations and supermarkets, but also hairdressers, takeaway cafés and restaurants. Densely populated New South Wales and Victoria are at the pointy end of restrictions, with NSW police delivering on the spot fines to those breaking new social distancing protocols of 1.5m. Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australian have shut their borders, with the other regions expected to follow suit.
The measures began early last month; by March 18, Morrison had announced the prohibition of indoor public gatherings of more than 100 people. By the following day, the Feast of St Joseph, almost every diocese in the country had prohibited public Mass, Sydney being the last. Since then, every church and chapel across the country has been shut, with home Masses discouraged or prohibited. Confessions continue by appointment. Australian Catholics find themselves in the bizarre situation where they can visit a hair salon, but not the Blessed Sacrament.
Facing empty streets, full loungerooms and an unemployment rate of 6 million, the Government has promised an unprecedented economic stimulus of $130 billion. While the COVID-19 curve remains uncertain, there has been an increase in approval for Morrison, whose popularity suffered during the January bush fires.
Some commentators have tried to stir up a debate over “xenophobia”, but the attempt has been largely unsuccessful. Even fewer column inches have been dedicated to such uncomfortable questions as China’s responsibility for COVID-19, the sociocultural implications of a lockdown, or Aesop’s warning that a remedy can sometimes be worse than the disease. Almost entirely forgotten is the story of Cardinal George Pell, who sits in isolation awaiting the outcome of his final appeal to the High Court, which is expected any day.