Saying Goodbye to Melbourne’s Long Lockdown (Again)

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One year and one day ago, as the clock ticked past midnight, I was in Melbourne’s central business district to report on the end of the city’s 111-day coronavirus lockdown.

The mood was electric. Bars threw midnight reopening banquets and sold out of tickets days in advance. Attendees dressed up in suits and cocktail gowns and reveled in how we’d triumphed over the virus.

The article we wrote had the headline “The Lockdown That Felt Like It Might Last Forever Has Finally Ended” — which is very amusing in hindsight.

Even then, in the early hours of the morning, people were already talking about their fears of the long-term impacts of lockdown. I ended up in a pub with a group of hospitality workers worried that it could take years for the sector to rebound. Concerns abounded about Victorians’ mental health, and there was a feeling that friends in other states might not understand what we’d gone through.

But it had been worth it, everyone agreed. We’d suppressed the outbreak. We’d all get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine was available, and everything would be back to normal.

Of course, that was all before we locked down for another 151 days.

This time, when Melbourne reopened, it felt different. Surreal, like when you’ve been awake for too many hours and exhaustion turns into a strange kind of manic energy. People screamed from their balconies and set off fireworks in their backyards. Drivers did burnouts at a spontaneous street dance party that reportedly had to be dispersed by police.

After spending so long counting down the days until reopening, it somehow took me by surprise how quickly everything is happening — hitting the 70 percent fully vaccinated mark, then 80 percent and then the reopening of our borders all happening in quick succession.

People I know seem to be split between rushing out to do everything they could all at once, and being overwhelmed by the idea of sitting in a crowded restaurant after so many months of isolation and distance.

For me, it doesn’t quite feel real yet. I’m going out to restaurants and pubs, but I’m still exhausted. I feel like I’m hoarding experiences, making the most of it when I can — just in case everything changes again at a second’s notice.

I’m looking forward to visiting my family interstate and seeing friends I haven’t seen for months. But I’m also having trouble planning or committing to anything further than a week away. After so many months of uncertainty, and so many times plunging in and out of lockdown, my brain hasn’t quite caught up with the fact that this is the reopening that’s going to stick (hopefully).

Maybe this is just hindsight talking, but coming out of our first lockdown felt simpler. Now, it feels like there’s so much to worry about. Victoria had its highest number of Covid deaths just yesterday. There are fears for vulnerable communities as we open up. In the past month we saw our city rocked by the kind of violent anti-vaccination protests few expected in Australia. The cracks that were starting to emerge during the last lockdown seem to have only gotten wider.

But at the same time, I’m writing this while sitting in a cafe for the first time in months, and counting down the minutes until retail reopens tonight. Groups of friends around me are catching up on the moments in each others’ lives they’ve missed over the past months. In typical Melbourne fashion, it’s gone from sunny to pouring rain in the blink of an eye and groups of patrons are running indoors — laughing at the novelty instead of grumbling. It’ll take time to readjust to our new normal, but we’re doing it one step at a time.

Now for this week’s stories:

Australia and New Zealand

A Royal Australian Navy submarine in September in Darwin, Australia. For Australia, nuclear-powered submarines offer a powerful means to counter China’s growing naval reach.Credit…Australian Defence Force, via Getty Images
  • Nuclear-Powered Submarines for Australia? Maybe Not So Fast.Australia’s plan to build the submarines with U.S. and British help faces big hurdles. Supporters say they can be overcome. Critics say they may be too much.

  • New Zealand Will Relax Quarantine Requirements. Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s Covid-19 response minister, announced that the mandatory quarantine period for travelers to the country would be cut in half next month. The changes would free up about 1,500 rooms monthly in the country’s quarantine hotels.

  • Hellishly Hot Tiny Town Offers ‘Free’ Land. Hundreds of Calls Came In.The town in Australia’s outback, where the temperature can hit 113 degrees Fahrenheit, drew global inquiries when it offered “free” land in a bid to expand its population.

  • Australians will soon be allowed to travel abroad freely if they are fully vaccinated.The eased restrictions will be the first stage in the country’s plan to reopen its borders since it slammed them shut in 2020, separating families and leaving thousands stranded overseas.

  • New Zealand will expand its vaccine mandate to cover 40 percent of workers.The rule will cover employees at restaurants, gyms, bars and hair salons.

  • Australia Pledges ‘Net Zero’ Emissions by 2050. Its Plan Makes That Hard to Believe.The country’s last-minute commitment before next week’s climate summit is built on hope for new technology, and little else.

  • Ardern Announces New Covid Strategy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand stressed the importance of vaccinations as the country moved away from lockdowns, announcing a new, color-coded system of restrictions to be implemented when the country reaches its vaccination target.

  • Melbourne, after 262 days in lockdown, celebrates a reopening.After hitting a vaccination target, Australia’s second largest city now has many fewer restrictions.

  • New Zealand Wants a 90% Vaccination Rate. Its Street Gangs May Hold the Key.The country’s leaders have set aside some misgivings and cooperated with gang leaders to reach their communities.

Around the Times

From left: Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson of Abba. “We took a break in the spring of 1982 and now we’ve decided it’s time to end it,” the group said in a statement in September.Credit…Siegfried Pilz/United Archives, via Getty Images
  • After 40 Years, Abba Takes a Chance With Its Legacy. How one of the biggest pop groups in the world secretly reunited to make a new album and a high-tech stage show featuring digital avatars of themselves — from 1979.

  • Who Are America’s Billionaires, Anyway?They are tech titans, entertainment moguls and heirs. Their ranks grew during the pandemic, changing the conversation around taxing the wealthy.

  • The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them. Twenty-somethings rolling their eyes at their elders is a longstanding trend, but many employers say there’s a new boldness in the way Gen Z dictates taste.

  • Looted Treasures Begin a Long Journey Home From France. The return to Benin of 26 ransacked objects will be the first large-scale act of restitution to Africa by a former European colonial power.

…And over to you

Next month Abba will release its first new album in 40 years. To commemorate this moment, The New York Times wants to hear about what the band means to you — and we know Aussies go mad for Abba!

Has it formed the soundtrack to your life? Do certain songs take you straight back to moments of joy, sadness or singalong? Have you visited the Abba museum in Stockholm? Has your relationship with different tracks changed over the years?

Tell us about your favorite Abba memories here.

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