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After coronavirus: Australia offers a strange glimpse of life post-pandemic

Commentary: The future is full of QR codes and hand sanitizer. But life, in at least one country, feels oddly normal.

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- 09:10

Hello, from The Future.

I'm writing from Sydney in the state of New South Wales at 7 p.m. Friday, March 12, 2021. For the past 54 days, New South Wales -- Australia's most populous state, with 8 million residents -- has recorded zero new cases of coronavirus. Zero.

The total number of cases in Australia since the beginning of the pandemic is less than 30,000, in a country of over 25 million. Other countries are facing a far more grim reality: The US averages almost double this amount of cases per day. Comparative death tolls paint a worse picture. 

A total of 909 people have died from the coronavirus in Australia. In the US, that number has crossed 528,000. Brazil's death toll tops 268,000. In the UK, it's more than 125,000. 

The exceptional response in Australia -- rapid lockdowns and strict quarantine rules -- has given us some great freedoms. Last weekend, I watched a movie on the big screen. Just over a year ago, going to the cinema seemed routine. Mundane, even. But I hadn't been to the cinema since Jan. 11, 2020. Doing so has, for many months, seemed careless or even selfish. So this was big.

A year since the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic, Australia provides a tiny glimpse of what the future might look like. The crisis isn't over, and we haven't even agreed on what "The End" really means scientifically or socially. But in Australia, the end feels as close as it ever has. In this pseudo-future place, we've found some semblance of normalcy, while much of the world still struggles to get outbreaks under control and grieves daily losses. It's an incredibly strange feeling. 

Being at a cinema hammers the point home.

Just to be allowed into the building, a steward at the door taps an A4 poster on the wall, next to a hand sanitizer station. "Have you signed in?" 

Then, the COVID scramble: A fumble for my phone, standing awkwardly as the camera registers the black and white dots of a QR code emblazoned on the wall, a line forming behind me, thumbing in my details to sign into an app that logs the time I visited and provides contact tracers with a way to find me, should an outbreak arise.

As soon as I walk in, my brain short-circuits. 

I'm sure you've experienced this, too: Being out in public, you're increasingly conscious of the people around you. People clearing their throat or coughing into their elbow. I notice some of the staff members are wearing masks, others aren't. One is making a half-hearted attempt; the fabric doesn't cover his nose. 

I scan my ticket in, and by the time I sit down, there are around two dozen people dotted through the 50-seat cinema, slurping on gigantic cups of Coke and rustling buckets of popcorn. An empty chair on either side of each patron separates us. I'm not sure that's the social distancing requirement, but it's something. To my right, a guy shovels a Choc Top into his mouth. When he laughs, ice cream splutters all over his face.

The normality of it all weirds me out.

Doughnuts

Down Under, the coronavirus has practically been exterminated. We've grown accustomed to days with zero cases. We even nicknamed them! "Doughnut days," we say. Initially, we celebrated each successive one with a stream of tweets and breaking news reports. We waited for morning press conferences, where state leaders delivered the new case count. 5, 2, 1, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0. 

Now, even doughnut days seem routine.

It hasn't been an easy road to get here. Victoria, the country's second most populous state and the one hardest hit by coronavirus, endured over three months of hard lockdown in 2020. Residents weren't able to travel outside of a three-mile bubble, and they could only be outside for an hour a day. The city's once bustling alleyways became hauntingly empty. 

How did we do it? Superb management by our state-based health services in containing and tracing outbreaks, plus a stringent quarantine policy for those returning from overseas, has prevented any small clusters from ballooning into unmanageable crises. 

At times, it's seemed like we may have gone too hard. When a single case of the UK variant was discovered in a quarantine worker, the city of Brisbane shut down for three days. Melbourne, in the same situation, shut down for five days. In both instances, the method worked, and the variant, which scientists believe to be more transmissible, didn't get into the community. 

Doughnut days for everyone. 

A day after visiting the cinema, I head down to the local "bowlo," as we call it -- a lawn bowls club. It's like a bar, with bowling greens. This one has two: one immaculate, one downtrodden. All over the entryway are posters explaining you must head inside and scan the QR code. I do the COVID scramble again. My friends do the same.

There are people everywhere and not a single mask in sight. I brought my own, but once I've ordered a beer and sat down at a table, it stays in my back pocket. 

It's the first time in a year I've been in a place with this many people. Our group of four is small compared with the other people gathered on the greens or at the bar. For a long time, New South Wales banned dancing and standing in bars like this. We're allowed to do both now. Not many start a jig, but plenty stand around in the afternoon sun, clinking their glasses. "Cheers!" 

If you can ignore the screaming children, it's kind of pleasant. 

Yes, The Future also features children screaming on a downtrodden green. 

It's increasingly difficult to imagine the US is averaging about 50,000 coronavirus cases a day. Or how case counts in places like Brazil, where an emerging variant might even be capable of reinfecting those who have already fallen ill and recovered from COVID-19, are higher than they've ever been.

Sitting in the sun on the green with a few mates sharing a beer feels kind of unreal. I feel lucky. Fortunate.

Perhaps the normality of it all weirds me out because things snapped back to how they used to be, in The Past, so quickly. One moment you're not allowed to have visitors in your house, the next moment you're back at the bowlo and strangers are dancing around you.

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On March 6, 36,000 people descended on the Sydney Cricket Ground to celebrate the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

Getty/James D. Morgan

In a week, Australian Rules Football -- Australia's eminent sporting competition -- will begin again. The games are set to be played in full-capacity stadiums, something that didn't happen at all in 2020.

The AFL, which oversees the competition, expects fans to wear masks when they can't social distance. Hand sanitizing stations will be situated throughout our stadiums, which can hold around 50,000 people. We'll likely have to scan our QR codes as we enter the gates.

The Future is a meat pie and an iced coffee and hot fries lathered in chicken salt, yelling obscenities at a visiting sports team.

In a week, I'll be sitting in a stadium for the first time since 2019. It's kind of unfathomable. Just thinking about it weirds me out.

Give or take a few hand sanitizing stations, the constant Zoom calls and the ever-present QR codes at our cinemas and our sporting stadiums, living in The Future feels very similar to living in The Past, but that doesn't make it any less weird. 

It's an incredibly privileged position to be in, feeling safe and free, visiting friends and family or attending weddings and birthday parties or just going to the cinema to watch a movie while seeing daily case totals in other parts of the world continuing to rise. I know we're lucky in Australia. We've (mostly) had the pandemic on Easy Mode. We have the advantage of being an island with great border controls. Our taxpayer-funded, public health care system is world-class. Very few countries have fared as well as we have.

Perhaps the normalcy feels so weird because of this. Even though it can sometimes feel like we're living in a post-pandemic future here, we see how the rest of the world is struggling. We celebrate while others commiserate. And through it, there's also an uneasy dread the virus will return. We can see the pandemic isn't over.

Our doughnut days could be over in a flash. 

The end?

It's taking time to get used to living in The Future, but it's also been really easy. That's just the nature of living through a pandemic, I guess. 

There's still a long way to go before Australians get to the other side. The coronavirus is a constant presence, but it somehow seems less threatening here. Less menacing. 

A few weeks ago, the first Australians were vaccinated with doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine. This week, the AstraZeneca vaccine began its roll out across the country. The plan is to vaccinate as many Australians as quickly as possible, with health care workers and the elderly at the top of the list. I'm scheduled to receive it sometime in July, but the rollout has been slow. 

We've long been told the vaccines herald the beginning of the end for the pandemic. They'll enable international travel, which means globetrotting across borders once again. They'll also allow us to mingle with family we haven't seen for a year or with complete strangers in bars and restaurants -- maybe even bowlos. 

In Australia, we've glimpsed what a post-pandemic future might look like. But it will remain just a glimpse until we can vaccinate a huge proportion of the people on the planet. Just 16% of the global population has secured 70% of all available doses. Some forecasts show the world's population might not be vaccinated until around 2023 or 2024. We can't leave the world waiting that long. 

The World Health Organization has been warning about rich countries hoarding vaccines. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Jan. 18 that the "world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" if we don't distribute vaccines equally.  

The Future is worrying about the future -- not just in Australia, but around the world. It's easy to get caught up in our own little corner of the planet, especially after we've been locked inside for so long. Things do feel strangely normal down here. But the pandemic, by definition, is a global crisis. And to truly bring about its end, it must be tackled on a planetary scale. 

Soon, I hope, other countries will be able to join us and get a glimpse of this future. The US aims to make vaccines available to all eligible adults by May 1. The UK has delivered over 23 million doses; its vaccination rate lags behind only Israel and the UAE. But if only the wealthiest countries are able to vaccinate their citizens, the end of the pandemic -- The Future -- will remain a long way off. It will be a place reserved only for the lucky few. 

That's not much of a future at all.