For 3 days, I lived in the most locked down region in Australia.
I live in Adelaide, South Australia, and for those 3 days, we had some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions currently in place around the world.
It all started on a warm Sunday afternoon last week, when a woman in her 80s tested positive for COVID-19 at a hospital emergency department.
Two others then tested positive, one of them the woman’s child. By Monday, there were 17 confirmed cases, all close contacts of the woman and her family members.
Health authorities asked people living across South Australia to work from home.
Health officials said the woman contracted the virus from a person who worked as a cleaner at a medical hotel in Adelaide. The hotel is housing returned travelers from overseas who have to quarantine.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that a security guard who worked at a quarantine hotel and at a pizza bar in Adelaide’s northwest area tested positive.
A worker at a different quarantine hotel who told authorities he went to the shop to buy a pizza also tested positive.
The number of cases linked to the cluster hit 23 with 7 more suspected cases.
Swift measures taken
At lunchtime on Wednesday, Nov. 18, Steven Marshall, the premier of South Australia, announced drastic action would be taken in response to the growing number of cases.
We were told South Australia would go into total lockdown for 6 days from midnight that evening.
All schools would close except for essential workers’ children.
Restaurants, cafés, food courts, pubs, and takeaway food outlets would all be shuttered.
All nonessential shops would be closed. Care facilities for older adults would be locked down. Gyms would be closed.
Weddings and funerals would be banned. Regional travel would not be permitted.
Only one person per household would be allowed to leave the home once a day for essential tasks, such as grocery shopping.
We were instructed that masks should be worn outside the home at all times and no outdoor exercise would be allowed.
A shock to the system
This came as quite a shock to some, as Adelaide had lived for months with zero COVID-19 cases and hardly any evidence of the global pandemic surrounding our corner of the world.
Before the lockdown, cafés were buzzing, children were at school, people had returned to the workplace, and grocery shopping was easy.
It was unusual to see people wearing a mask.
By Wednesday afternoon, that all changed.
Despite authorities urging people to avoid panic buying, they rushed to the shops and cleared out the shelves of toilet paper, pasta, fruit, and meat.
Stores quickly ran out of masks and people took to social media, asking friends and neighbors if they knew of any shops with supplies available.
Why the action was taken
For an outsider looking in, this might seem an odd spectacle. All of this for less than 25 confirmed cases?
But as a whole, the public was supportive of the decision. We saw our neighbors in Victoria go into a hard lockdown for 112 days to get their COVID-19 numbers under control.
We had seen their success. Nowhere else in the world has been able to control a second wave quite like Victoria did.
In August, Victoria’s 7-day average of daily new cases hit 533. Toward the end of October, they emerged from their lengthy lockdown with no new cases.
We’d seen that this can work, and we were hoping it would for us, but in a shorter period of time.
The 6-day lockdown was described as a “circuit breaker.” That is, if we go in hard and fast with significant restrictions now, we’ll get the cluster under control before it spreads.
After the 6 days, we were told there would be a further 8 days of restrictions, but the rules would likely be less severe.
“Time is of the essence. And we must act swiftly and decisively. We cannot wait to see how bad this becomes,” Marshall said when announcing the lockdown.
I called Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, to tell him about our new restrictions. He was amazed at the speed and severity of the lockdown.
“Wow. That is severe on the basis of 20 cases. Twenty new cases occur within the hour in Nashville alone,” he said.
“This would be… impossible to impose, to even suggest, here in the United States,” Schaffner added. “I’m in great admiration of the community solidarity that has been described as I have learned about what’s happened in Australia and New Zealand. People have a sense that if we do this together and do it in a very firm, serious, comprehensive fashion, that’s the way to go.”
But the reality of life in lockdown isn’t without its challenges.
I have an autoimmune liver disease and am in a high-risk category, so my husband and I are being careful.
On Sunday, when we first heard about the cluster, we went and bought masks. On his way to work on Monday, listening to the radio and hearing the number of cases was on the rise, my husband turned around and decided to work from home.
We got the groceries we needed early, anticipating that things could change quickly. It proved to be a good decision.
Others spent time in the hours before lockdown lining up at grocery stores. Others donned their masks on the first day of the lockdown, braving the shops to see if they could find toilet paper.
Meanwhile, my friends with children were facing their own challenges.
Anna Lacey has two children ages 6 and 3. For her, the hardest part of the lockdown was attempting to work from home with children around.
“It is a juggle with two working parents and two children at home, but the children will enjoy some time with our third parent (the television) and we have got puzzles, coloring books, and other activities,” she told me. “To be honest, the hardest thing is not being able to go for a walk, my children are energetic beings and not having that outlet will be challenging.”
Across the city, Hannah Ward and her two sons ages 8 and 5 were facing similar challenges.
“Keeping the kids occupied will probably be the most challenging part. I have two very active boys who rarely sit still,” she said.
It’s also been hard not seeing older family members.
“I’m worried for my dad who is living on his own. Mum passed away a few months ago and Dad is stuck in a house full of memories of her,” Ward said. “With the restrictions being so tight, it will be hard to keep an eye on him and for him to keep himself busy. I’ll be calling and texting him more regularly and I might try a virtual Netflix night, too.”
Public supports the actions
Despite the challenges, my friends, like many South Australians, welcomed the restrictions as the right decision.
No one took to the streets protesting the lockdown. No one questioned the wisdom of our chief health officer.
South Australians just got on with it.
Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the University of California Davis, said restrictions like this would be much harder to implement in the United States.
“We’ve seen so many protests in the U.S. with much less extreme measures that have been implemented in communities,” Blumberg told me. “So it’s difficult for me to imagine that occurring in the U.S.”
“It depends on your values,” he added. “If you really want to avoid widespread transmission, then it’s natural to act aggressively. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to accept a certain level of transmission you might not want to take these measures like that.”
The lie that started it all
On the first day of lockdown, Adelaide woke up to good news: No new cases. A promising start.
But then on the second day, things took an interesting turn.
It was revealed that one of the people involved in the outbreak lied to contact tracing teams.
Authorities said the man who told them he had quickly gone into the pizza parlor was actually an employee who had worked regular shifts there.
That eased officials’ concerns that the man had contracted the virus after only being in the restaurant for a few minutes.
“To say I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement,” Marshall said. “The selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation. His actions have affected businesses, individuals, family groups, and is completely, and utterly unacceptable.”
A single lie about a person visiting a pizza place sent the entire state into a harsh lockdown. South Australia’s leaders and health authorities weren’t impressed.
“That clearly changes the circumstances, and had this person been truthful to the contact tracing teams, we would not have gone into a 6-day lockdown,” said South Australia Police Commissioner Grant Stevens.
On Friday, barely 2 days into what was meant to be a 6-day lockdown, South Australians watched in disbelief as Marshall, together with the police commissioner and chief public health officer, began to immediately scale back some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the world.
“I will not let the disgraceful conduct of a single individual to keep South Australia in these circuit breaker conditions one day longer than what is necessary,” Marshall said.
The premier then repealed lockdown orders, effective midnight Saturday.
Better safe than sorry
And just as quickly as it happened, we were allowed out to exercise in family groups.
We were told schools could open on Monday.
It was clarified that masks outside the home weren’t mandatory but still encouraged.
The health authorities still wanted some time to accurately trace any contacts of the person who lied, but they said they didn’t want to keep us in lockdown any longer than was necessary.
South Australians had many questions.
How could this have happened?
How could an entire state go into lockdown on the basis of one lie told by a single person working at a pizza shop?
But many still felt it was better to be safe than sorry and that health authorities had made the right choice to go into a hard lockdown.
“They made the decision based on the information that they had at the time,” Lachie Bishop, a farmer at Teal Flat, east of Adelaide, told me.
For some, it might seem the South Australia lockdown was an overreaction. But we’ll never know how many lives we might have saved by staying at home and wearing masks.
Even if only for 3 days, the people of South Australia survived quite nicely living in one of the most locked down regions of the planet.