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Aussie state in tense balancing act between virus control, economic recovery

(Xinhua)    15:33, September 09, 2020

SYDNEY, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- Australian state of Victoria has successfully reduced its COVID-19 daily case rate from a peak of over 700 in early August to just 76 new cases on Wednesday, with expectations for the figure to fall steadily further.

It follows more than one month of strict lockdowns for state capital city Melbourne, including a night curfew and only a handful of reasons for residents to legally leave homes, such as approved work or to shop for essential items.

With minimal new cases and an end to lockdown in sight, pressure has mounted on Victoria's leadership to ease restrictions for individuals and businesses and usher in a return to normal.

Instead, Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday announced that standing restrictions would be extended for a further two weeks as part of a "roadmap" to gradually ease lockdowns, specifically aimed at avoiding a resurgence in cases.

The plan is reliant on reaching daily case targets and sees the less populous regional areas of Victoria benefit first, with significant restrictions likely to remain in place for Melbourne until at least Oct. 26, when the curfew and limits on leaving the home are scheduled to be lifted.

Following the announcement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt took aim at the plan's timeline, posting a joint statement saying that the slow approach would extend the severe economic and social impacts on Victorians.

"To extend lockdown arrangements will be hard and crushing news for the people of Victoria," they said.

"While this needs to be weighed up against mitigating the risk of further community outbreak, it is also true that the continued restrictions will have further impact on the Victorian and national economy in further job losses and loss of livelihoods, as well as impacting on mental health."

It is the responsibility of the individual state's to dictate their COVID-19 response, meaning the final decision lies with Andrews' government, an opposing political party to the prime minister.

The comments helped fuel public pressure on Andrews, who faced a barrage of questions from reporters on Wednesday forcing him to reiterate his justifications for extending the restrictions.

Andrews remained defensive of the approach which he said is the only real option available if Victoria wants to avoid a third wave of infections. "The notion that I have chosen this way to go and there were 50 other options I could have chosen, that's not in any way accurate," he said.

"Being open for just a few weeks and then being closed again that's not a strategy. It could be popular for a short while, but that's not my concern, whether I'm criticized or I'm praised, this is about doing it right, not doing what's political or popular."

Australia's economy is already in it's deepest recession on record and economists have warned that Victoria's lockdown is contributing to that, not only through limiting business activity, but as a drain on federal stimulus.

Treasury estimates released last week showed that by the end of the year, more Victorians would be receiving the government's wage subsidy JobKeeper package than the rest of Australia combined.

CEO of the Australian Retailers Association Paul Zahra said on Wednesday that the face of Victoria's downturn was shopkeepers, many of whom had been forced to close businesses permanently, leaving a hole in the communities they catered to.

"They were the first faces we saw, welcoming us out the other side of lockdowns. They were our first return to normal life. Unfortunately, in Victoria in the coming weeks, they will be amongst the first signs of economic collapse," Zahra said.

However Andrews remained confident that his "roadmap" would deliver the best outcome for Victorians and that the state could reach the trigger targets, perhaps even ahead of schedule.

"The trend is with us, we're getting down to very small numbers, but they've got to be smaller still before we can safely open up and stay open, that's the key here," Andrews said.

"We would all like to be open tomorrow, myself included, but to do that is not an act of leadership, that is to cave to some of the pressure that is there, to be driven by anger instead of the epidemiology, to be driven by opinion instead of science and data and doctors."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Bianji)

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