For many Australians, face masks are among the most visible symbols of the pandemic.
The country of 25 million people has had some of the world’s toughest disease control measures. Its borders were closed to most foreign nationals for two years, and strict lockdowns were imposed. Mask mandates were also introduced, along with vaccination orders for key workers, including medical staff and teachers.
Many of the restrictions have been lifted, though.
Starting Friday, the states of New South Wales and Queensland, along with the Australian Capital Territory, which is the administrative region that surrounds the nation’s capital, Canberra, will lift mask mandates at airports. Western Australia will follow Saturday. There have been no announcements on the lifting of the face covering orders from the South Australian or Victorian governments.
Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, says it is time for the mask mandates to end.
“Airports aren’t sufficiently different to the rest of our experience, you know, whether you go to the local shops or you are going into your workplace. We now, wherever we are, whether it is at the airport or not, we have to be conscious of our exposure. So, it is important the messaging around the removal of masks isn’t like, oh, we don’t have to worry about that anymore. It is saying airports, you know, are now not a special case because our risk is across the board. We need to be as careful everywhere.”
However, other epidemiologists believe it is a “retrograde step” because Australia is, on average, reporting about 30,000 new coronavirus infections and up to 40 deaths each day.
Adrian Esterman is the chair in biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia.
“I think it is a bad move. I mean, at least we still have to wear masks on flights in Australia, but even that has been removed in Europe and America. You know, what is happening is that the state and territory governments are telling everyone that it is all over, that life can go back to normal, we don’t have to worry about anything and, of course, it’s not over.”
Australia has diagnosed about 7.7 million coronavirus infections during the pandemic, according to government data. More than 9,000 people have died.
Ninety-five percent of the population over 16 years of age have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 70% have had a third booster shot.