SYDNEY, AUSTRALA - As Australia's most populous state eases more COVID-19 restrictions, experts say the nation has brought the epidemic "right under control." One leading commentator says he "can't find another country that has smashed the virus" as well as Australia.
Life in much of Australia is beginning to resemble what it was before COVID-19.
On Friday, more restrictions will be relaxed in the state of New South Wales. Places of worship will be allowed to have up to 300 people, while the capacity of gyms will also increase. Some 40,000 sports fans are expected to attend the final of the National Rugby League competition in Sydney on Sunday.
Across Australia, a nation of 25 million people, there is cautious optimism that, for now, at least, the coronavirus is being contained. More than 27,400 COVID-19 cases and 900 deaths have been recorded since it was first detected in Australia in late January; 8.3 million tests have been carried out.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said that the closure of Australia's borders to foreign travelers in March has also been critical.
"What we have seen is that around the country, we have done incredibly well and there are four defenses; our international borders, testing, which has been uniformly good around all of the states and territories, tracing, which has overwhelmingly been outstanding, with New South Wales the gold standard," he said. "Victoria had real challenges, but it is improving, and I think that is a very important message, and the distancing."
International travel into and out of Australia is expected to remain restricted well into next year, although a so-called safe travel bubble is allowing New Zealanders to fly into New South Wales and the Northern Territory.
Many Australians have watched on in disbelief and concern for family and friends as coronavirus cases surge again in other parts of the world.
Raina McIntyre, a professor of biosecurity at the University of New South Wales' Kirby Institute, said the situation in the United States and United Kingdom is horrifying.
"It is just thoroughly shocking," McIntyre said. "When we think of pandemics, we don't think that well-resourced, high-income countries are going to fall apart at the seams, but that is exactly what we have seen."
Some of the world's toughest lockdown measures in the city of Melbourne could be eased next week as reported infections continue to fall. The Victorian state capital has been at the center of Australia's COVID-19 emergency, but authorities are hopeful strict stay-at-home orders and other measures imposed for more than 100 days have worked.
However, clusters of the disease continue to cause alarm. Health officials have sent text messages to about 140,000 people living in three Melbourne suburbs urging them to be tested after a student attended school while infectious with COVID-19.
Australian officials concede that while the virus is mostly contained, success will only be celebrated when a safe and reliable global vaccine is available.