MELBOURNE, Australia — Ring Mayar spends all day knocking on doors in the western suburbs of Melbourne, asking residents if they have a cough, a fever or chills.

Even if they do not, he encourages them to get tested for the coronavirus, as the authorities race to catch up with a string of outbreaks that is threatening to recast Australia’s success story in controlling the spread.

“It’s quite daunting,” said Mr. Mayar, the president of the South Sudanese Community Association in the state of Victoria, who has been volunteering in one of the largely immigrant communities where cases are surging.

The rise in infections — Victoria reported 77 new cases Thursday, the most since March — has driven home the outsized impact of the coronavirus on vulnerable communities. In these places, people often must venture out for jobs that put them at risk of contracting the virus, and communication by the authorities in residents’ native languages can be patchy.

As it has elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus found a hole in Australia’s system: It spread in part because of the sharing of a cigarette lighter among security guards working at a hotel where returning international travelers are being quarantined.

It later circulated in low-income neighborhoods in the Melbourne area with sizable migrant populations, including inside a supermarket distribution center.

The surge shows how even in countries that appear to be on track to safely resume normal life, the virus can quickly resurface. The Victoria outbreaks have stalled the reopening of state borders, undercut plans to create travel bubbles with other countries, and forced 300,000 people back into lockdown.

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Credit…Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the authorities said that people in the 10 worst-affected postal codes would be confined to their homes, except for essential travel, for the next four weeks in an effort to stop the virus’s spread. International flights have been diverted from Melbourne, a city of almost five million people, and an inquiry has been opened into breaches in quarantine protocols.

Officials continued door-knocking and blitz-testing efforts, warning that if residents did not comply, the whole state of Victoria, Australia’s second most populous, could be affected.

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“If someone comes to your doorstep and offers you a test, the right answer is yes,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “If this continues to get away from us, we will all be in lockdown,” he added.

Before the Victoria outbreaks, the country was recording just a handful of new cases each week, and it had begun easing restrictions with the goal of reopening the country by the end of July.

But over the past two weeks, Victoria has had daily double-digit increases in cases. Though this pales in comparison to places like the United States that have tens of thousands of new cases each day, the rise has rattled the Australian authorities, who have held up the country’s extensive testing program, and its early lockdowns, as keys to its success.

Credit…James Ross/EPA, via Shutterstock

The surge in Victoria follows a familiar pattern: Public health officials around the globe have warned that flare-ups are inevitable even in countries that have largely suppressed the virus as restrictions on people’s movement are loosened.

In China, an outbreak linked to a food market struck Beijing last month, and the authorities responded with targeted lockdowns and widespread testing, a model now being followed in Australia. In Singapore, the virus rapidly multiplied in dormitories crowded with migrant workers.

In Australia, the coronavirus has taken hold in culturally diverse pockets around Melbourne where government messaging has not always been effective because of language barriers and other problems like distrust of the authorities. Fears of testing for the virus run high, and people may be less able to stay home from casual jobs when ill.

Some of these areas also experience high rates of homelessness and overcrowding, making it difficult for people to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

“If some of them don’t go to work, and they’re not on the JobKeeper and JobSeeker, they are left on charity to survive,” said Eddie Micallef, the chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, referring to government subsidy measures.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


The dangers were foreshadowed in May, when a panel of doctors and experts warned the Australian government that it had missed an opportunity to protect migrant communities.

Mr. Micallef and other community leaders said communication by the state and federal authorities to high-risk groups had fallen short of what would have been necessary to prevent infections. Some said that translated information took too long to reach them, and was not clear.

Credit…James Ross/AAP Images, via Reuters

“You almost need a university degree to try to understand it,” Mohammad Al-Khafaji, the chief executive of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, said of a multipage document on the coronavirus that the government had translated into Arabic.

He and other experts also warned that lockdowns enforced by the police — especially at a time of global scrutiny of police abuses — may only harm communities already wary of the authorities and exacerbate their sense of isolation.

“We have to get people to understand the importance of being home. That’s not through fines and that’s not through over-policing,” said Rebecca Wickes, an associate professor of criminology and the director of the Migration and Inclusion Center at Monash University in Melbourne. “That’s not going to create the behavior change that we are looking for.”

She added that while a first wave of racism related to the coronavirus had targeted people of Asian descent, a second wave against migrant and ethnic communities was emerging because of misconceptions that these groups did not heed public health advice.

Leaders in the Islamic community also said they worried that anti-Muslim sentiment had risen after reports that one of Melbourne’s clusters had originated at an Eid celebration last month.

It is not these disadvantaged communities that deserve blame, Professor Wickes said, but rather the “global citizens, coming back from their cruises and their ski trips to Aspen. We seem to have forgotten the history of how this virus took hold in Australia.”

For Mr. Mayar, eliminating both the stigma of the virus and the racism that can accompany it comes with every rap on a door: Though he wears gloves, and is careful to keep six feet of distance between himself and the residents, he does not wear a mask.

He acknowledges the risks involved. “But in the end we are humans, and we don’t want to look at one another like aliens,” he said. “Even if we do encounter someone who is ill, we need to show our compassion.”