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Need a covid test in Australia? Good luck — or try importing one from 8,000 miles away.

People wait in line at a walk-in coronavirus testing site in Melbourne on Jan. 5. (Joel Carrett/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The shop attendant leaned forward conspiratorially. “They have a supply come in downstairs at 11 a.m.,” he said. “The sign says they don’t have any, but it’s always up. Just ask and they’ll … ,” he added, miming pulling something illicit out from under a counter.

He was talking about buying a rapid antigen test (RAT). Two years into the pandemic, getting tested for the coronavirus in Australia’s cities has been reduced to a whisper network and friend-of-a-friend tips, sleeping in cars outside testing centers, and waiting in lines for up to eight hours with no access to food, water or toilets.

Do I have the virus? Couldn’t tell you. I have dedicated two days to answering this question. My home country has switched course, from a hard-line pursuit of “zero covid” to letting it rip, on the back of high vaccination rates. For many, it’s a refreshing change. But as the omicron variant spreads and the nation’s health systems are overwhelmed with a sudden influx of the sick and symptomatic, the process of getting tested has become a herculean labor that must be undertaken while feeling unwell.

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On Wednesday, I woke to fatigue, an aching body, a little extra texture in my respiratory system, and a general feeling of heaviness and confusion. It could be the coronavirus. It could not be the coronavirus. But as it sweeps through Australia like never before, I’d like to know.

Daily cases hit almost 65,000 nationally on Wednesday, a new experience for those of us here. In Melbourne, where I live, we were previously forced indoors over only a handful. We experienced the world’s longest lockdown, living under strict restrictions for almost nine months. As recently as August, state authorities imposed a 9 p.m. curfew, strictly enforced for eight weeks, because of 25 new cases. We were fined more than $1,300 if caught venturing beyond three miles of our homes without an approved reason. No more. In the season of omicron and with 77 percent of the population double-dosed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has touted a virus management mantra of “personal responsibility.” In all states, the majority of restrictions have been lifted.

My first approach to get tested on Wednesday was to try to buy a RAT. As in many parts of the world, these at-home tests are in incredibly short supply down under. I hit up pharmacies, convenience stores and supermarkets in my neighborhood, Southbank, and Melbourne’s city center — where the attendant’s advice came to naught — before trying the pharmacy where I had last bought a test in simpler, pre-Christmas times, in the northern suburb of Carlton. No luck.

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I work from home, and hadn’t been outside much as cases skyrocketed of late. Downtown, it wasn’t as eerily quiet as during lockdown — when stepping into the streets felt like attending an open-casket funeral for someone you dearly loved — but things seemed on edge. Restaurant reservations and appointments with tradespeople are being canceled at a stunning pace — not because of restrictions this time, but because workers are getting sick. It used to be that almost none of us knew someone with the virus. Now everybody does.

At one gas station, my heart leaped. “RAPID ANTIGEN TESTS AVAILABLE HERE,” a sign proclaimed. But the notice was outdated. In another shop, a pharmacist told me with an encouraging expression that they might restock on Friday. I was sweating, nauseated, and my head was increasingly fuzzy.

It was time to enlist the Internet in my quest. Findarat.com.au is a website created by a Melbourne software developer that uses live user inputs to alert viewers to locations selling the tests. When I brought up its map around midday, I realized the futility of my morning’s efforts. The site showed only four locations in all of greater Melbourne — a city of more than 5 million — with tests in stock. One was sold out by the time I got there, half an hour later. I was on my way to another — an hour and 20 minutes away from my apartment — when I managed to get through to the pharmacy on the phone.

“We don’t have any rapid antigen tests available,” the woman on the other end of the line said, in lieu of the traditional “Hello, how can I help you?”

“Sorry,” she continued. “Goodbye.”

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Six hours, 14 stores and five suburbs later, I returned home defeated. I bought a five-pack of RATs online for $53.95 that would be shipped in six days. None the wiser as to my infection status, I accepted that buying a rapid test was an unattainable dream at this stage of the pandemic in Melbourne.

On Thursday, I woke up feeling significantly worse. I had the physical strength and wherewithal of a newborn. But I would have to get it together, because today I was trying to get a PCR test — the kind you can get only at a designated testing site from a health-care worker.

Horror stories from friends about long lines for PCR tests were front of mind. In recent days, they had told me of standing parched in the sun, of waiting hours only to be turned away, of seriously weighing the pros and cons of urinating into a bottle at drive-through clinics. I planned as if going on a trip: snacks, two bottles of water, a book, tissues, an N95 mask, sunscreen and a raincoat. I timed the distance between my morning coffee and ducking into a public bathroom with precision, hoping to reduce my bladder agony.

Walking to the nearest testing site, I felt a shortness of breath. I had to keep stopping to take breaks, on the same city walk I have completed dozens of times. It was a disconcerting, and mildly frightening, development.

When I arrived at the Melbourne Town Hall, a publicly run testing site, I realized I had made a mistake. I had got there half an hour before it opened. A security guard told me, firmly but with some sympathy, that they couldn’t accept any more people in the line.

At Melbourne Town Hall, some people were turned away half an hour before the coronavirus testing site opened on Jan. 6. (Video: Frances Vinall)

At 4Cyte Pathology Melbourne, another breathless 10-minute walk away, I was finally in luck. The line occupied only about two city blocks! And the security guard allowed me to join it! After a mere two hours, a health-care worker had inserted a swab deep into my nostrils and told me to expect a result in about three days. I thanked her with genuine gratitude. Then I headed for home, where I must isolate until I receive the result by text. This is fine by me. I have the third season of “Succession” to finish, a month’s supply of painkillers, and no desire to do anything but lie down in a fluey daze.

I still don’t know if I have the virus, and I won’t get my result until Sunday at the earliest. But I have a trump card up my sleeve. In a fortuitous coincidence, my boyfriend is returning from a trip to his home country, Mexico, on Saturday. He has promised he will have a rapid test for me in his suitcase.

After two days of concerted effort, I can report that the most expedient method of getting a coronavirus test result in Melbourne right now is to have someone personally deliver you one from overseas. If that option isn’t available to you … good luck.

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