May 11, 2021, 6 p.m.
Buried in this week’s Australian federal budget papers was a prediction that devastated the millions of Australians like me who live abroad and the millions more at home they love: national borders are likely to remain closed until at least mid-2022.
Australia slammed its doors as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it closed them tighter than any other nation except perhaps North Korea. Many, if not most, nations have restricted unnecessary travel since the pandemic began. But very few have banned their own citizens from leaving the country, not even China, and certainly none – save Australia – who are democracies.
There are up to 40,000 Australians around the world who are registered with the State Department and identify themselves as “stranded” – meaning they are desperate to return home but cannot. One reason is money. The federal government decided early on that the responsibility for managing expensive quarantines, mostly in hotels, rests with the Australian states and territories, which has far exceeded the number of international arrivals by demand. The cost of 3,000 Australian dollars must be paid by each returnees. (Children enjoy a generous price of just AU $ 2,500.)
Some people just can’t find any flights at all. Australian airline Qantas was privatized back in 1993, and the few airlines that still frequently cancel long, barely profitable flights are canceling flights, prioritizing business class and cargo over economy class travelers, and charging triple or higher pre-pandemic price.
Super-rich Australians like Lachlan Murdoch and Nicole Kidman have found their way back into private planes, received quarantine permission on their own property and are now enjoying life in a country largely untouched by the coronavirus. Australia’s initial lockdown lasted approximately six weeks. Melbourne then endured a tougher version for several months. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Australia is below 1,000 and the total deaths from illness are below projections. This success story is due in part to the initial closure of national borders in mid-March 2020. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has acted quickly and decisively, and he deserves credit for that.
In addition to the Murdochs and Kidmans, the border has also proven porous to a wide variety of foreign celebrities, including Natalie Portman, Zac Efron, Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and others. Some came to film in a coronavirus-free environment; others for the surf breaks in the posh beach town of Byron Bay in New South Wales.
However, for some ordinary people, returning home is not only difficult but also illegal. In India, 9,500 Australians are stranded on criminal charges, five years in prison and around $ 50,000 in Biosecurity Act fines trying to return home fearing new varieties are contagious.
But what about vaccines? One of the richest countries in the world should have had no problem getting enough cans for its 25 million people. The Australian Medicines Agency approved both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines earlier this year, but only 9.7 percent of Australians have received at least one vaccine.
Vaccinations started slowly when Morrison learned from Morrison in December 2020 that no urgency was required as there were so few cases of COVID-19 in the community. (Regardless of the fact that epidemiologists believe that the whole world should be in a hurry to take on increasingly virulent variants.)
In fact, according to Morrison, Australia would enjoy a front-row seat when it rolled out in the United States and the United Kingdom – a light-hearted phrase that revealed a significant distance from global suffering. Australia benefited from social cohesion and good government early on, but also from the sheer luck of being a remote island nation. However, without vaccines, Australia’s coronavirus-free bliss is dangerously fragile.
The numbers are puzzling, but it’s clear that Morrison just didn’t sign enough deals with drug companies over the past year. While the government made fun of the insignificance of Italy blocking the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca shots to Australia, that seemingly meager number had a significant impact on the pace of the initial rollout. The schedule of when the majority of Australians will get their first shot has been repeatedly postponed, with the government’s latest estimate in late 2021.
Why the six month delay between the expected vaccination of the population and the final reopening of international borders? The budget paper in which the prediction was made blamed the very states to which the federal government had shifted responsibility for the quarantine: “The number of international arrivals will continue to be subject to quarantine caps for states in 2021 and the first half of the year and territories will be limited by 2022. “
The government’s alarming message often seems to preclude mention of the medical miracle of vaccines and their overall protective effects. In mid-April, around the time all Americans were eligible for their shot, Morrison said opening international borders “or more” could result in 1,000 cases a week. In a country where a single case can close the borders of a state, this has understandably made waves.
Furthermore, when vaccines are mentioned, their effectiveness is underestimated. News.com.au reported, citing a government source following the budget announcement, “One issue the prime minister and medical experts are grappling with is whether vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the virus – even if they can’t the case is get sick longer and die. “With increasing and increasingly overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 vaccines reduce transmission and drastically reduce the risk of serious illnesses, it seems silly to focus on asymptomatic cases. (A fairly normal motto in a major newspaper a few days ago said that six people in hotel quarantine who tested positive had been vaccinated abroad who had “been exposed to difficulties implementing a vaccination record system”.)
Unless, as some have speculated, the opening of the border was strategically delayed to give Morrison the best possible chance in the upcoming general election. (In Australia, the prime minister has a lot of leeway to hold elections whenever they want.) While the prime minister has denied having an elimination strategy, the continued focus on individual, asymptomatic cases makes it difficult to see the public getting on ever assume anything other than zero – nor what a way to reconnect with the rest of the world would look like at all.
That is why I, and so many other Australians abroad, feel a sense of betrayal. In the 1990s, Australian children were taught that Australia’s multiculturalism was not just an official government policy. it was what made our country special. As recently as February of this year, Morrison claimed that Australia was “the most successful multicultural immigration country in the world”. Much of it depended on Australians’ connections to the rest of the world, via diasporas from Greece to Sri Lanka. It sounds hollow when 10,000 Australian citizens risk jail time trying to escape the coronavirus disaster in India and tens of thousands more have no idea when they will re-enter their homeland.
The lack of public outrage is striking. According to a recent poll, only a third of Australians believe that more should be done to repatriate fellow citizens. Only half are confident that vaccines can effectively stop COVID-19. And anecdotally, the comments section on every article written about the border closure is a dead end of complaints and paranoia. Some suggest throwing “spoiled expats”, their fellow citizens, into the same offshore refugee detention centers that have so outraged the world and violated human rights conventions for years.
Vaccination failures in other countries have sparked scandals and anger, but not for Australians. Instead, a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald, for which I write, was headlined, “Testing Our Defense: Is Hotel Quarantine the Nation’s Achilles Heel?” News reports frame closed borders as a matter of privilege and international travel as a luxury. The voices of separated parents and children are seldom heard, despite 7.5 million Australians, 30 percent of the population, being born abroad.
And despite Australia’s first recession in three decades last year, it is even more seldom to hear what the economic cost of closed borders is. Almost 100,000 international students came to Australia in January 2020. Today universities that already lack public funding will lose nearly AU $ 4 billion in revenues. Until the pandemic, the tourism industry made up 5 percent of the labor market. Compare that to mining, which employs just 2 percent of Australians but receives $ 29 billion in subsidies annually. Some industries in Australia are too important to fail, but education and tourism are not one of them.
The human cost continues to increase day by day. In the Sun Herald, Latika Bourke, who was born in Bihar, India and was adopted by Australian parents as a baby, wrote: “I have shed many tears in the past 12 months and wondered why Australia took the liberty of stopping COVID-19 to lose one’s humanity? “Bourke now lives in London and is aiming for British citizenship because, in her opinion, Britain will never try to lock her out like Australia did.
My mother, who has not yet met her granddaughter, who was born in April last year, recently sent me a photo of Sydney Harbor that glimmered in the sunlight as a ferry crossed its light gray crests. Her caption captured both the preciousness of Australia and its leaders’ persistent reluctance to share it: “Beautiful morning here in the Hermit Kingdom.”