For months, Australia was lauded as a success story in curbing COVID-19. Now Australia must focus on removing the negativity clouding its international image.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt differently across the world. This is because of the range of responses across nations. The countries that refused to acknowledge the lethality of the virus and continued on with “normal” life have found themselves in desperate straits, with overwhelmed health systems, skyrocketing infection rates, and spiralling deaths. Then there are other countries that listened to science and reacted accordingly.
Thus, in hindsight, the countries that ultimately curbed the spread of the virus, and suffered the least, were not necessarily the wealthiest but those that were unwavering in their commitment to control the virus and subdue the pandemic.
Australia is one of the countries that, from the inception, implemented strict regulations to contain the virus and to control its spread. Measures included swift lockdowns, lengthy travel restrictions, strict border control policies, and aggressive contact tracing. These unyielding restrictions, which led Australia to be dubbed “Fortress Australia,” were more impactful and pervasive than other travel controls, including EU entry restrictions.
On 20 March 2020, three days before the initial lockdown of the UK and when the COVID-19 virus was zooming across the world, the Australian government promptly closed the country’s borders to all non-residents. Through this zero-tolerance approach to compromising public health, by October 2020, Australia was proud to announce zero new cases, with 95 percent of Australians agreeing their government did a great job of handling the pandemic. In fact, in the recent past, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “We sit here as an island that’s living like few countries in the world are at the moment. We have to be careful not to exchange that way of life for what everyone else has.”
Australia’s public health situation was the envy of many countries that were getting bashed by COVID-19, with most Australians and businesses enjoying months of relative normality. American immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci even commended Australia as a world leader on “containment and management of emerging variants.”
However, the situation changed with the Delta variant. With outbreaks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, millions of Australian residents were sent into long lockdowns. While these measures brought positive public health results, the downside was the cost to people’s livelihoods and mental health. As Ivo Mueller, epidemiologist at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said, “The reality is that Delta is too infectious to be able to eliminate it with the amount of restriction that can be sustained by a population that is already really, really tired of restrictions after having gone through more than 200 days of restriction previously.”
To complicate matters further, the Delta variant shows no signs of waning. The government now appears to be loosening its grip on pandemic control, allowing the “Fortress” to be breached. Morrison said Australians will soon learn to “live with the virus.” Nevertheless, the government required that 70-80 percent of the population aged 16 or older be vaccinated before lifting the lockdown.
In order to hasten the exit from lockdown, the Australian government inked deals with the UK and Singapore for early acquisition of Pfizer doses. Morrison said his government is toiling to put in place a home quarantine system to open Australia to the world. As Mueller said, “Australia cannot remain forever an island.”
Meanwhile, millions of Australians are stranded overseas, some prevented from returning by expensive quarantine measures, and others by the inability to get flights back home due to the limited amount of inbound flights. According to estimates by the advocacy group Reconnect Australia, at least one million Australians live abroad, with two million TR holders who are unable to return to Australia for failure to meet travel exemptions. Furthermore, TR holders do not qualify for DFAT reparations, which has led to mounting frustration with the Australian government.
Being locked out of the country has taken a toll on many people that call Australia home. While Australia is one of a handful of countries that provide support to those stuck overseas, Australians have lamented the government’s strict regulations and complicated process, such as requiring loans to be paid back in six months. Countries like France have offered more flexible plans to their countrymen in the same situation.
Since March 2020, returning Australians were forced into a quota system to enter the country, and even when they did, they faced two weeks of mandatory hotel quarantine. Moreover, foreigners had virtually no chance of getting into Australia at all. Coupled with the insufficient support provided by the government, Australia’s international image of being a warm, hospitable nation took a major wallop.
Regarding the current situation faced by Australia, the system requires a major overhaul. Citizens are calling for better support and the provision of clarity to stranded Australians on what to expect. Such support would ideally include repatriations or financial support, flight plans, and including temporary visa holders into their home quarantine program instead of leaving them overseas to fight their battles alone.
Anton Lucanus holds a BSc from the University of Western Australia and is the Founder of Neliti, Indonesia’s largest digital library with over 200,000 publications and 3 million monthly website visitors. Anton is a past recipient of the AIIA’s Euan Crone Scholarship.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.