Australia Is the New Hermit Kingdom
Closed borders have shut out a diverse citizenry.
Buried in Australia’s federal budget papers this week was a prediction that devastated the million Australians, like me, who live abroad and the millions more at home who love them: The 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 has kept them more firmly shut than any nation save, perhaps, North Korea. Plenty if not most nations have restricted nonessential travel since the start of the pandemic. But very few have forbidden their own citizens from leaving, not even China, and certainly none—except for Australia—that are democracies.
There are up to 40,000 Australians around the world registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs who identify as “stranded”—that is, they desperately want to return home, but they can’t. One reason is money. The federal government decided early on that the responsibility for administering expensive quarantines, largely in hotels, belonged to Australia’s states and territories, which put caps on international arrivals far exceeded by demand. The cost of $3,000 Australian dollars must be paid by every returnee. (Children enjoy a generous rate of just AU$2,500.)
Some people just can’t find flights at all. Australia’s flag carrier Qantas was privatized back in 1993, and the few airlines still making the long, barely profitable trip cancel flights frequently, prioritize business class and cargo over economy-class travelers, and are charging triple the price, or more, that they did before the pandemic.
Super-wealthy Australians such as Lachlan Murdoch and Nicole Kidman have found their way back on private planes, been granted permission to quarantine on their own properties, and are now enjoying life in a country largely untouched by the coronavirus. Australia’s initial lockdown lasted all of six weeks or so; subsequently, Melbourne endured a harsher version for several months. Deaths from COVID-19 in Australia are under 1,000 and overall deaths from medical conditions are down on projections. This success story stems in part from the initial national border closure in mid-March 2020. Prime Minister Scott Morrison acted swiftly and decisively, and he deserves credit for it.
But in addition to the Murdochs and the Kidmans, the border has also proven permeable for a bevy of foreign celebrities, including Natalie Portman, Zac Efron, Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and others. A few came to film in a coronavirus-free setting; others, for the surfing breaks in the posh New South Wales beach town of Byron Bay.
For some ordinary people, though, returning home is not just hard but illegal. There are 9,500 Australians stranded in India who face criminal charges, five years in prison, and around $50,000 in fines under the Biosecurity Act if they try to return home, due to fears over the contagiousness of new variants.
But what about vaccines? One of the richest countries in the world should have had no trouble procuring enough doses for its 25 million residents. The Australian drug regulator approved both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines at the start of this year, but just 9.7 percent of Australians have had at least one vaccine shot.
Vaccinations got off to a slow start when Australians were told by Morrison in December 2020 that there was no need for urgency because there were so few instances of COVID-19 in the community. (Never mind that epidemiologists think that the whole world should be in a hurry, racing against ever-more-virulent variants.)
In fact, Morrison said, Australia would enjoy a “front-row seat” to the rollout in the United States and the United Kingdom—a blithe wording that revealed a telling detachment from global suffering. Australia benefited from societal cohesion and good government early on, but also from the sheer luck of being a remote island nation. Without vaccines, though, Australia’s coronavirus-free bliss is dangerously fragile.
The numbers are shrouded in mystery, but it’s clear that Morrison simply didn’t sign enough contracts with drug companies in the flurry last year. While the government scoffed at the insignificance of Italy blocking the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca shots to Australia, that seemingly paltry number had a material effect on the pace of the initial rollout. The timeline for when the majority of Australians will get their first shot has been repeatedly pushed back, with the latest estimate from the government the end of 2021.
Why the six-month delay between when the population is expected to be vaccinated and the international borders finally reopening? The budget paper in which the prediction was made placed blame with the very states the federal government had shunted the responsibility of quarantine onto: “The rate of international arrivals will continue to be constrained by state and territory quarantine caps over 2021 and the first half of 2022.”
The government’s alarmist messaging often seems to exclude mention of the medical miracle of vaccines and their protective effects altogether. In the middle of April, around the time when all adult Americans became eligible for their shot, Morrison said opening international borders could lead to 1,000 cases a week “or more.” In a country where a single case can shut down a state’s borders, this understandably made waves.
Moreover, when vaccines are mentioned, their effectiveness is underplayed. Citing a government source, News.com.au reported in the wake of the budget announcement that “one concern the PM and medical experts are grappling with is whether or not people who are vaccinated can still catch and transmit the virus – even if they no longer get sick and die.” Since mounting and increasingly overwhelming evidence is that COVID-19 vaccines do reduce transmission and drastically reduce the chance of serious illness, fixating on asymptomatic cases seems, well, silly.
Unless, that is, as some have speculated, the border opening has been strategically delayed to furnish Morrison with the best possible chances in an upcoming federal election. (In Australia, the prime minister has a lot of latitude to call elections whenever they would like.) While the prime minister has denied that he’s pursuing an elimination strategy, the continued focus on individual, asymptomatic cases makes it’s hard to see how the public will ever countenance anything but zero—nor what a path to reengaging with the rest of the world would even look like.
This is why I and so many other Australians abroad feel a sense of betrayal. In Australia in the 1990s, kids were taught that Australia’s multiculturalism was not just official government policy. It was what made our country special. As recently as this February, Morrison claimed Australia was “the most successful multicultural immigration country on the planet.” A big part of that depended on Australians’ connections to the rest of the world, through diasporas from Greece to Sri Lanka. It rings hollow when 10,000 Australian citizens risk jail time if they try to escape coronavirus disaster in India, and tens of thousands more have no idea when they’ll set foot in their homeland again.
The lack of public outrage is striking. Just one-third of Australians, according to a recent survey, think more should be done to repatriate fellow citizens. Only half are confident that vaccines will be effective at stopping COVID-19. And, anecdotally, the comments section on any article written about the border closure is a cesspool of complaints and paranoia. Some suggest throwing “spoiled expats,” their fellow citizens, in the same offshore refugee detention centers that have so horrified the world—and violated human rights conventions—for years.
Vaccine failures in other countries have prompted scandals and anger, but not for Australians. Instead, the headline on a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald, which I write for, was: “Testing our defences: is hotel quarantine the nation’s Achilles heel?” News reports frame the closed borders as an issue purely of the privileged, and foreign trips as luxury items. Rarely are the voices of separated parents and children heard, even though 7.5 million Australians, 30 percent of the population, were born abroad.
And despite Australia’s first recession in three decades last year, it’s even rarer to hear the economic costs of closed borders reckoned with. January 2020 saw almost 100,000 international students arrive in Australia. Today, universities already starved of public funds are set to lose nearly AU$4 billion (around $3 billion) in revenue. Until the pandemic, the tourism industry made up 5 percent of the labor market. Contrast that with mining, which employs just 2 percent of Australians but gets $29 billion a year in subsidies. Some industries in Australia are too important to fail, but education and tourism are not among them.
The human cost continues to grow by the day. In the Sun Herald, Latika Bourke, who was born in Bihar, India, and adopted as a baby to Australian parents, wrote, “I have shed many tears over the past 12 months asking myself why, in its pursuit of stopping COVID-19 deaths, did Australia allow itself to lose its humanity.” Now living in London, Bourke is pursuing British citizenship because, she believes, Britain will never try to lock her out like Australia did.
My mother, who has yet to meet her granddaughter born in April of last year, sent me a photo the other day of Sydney Harbor, glinting in the sunlight as a ferry traversed its light grey crests. Her caption captured both Australia’s preciousness and the persistent unwillingness of its leaders to share it: “Beautiful morning here in the Hermit Kingdom.”
Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia