Australia’s Pandemic Trap is Snapping Shut

May 25, 2021

The 2021-22 budget assumes a policy that Australia’s borders will remain more or less hermetically sealed until mid-2022. As recently as late last year, we were promised opening up by July 2021. ‘Hermit Australia’, ‘Fortress Australia’, name it what you will, the trap that the Morrison Government has led us all into is of their own making.

Whole swaths of the economy can’t pursue normal modes of business and are left economically stranded. Large segments of the population, especially Australians who were part of the wave of immigration of the past fifty years, are isolated from their families and other social contacts. Many are stranded overseas. They have been left to face the risks of being in places experiencing a surge in infections, some of them forbidden to embark for the safety of their homes in their own country because they are considered a danger to the rest of us.

The closure of borders to keep the pandemic at bay was a sensible measure back in March 2020. But the fatal flaw was in the failure to think through and implement an effective exit strategy. We basked in our COVID-free lives, with a promise that we would soon ‘get back to normal’. We (more or less) tolerated social distancing, mask-wearing and lockdowns and mostly rewarded our political leaders for keeping us safe.

So, what has been the Morrison Government’s exit strategy from the lockdown of border closures? What was supposed to get Australia’s multi-cultural society and open, global economy ‘back to normal’?

The first step was a planned rapid vaccination program. But it failed miserably. By putting nearly all their eggs into one basket – the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which would be produced locally – the Government took an unconscionable risk.

The US, UK, Canada and others put their names on many millions of doses from multiple providers. Australia overwhelmingly relied on one candidate. When it was shown to be both less effective and also to have safety issues, Australia’s vaccination program had to be put back for at least six months, probably longer.

Even with a rapid and effective vaccination program, an opening-up strategy also required the careful management of the risk of importing the disease as human traffic resumed. Here, the Morrison Government’s abrogation of its quarantine responsibilities was a second failure. They handed the bulk of the job to the States and relied primarily on empty inner city hotels to house incoming passengers. It was a flawed strategy from the outset, both in terms of capacity and also in terms of effectiveness.

Thousands of Australians were left stranded overseas because of the cap on arrivals determined by the inadequate number of quarantine places. And the hotel quarantine system in practice turned out to have multiple failures, leading to repeated incidents of community spread. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, so by the end of 2020 the system was more or less coping with the limited demands being placed on it within the level of the cap. But promises to repatriate everyone ‘by Christmas’ were not delivered.

The Government’s failure here was one of both will and capacity. Challenged on their position when failings emerged, they had weak excuses. The States had, admittedly, agreed to carry the load, but they were sold a pup. Throughout, the Commonwealth seemed determined to avoid the expense and, above all, to shed the risk of being at the coalface, where the dangers of failure were most acute. They were most of all intent on avoiding any blame.

Even when States and private providers proposed to manage appropriate, fit-for-purpose quarantine facilities, the Morrison Government denied approval and refused to provide the funds. But quarantine is an enumerated Commonwealth constitutional responsibility, one of a very few so surrendered by the Colonies upon federation at the turn of the 20th Century. Absurdly, the Commonwealth accepts responsibility for biosecurity when it applies to plants and organisms, but not for humans.

True, the Commonwealth did take responsibility for managing one quarantine facility – an abandoned mining construction camp just outside Darwin that had been handed over to the Northern Territory Government. It was the most secure and safest of all, because it was eminently adaptable to the purpose, unlike inner city hotels.

The current crisis of repatriation of Australians stranded in COVID-ravaged India is emblematic of the Government’s lack of a viable lockdown exit strategy. Denial of a right to return for citizens, on pain of imprisonment, has no moral standing, because it stems from a simple policy failure: the refusal to provide an adequate number of quarantine places plus a set of flexible alternatives to forced isolation for everybody.

The process of repatriation from India once agreed upon – albeit reluctantly – is turning out to be a microcosm of the Commonwealth’s failures. The pace of the returns is governed by the number of quarantine places currently available. It would have taken little (except money and the kind of construction capacity a mining company can muster) to expand these places dramatically, but there has been no evident urgency to do so.

Even the process of flying the stranded Australians home has been bungled. Tests to show the COVID-19 status of passengers were left to the airline to administer, which contracted them to a local health company, which sub-contracted them to a laboratory of dubious standing with the authorities. False results were presented; half the proposed complement of passengers had to stay behind – herald more buck-passing and blame-shifting by the Prime Minister.

In any case, quarantine is not just for the healthy – that is another absurd proposition. Repatriation of Australians testing positive would be an option, in addition to those who may be incubating the disease, if measures were taken to segregate passengers and if there were the capacity to isolate and treat the sick securely once they arrived.

No doubt, the logistical problems of meeting the challenges of a viable opening up strategy are formidable. But what we have seen is an inexcusable failure of basic policy and administrative capacities. We have none of the building blocks in place for easing the border restrictions: an effective vaccination strategy, a timely program of repatriations, a fit-for-purpose quarantine system, mass testing capacity purpose-built to deal with heightened risks of community spread, and a communications plan to convince Australians that there is a viable path out of what is now looming as a perpetual lockdown.

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