Who’s repelling boarders at our internal borders?

Aug 26, 2020

The emergency border controls are not doing much, if anything, to drive the virus from our shores.

Hungerford sits on the eastern bank of the Paroo on the NSW-Queensland border, a mere 1050 kms from Coolangatta, or 433 kms by road from Goodooga, the nearest citadel of civilisation. It was never much — maybe 10 dwellings at its height 130 years ago. It had been intended to be in NSW, but a surveying error put most of it in Queensland. The rabbit-proof fence ran through the middle of the main street, with rabbits on both sides.  Near the gate, on the Queensland side, was a Queensland Customs building, to mulch border-crossers of duty for their wool, their butter and their grog.

In 1892, Henry Lawson walked from Bourke to Hungerford when that was reckoned 135 miles. He didn’t think much of it: “Hungerford consists of two houses and a humpy in New South Wales, and five houses in Queensland. Characteristically enough, both the pubs are in Queensland. We got a glass of sour yeast at one and paid sixpence for it — we had asked for English ale.

“The post-office is in New South Wales, and the police-barracks in Bananaland. The police cannot do anything if there’s a row going on across the street in New South Wales, except to send to Brisbane and have an extradition warrant applied for; and they don’t do much if there’s a row in Queensland. “Most of the rows are across the border, where the pubs are.”

The customs house was one of 14 along the 1500 km-long border with NSW. The incongruity of having an official there was a part of the propaganda for federalists who wanted to create a single nation in 1901, rather than a host of squabbling colonies.

I doubt that there’s a lonely Queensland cop sitting in his white Toyota next to the gate on the rabbit-proof fence barring the entry of potentially plague-ridden NSW or, worse, Victorian or Canberra folk attempting to smuggle themselves into Queensland. But perhaps there should be. Queensland lives could depend upon it. So could a revival of the economy of Hungerford — current population about 15.

Emergency powers, whether over pandemics, bushfires, shearers’ strikes or drought are a wonderful way to prevent bad things happening in a crisis. In Australia, however, they have not been very successful in making lasting changes for the good.

That’s a point to be borne in mind as prime ministers, premiers and chief ministers, and their viziers, struggle to adapt to new rules and understandings about the best actions, nationally, federally and regionally to cope with the pandemic. It affects the division of power between the Commonwealth on the one hand, and the states and territories on the other, and the abrupt, but probably necessary, shift in the powers and rights of the citizen vis-à-vis a policeman, a health official or someone restricting freedom of movement, of association, of business and trade, and even the right to work.

Most Australians, it seems, generally support the restrictions imposed on people in efforts to contain or to stop the spread of the coronavirus. We have seen here how measures such as quarantining and a virtual closedown of international aviation, as well as a host of rules about social distancing, hygiene, the closure of venues and restrictions on movement, not to mention a serious contraction of the economy,  have helped reduce the incidence and prevalence of the virus. When accidental or careless breaches of the rules have occurred, we have seen how the imposition of even stricter controls has again braked the spread, even after an initial upsurge. Just as importantly, we have seen the negative example of what has happened in some places with which we normally compare ourselves, such as Britain, the US, and much of western Europe which have been too casual with controls, leading, in some cases to Covid-19 mortality rates per million people up to 150 times that of Australia. However annoying many of our local restrictions might be, or however much they might be slowing down a declaration of victory against the disease from the prime minister and the start of full-blooded efforts to get the economy off the floor, the polls suggest that most citizens would rather be cautious and conservative about relaxing the rules.

Those who can cross the border are expected to put themselves in isolation quarantine for a fortnight — a process supervised by random checks by officials. Some quarantine breakers are now wearing electronic anklets, like some prisoners on bail, or paedophiles on parole. Right now, it is too risky for people alongside the southern NSW part of the Hume Highway to let Canberra people transit. Folk living near the borders have some leeway — but there are daily crises as Australians find themselves unable to go to and from schools, health services, shops or farms if it would normally involve a crossing of the Murray River.

The emergency border controls are not doing much, if anything, to drive the virus from our shores. In much the same manner that experience has shown that wherever we concentrate victims — in cruise ships, or high-rise flats, or nursing homes — we tend to multiply rather than reduce cases. The restrictions that will make the difference will be those much closer to the epicentre of the epidemic. Making it about which colony or territory one is from is failing to target the problem.

We need sensitive, not blunt instruments to separate those who, from the evidence of testing, are in higher risk areas. In Victoria, for example, these are from a tiny fraction of the area of the state. The measures proposed for those at low risk are out of all proportion to the danger, have the appearance of punishment rather than prevention, and risk undermining the general public consent that is critical to a sophisticated pandemic response. The response asks a lot of all of us, but it must be proportionate.

It is possible that the virus will eventually peter out, or even that some form of herd immunity might be established once most of the population has been exposed to it. But the task of turning the disease from a serious menace to the community to an occasional cause of mortality, like pancreatic cancer probably awaits either the development of a vaccine, and effective treatments that can seriously shave mortality rates.

Restrictions can make the risk of exposure to the virus a lot less likely, and, in places where there appears to be little or no exposure, make a resumption of economic activity possible. But they will  probably not reduce the virulence of any new case brought in by a visitor, a stranger, or a family member who has been, unwittingly, in a lift with an infected person, even if the infected person showed no symptoms. Unless or until we decide to live in quarantine forever, or doom ourselves to constant rechecking, we must use the tools of fighting the pandemic to address it where it is most likely to be found.

Otherwise the corona-proof fence will be like the fence at Hungerford — with ample numbers of rabbits on both sides. Of that,  Lawson said, “This fence is a standing joke with Australian rabbits … It is amusing to go a little way out of town, about sunset, and watch them burrow under and play leap-frog over till they get tired. One old buck rabbit sat up and nearly laughed his ears off at a joke of his own about that fence. He laughed so much that he couldn’t get away when I reached for him. I could hardly eat him for laughing. I never saw a rabbit laugh before; but I’ve seen a possum do it.”

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