I write to you today from Buenos Aires, Argentina, 12,284 kilometers from my birthplace, on your shiny, happy City of the Gold Coast. Alas, this will not be a shiny, happy communiqué. How I wish it were otherwise.
When I left your golden soil, girt by sea, more than two decades ago, I was proud to carry on, in my own small way, a long tradition of international travel, exploration and discovery synonymous with my fellow compatriots. Along with our Kiwi brothers and sisters, we antipodeans punched well above our weight when it came to wide-eyed wayfaring.
Over the ensuing two-plus decades “O.S.”, I’ve visited some 85 countries, calling no less than a dozen of them my “home away from home” along the way. I’ve lived in the Middle and the Far East, North and South America, worlds Old and New. From New York to Rio and old London Town, as Mr. Allen’s classic song goes, I’ve roamed far and wide.
These foreign shores I summon not to skite, not to gloat... but to remind you, my harassed and hectored countrymen, that there exists a world abroad, one that lies waiting, beyond the foam, one from which you’ve been unnecessarily, unceremoniously severed.
To put it plainly, you’ve been scammed. Hoodwinked. Given the ol’ run-around.
Your government - and by this I mean invertebrate, self-serving politicians at practically every level; federal, state and local - has led you to believe a lie: That Australia is somehow “leading the world” in the battle against COVID-19 (it is not... not by a long, long way ) and that this alleged success owes to their own paranoid, hermit-like policy of withdrawal from the world at large. (Wrong again, and worryingly so.)
However much politicians and their lickspittle lackeys in the media like to reduce COVID-19 to simple-minded sports analogies and war metaphors, the situation is vastly more complicated, infinitely more dynamic. To be sure, no single COVID-19 response or prevention measure - be it lockdowns, travel bans, vaccines, mask mandates, a Niagara of fiscal stimulus spending, etc. - comes without its own particular and attendant cost.
Some of these measures, like wearing a mask when in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods (see latest MIT study here) and listening to the science when it comes to vaccines (see recent Lancet study here), bear relatively small costs when viewed in light of the potential benefits. (Responsible adults will do their research and come to their own conclusions here.)
Other, more extreme measures, like forfeiting unprecedented power to the government, suspending international travel for citizens at home and abroad (potentially contravening international human rights conventions, to which Australian is signatory, along the way), and voluntarily turning one’s country (back) into a pretty island prison, bear significantly higher costs.
On these counts, and more, Australia has fared woefully.
When it comes to the vaccine rollout, Australia lags behind virtually every western, developed country on the planet, and many developing ones, too. Here in Argentina, where you wouldn’t trust the government to organize a sausage sizzle, one in six people have already received at least one dose of three available vaccines, almost triple the rate of doses/100 people as in Australia. 1.6 million of the population’s most vulnerable citizens here have been fully immunized. Neighboring Uruguay has fully vaccinated almost a quarter of its population; Chile more than a third. (The US and UK are at a third and a quarter fully vaccinated, respectively; the former is vaccinating a population the size of Australia every single week.)
Even adjusted for population, per capita GDP, federal healthcare spending per capita, practically any way you slice it, Australia’s rollout has been an absolute disaster. According to the Guardian’s World in Data statistics, by the end of April, Australia ranked 100th in the world for the number of Covid-19 vaccinations administered per head of population, right between Guyana and Sri Lanka.
Not winning, in other words. Or even close. And vaccines are a measure that most Australians are on board with. It’s also germane to the discussion of travel, given Health Tsar Greg Hunt’s recent and bizarre remarks. “Vaccination alone is no guarantee that you can open up [...] If the whole country were vaccinated, you couldn’t just open up the borders.”
Australians, especially those watching as much of the rest of the world cautiously resumes travel, might reasonably be wondering, “So when, then?”
Echoing Tsar Hunt’s sentiments, Australia’s ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, recently suggested that home borders could remain closed until the “entire world” is vaccinated. Quite a statement, given both Australia’s own botched rollout, and the fact that, technically, the “entire world” is not even vaccinated against polio, which still persists despite decades of mass and highly effective vaccination.
No matter, says Scott Morrison. Australia’s PM is apparently in no hurry to reopen the gates anyway. Nor, it seems, are the majority of those locked inside, who are happy to stick their head in the sand, provided it’s nice, white, Aussie brand sand. This is political Stockholm Syndrome, plain and simple, where gaslit victims become enamored of their captors, even going so far as to justify and support their radical behavior. (Ironically enough, Sweden’s own capital did not suffer their namesake fate, preferring a “light touch” approach; to live, in other words, rather than to live in fear. Kudos to them.)
But what about the horrors ravaging other parts of the globe? you might fairly ask. If we relax our guard, won’t we, too, be dying by the tens of thousands, suffocating in the streets?
Thankfully, no. Not even close.
By now you have no doubt seen footage of unutterable heartbreak emerging from places like India, Brazil and Peru, as these countries struggle under the enormous weight of their unburied dead. It is truly shocking to see what is unfolding in these and other developing nations.
But it is disingenuous to conscript this tragedy - as it unfolds, no less - in order to scare Australians into thinking that, if they so much as let up one iota on the “collective sacrifice” they are making of their own rights and freedoms, then a similar fate awaits them, too.
For one thing, India (to take the most timely example) is a country already mired in unspeakable poverty. As anyone who has spent any time there well knows, the vast majority of its 1.36 billion inhabitants eke out an existence virtually unrecognizable to most Australians. To cite just a couple of salient stats: There are ten times more Indians living below their rural poverty line (32 rupees - or about AUD .50 cents - per day) than there are Australian citizens, total. The attendant problems of poor hygiene and disease are manifest. Every year, for example, more than 600,000 Indian children under five die, largely from want of potable water.
That latter figure is more than the entire COVID-19 fatality count in the USA, by far the world’s highest, since the beginning of the virus, for all ages combined. It’s also more than 660 times Australia’s total COVID-19 deaths. Again, that’s only counting Indian kids under five who die because they can’t reliably get a clean glass of water.
600,000. Every. Single. Year.
The situation in India was a tragedy of virtually unmitigated proportions even before the pandemic hit. To spook Australians into thinking “that could happen here” is egregious. To cite it as the reason for abandoning its own citizens there is morally unconscionable.
Australia is not India. Not even close. Living nearby Mother Theresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying is NOT the same as growing up in a three bedroom brick-and-tile a short Uber ride from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The latter has “a passionate, highly-skilled team of 6,000 staff,” according to its own website. The former doesn’t even have a website.
The disparity is colossal. And for this very reason it is beyond barbarous that a wealthy nation like Australia turn its back on 9,000 of its own citizens and residents who are currently marooned in India, many of whom are separated from their families, because allowing them back home would somehow “put Australia’s mainland population at risk.”
Again. This is fantastic nonsense.
But don’t take my word for it. By the Prime Minister’s own reckoning, Australia’s quarantine system is “99.99% effective.” Right now, it is also running at less than 50% capacity.
Moreover, one need only look at the actions (and, perhaps more tellingly, inactions) of the Australian government to see the rank hypocrisy at play here.
The UK has more than quadruple India’s COVID-19 infection rate (cases per million) and more than ten times the death rate. The US suffered over six times the infection rate and, again, more than ten times the deaths per million.
And yet, planes from the UK or the US carrying repatriating Aussies were never “banned” from entering the country (at least not officially), nor were Australian citizens returning from these countries threatened with five years jail time and $66,000 in fines, as is currently the case for citizens who would return from Indian shores.
To be clear, a citizen’s right to return to his or her country is a principle well established under common law dating back to the Magna Carta. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (Dr Sangeetha Pillai, a constitutional lawyer and expert on Australian citizenship law has written extensively on the subject. See more here.)
Even beyond the long established and expressed lawful duties of a nation to its citizens, Australia is surely bound by something more, something we once knew as common decency. If mateship has anything to do with the Australian character, and I think we’d all like to assume it does, then at the very least it means helping out our fellow countrymen in their times of need... not criminalizing their wanting to return home to be with their families. If the Australian government is willing to turn its back on one group of its own citizens today, whatever their stated reason, what’s to stop it from doing likewise tomorrow, to another group of Australians... perhaps one to which you, or your family, belongs?
After coming under fire from civil rights groups, Scott Morrison made a series of mealy-mouthed concessions regarding the punitive nature of the travel ban, stating that it is “highly unlikely” anyone returning from India would see the maximum penalties. This begs two obvious questions: One, then why have them in the first place? And two, why wait until he’s called out by human rights groups to walk back the decidedly inhumane rhetoric? (But not the ban.)
This belies a still more unsettling trend afoot... the tendency to enact the most extreme measures first, then backpedal later, only when called out. This is precisely how power is ceded and rights lost.
The unprecedented ban on Australian citizens traveling from India to Australia was invoked using sweeping powers conferred to Health Tsar Hunt under the 2015 Biosecurity Act. Of particular concern here is the unchecked nature of Hunt’s rubric. As Dr. Pillai writes [emphasis mine]:
Section 477 of the act allows Hunt to issue “determinations” imposing any “requirement” that he deems necessary to control the entry or spread of Covid-19. These determinations cannot be disallowed by parliament. Thanks to a provision aptly known as a “Henry VIII clause”, they also override any other federal, state or territory law.
The erosion of Australian civil liberties at home and abroad has gone into hyperdrive during this pandemic. Yet this concerning trend is rarely counted among the costs of enacting some of the world’s most extreme COVID-19 measures, implementing policies that threaten to turn a once free and open society into a fearful, inward-focused, hermit kingdom.
Insularism, nativism, isolationism, paranoia and xenophobia are not becoming traits for any group of self-respecting people. And they are certainly not befitting of Australia’s character and standing on the world stage.
In 2021, the Henley Passport Index ranked the Australian passport equal 25th in the world in terms of visa free destinations it afforded bearers. It is a joyous celebration that Aussies enjoy visa free travel to no fewer than 185 countries around the planet. Of course, that’s entirely meaningless if you can’t leave your own shores... and even more of a cruel joke if the door slams closed behind you and you can’t get back home.
Australian citizens deserve to be a part of the global community, to travel and visit friends and family around the world, to attend weddings and funerals, to watch their grandchildren abroad grow up, and to participate, while exercising appropriate and measured caution, in the wonders of life in the 21st Century. They do not deserve to be cowered and browbeaten by hysterical, fear-mongering politicians, who would keep them locked up on their island and in their own homes, gaslit and quivering in manufactured panic, forever existing one, single positive case away from snap lockdowns and the concurrent, unprecedented curtailment of their civil rights and liberties.
Do not take this lightly, Australia. Demand your freedom. Question those who claim unbridled authority over you, who try to sell you the illusion of total security, if only you’ll surrender your precious liberty. There is no such thing as risk-free living, and those who fanatically seek it at all costs end up not really living at all.
Terra Australis was long ago settled as a penal colony. Don’t let’s confine its bright future to its distant past.
Buenos Aires, Argentina - May, 2021
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