More border controls not the answer to Morrison’s COVID failures

Renewed lockdowns in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and the Northern Territory show that the pandemic is still far from under control. Morrison’s failure to roll out vaccines or to build dedicated quarantine centres has left Australia exposed in the face of the new more contagious Delta variant of the virus.

There have now been at least 24 leaks of COVID out of hotel quarantine.

But the latest response of state premiers has been to launch a nationalist scare, claiming that Morrison is allowing too many people through the international border—and targeting foreign citizens in particular.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has blamed the number of international travellers coming into Australia for the ongoing outbreaks.

Deputy Queensland Premier Steven Miles claimed that, “thousands of people are being allowed to travel here who are not stranded Aussies. These are not Australian citizens or permanent residents.”

“The border is not genuinely closed,” he declared, later pointing to “an increased number of foreigners travelling here”.

These outbursts come in response to news that the hospital receptionist in Queensland who took the virus into the community caught it from someone who, “had been allowed to come and go between Australia and Indonesia repeatedly throughout this pandemic by the Morrison government”.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also called for an 80 per cent reduction in the number of people being allowed in from overseas.

The federal government insists that over 80 per cent of international arrivals in quarantine are Australian citizens, permanent residents or their immediate family. Australian Border Force officials pointed out that Queensland’s figures recorded the passport travellers used to come through Immigration—and that many of them were dual citizens who might have presented their overseas passport.

Nonetheless Morrison seems to be open to reducing international arrivals further.

Australia’s international border restrictions are already draconian.

The temporary ban on travel from India saw at least three Australian citizens die of COVID there. Many of those stranded had gone back to care for sick relatives.

The Guardian has reported that thousands of other migrants are being forced to leave Australia permanently because they cannot get permission to return if they need to visit family overseas.

One teacher working in Sydney told The Guardian,“Both my mother and father struggle with the ever-increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease”, saying they were being forced to consider moving permanently back to the US. “It is killing our souls and you don’t know what it’s like unless you are going through this.”

They face the prospect of over two years without seeing overseas family members, with Morrison indicating the border would not reopen until the second half of 2022.

And there are still at least 35,000 Australian citizens stranded overseas who have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the hope of coming home.

Morrison to blame

The current lockdowns in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and the Northern Territory could have been avoided—as could Melbourne’s two week lockdown last month.

They are not simply due to the number of international arrivals. Quarantine centres that are fit-for-purpose can be run safely without the risk of the virus escaping. There should be far more cabin-style accommodation facilities like that at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, instead of relying on hotel quarantine.

But Scott Morrison has moved at a glacial pace in building the proper quarantine facilities needed. Last month, more than 15 months after the start of the pandemic, Morrison finally wrote to Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland promising to assist in building new quarantine centres.

And Morrison’s scrapping of JobKeeper means hundreds of thousands of casual workers face serious financial stress due to ongoing lockdowns. They will get just $500 at most from the federal government for the two weeks lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney—one third of the old JobKeeper rate.

Vaccination is the fastest route to the full re-opening of the international border and to ending the closure of state borders. Yet the federal government has also made a terrible mess of the vaccine rollout.

Australia is ranked last out of the 28 countries in the OECD, a club of the world’s richest nations, on delivering vaccinations. With around 8 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, with an estimated 70 to 80 per cent rate needed to adequately protect from future outbreaks.

Morrison has shown little urgency, saying that vaccination was “not a race” and sending the signal that, given the troubles with the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, everyone should just wait until later in the year for another vaccine.

The federal government took four months to finish the initial vaccinations of aged care residents, despite saying initially it would be done in six weeks. It was only at the end of June that it even announced a plan for vaccinating aged care staff.

But simply vaccinating Australians is not enough. The vaccine nationalism which has seen rich countries simply worry about their own populations is a disaster.

The virus is still running rampant through the largely unvaccinated global south. Indonesia is recording 20,000 cases a day, with hospitals full and supplies of oxygen running out in many places. Just 5 per cent of the population there is fully vaccinated.

If this continues new variants, potentially including vaccine resistant strains, will emerge. These would threaten another deadly wave of the pandemic here.

Australia should be doing everything in its power to push for a global response, forcing pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna and Astra-Zeneca to release patents, share vaccine technology and co-ordinate with governments around the world to scale up production.

Morrison should wear the blame for the renewed outbreaks of the virus here. But overseas citizens and travellers shouldn’t be scapegoated—we’ve had enough xenophobia and nationalism during the pandemic already.

By James Supple

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