Alexander Downer

Prison island: Australia’s Covid fortress has become a jail

Australians have a reputation for rugged individualism, grit and competence. But when it comes to the pandemic, we have seen another side to my country: insecure, anxious and frozen by the fear of death from Covid. A recent global poll found that Australians more worried about the virus than any other western country. They have been scared witless by the hysteria of politicians, chief medical officers and the media.

At first, Australia’s Covid strategy was hailed as a triumph: it had moved fast, minimised deaths and was on course to make enough AstraZeneca vaccine to double-jab the whole country. The route out seemed plausible: sit tight, vaccinate, then reopen. But today, Australia is confronting its highest-ever rate of infections, trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns and on the brink of a double-dip recession, while AZ jabs lie unused and unwanted. What went wrong?

Australia’s short-term strategy seemed sensible. When stories emerged of Covid spreading, the Australian government banned flights from China and subsequently decided to close its borders altogether. Like everyone else, the government wanted to ‘flatten the curve’, to use the language of the time. There were daily Covid cases, even some deaths, most of which were in care homes. At first, there was no talk of eliminating the virus. Australia did not seem so very different from the rest of the world.

What happened next is, in part, explained by the Australian Constitution. The federal government is responsible for border controls but each of the six states is responsible for its own health service. Each state has a chief medical officer, as does the federal government. But it is the state premiers and their ministers who have day-to-day control of the nation’s response to the pandemic.

The tourism industry, which normally sees 9.5 million overseas visitors a year, has been devastated

Not only did the federal government seal off the country — to the outrage of the Australian diaspora — it also banned anyone from leaving the country without permission from the government.

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