From April 2020 to January 2022, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show, 1.23 million people arrived in Australia and 1.52 million people left. That’s less than the usual comings and goings in a single month before the pandemic.
Progressively through November and December, the federal government first lifted the embargo on Australian citizens leaving the country, then allowed groups such as international students, backpackers on working holiday visas and skilled migrants to return.
But then, in a move Liberal backbencher Dave Sharma says was “more art than science” to appease public opinion, the opening of the border stalled in the face of the Omicron outbreak. With a backlog of visa applications for the government to process, the number of inbound passengers has remained a trickle.
That changes on Monday, with the welcoming back of general tourism and other visa holders not included in the earlier changes. Australia is officially open again – albeit with a vaccine mandate and Western Australia still a holdout.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt says this is possible because the Omicron peak has largely passed, there are better treatment options for COVID-19, and most of all because Australians have been “magnificent” in stepping forward for vaccines, with 94 per cent of those aged 16 and above fully vaccinated.
He says the closure of the international border was not taken lightly, but has “helped protect lives and protect livelihoods”.
Professor Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, agrees closing the borders early on was the right call.
“When we were holding off to buy time to a) get a vaccine and b) roll it out, [closing the border] was the tough way to go, but it was the right way to go, ”Bennett says.
“The closed border definitely gave us an advantage as an island nation because we had the potential to hold most of the virus at the border and when we did have incursions, we were able to deal with it because they were still relatively limited seeding events. ”
But there is no doubt there was a human cost, from the hundreds of thousands of “stranded Aussies” who found it difficult or impossible to return home, to the millions of Australians with family ties abroad separated from loved ones.
Senator Kristina Keneally understands this from personal experience. She has told The Sun-Herald spirit The Sunday Age about her grief over missing the death and funeral of her beloved father, John Kerscher, who died in Ohio in November 2020.
Keneally, Labor’s spokeswoman on home affairs and immigration, credits the closure of the international border as one of the most effective policy measures to flatten the curve of COVID-19, particularly in the first wave of the pandemic.
“What’s unfortunate is that what followed was a policy complacency, that [the government] saw the border closure as the only thing that needed to be done, ”Keneally says.
Throughout the pandemic, Keneally has repeatedly hammered the federal government to invest in national quarantine facilities, something she says is still needed because “the pandemic is not necessarily the last health challenge we’re going to face, and this pandemic is not even necessarily over ”. She says the facilities could be used to accommodate people after natural disasters as well as for quarantine.
For Keneally, one of the biggest failures of the pandemic was the inability to get stranded Australians home, with the queue of citizens waiting to return seemingly stuck at 35,000 to 40,000 for well over a year. (It was continually replenished by new people who had been trying to wait out the pandemic finally calling time and deciding to come home.)
“One of the great lessons we should take out of this pandemic is that we as a country should never abandon our own citizens overseas,” Keneally says. “Surely a most fundamental Australian proposition is that we do not leave our mates behind.”
Yet many returned Australians have found little sympathy for what they went through, with friends back home either not understanding the hardships they endured or shrugging it off as a choice they made. They speak of a new streak of insularity in the national character and say the border policies – now armedised against Australian citizens – have changed the way Australia is perceived overseas.
Jock Gardiner, 28, recently arrived back in Tamworth after two years of postgraduate studies in the Netherlands, mostly online during lockdown in a foreign country.
He says Australia’s policies make the news in Europe and people watch shows like Border Forceall “adding to this perception of Australia being a bit isolationist and a bit over the top in its reactions to these kinds of external threats.”
In August 2020 Sharma described the ban on Australians leaving the country without an exemption as a “pretty extraordinary restriction on people’s liberty”, while independent MP Zali Steggall said it put Australia “on par with North Korea”.
Sharma accepts the health rationale for the closed borders and says the policy did its job in keeping Australia safe before vaccines became available. However, he remains uncomfortable with the restrictions on citizens leaving the country as “a matter of fundamental human rights”.
He says if Labor had its way, the government would still be in the process of building quarantine facilities and rightly being criticized for wasting taxpayers’ money.
But Steggall agrees with Keneally that quarantine facilities could still be needed. She is calling for the establishment of an apolitical National Center for Disease Control and a royal commission into the medical response to the pandemic at both federal and state levels, not to cast blame but to learn lessons.
As the MP for a multicultural electorate on Sydney’s northern beaches, Steggall’s office was busy helping people obtain exemptions and navigate the closed borders.
She supported closing the borders in March 2020 as an emergency measure but says it should never have gone on for two years. As well as the personal pain for those affected, Steggall says industries like tourism are “still on their knees” and points out there are still no plans to kickstart the cruise industry.
Like Sharma, Steggall maintains the restrictions on Australians leaving the country were “a fairly big overreach on our human rights and freedom of movement” and not something you’d associate with a liberal democracy.
She also does not understand why parents were left out of the arrangements that allowed the “immediate family” of Australian citizens and permanent residents to enter the country for so long.
Christie Hewlett, from Ryde in Sydney, who emigrated from Britain in 2013, had flights booked to visit family in April 2020, which were canceled because of the pandemic. She then found out she was pregnant and hoped her parents might be able to visit by the time the baby was born.
Hewlett’s baby is now 14 months old and still has to meet her British relatives, but the family of three will fly to Europe next week.
“We’re very excited, but until we’re physically there, we still will not quite believe it because of everything that happened,” Hewlett says.
“Before it was definitely [a mindset] that you can always get back within a day. I do not think I’ll ever take that for granted again. ”
Hewlett plans to stay in Australia, but immigration figures show hundreds of thousands of expats have found the tyranny of distance too great and packed up and moved home.
Partners in less established or less conventional relationships were also out in the cold.
For Joe Comer from Pascoe Vale, being forcibly separated from his partner for 20 of the past 24 months had a “catastrophic impact on his mental health” and changed his perception of Australia and the protective shield of citizenship.
“When the Department of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister repeatedly use this rhetoric that we’ve saved 30,000 lives, it felt like my life was being sacrificed in some way as a result,” Comer says. “Not my life but my livelihood and my vision for the future and my hope and my optimism.”
Comer, 36, lived with his partner Noah in Switzerland before the pandemic but needs to spend a significant amount of time in his hometown of Melbourne to be near his mother, who is elderly and lives with a disability.
The couple had an established de facto relationship that was recognized by Centrelink, but did not count for Australian Border Force. When the couple finally had a civil union ceremony in Switzerland after international travel opened for citizens, it finally tipped the balance and gave Noah his rights as a partner.
The border is now almost at its pre-pandemic settings, but not quite.
First, unvaccinated travelers – and those like Santiago jabbed with the “wrong” vaccine – must still apply for an exemption and some believe this is unfair, given vaccinated people are still contracting and spreading the virus.
Second, Western Australia will not drop its hard border for several weeks. There’s still a cap of 530 passengers a week from international flights and as a result, airlines are rerouting international passengers via other states, who are then boarding domestic flights to WA.
Even when the WA border opens on March 3, both international and interstate visitors will still require a G2G pass and interstate visitors are now required to be triple vaccinated.
Keneally says she does not understand why the Morrison government has not taken a greater interest in national leadership to bring the country back together, rather than stepping back from the crisis and outsourcing these decisions to the states.
“It strikes me that we could end up in a circumstance where states again are determining who comes to this country and the vaccination status under which they come,” she quips.
Sharma says if states maintain more onerous restrictions, “they will only be hurting their own residents and their own businesses”.
He says it is important that the federal government does not backtrack and close the borders again.
“There will be setbacks and that could be new variants, there might have to be a reintroduction of public health measures in parts of the country or certain situations, but I would hope that now that our borders are open, we keep them open,” Sharma says.
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