Australia has normalised cruelty on our borders. As COVID’s delta variant sweeps through South East Asia, our citizens abroad are now copping it.
If you know Australians who have been left stuck abroad during the pandemic, you’ve likely heard stories of terrible hardship. There are many.
More than 30,000 Australians around the world are unable to get home due to our government arrival caps.
Some of our stranded brothers and sisters have lost jobs and livelihoods in foreign lands. Others have been separated from loved ones or sick and dying family members. There are airline cancellations and extortionate fares.
The growing delta outbreak in South East Asia is deepening the crisis and the risks for Australians abroad. Expats from around the world are fleeing Asia as case numbers and deaths surge and lockdowns tighten. Australians caught up in the crisis are being denied the option to return home. We are unique in our refusal to receive our own nationals during this time of crisis.
The situation is likely to be a lot worse than we realise. There is so much hardship at home right now, that Australians stranded abroad in Asia rarely attract media coverage.
In 2020, most of the stories of COVID-stranded Australians came out of Europe and North America – affluent countries.
These same countries (except Australia), may be through the worst of the crisis. The availability of vaccines means the most pressing risks in these countries, have passed.
In Asia, the opposite is the case. The worst current outbreaks of COVID are in our neighbourhood. Indonesia is the global epicentre, but no country in South East Asia is being spared.
After the initial COVID outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning of 2020, the virus seemed to leave Asia mostly at peace. China acted firmly. The country of COVID’s origin became one of the least impacted.
My former home Vietnam, performed especially well during 2020. Back then, a Brit, European or American national was safer from COVID in Vietnam than they were at home.
Foreign nationals in Asia could have been forgiven for thinking that weathering the crisis away from home had been a good call.
2021’s delta variant has brought a wholly new pandemic. We’re feeling it in Sydney right now too.
We saw the first signs of delta when it devastated India in May and June. A domestic political storm was brewing in Australia’s large and vocal Indian community.
The Morrison government reflexively threatened Australians fleeing India’s outbreak with imprisonment. They were told to face delta in India or prison at home. The Australian media was briefly interested in Indian affairs.
After decades conflating cruelty on our borders with policy and political virtue, Australia casually switched the cruelty to our own.
Poor access to vaccines combined with overburdened, fragile, health systems, are plunging our region in to its most serious crisis in decades. The risks to Australians based in these countries are wholly different to those faced in Europe and North America in 2020.
Many Australians would dearly like to return home. Many have families. In Vietnam there is a lockdown of severity unimaginable in Australia. Other countries in the region have put similar severe restrictions in place.
How should Australia respond?
There are already precedents. The Australian Government organised COVID evacuation flights out of China in early 2020 and, after initial resistance, India in May 2021.
Right now, concern about our flawed hotel quarantine system is the major obstacle to an increase in airline capacity. The persistence with a quarantine system that has been failing for more than a year, shows a calamitous lack of planning and a callous disregard for the welfare of international Australians.
A more humane Australia might consider the rescue of stranded nationals from crisis as an emergency requiring of emergency measures, and then focus on creating the right quarantine facilities for the job of protecting our cities from outbreaks.
There’s another option that could relieve some of this unfolding crisis. Expats in South East Asia have told me pressure to leave would be reduced if the Australian government would get active in vaccinating Australians abroad.
Some developed countries are vaccinating their overseas nationals. Australia is committed to providing 20 million doses of vaccine into the Asia Pacific in the months ahead. It would seem prudent to make an additional allocation for our own nationals – to be administered without impact or diversion of resources from stretched local health systems.
Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt has warned this week that COVID will be with us for a long time. Very little he and his colleagues have done over the past 18 months has prepared us for a long pandemic. Action in building a long-term solution to our leaky quarantine shortcomings is long overdue. So is a more humane policy towards our fellow-Australians abroad.