In 1901, Australia's six colonies united in a single Commonwealth, marking the emergence of a new country with a distinct identity. For nearly 120 years, the bond among what are now the country’s states and territories gave Australia its singular, national character. But confronted by COVID, the ties that once bound the nation together have begun to fray.
Australia imposed pandemic restrictions early, closing international borders, restricting interstate travel, and instituting strict quarantine requirements for returning travelers. Now, in late August 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged that lockdowns can’t go on. Australian public health experts are arguing about whether or not domestic lockdowns must continue until at least 70 percent of the country’s adults have been vaccinated, and whether international travel restrictions should continue until 80 percent are vaccinated—a very high bar. Morrison wants a national recovery plan for “living with Covid”—pegged to those aspirational vaccination rates—that would go into effect by late November. But Morrison's power is limited. Australia’s Constitution confers responsibility for public health policy on the states, which means that premiers (Australia's equivalent to governors) are quite free to make their own decisions about lockdowns, restrictions, and border controls regardless of what the Commonwealth government wants. And the premiers are predictably reluctant to give that power up.
Earlier efforts by Morrison to forge a “National Cabinet” in which the premiers would share decision-making soon became an exercise in futility. The premiers had little interest in a top-down national response and sought to protect their authority and enforce compliance with health directives in their own states. Attempts to suppress COVID in their states soon became attempts to eradicate it—a determination to rid their states of the virus.
A “National Plan” for “Living with COVID” may be the strategy Morrison wants to adopt, but most premiers and their health advisers refuse to accept the concomitant health outcomes that would accompany an easing of restrictions and would likely entail a spike in hospital admissions, intensive care unit admissions, and deaths. Rather than “living with COVID,” the policy some premiers seem to prefer is “COVID Zero.” Left-leaning Labor premiers in Western Australia and Queensland, in particular, along with their public health officials, have threatened to close off their states to the rest of the country in order to keep their citizens “safe.” Their refusal to subscribe to Morrison’s National Plan—along with the lower rates of vaccination in their states—throws into doubt the plan to ease restrictions in November; the potential closure of state borders also raises complex constitutional questions about interference with interstate traffic and trade.
Meanwhile, millions of Australians are paying a high price for lockdown policies. Hospitals are closed to visitors, houses of worship are shut, the number of mourners allowed at funerals is strictly limited, and weddings have been banned. Families and friends are being denied opportunities to come together to grieve or support one another in sickness.
Ironies abound. While sports teams and movie stars are granted exemptions allowing them to enter the country and quarantine in luxury resorts, the rest of us must make do with Zoom. Even Morrison himself is unable to move freely around the country of which he is prime minister.
As the prospect of extended lockdowns looms, it is now dawning on some leaders that COVID Zero is an impossible goal. The price of its continued pursuit is already apparent as billions of dollars are wiped from Australia’s national GDP—to say nothing of the social and mental anguish millions are now enduring, despite being told by public health officials that there can be no trade-off between economic growth and eradication of the virus.
The premiers have painted themselves into a corner. Increasing numbers of Australians now share the view that eradicating COVID is not possible, and question whether the pain of trying to do so is worth it. But the police are regularly granted extended powers to enforce public health orders—more for their own convenience, it is suspected, than for the benefit of the public—and these powers are backed up by tough penalties.
“Freedom” protesters took to the streets in various states in late July and again in late August to demonstrate against public health orders. They protested the severity of the restrictions and demanded that governments act promptly to relieve the tension generated by isolation, financial hardship, and destruction of community life. Despite small pockets of violence, the protests were largely orderly. But neither our political leaders nor the police are well-disposed to those who question their authority. In Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne, police fired pepper bullets at some “disgraceful” protesters in August and issued one million dollars’ worth of fines. In New South Wales, the army has been brought in to help the police enforce public health orders.
If it continues, the fanaticism with which many of Australia’s state political leaders are pursuing COVID Zero risks turning the country into a modern “hermit kingdom.” However well-intended, the current public health orders trample freedoms; while extended and heavily policed lockdowns strain the bonds of family and civil society, weakening the mutual obligations that citizens owe one another as neighbors.
The erosion of social affection threatens our common life as a society. The zealous waging of an unending war against COVID may be catastrophic not only for the livelihoods of Australia's people, but for the country's once proud sense of itself as a unified nation.
Peter Kurti is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and adjunct associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
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