It’s been 11 months since I last hugged my family. I was fortunate though, as I made it back before the UK’s first lockdown last year – most Australians overseas haven’t been so lucky.
Australia’s borders have been shut since March 2020 and the government has plans to keep them closed for international travel till mid-2022 at the earliest.
At the same time, there is an estimated 36,000 Australian nationals registered with the Australian government (as of May) in order to receive support to fly home.
Australia has one of the lowest COVID 19 case rates in the world, due to their strict lockdown and state by state restrictions. While this has prevented countless deaths, it does raise the question of how long Australia can be a lockdown state among an increasingly re-opened rest of the world.
Among Australians trying to return home, many have to pay up to £10,000 for flights and around £1600 for hotel quarantine, and that’s if they even manage to book a flight without getting bumped due to caps on international arrivals. Qantas Airlines CEO Alan Joyce says that Australia risks becoming a “hermit state” if the borders stay shut for too long.
The Australian government most recently came under mass public scrutiny after banning Australians in India from returning home in order to prevent the spread of the Indian Covid variant. Not only has this provoked mass frustration among the Australian expat community, but the United Nations have also expressed “serious concerns” about the travel ban that was placed on India in May, where arrest was threatened to those who would try to return. Human rights organisations point out that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (which Australia ratified in 1980), states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.
With the Australian Liberal Party in power (Conservatives), a typically isolating approach is particularly present within their coronavirus response. A party infamous for their ‘turn the boats away’ response to Asylum Seekers during the Abbott Prime Ministership, the administration is no stranger to boarded up walls.
Despite these rules and arrival caps, since the pandemic started Australia has hosted famous tennis players for the 2021 Australian Open and countless A-list celebrities (including Zac Efron and Matt Damon) to come and go as they please, all while avoiding mandatory government hotel quarantine. This has caused uproar not only abroad, but also locally.
There is hope that the increasing numbers of vaccinated people will allow Australians to quarantine at home in future, thus increasing the number of flights and alleviating the pressure of limited quarantine facilities.
Australians can now register their vaccinations with the Australian High Commission in the UK, hoping this will make it easier for those to return home shortly. However, a problem arises with the Australian government not yet recognising the Moderna vaccine in its register – which in the UK, under 40s are expected to receive. With the vaccination rollout in the UK reaching 70% of all adults, many ex-pats in the UK see this as a valid enough reason to return home and/or visit loved ones not seen since 2019.
But does Australia even want to return to the rest of the world? The country’s vaccine roll-out has received copious amounts of criticism as only 2.6% of the population has been vaccinated so far. The general normalness of life in Australia, as well as the spread of conspiracy theories, have put people off getting the jab.
Identity in a Post-Corona world
The frustration is palpable within the ex-pat community in the UK. It even makes one question the purpose of an Australian passport. Yet, like many, I feel more welcome in my adopted city of London rather than my birth home. This has made for a physically and mentally transformative thought process of what it means to be a citizen in this new normal.
My home city of Melbourne is currently in a 2-week lockdown due to an increase in cases (averaging around 2-5 new cases each day). At this point I accept that I probably won’t see my family for Christmas again this year.
The G7 summit is preparing to begin in Cornwall with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in attendance. It will also bring the announcement of a Aus-UK trade deal – monumental in its impact for post-Brexit trade deals with countries such as Canada, the US and New Zealand. Whether this will bring looser restrictions for people movement between the two countries remains to be seen.
For now, Australia is on its own.
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash