It’s been a sad few weeks.
My cousin, younger than me, has been in ICU in India with COVID-19, separated from her immediate family by closed city borders and restricted travel. Every morning, my mother sends updates by text message – who has died, who has survived. Every day some other extended family member, some lifelong friend gets sick or dies.
Just over a week ago, the WA Premier, Mark McGowan, perhaps inadvertently, started a chain reaction that I knew would not stop. In the face of rising cases in India and a hotel quarantine breach in Perth that sent the city back into a snap lockdown, he blamed the Federal government for allowing people to leave, and he called into question the validity of a sick individual’s reasons for travel. That the hotel’s ventilation was not fit for purpose was not readily admitted.
We have seen individuals blamed for systemic failure throughout this pandemic, from all levels of government, but this was a new low.
Perhaps Premier McGowan did not mean to demonise an individual, perhaps his intent was simply to pass the buck onto another level of government – but this was the effect of his words. Around the country, on all sides of politics, there was near-unanimous support for a ban on travel from India, and a tightening of restrictions on outbound travel. Quietly, the Federal government threatened Australian citizens flying on from New Zealand with criminal prosecution, including imprisonment. We should have seen what was coming next.
The pandemic has been raging for over a year now, and we have heard stories of death and devastation from all over the planet. When Italy succumbed, we watched Andrea Bocelli sing in an empty cathedral and wept. When New York succumbed, we hoped and prayed at images of mass graves.
But this week, I was not asked if I had family in India or if they were ok, instead I was asked if I were glad that my parents had left ‘that hellhole’. Afterwards, many others were horrified by the retelling, but what is hard to convey is that the person who asked me that isn’t fundamentally a racist and certainly isn’t a bad person. This was the attitude of someone who was otherwise trying to be kind, who was genuinely grateful on my behalf that Indians in Australia were safe.
The same cannot be said for Australians in India. When London, France, Belgium, the US, Canada, to name a few places, developed variants, had huge second and third waves, went in and out of lockdown for months, the planes continued to fly. Not enough to repatriate stranded Australians, often left homeless, jobless, separated from their families, vulnerable.
Instead, we brought movie stars and sports stars and business people here, despite the risk of infection. This was already an unacceptable way to treat our fellow Australians, but now, Australians in India are considered too dangerous, their citizenship worthless, and a ban on their repatriation from India necessary. Even kind well-meaning people believed this, did not think we should instead be calling for a different, more proportionate path.
According to independent data analyst, Anthony Macali, there have been sixteen breaches of infection control in quarantine hotels in the last six months alone, leading to snap lockdowns and state border closures.
Out of every hundred positive cases in hotel quarantine, one person transmits it to someone else within that environment. It is clear that the program, as it stands, is not fit for purpose, if it cannot safely repatriate stranded Australians, much less have any hope of moving towards resurrecting essential sectors such as tourism and universities. In a land of wide open spaces, big skies and clean winds, surely this is unacceptable.
Perhaps, though, watertight quarantine was never the plan. The Chief Medical Officer gave evidence last week in the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19. On April 27, he stated that, “We expect positive cases in quarantine. We expect that there will be transmission in quarantine.” This is telling, and suggests that there is no plan to move forwards, ensure that further breaches will not arise again.
The Chief Medical Officer also stated separately that, “there are a whole range of things you can do to protect people within the hotel quarantine environment, including arrival numbers – ” It is hard to believe that there is any real plan to repatriate Australians, or to make infection control in quarantine hotels more robust.
Premier McGowan’s chain reaction rolled on, resulting in the Federal Government making it a crime for citizens who had been in India to enter the country, attracting penalties of five years imprisonment or $66,000. Whether there was sufficient scientific evidence to abandon Australians overseas and ban direct flights from India is publicly disputed, whether the epidemic curve in India or infection rates in returned travellers was substantially different enough from those times other countries experienced peaks of infection is arguable, whether we should implement better quarantine strategies and lower our rate of infection breaches is seems suddenly under debate. But what is very clear is that at no other time in the pandemic has a citizen trying to return to (or leave) Australia been threatened criminal prosecution.
I have lived in many countries across my life, but I count myself an Australian foremost, like many others among the Indian diaspora. Working in healthcare, I know just how much our health system leans on migrants from India, many first generation, who have been desperately invited to fill roles in nursing, aged care and rural health. Although there has been ardent reassurance that this initial ban and subsequent criminalisation is simply based on science, it is very hard right now to feel anything other than that the value of our Australian citizenship is somehow less.
What has given me hope, after a long and difficult week, is how so many have turned around in their attitudes. Where a ban on repatriation was considered necessary, inevitable, unavoidable, now so many can see that this leads us to a place where the basic rights of citizenship can be wholly stripped away, and relying on the words printed in the front of our passports might suddenly lead us to jail. Speaking to those who did not originate in India, there has been a sudden realisation that if this is what can be done to some of us, it might apply to any of us.
I hope that this is the moment all Australians demand more from our governments at all levels. That the lives of sick individuals will stop being publicised by leaders trying to shift blame, that systemic changes must occur to make our quarantine program larger, safer and more accessible, and that repatriation and family reunion are fundamental rights that we must all fight for, every day.