A divided reopening: Australia’s uneven Covid spread makes states wary of lifting lockdown

SYDNEY – Cassandra Elliott is free to leave Australia for the first time in over a year and a half, but there is still no way for the Victoria State resident to visit her father in Western Australia.

This week Australia started easing controls on its international border, which closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Fully vaccinated Australian citizens, residents and their family members can now travel to parts of the country quarantine-free, while those residing in Australia no longer need government permits to travel internationally.

But states and territories have also restricted access to one another for much of the pandemic, and many of those restrictions remain in place. The closure of internal borders has deterred Elliott, 32, a writer who lives in the state of Victoria, from seeing her father in Western Australia on the opposite side of the country.

“My father is my best friend,” she says.

While Australia’s two most populous states are opening up to the world again, others remain firmly closed to Australians as well. Western Australia says its internal border won’t be fully open until next year.

“So my father and I are not going to be spending Christmas together,” Elliott said. “It was really daunting to find out.”

A divided reopening

Australia closed its international border to non-nationals in March 2020 and required returning Australians to quarantine for 14 days if they could return at all. When virus cases emerged, officials responded with quick bans while interstate quarantine regulations prevented it from spreading across the country. The strict guidelines meant that with the exception of one state, much of Australia remained Covid-free by the middle of this year.

But then the Delta variant struck. In June, an outbreak occurred in New South Wales, which also includes Australia’s largest city, Sydney, before spreading to neighboring Victoria and its capital, Melbourne. Both states were banned, but cases continued to increase.

Covid restrictions have eased further in Melbourne after the state of Victoria hit its vaccination target of 80 percent.Asanka Ratnayake / Getty Images

Other “Covid-free” jurisdictions closed their borders completely with both states, citing health laws and threatened with fines or prison sentences if people crossed the border. The case numbers in these states and territories have stayed at or near zero.

Ian McAllister, professor of political science at the Australian National University in Canberra, the country’s capital, said the patchwork of internal borders was unprecedented for Australia and unique in the world.

Closing internal borders is easier in Australia than in countries like the United States, he said, because the population is more dispersed. Australia has a smaller population than Texas, with around 26 million people, but is eleven times the size.

Many Australians, who have been largely shielded from the virus, are now reluctant to follow the “Covid states” of New South Wales and Victoria if they accept its spread. Both states recently ended month-long lockdowns after meeting their vaccination goals.

A traffic sign on the Western Highway between Melbourne warns motorists of Covid restrictions in the state of Victoria Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

Like the New Zealand government, which is also moving away from its “zero covid” policy, officials in the two Australian states say the country must find a way to live with the virus, even if that means more cases.

“We have to rejoin the world,” New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet told reporters last month. “We cannot live here in a hermit kingdom, we have to open up.”

While states like Queensland and South Australia reopen to the country’s Covid hotspots in time for Christmas, Western Australia has other plans.

Prime Minister Mark McGowan said Friday that the state will not open again to the whole country until 90 percent of residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, which is slated for late January or early February.

“I admit that some people will be frustrated that they may not be able to get reunited with their New South Wales or Victoria families over Christmas,” he said.

“Speeding it up increases the risk and increases the damage,” he added.

Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan speaks to the media at Dumas House in Perth, Australia earlier this year.Matt Jelonek / Getty Images File

For Elliott, an Australia with hard borders between “Covid states” and “Covid-free states” is bizarre, even ridiculous.

“I laughed with one of my friends here the other day,” she said. “We said that she can travel to her home country India, but I cannot go to Perth,” the capital of Western Australia.

“She can go home and visit her family, but mine are in Australia and I cannot see them.”

“Tremendous psychological stress”

The border rules in Western Australia were incredibly popular in the state, helping McGowan to a landslide re-election victory in March. A recent poll found that 82 percent of Western Australians preferred to keep their state closed.

Supporters say the numbers speak for themselves: With a population of 2.7 million, Western Australia has reported just over 1,100 cases and nine deaths during the pandemic. (Kansas, which has a similar population, had about 440,000 cases and nearly 6,500 deaths.)

Even Elliott said she could understand the government’s perspective.

“You want to protect people,” she said.

But some Western Australians say their state is going too far.

State officials recently re-rated both New South Wales and Victoria from “high risk” to “extreme risk”. This repealed an exemption that previously allowed people to enter for “compassionate reasons” if they were initially quarantined for 14 days.

People are enjoying a meal in Melbourne last month following the lifting of Covid restrictions in one of the world’s most cordoned-off cities. William West / AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Luigi D’Orsogna, a pediatric cardiologist in Perth, said the change was “totally inappropriate”.

“I am not aware of any medical evidence to suggest that extreme restrictions like this are necessary when we already have fully adequate measures in place to protect our state,” he said.

D’Orsogna said he was particularly concerned about people not being able to visit sick or dying relatives.

“You take people with you in some of their most vulnerable moments and are now subjecting them to tremendous mental stress and agony,” he said.

With cases falling in New South Wales, the state switched from “extreme risk” back to “high risk” on Saturday, but Victoria will remain in that category for the foreseeable future.

International criticism

The tensions surrounding Australia’s pandemic response are not limited to the country; prominent US conservatives are also targeting Australian heads of state and government because of lockdown restrictions, border closings and vaccine mandates.

Last month, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accuses Australia of “Covid tyranny” called it “shameful and sad”.

Reply on Twitter, Chief Minister Michael Gunner pointed out that there have been no Covid-19 deaths in the Northern Territory.

“We don’t need your lectures, thanks buddy,” he said. “You don’t know anything about us.”

Conservative commentator Candace Owens went further and jokingly asked when the US military should invade Australia to “liberate an oppressed people.” Their comments were met with confusion and ridicule on the spot.

Amid the debate over these rules, McAllister said Australia should not lose sight of how well it has fared overall in the pandemic.

In total, there have been around 174,000 Covid cases and fewer than 1,800 deaths in Australia. That compares to over 46 million cases and nearly 750,000 deaths in the United States

“There’s nothing like what happens overseas here,” said McAllister.

In the meantime, Elliott and her father try to stay positive.

“My father actually built himself a big truck and he wants to drive it across the country to see me,” she said.

“Do you know the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’? He keeps saying: ‘If I keep building, the limits will open!’ “

Nick Baker is a freelance journalist based in Sydney.

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