How Australia risks being left behind as the rest of the world gets on with life amid Covid

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Australia has managed to save itself from the horrors of mass deaths and economic ruin from coronavirus… but at almost every other turn, we have failed.

Tuesday night’s Budget admission that international borders won’t open until the middle of 2022 finally exposed the bungled mess we will soon pay for.

Opening the borders now when India’s air is choked with the smoke from funeral pyres, and 600 a day are still dying in the US is rightly considered a terrible idea.

But in six months, the Western world and much of Asia will be largely vaccinated, travelling freely and getting on with life, while we cower behind our moat in fear, cut off from the world, and needlessly losing billions of dollars a week.

Opening Australia’s borders right now is a bad idea, but in six months the Western world and much of Asia will be largely vaccinated, travelling freely and getting on with life, like these two British tourists on the Greek island of Santorini

Unlike this German tourist visiting Arizona in the US earlier this week, we will end up we cowering behind our moat in fear, cut off from the world, and needlessly losing billions of dollars a week

Unlike this German tourist visiting Arizona in the US earlier this week, we will end up we cowering behind our moat in fear, cut off from the world, and needlessly losing billions of dollars a week

Poll

Are you desperate to travel overseas?

  • Yes 72 votes
  • No 66 votes
  • Don’t care 14 votes

Worse still, the pandemic increasingly exposes insular, selfish aspects of Australia’s psyche that are deeply troubling.

How this happened may seem hard to understand – by almost any measure, Australia has led the world in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and is not afraid to beat its chest about it.

Just 910 deaths, about 22,000 locally-acquired cases, a booming economy, and fewer restrictions than almost anywhere else.

But this success has masked serious failures of leadership and planning that threaten to squander all the nation’s early gains, and make us an isolated and backward island.

The vaccine rollout 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference on March 19, 2020, seems like a lifetime ago. That was the day the borders slammed shut and the pandemic got real.

Few thought that today, 14 months later, would only be the halfway mark in our  isolation from the rest of the world.

Using Australia’s natural defence – being surrounded by water – was an obvious and prudent solution few would argue with at the time.

Mr Morrison has been riding this one crucial decision to boost poll numbers and likely win re-election ever since.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's press conference on March 19, 2020, seems like a lifetime ago. That was the day the borders slammed shut and the pandemic got real

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conference on March 19, 2020, seems like a lifetime ago. That was the day the borders slammed shut and the pandemic got real

There was always an equally obvious downside to this strategy, coupled with zero tolerance for even a handful of cases – when can we open the gates?

The promise was the vaccine would free us from captivity, if we just hung in there until the scientists cracked the code.

So we video chatted with friends and family overseas, scanned QR codes at the pub, wrote off 2020 as the worst year ever, and trusted the promise of 2021.

Just nine months later, there was not just one working vaccine, but half a dozen, and millions of jabs were going to be available.

Four and a half months into 2021, just 10 per cent of the country has been vaccinated with no end in sight.

By contrast, a third of people in both the US and Britain have received at least one jab thanks to those countries sticking needles in arms on an industrial scale.

Watching healthy, young friends overseas flash their vaccine cards on social media when you don’t even know when you will be able to book an appointment is nothing short of infuriating.

Watching healthy, young friends overseas flash their vaccine cards on social media when you don't even know when you will be able to book an appointment is infuriating

Watching healthy, young friends overseas flash their vaccine cards on social media when you don’t even know when you will be able to book an appointment is infuriating

This young woman in the US hold up her vaccination card having just got her shot – something young Australians will probably wait up to a year for

The final blow for the abandoned October deadline was the AstraZeneca blood clot panic, but the disastrous vaccine program’s poor planning and management goes back far further.

The federal government put all our eggs in just a few baskets, only making deals with three vaccine manufacturers and crossing its fingers.

The biggest gamble was that the vast majority could be immunised by AstraZeneca jabs made in Australia by CSL, despite vaccines having no guarantee of making it through clinical trials, or being problem-free after launch.

This backfired as AstraZeneca was ditched for under-50s, University of Queensland’s vaccine crashed and burned in trials, and Pfizer can only give us a small fraction of the doses we need.

We didn’t even bother striking a deal with the highly-successful Moderna until this week, which won’t arrive until the end of the year.

Novavax, another late addition to the stable, just pushed back its timeline by three months and has no set date for availability here.

Many of the delays and disasters were outside Mr Morrison’s control, including the EU blocking shipments from outside the block, the failed UQ vaccine, and AstraZeneca’s blood clot flaw.

But had more deals been made early and more doses ordered from Pfizer, these hurdles could have been overcome and the rollout kept on track.

Mr Morrison receives his Covid-19 vaccination during a visit to Castle Hill Medical Centre February 21. There was plenty of optimism that day, but it's been all downhill from there

Mr Morrison receives his Covid-19 vaccination during a visit to Castle Hill Medical Centre February 21. There was plenty of optimism that day, but it’s been all downhill from there

Low case numbers and relatively normal life inside the Australian bubble also led to a lack of urgency in getting on top of the vaccine rollout’s logistics.

Not enough doses were secured early enough, and the entire strategy felt as it was planned on the go and stuck together with blu-tac.

Where are the mass vaccination centres? Why can’t medical and quarantine staff get an appointment for weeks? Why was the plan to get GPs to administer vaccines so poorly thought out that doctors immediately flagged numerous problems?

Once it finally got up and running, there were inexcusable incidents of patients being given several times the required dose and a needle shortage that wasted thousands of doses.

We weren’t ready and didn’t do enough planning, and it showed.

Experts warned about these problems months ahead of time, but don’t appear to have been taken seriously enough.

Quarantine catastrophes 

Mr Morrison’s one good move, shutting the borders and isolating all returned Australians, came with its own issues.

Tens of thousands of Australians overseas were treated with contempt from day one and barely a finger was lifted to help them.

First they were told to stay put if they could, then months later told they should have dropped everything and returned home immediately.

A few million dollars – peanuts compared to the $370 billion spent on JobKeeper and boosted unemployment benefits – could have financed as many repatriation flights as needed to get everyone home in weeks.

Strict arrival limits brought in last month mean the few airlines still flying to Australia cancel many flights because they are not economical

Strict arrival limits brought in last month mean the few airlines still flying to Australia cancel many flights because they are not economical

Australians trying to get home say they were forced to buy business class tickets on planes with just 30 passengers. Here a child plays in the completely empty economy section

Australians trying to get home say they were forced to buy business class tickets on planes with just 30 passengers. Here a child plays in the completely empty economy section

Where was Australia's mateship towards the 40,000 countrymen and women stuck overseas, broke and stressed with no idea when they can get back?

 Where was Australia’s mateship towards the 40,000 countrymen and women stuck overseas, broke and stressed with no idea when they can get back?

Instead there were precious few, and last year Indian expats resorted to a daring caper to organise their own charter flights to get out of the country.

Australians now have to wait months and have flights costing up to $10,000 cancelled over and over, only to be treated like selfish lepers when they finally arrive.

Hotel quarantine is also needlessly terrible. Guests pay $3,000 and receive varying qualities of food and cleanliness depending on where they are dumped.

Some of the food looks like it cost about $2 to make. You would feel bad about feeding it to a dog.

The government can and should demand a reasonable standard, but it doesn’t bother.

Then there are deadly oversights in how quarantine is managed – lax protocols, guards allowed to work as Uber drivers, and not enough testing.

This infamous photo shows guards at Melbourne quarantine hotels where the Melbourne outbreak began in June 2020. Lax standards emerged in the inquiries to follow

This infamous photo shows guards at Melbourne quarantine hotels where the Melbourne outbreak began in June 2020. Lax standards emerged in the inquiries to follow

Hotel quarantine is also needlessly terrible. Guests pay $3,000 and receive varying qualities of food and cleanliness depending on where they are dumped

Some of the food looks like it cost about $2 to make. I would feel bad about feeding it to a dog

Hotel quarantine is also needlessly terrible. Guests pay $3,000 and receive food that looks like it cost about $2 to make. You would feel bad about feeding it to a dog

The result is leaks that should not have happened and lockdowns by over-cautious premiers that could have been avoided.

Stunningly, we are only just debating regional quarantine hubs away from populated city centres when they were the obvious solution from day one.

Howard Springs, just outside Darwin, is not only extremely successful and leak-free, it is comparatively comfortable and tolerable.

It should not be the only one of its kind, and building more would have given the hotel quarantine system enough capacity to avoid the flight arrival caps that stranded Australians overseas indefinitely.

PM’s questionable leadership

All the issues that led us to this state of affairs are made worse by the PM’s approach since the early days of the pandemic.

Leigh Sales had a point when she summed up his approach to all the big moments of his three years in office in a question on Wednesday’s 7.30 report.

‘You’ve been the Prime Minister now for nearly three years and so Australians have had a chance to observe how you’ve responded to various things,’ she began.

Mr Morrison is not nicknamed 'Scotty from marketing' for nothing - his response to any problem or scrutiny has arguably been to spin, deflect, and make it about someone else

Mr Morrison is not nicknamed ‘Scotty from marketing’ for nothing – his response to any problem or scrutiny has arguably been to spin, deflect, and make it about someone else

‘When it comes to taking responsibility, [Australians] have seen vaccine stumbles, not your fault, “it’s a supply issue”. Quarantine, “mostly a problem for states”. Bushfires, “I don’t hold a hose”. Brittany Higgins, “I was in the dark”.

‘Covid deaths in aged care, “mostly the fault of state governments”. Christian Porter, “I don’t need to drill into the particulars”. Minister’s breaching standard, “I reject that anybody ever has”.

‘Doesn’t it add up to a tendency to blame shift and duck responsibility wherever possible?’

Mr Morrison, with a typically evasive answer, proceeded to do nothing but prove her right.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he put himself front and centre by closing the borders and bringing in a national lockdown.

Ever since, he has largely avoided the spotlight and let state premiers do the heavy lifting of daily Covid press conferences and pandemic policy making.

WA Premier Mark McGowan put up a hard border with the rest of Australia for eight months

 WA Premier Mark McGowan put up a hard border with the rest of Australia for eight months

The result is a patchwork of state governments making it up as they go along, rarely agreeing on anything other than their desire to be re-elected.

WA Premier Mark McGowan put up a hard border for eight months and Annastacia Palaszczuk wasn’t far behind in Queensland.

Daniel Andrews responded to a spiralling outbreak in Victoria with a draconian lockdown and heavy-handed police enforcement.

Stronger leadership from Mr Morrison could have reined in at least some of this madness, but he stuck to the shadows and toured coal mines instead.

Now, with snap state border closures the norm at the first sign of trouble, no wonder the devastated tourism industry can’t even begin to recover.

Australia’s coronavirus failures

VACCINE ROLLOUT

  • Pinned vaccine hopes on jut a few candidates with local production of AstraZeneca the linchpin.  This left the program in tatters when its use was linked to a rare blood clotting
  • Failed to mitigate supply issues and order from a variety of sources
  • Glacial start to vaccination program that had far behind targets well before AstraZeneca problems
  • Poorly planned GP and pharmacist program that immediately ran into problems
  • Several patients given five times the correct vaccine dose

QUARANTINE PROGRAM

  • Used CBD hotels for quarantine and made no effort to build or repurpose dedicated regional facilities other than Howard Springs
  • Failure to demand decent food and conditions in hotel quarantine
  • Put on very few repatriation fights, leaving at its peak 40,000 Australians stranded overseas
  • Callously abetted the demonisation of returned Australians by telling them to stay put, then blaming them for not returning sooner
  • Lack of quarantine planning left shortfall in available rooms, leading to the flight arrival cap
  • Chose security companies with poorly-trained and paid staff, some working multiple jobs, that along with lax standards led to leaks including the Melbourne outbreak

POOR LEADERSHIP FROM THE PM

  • Left most pandemic policy to the states, resulting in constant bickering, border closures, and wildly varying strategies
  • Did not articulate a coherent strategy for dealing with the virus and how many infections were acceptable
  • Consistently avoids setting timetables of any kind so he doesn’t have to stick to promises
  • Used public’s fear of Covid-19 to justify keeping borders closed and cover up the government’s litany of other failures

We are part of the problem

The hardest lesson from the pandemic may be the revelation that many of the values Australians claim to hold appear to be built on lies.

Where was the mateship towards the 40,000 countrymen and women stuck overseas, broke and stressed with no idea when they can get back?

Instead of compassion, they are abused as ‘fairweather Aussies’ who dared to leave their homeland, and selfish, entitled whingers who should be left to rot overseas.

The ‘they should have come home months ago’ myth persists despite being largely debunked dozens of times.

Australians are even pilloried for wanting to leave the country for family funerals or having a wedding alongside close family who live overseas.

Passengers rush to arrive or leave Australia on March 20, 2020, as that night foreigners were banned from entry

Passengers rush to arrive or leave Australia on March 20, 2020, as that night foreigners were banned from entry

This was the letter numerous Australians received in reply from the prime minister, offering nothing but platitudes and the implication they should have returned earlier

This was the letter numerous Australians received in reply from the prime minister, offering nothing but platitudes and the implication they should have returned earlier

This is even after navigating a needlessly complex exemption process for permission to leave the country, Australia being once again a prisoner island alongside the likes of North Korea.

The government now plans to tighten exemption criteria even further because a paltry 134,758 people came and went – many of whom were medical workers, airline crew, and military personnel.

Even at home when states walled up their borders to sick kids and grieving family members just wanting to say goodbye or, failing that, attend a funeral, there was an astonishing absence of compassion or basic human decency.

But above all, there is fear.

Far from the resilient, easy-going, ‘she’ll be right’ folks Australians are supposed to be, we have been revealed as scared children hiding under the bed.

It started with anti-Asian vitriol, verbal taunts in the street, and even physical violence early in the pandemic due to the virus starting in China.

Soon jokes from Asian friends about desperately stifling coughs weren’t funny anymore, and a man was left to die in the street from a heart attack because bystanders were afraid to help him.

An Asian man was left to die in the street in Sydney's Chinatown from a heart attack in late January because bystanders were afraid to help him

An Asian man was left to die in the street in Sydney’s Chinatown from a heart attack in late January because bystanders were afraid to help him

Even if the vaccine rollout was properly organised and on track, conspiracy theories and fear of literal one-in-a-million blood clots mean only 72 per cent of Australians are ‘very likely’ to get the jab.

Those refusing include military, medical staff, and even quarantine workers who were until recently not booted from the job if they wouldn’t get vaccinated.

Rather than outrage about unnecessary snap restrictions over minimal cases, voters appeared to not mind being locked down even harder and for state borders to stay shut forever.

Politicians, for whom fear is their greatest weapon, lapped this up and instead of showing leadership to restore sanity, used it for political gain.

Kimberley Brown and her husband Scott, from Ballina, in northern NSW, learned that they had lost their unborn baby after being forced to travel 750kms because of Queensland's border restrictions

Kimberley Brown and her husband Scott, from Ballina, in northern NSW, learned that they had lost their unborn baby after being forced to travel 750kms because of Queensland’s border restrictions

Emperor McGowan and Comrade Anna cruised to landslide election victories, the former reducing the Liberal opposition to just two seats in March and enjoyed approval ratings in the 90s.

The WA leader in particular weaponised fear to convince his subjects that should the hard border be even slightly softened, Perth would look like virus-swamped Melbourne in minutes.

His cause was helped immensely by WA’s enormous chip on its shoulder towards the eastern states, which he exploited relentlessly with antagonistic jabs at anyone daring to question his heavy-handed style.

It became impossible to even have a rational conversation with Western Australian friends about the issue, such was their embarrassing adoration.

The federal government, on the other hand, used the public’s fear as an excuse to take it easy and paper over its own failings.

Families torn apart by closed Australian border 

Young British woman Charlotte Bolt planned to follow her boyfriend Mike Hawkey to Australia after he got a job at a mining company in January.

But the border slammed shut just before she was due to leave, and she is still desperately trying to plead her case.

‘Since then our lives have been left in limbo, with no end in sight. We have now spent the last seven months apart,’ she said.

Young British woman Charlotte Bolt planned to follow her boyfriend Mike Hawkey to Australia after he got a job at a mining company in January - but the border closed before she arrived

Young British woman Charlotte Bolt planned to follow her boyfriend Mike Hawkey to Australia after he got a job at a mining company in January – but the border closed before she arrived

‘On the day we said goodbye to each other, people still had their Christmas decorations up. Now we have to face the fact we might not be able to spend this coming Christmas together.’

Alexandra Skiba flew to California to visit her parents and was stuck there when the border closed, despite her employer begging the government to let her back in.

Thousands of stories like these have forced the Australian Border Force to review its compassionate criteria.

Having dumped his October deadline, Mr Morrison now justifies blowing out his vague timeline for reopening borders by at least eight months by noting voters are too scared to open up anyway.

‘I don’t see an appetite for that (opening the borders any time soon) at the moment,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph hours before the Budget.

‘We sit here as an island that’s living like few countries in the world are at the moment.

‘We have to be careful not to exchange that way of life for what everyone else has.’

Mr Morrison flat out refuses to set a date and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg even flagged keeping the border closed beyond mid-2022.

He of course fell back on the ‘health advice’ excuse that is frequently ignored or relied upon when convenient, with no transparency to check what the advice actually is, or how independent it is from political expediency.

‘We’re unapologetic about putting the health of Australians first. Ultimately, this is primarily a health crisis with a very severe economic impact,’ he said at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Real leaders, interested in more than just clinging to power, would shift public opinion to the best policy, or just do the unpopular for the good of the country.

Instead the message is: ‘You don’t want to open up anyway, so it doesn’t matter how much we stuffed up – we have time to fix it.’

New Zealand travelers embrace at Sydney International Airport on April 19, the day the NZ travel bubble began. Those farther afield will wait more than a year for similar reunions

New Zealand travelers embrace at Sydney International Airport on April 19, the day the NZ travel bubble began. Those farther afield will wait more than a year for similar reunions

But do they really? Australia is haemorrhaging billions of dollars in lost tourism spending and universities are on the brink after their international student lifeblood was cut off.

Furthermore, a Migration Council of Australia study found immigration was forecast to contribute $1.6 trillion to GDP by 2050, and add 15.7 per cent to workforce participation – chunks of which we lose every day the border is closed.

The lack of foreign backpackers, told to go home the second the pandemic started, are in such short supply that farmers have no one to pick fruit and do other low-paid, back-breaking jobs Australians have no interest in doing.

Then there is the social cost – 30 per cent of Australian residents were born overseas and have close family and friends they have no seen in 14 months.

They played by the rules, endured lockdowns, and expected 2021 would bring hope and reunions.

Instead, they face another 14 months of agony, while watching the rest of the world get on with their lives.

Key moments in Australia’s pandemic

January 25, 2020: Australia has its first cases in returned travellers from China

March 1: First Australian death, a man evacuated from a cruise ship

March 2: First case of community transmission

March 19: Ruby Princess disembarks hundreds of infected passengers in Sydney after quarantine bungle

March 20: Australia’s borders close to foreigners and quarantine begins

March 27: Returned Australians forced into hotel quarantine

March 29: Scott Morrison declares national lockdown

May 15: Lockdown ends and restrictions start to relax

July 4: Victoria announces new outbreak after the virus leaked out of hotel quarantine in late June. A brutal lockdown follows

October: Victorian lockdown gradually ends

December 1: Queensland opens state borders

December 8: Western Australia opens its borders to all states

December 19: Sydney’s northern beaches are locked down amid a fresh outbreak. All of Sydney faces restrictions but no lockdown over Christmas holidays

January 25, 2021: Pfizer vaccine is approved by the TGA

February: 16: AstraZeneca vaccine is approved

February 22: First jabs are given out in Australia, including Mr Morrison

March 5: AstraZeneca jabs begin

April 8: Blood clot fears lead to AstraZeneca vaccine no longer being used on Australians under-50

April 15: Woman, 48, dies from blood clotting disorder linked to vaccine

May 9: Scott Morrison admits borders will stay close well into 2022 and he can’t set a date

May 11: Federal Budget projects border will stay closed until at least mid-2022

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