Tempers are frayed, we’ve become a nation divided over Fortress Australia and the Covid-19 response

Tim Soutphommasane – The Guardian – 1 July 2021

“For a while Australia seemed to be on top of Covid-19, but we have lost our way – and an ideology is to blame.

Has Australia lost the plot? It’s the question many of us are asking. Our pandemic response, for so long admired as world-leading, is rapidly unravelling before our eyes. And as a nation, it feels like we are unravelling too.

Our tempers are frayed, our patience thin. We all want someone to blame. We’ve become a nation divided: by politics, by state, by age, even by vaccine.

Maybe it’s the abrupt return to lockdown that half of the country has had. After all, things weren’t meant to be this way, 18 months into the pandemic. Confronted by Covid-19’s devastating spread across the world, we were all braced for being locked down in 2020. This year was meant to be different.

For a while there, it felt like Australia had managed to get on top of the pandemic. A cap on international arrivals and a quarantine regime was, for the most part, keeping the virus at bay. Effective contact tracing ensured we could deal with leakages of Covid into the community. Social distancing and restrictions on gatherings added an extra layer of protection. And then, of course, there was the promise of mass vaccination to protect us.

Only mass vaccination hasn’t arrived in Australia.

Our vaccine rollout has been shambolic. Only 5% of our population is fully vaccinated, due in part to a failure by the commonwealth government to procure vaccines. We have the lowest vaccination rate among the OECD countries. We’ve squandered the head start we got in 2020. It has been a policy disaster.

Just as troubling: the abysmally confusing public communication about the AstraZeneca vaccine. It’s an indictment that many Australians fear getting a rare blood clot from AstraZeneca more than they do contracting Covid itself. But you can kind of understand why it has happened.

Panic has replaced proportion in some official statements about the vaccine – most notably in the Queensland government’s emotive warnings to people aged under 40 not to take AstraZeneca.

Dysfunction is now gripping our pandemic response. Part of the problem is there’s a vacuum of national leadership. During this past week, as Australia has descended into Covid crisis management, both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have been essentially invisible. Without strong political leadership at the centre, it is little wonder we’ve become fragmented.

At the core of the dysfunction, though, is ideology. Australia won’t get its pandemic response back on track until we are all prepared to move out of a Fortress Australia mentality.When I look at Australia from the US, I see an insular nation that has turned its back on its own at the start of the pandemic, it made sense for us as an island nation to find security behind our borders and to protect our population through lockdowns. But lockdowns and hard borders were never meant to be enduring or permanent solutions. They were only meant to protect us while we waited for effective vaccines to be available.

As things stand, the Australian response to Covid remains locked into the pre-vaccine world of 2020. Our success last year has built a dangerous complacency.

Governments, both federal and state, are primarily relying on closing our borders, limiting arrivals, and using quarantine facilities to protect the community. Lockdowns have been used as a measure of first, not last, resort. Despite it being our only solution, the vaccine rollout has come to assume almost secondary importance.

This has to change. But for now, there are few signs that it will. Our politicians are beholden to the politics of Fortress Australia. Remarkably, the federal Coalition government has yet to develop even the barest outline of a roadmap for safely reopening Australia’s borders. The Labor opposition meanwhile sees mileage in protectionist campaigning against “non-citizens” being allowed into Australia.

This is one of the most alarming aspects of our unfolding pandemic politics. We are likely to see a further shift in our political centre of gravity to the populist right. After all, the cultural power of Fortress Australia lies in the idea that the nation must be protected against disease-bearing foreigners (if not also returning citizens). Yet many on the progressive left seem content to entertain a mode of politics that will only enable xenophobia and empower prejudice.

A crisis such as a pandemic not only reveals who we are as a nation; it can also shift a nation’s values. Right now, this pandemic looks like it could leave Australia a more insecure, insular and divided nation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s still time for us to turn our pandemic response around. It starts, though, by taking off our blinkers. We have to eliminate our contented sense of national exceptionalism. We have to understand we can’t trade off our early success in suppressing Covid. The world has moved on and we need to learn from the best, not gloat about past glories.

We have indeed lost our way. National solidarity has given way to tribal bickering. We must return to first principles. Australia can’t defeat the pandemic by jumping in and out of lockdown, or by sealing ourselves indefinitely from the rest of the world. It’s time we grasp what every other advanced democracy in the world has already worked out.

As much as borders and quarantine matter right now, ultimately there’s only one way out of this pandemic: vaccination.

  • Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and professor at the University of Sydney.

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