Australia border closures: The international border isn't really closed and we're all paying a price

OPINION

It's one of the great lies of the pandemic. Australia hasn't really closed its international border at all. It's left it ajar so sportspeople, film stars, politicians and others willing to pay exorbitant fares for seats can still squeeze through.

But there is some method in this apparent madness. Catering to these folk lucky enough to afford big fares but not quite lucky enough to have the run of a private jet, plus, of course, stranded Australians heading home on humanitarian grounds, provides teetering international airlines with a reason to continue flying Down Under.

Allowing some border incursions helps maintain our fragile and selective connection with the rest of the world and keeps favoured industries, like the sport and movie businesses ticking over as others, like the tourism and aviation industries (really one and the same), atrophy before our eyes.

When we're not periodically shutting down the partial trans-Tasman bubble we're also allowing Kiwis into Australia.

There's one other great troubling and related lie of the pandemic and that is that Australian states have, like New Zealand, adopted a COVID-19 elimination strategy, particularly those snap (lockdown) happy states.

The reality is that Australia, and to a lesser extent our Kiwi cousins, are effectively willing net importers of COVID-19 in that we effectively keep inviting it in, naively believing we can somehow, with every new measure and protocol, fully control it from escaping into the community.

We shouldn't therefore be at all surprised when the virus leaks from quarantine hotels, the new tourism petri dishes in the pandemic. (The pejorative "petri dish" term was originally, and as it now eventuates, unfairly, applied exclusively to cruise ships. How things have changed).

The delayed repatriation of Australians from overseas has emerged as a big humanitarian issue and the truth is we have largely failed these people. The federal government was recently badly shown up by the relative ease - albeit with an alarming cost in COVID cases - with which Tennis Australia was recently able to charter flights to deliver tennis stars to Melbourne for its grand slam.

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If only politicians had been so proactive and humanitarian-minded last year, well before the latest and more virulent strains of the virus materialised, so more Australians could have made it safely home. This would likely have lowered the chances of quarantine breaches that have disrupted crucial segments of the economy.

Is it any wonder that more and more major hotels are now withdrawing from the quarantine program, rightly fearing brand damage and preferring to chance their luck with the patchy-at-best domestic travel market?

Shifting the onerous task of managing COVID-19 to regional centres seems to be simply transferring the problem to smaller but just as vulnerable populations.

Australians living overseas have a fundamental human and citizenship right to be able to return home, and there are many heartbreaking stories of their circumstances. Really, who wouldn't want to escape the still virus-stricken US and UK for home right now, no matter the circumstances?

But in terms of "the greater good" - an ethos which Australians have admirably embraced unlike the US and UK - we have to accept that bringing them home will continue to come at a cost to the greater proportion of our population of 26 million.

The notion of reducing the intake to include only compassionate cases, as suggested in recent days by Victorian premier Dan Andrews, has been widely condemned, but it highlights an uncomfortable reality. Until such time as vaccines, which are poised to be belatedly administered to workers in the hotel quarantine system, prove their value in stemming the virus, we will continue to suffer damaging disruptions.

It would help if reactionary state and territory governments removed, or at least moderated, the politics in their edicts, accepted the realities and planned for the certainty of outbreaks and submitted to a coherent national hotspot containment policy.

Eventually, a succession short, sharp and sudden lockdowns favoured by state premiers will become the equivalent of damaging extended ones. Where, then, is the gain?

Meanwhile let's drop the pretence that our international border is closed to all, when it's open to some, and start planning on how to fully reopen and re-engage with the world, or at least the safest parts of it.

See also: Our zero-risk approach means there's no hope for travel bubbles

See also: Unless we sort out borders, Australia will become a hermit nation

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