Australian international border closures: It's time to treat travellers like adults again

OPINION

Two bewildered officials threw arched eyebrows across an airless room high above the river Nile, six months after the irrepressible Arab Spring vanquished Egypt's dastardly dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But Egyptian visa anxieties didn't land me in the viscera of the Australian embassy. Well before I'd touched down in Cairo, the Australian government's Smart Traveller website's Egypt advisory was downgraded to "reconsider your need to travel" from its most severe: "do not travel".

After reconsidering, I determine that witnessing what recently hatched democracy looks and sounds like transcends the perils posed by a transitioning republic. It was worth it, I thought, sitting in Tahrir Square, where it had all gone down. Heavy-handed government goons were now too petrified to approach the jubilant picnicking families around me, hard-won autonomy still frolicking across their faces like a force field.

In that sterile room, I was at the paperwork stage of what embassy staff were obliged to inform me was an unwise decision. I wanted to cross into ("do not travel") Sudan to continue my trans-African journey southwards.

"Crossing the border is entirely at your own risk," said the senior official. The risk he was referring to was that posed by the conflict between Sudan and the then new country, South Sudan. This essentially meant I was to be given no consular support, nor travel insurance coverage, if things went pear-shaped.

I signed a statutory declaration acknowledging this, and was then shuffled off to the Sudanese consulate, grateful both for the advice and for the fact that I possessed a passport from a country that often gives its citizens agency to be free-thinking adults.

This pre-COVID tale is not supposed to be a North African visa masterclass, but an exemplar of the contrasts between where our travel freedoms once stood and where we are now: subject to an open-dated blanket travel ban (except for New Zealand).

"But it's a pandemic, you pig-ignorant muppet!" I hear you bark. But let me continue.

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I subscribe to the "liberty for wolves is death to the lambs" philosophy and have so far broadly supported international border closings. I get it: unvaccinated, unmasked travellers are potential agents of death.

But the phrase "It's a pandemic" has become its own sub-pandemic, stonewalling well-meaning discussions about our futures, leaving us forlorn and lagging. The daily numbers are grim, but those who dare to think beyond them are harangued and tutted at like we're knife-sharpening sociopaths.

Like the driver who focuses too intently on Google Maps, we are driving headlong into Lake Despair, our spirit in concrete boots languishing on the lake bed. Now, something fundamental has shifted. This wolf recently received his second dose of the sweet nectar (Pfizer). Hopefully you will soon, too – if you want it.

Those two little pricks reawakened me after 18 months of melancholy, lockdown-neurosis and despondency at seeing people suffer and die around the globe. The Sydney Olympic Park Vaccination Centre hummed with soft drink commercial energy, soothed by its own strange bird-song soundtrack (calming bird-calls were actually playing). Masks obscured smiles but PPE couldn't contain hopeful eyes.

In my 15-minute wait in the side-effects chair, I reflected on what travel has taught me about risk and accepting any consequences of my own, sometimes dumb decisions.

The method to the madness of planning visits to high-risk – "you must be mad" – destinations has heightened my risk awareness and flight-response, making it exponentially sharper than if I had remained a garden variety "triangler'' (home/work/hobby).

Before the pandemic, Smart Traveller was awash with "reconsider your need to travel" warnings, including to many fairly safe African safari destinations. I treat the "reconsider'' caution as a directive to do-your-homework rather than a harbinger of doom. Ask what and where the danger is, then how to avoid it. (I'm basically a moderately functioning coward.)

I travelled through Colombia and Nigeria at times when the prevailing narrative pigeonholed them as kidnappers' Camelots. Research told me that these reputations grew from anecdotal hype attached to a few high-profile cases, rarely involving budget-travellers. So, I mitigated the danger with knowledge and employed age-old traveller's tactics – for example, if in doubt, only use taxis aligned with your accommodation.

When I was "reconsidering" a trip to Iran, I immediately struck its "do-not-travel" zones from my itinerary (borders with Iraq and Afghanistan). Given Iran's fractious relationship with the West, I also refrained from poking any bears. I was careful about what I photographed and I  adhered to local customs even when they seemed antiquated.

That journey was almost grounded before it began. Airline counter staff in Sydney didn't understand the on-arrival Iranian visa process, deeming it too risky for me to board the flight, even though I had documents to the contrary. After an hour-long squabble, they let me board – with 10 minutes to spare – as long as I "assumed the risk". Petty authorities often impose their concepts of risk (as I am now, ironically) and subjective fears, even when there is an official all-clear.

Variously, uniformed humans have unsuccessfully tried to stop me from seemingly innocuous activities – that turned into life-highlights – from a village-to-village trek through central Uzbekistan to exploring Vietnam's interior on the back of a motorbike (I checked out my Vietnamese Fonzi and his brakes beforehand). I'm still dumbfounded by the memory of an Indian policeman earnestly warning me off eating in "non-tourist" restaurants. Um, what? If it's full of scoffing locals, no military force should stop you.

With vaccination rates soaring over the coming months, we should demand numerical targets about when vaccinated travellers can again resume some responsibility for themselves. Doesn't the National Cabinet's "Pathway Out of COVID'' plan cover that? No, not really.

Scott Morrison's one-page PowerPoint sales-pitch feels like a glib extension of the "it's-not-a-race" trajectory – about as reassuring, urgent and vague as Australia's climate change targets. The bureaucratic equivalent of "We'll tell you when you're grown-up enough to take responsibility for yourselves".

There's also an inequitable dissonance between the words and actual policy execution. If borders are closed for everyone's wellbeing because of the Delta strain's virulence, why are thousands of business exemptions handed out? Not Zoom fans, perhaps.

This secret squirrel process implies that financial gain (for some) trumps life-or-death health advice. A taxable risk seems to be an acceptable risk.

Carpet-bombed by COVID, state and federal governments have made some great decisions in this pandemic, which will only be revisited as vaccines flow into arms in the coming months. But now it's time to look forward; time for more "reconsiders" and fewer "do nots", for the sake of our collective mental health.

See also: Australia has one of world's most powerful (and useless) passports

See also: 'Like COVID never happened': Vaccinated Aussies enjoy freedom in European summer

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