Stranded Aussies and insular Australia’s makeshift pandemic safety 

Left out in the cold – James Cater has been stranded in Russia since the beginning of the pandemic.

Although Australia is viewed as one of the most successful nations at dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, its methods are nothing to envy. When it came to international border control it opted for callous and short-sighted political schemes over humane solutions. It’s symptomatic of an inward focused political culture and society that readily engages in othering for political expedience, and has failed to keep up with the times.

When Jamie asked “How is everyone going?” in his tweet to stranded Aussies, the replies were a chorus of despondency. Jamie is one of the citizens who made it home from London last year after months of fraught efforts and uncertainty. 

Coronavirus vaccination programs are rolling out in much of the world, but the stranded Aussies crisis is the worst it’s been and is deteriorating. While numbers of citizens among international arrivals has declined to only 44% in recent months, the number of desperate Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has grown to over 36,000. The associated media coverage has slumped, however, remaining disappointingly superficial.   

“I’m still stranded,” replied James Cater, who’s spent the pandemic stuck in Russia surviving on his limited savings. “But to be honest I have almost totally given up on trying to return.”

Stranded in Malaysia, Allison Bradwell tweeted her exasperation with the Australian government, adding “but worst of all I’m tired of the insular Aussies who say the current situation is just fine.”

“I am burnt out,” was the reply from Roberta. “It has significantly impacted my mental health.” Eligible for a working visa, she gave up trying to get home and chose to stay in London because it was less stressful. But she described it as a horrible choice, a trade-off forced on her by a government that recognises no rights associated with citizenship. “Who knows when I’ll see my family,” she said.

That frustration at being shut out is compounded when Australian media commentators cheer the situation on. In January, the editor of  The Age, Gay Alcorn, supported cuts to the flight caps with her assertion that they “keep us safe.” The “us” was limited to those fortunate enough to be within the national borders. 

Writing about Australia’s pandemic success for The Washington Post in March, Richard Glover commented on the government’s travel ban: “…returning Australians were forced into hotel quarantine… Now, a year on, as many as 40,000 Australians are still overseas, queuing for a slot in that system. Some have criticized the policy as undermining a core right of citizenship, but it has worked.”

Both writers have uncritically accepted messaging from Australian political leaders that draconian border controls were the only way to keep the domestic population safe, but if they’d looked beyond our shores, they’d have found that is not the case. 

An open ended human rights breach

When the caps were introduced nationally after Australia’s largest outbreak in Victoria mid 2020, anyone would have thought they were a temporary measure – that they’d only remain inordinately low until that state ironed out its quarantine issues. Eight months later, the caps are still in place, nowhere near sufficient to meet the demand for essential travel, and still being cut at whim, despite no further serious outbreaks. 

That is explicitly against World Health Organisation advice that essential travel, including repatriation, should be facilitated. Any restrictions should be risk-based, proportionate, and time limited. Yet, in January, February and now April the Commonwealth and states again agreed to cut the caps, reverting to the levels they were in October 2020 when the number of Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was beginning to balloon. 

It’s not as if the rate of infection among those who enter is unpredictable either. Current figures released by NSW Health show that less than 1% of international arrivals are testing positive to coronavirus. Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics and Commonwealth figures, the nationwide average for March 2020 was 1.1%.

Yet, for tens of thousands of citizens and permanent residents abroad, the prolonged measures have caused severe financial loss and damage to livelihoods. They’ve separated couples and families, and endangered the health of the frail and vulnerable, not least by increasing their risk of exposure to coronavirus overseas.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, there are few, if any, circumstances under which deprivation of the right to return to one’s home country can be considered reasonable. Circumstances where Australians overseas languish homeless on expired visas, without work permits or health insurance and are advised by the government to resort to charities and crowdfunding to feed themselves while a twelve hundred strong Australian Open Tennis entourage was welcomed into the country, suggests that any reasonableness has long lapsed. 

The tennis crowd followed a stream of celebrities, cricket and rugby crews whose entry was expedited, as well as migrant workers brought in to take scandalously low paid jobs. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has also proposed special arrangements to accommodate international students ahead of citizens and permanent residents.

Because Australia has no Bill of Rights, no legal remedies are available to its citizens. That means there’s no domestic accountability mechanism in this case. In desperation, some stranded Australians turned to the United Nations for help. A recent petition that will take at least a year to adjudicate, prompted the UN to issue an interim order requesting that the Morrison government repatriate the petitioners as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is not legally enforceable under current Australian law.  

Best practice pandemic border policy

Restrictions on returning Australians look even less reasonable when compared with the countries that are effectively protecting their domestic populations without abandoning their citizens abroad. Both New Zealand and Taiwan have provided up to three times Australia’s quarantine capacity per capita, depending on the month. International arrivals to those two countries have averaged out at over 0.23% of their total populations per month since April 2020, while Australia’s monthly average is 0.11%. 

Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has had less than half of Australia’s cumulative coronavirus cases and just 15% of Australia’s deaths per capita. Its only significant outbreak occurred in the first month. Similarly, Taiwan has had less than 4% of Australia’s infections per capita, around 1% of its deaths and no serious outbreaks. 

Their quarantine capacity was in place early and those countries have not cut it. For comparison, New Zealand’s population is slightly less than that of Queensland’s, yet from April 2020 through January 2021, that country welcomed 103,000 international arrivals while Queensland allowed only 39,400. When Queensland cut its caps to 2,250 in January, citing the new coronavirus variants, New Zealand took its highest number of arrivals since last April (13,100). Singapore, with a slightly higher population than Queensland, safely received 23,000 arrivals that month.

Taiwan, with a population of just under 24 million compared with Australia’s nearly 26 million, also recorded its highest monthly arrivals since the start of the pandemic in January. New variants and the lack of a vaccine were not impediments. Taiwan received 77,000 arrivals that month compared with Australia’s 32,000 (including around five thousand New Zealand citizens who were not required to quarantine). 

Taiwan is able to provide high quarantine capacity by allowing a proportion of its international arrivals to quarantine at home. Its technologically monitored system was fully operational by April 2020, and at one point in that month was supervising 55,000 people. By October, Time Magazine reported that the country had allowed 360,000 people to quarantine at home, more than double the number of people Australia had put through hotels. The compliance rate was reported to be 99.7%.

Taiwan also allows entry to international students, migrant workers and relatives of residents. Australia could have put similar systems in place.

(Click table for larger version.)

Table: Comparing quarantine capacity & success, Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand - cumulative coronavirus cases and deaths at 20 April 2021, international arrivals per 100,000 population October 2020 – January February 2021 

Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Our World in Data, Stats NZ, Taiwan Ministry of the Interior, Worldometer

1NZ does not distinguish citizens. They may be counted among ‘overseas visitors’ if they normally reside outside of NZ.

2Arrivals from NZ since Oct have been mostly been exempt from quarantine but because exemptions varied between states and were introduced in staggered way, the exact numbers exempted is unknown. NZ arrivals have therefore not been deducted from the total but have numbered between 2,500 – 4,900 per month with average of 4,250 arriving monthly January through February. 

The inevitable deterioration

Months ago, those of us who came to form the Stranded Aussies Action Network began warning that the stranded Aussies crisis was going to get worse. The federal government acknowledges that up to one million Australians reside overseas at any one time. Around six million Australians were born overseas and over twice that number have at least one parent living outside of Australia. The circumstances of that diverse population change – relatives fall ill, visas and job contracts end, or pre-existing plans to return were disrupted by the Australian government’s restrictions. 

Australians like James Cater have been stuck since the outset of the pandemic when masses of flights were cancelled. Because DFAT discourages people from registering for repatriation unless they have exhausted all other avenues and only if they are able to depart at short notice, the numbers registered are not a reliable indicator. Airline industry bodies have estimated that up to 100,000 are stranded. 

So when a DFAT official told a Senate Committee in March that the ‘cup keeps filling’, that was always going to be the case. Since the travel ban, the federal government has issued exemptions for nearly as many Australian citizens and residents to depart overseas on essential travel as have returned. 

At the same time, around a third of international arrivals have been foreign nationals on temporary visas. Australia could have made sure its citizens and permanent residents were able to leave on essential travel and return home as a priority. It could have additionally allowed entry to those with valid visas – sport and celebrity cash cows included, if it had provided adequate, efficient quarantine. 

We can’t call the visitors queue jumpers because, contrary to what Glover wrote, there is no queue. Where the New Zealand government provides a system that allows inbound travellers to secure a quarantine place in advance, the federal government has largely left its border control to foreign airlines

With flights capped at 25 to 50 passengers – limits that are not commercially viable – the few airlines maintaining routes to Australia allocate tickets to those able to pay the most. Currently a one way fare from Los Angeles to Sydney is $23,000. First and business class cabins are filled, with hundreds of seats in economy cabins sitting empty. Even tickets on the sporadic Qantas commercial repatriation flights start at $2,200 from London, with preference given to bidders able to pay $8,700 for a business class seat.

A bleak political horizon – lack of leadership, lack of coordination 

Stranded Aussies took heart late last year when federal Labor appeared to be supportive of their cause. However, Labor premiers have been the most eager to slash the caps. Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews, did so within days of waving in the Australian Open Tennis crowd. 

Their go-to excuse, the coronavirus variants, have proven to be manageable in countries where infection control is taken seriously. A large B117 outbreak in Vietnam at the end of January, for example, was completely contained within weeks, with no loss of life, and only one province put into a two week lockdown. Densely populated Vietnam has land borders with four countries but has limited its coronavirus infections to just over 10% of Australia’s cumulative total, despite having nearly four times the population. 

Similarly, all Australian outbreaks since the largest in Victoria in June were contained relatively quickly.

Richard Glover, therefore, was mistaken when he said the draconian border approach had worked. Australia may have a relatively low number of infections but achieving that by only allowing pitifully small numbers of arrivals is not a genuine success. It’s a mediocre, cowardly and cruel approach that has caused mass hardship and risks to life and health. 

Moreover, differentiating the quarantine systems and, test, trace and isolate strategies of the states, reveals stark disparities. New South Wales provided half of Australia’s quarantine spaces since April last year, despite having only 32% of Australia’s population. Victoria, with 26% of Australia’s population received only 14% of the drastically restricted arrivals. Western Australia is currently the top performing state, receiving closest to a realistic quota, but no Australian state comes close to the capacity provided in New Zealand and Taiwan.

(Click table for larger version.)

3Quarantine exempt arrivals from NZ have not been deducted, ranging from 2,500 – 4,900 per month since Sep nationally, and averaging 4,250 per month January through February when quarantine free travel from NZ was allowed by all states.

40.23% based on low end rate of international arrivals to New Zealand (0.25%) and Taiwan (0.23%) September 2020 through January 2021. 

5Tasmania and ACT do not have international airports. Their quota therefore must be absorbed by larger states.

Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Taiwan Ministry of the Interior, Stats NZ. Numbers are rounded. Arrivals may be less or more than caps.  

6Number of quarantine breaches researched by Anthony Macali @migga, Aden Crocker and Carl Hansen. Calculation per 100,000 done by me and is indicative only – uses current total breaches against  number of arrivals April through February. The objective was to examine quarantine performance relative to total arrivals. NZ rate of breaches relative to community cases and overall deaths is a further indicator that breaches can be managed effectively if test trace isolate systems are up to scratch.

Arrivals have since been drastically cut to levels they were in October 2020 since the above table was compiled.
The number of quarantine breaches comparative to the number of cases identified in quarantine shows sharp disparity between states. It should be noted that NSW receives more arrivals than all other states combined.

The incidence of beginner level hygiene failures indicate some states have faked their way through the pandemic, riding on the efficiencies of others. Taking such low numbers of arrivals has allowed all of them to avoid fixing ongoing preventable issues – often skimping on infection control basics. Following a series of breaches and news of lax hygiene standards, Victoria’s quarantine program was shut for half the pandemic. It recently resumed with a limit of 800 arrivals per week. Sydney takes more than that every two days. 

Premier Palaszczuk has also argued to cut Queensland’s arrivals until the vaccine is rolled out. That was following new outbreaks sourced to a single hospital ward treating coronavirus patients. Four medical staff from that ward were out among the community while infected over a span of two weeks. Despite the vaccination rollout to over 40,000 frontline workers in that state, three of those covid ward staff had not received a single shot. So little routine testing was done, even after the first infected doctor was identified, one of the cases was completely missed. 

In March Queensland’s numbers of overseas acquired cases may have been the highest they’d reached, but they were no higher than the numbers New Zealand has safely dealt with throughout the pandemic. At the same time, Singapore, also with a similar population to Queensland, was successfully managing six times the infections among quarantined travellers, while regularly taking three to ten times that state’s international arrivals.

Now we’re seeing the Prime Minister and premiers move to cut arrivals from India rather than doing what they should have in the first place – tighten their systems in preparation for the inevitable rise in coronavirus cases overseas.

Political obfuscation – exploiting the opacity of National Cabinet

The federal government asserts that it’s doing everything it can to assist stranded Aussies to get home, but that has amounted to little more than managing the swelling DFAT register that would be redundant if adequate quarantine was provided. It also schedules inexplicably irregular and inadequate user-pays repatriation flights. 

The Labor opposition, for its part, persists with a misleading line that ‘quarantine is a federal responsibility’, omitting that the Commonwealth and states have concurrent legislative powers. Experts in constitutional law point out that unless the Commonwealth overrides their authority, the responsibility for quarantine falls to the states. Even if the Morrison government did take over, the Biosecurity Act requires that any such operation must be undertaken with the cooperation of state health departments, which is the likely reason that state premiers agreed to run it in the first place. 

Federal Labor also adopted a line that the Morrison government should build a national facility, holding up the $400m Howard Springs camp in the Northern Territory as the golden example. Howard Springs, however, is only able to accommodate 850 residents per fortnight. Its recent $513 million expansion to 2000 spaces appears to be stymied by the territory health department and Darwin hospital’s lack of capacity to deal with coronavirus cases. 

Even if health departments had been better prepared, more such facilities would take months or years to construct at a cost of billions. If Australia were to meet the quarantine capacity available in New Zealand and Taiwan, it would require space for at least 25,000 arrivals per fortnight, two and a half times the current intake, and the current Howard Springs times thirty.  

Labor leaders have also inferred that quarantine would be safer if it was shifted to the regions, but that has been contradicted by infectious disease experts for the same reasons that Howard Springs has its limitations. Again, New Zealand has safely processed more than two and half times Queensland’s arrivals entirely through urban hotel quarantine.

Any way you look at it, Australia’s pandemic response lacks leadership. A year in and Australia is still not pandemic prepared. Its inbound infection control requires a coordinated and bipartisan effort from both levels of government that none of us can envisage happening. The fact that National Cabinet negotiations between the Prime Minister and premiers are kept secret has created confusion over who is accountable and given all of them cover. 

Viable alternatives – official recommendations

Frustratingly, media and governments are now tethering the plight of those impacted by the caps to Australia’s vaccine rollout – an unacceptable scenario. Essential travel could and should have been made easier independent of the arrival of vaccines. That could have been done by providing alternative models and fixing the hotels and health departments with the help of a national standard.

In her October 2020 report for the federal government, Jane Halton recommended that the Commonwealth develop technologically monitored home-based quarantine. Likewise, Victoria’s judicial inquiry into hotel quarantine, run by Jennifer Coate, made eleven recommendations for doing so, including a comprehensive compliance plan. Both sides of politics remain silent on those.

Coate found that a home-based alternative is more humane and potentially safer than the hotel model because less personnel exposed to the virus translates to less transmission to the community. She also found that claims regarding non-compliance were overstated and blamed breaches squarely on government mismanagement. Where Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton gave evidence suggesting home quarantine would not be accepted by the public, the report found: 

Public perception is one thing — and it is an important thing — but in a program designed to curtail the spread of a potentially deadly pathogen, an evidence-based, humane and health-focussed response must be the primary driver. Those considerations, where conflicting with public perception, must carry the day and drive the nature of the response. 

Jennifer Coate

It’s a success of government messaging that many prefer to blame individuals rather than faulty systems. While commentators opine that arrivals can’t be trusted to self-isolate, they also seem unaware that only one percent of inbound travellers test positive in quarantine and that people who’ve tested positive throughout community outbreaks, as well as suspected contacts, have safely isolated unmonitored.

In Taiwan, those who breach quarantine orders by entering or leaving a premises without authorisation are fined up to $43,000. Similar fines and penalties were recommended in the Coate report. Beyond Taiwan, technologically supported home quarantine is being used successfully in South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bahrain. 

False economies

Public health experts have attributed Victoria’s problems to chronic under-resourcing of its health system, and all outbreaks in Australia since Victoria’s extended lockdown have been sourced to hygiene failures. There’s no evidence that a single breach has been caused by the behaviour of arriving travellers.

That seems to be the reason Australia’s political leaders have resisted implementing an adequate program, and, a year into the pandemic, still have no meaningful plan. They are aware that their systems are not up to scratch. But if they think they can avoid the expenditure, it’s a false economy. The states that resisted upgrading their infection control and test, trace, isolate procedures, have damaged livelihoods and economies with reactive lockdowns.

Victoria’s failed hotel quarantine operation is also reported to have cost $377 million. Even while suspended, it ran at a cost of over one million dollars per day. 

Meanwhile, Premier Palaszczuk rolled out the red carpet for a Hollywood film crew in early March, saying their production would bring $32 million to the state – as if facilitating the return of tens of thousands of Australians would not bring in more. The longer Australians wait overseas, the more cash they’re pouring cash into foreign economies and overpriced tickets on foreign airlines – money that would otherwise be spent or invested at home. 

Economic irrationality is not confined to the states either. The federal government offers small loans to the most vulnerable to pay a portion of airfares inflated by its own policy. In addition, the Commonwealth spent over $513 million on upgrading Howard Springs, but the facility will still only provide 8% of the spaces needed nationally. That’s a total cost nearing one billion dollars. It’s likely that upgrade was more costly than funding technology for a home quarantine monitoring system that could be used at scale, both short term and for future pandemics. 

Failing to support international students also comes at a cost. Over 900,000 students entered Australia in 2019, bringing billions in revenue, and the lack of a plan for a reasonable number to enter is another short-sighted blunder.

Missed opportunities  

Certainly, Australia’s efforts look good against the abysmal performance of many nations, but Taiwan, New Zealand and more recently, Singapore, have proven that the pandemic can be safely and humanely managed without abandoning their citizens abroad. By avoiding comparison with the best, Australian governments miss critical opportunities for innovation. If they’d operated borders and quarantine as efficiently as the world leaders, we’d have far less coronavirus cases and deaths, and few, if any, Australians stranded. Our leaders could have looked to the future and attempted to learn from best practice, rather than gloat that we’re doing better than the worst. 

Moreover, the risk aversion of Australia’s leaders seems not so much based on the threat of the virus than a fear of political blowback if the incompetence of their systems is exposed. They’re prepared to separate families and couples and endanger Australians overseas to save face. 

“It’s like nothing we do or say makes any difference,” was another dispirited reply to Jamie’s tweet. For those stranded, their hopes of an expedited return are constantly dashed. As long as there’s no pressure from the electorate, nothing will change, either. As long as voters think the way that Alcorn and Glover do, and fail to acknowledge that smart and safe alternatives were always available, the crisis was always preventable and the protracted hardship it’s caused to tens of thousands was always unjustified, our political leaders will continue to get away with it. 

The ease with which Australia’s policy makers breach the human rights of citizens and residents without any substantial criticism from anyone other than those directly impacted, speaks to the morality of a society inured to divisive politics, that looks the other way as refugees and First Nations people are kept in torturous conditions, the unemployed are kept in dire poverty and children as young as ten are incarcerated. In the era of a worsening climate emergency, the unwillingness to look to smarter alternatives, to embrace available technology and the obvious economic and social benefits of doing so, also speaks to a society that is lurching backward and risks being left far behind. 

Additional sources: Covid Live

Further reading: Stranded Aussies Action Network Get Informed pages

A Right to Come Home? – Repatriation Rights and Policy in Australia – policy brief for Melbourne School of Government authored by Elizabeth Hicks @LizHcks

The Value of Citizenship or the Unfolding of a Humanitarian Crisis – paper for the Geneva Institute of International Relations by Azucena Carrasco @AzucenaCaTo

One thought on “Stranded Aussies and insular Australia’s makeshift pandemic safety 

  1. To be honest we are way beyond getting stranded Aussies home. Just say we get them all home. Then what? We all sit happy in our little prison? We need to be talking about opening borders full stop. The government has had a year to work that out. And we are still lamenting the poor stranded people while WA goes into lockdown and halves arrival caps over one case. I just don’t see any hope for this country right now

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