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“Fortress Australia”: How History and Politics Helped to Derail Covid Vaccination

"Putting a shrimp on the barbie" may not be typical of the Australian easy-going attitude. Covid vaccine rollout brought out their fear of “non-white outsiders”

by Gerardo Papalia

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then-President Donald Trump. Photo: Flickr

When Covid struck in Australia in 2020 the instant reaction by the Australian Federal government… was to shut down the borders and abandon even those 40,000 Australian citizens residing in other countries who wanted to return. In May 2021, following the Covid surge in India, the Federal government introduced a law threatening any Australian citizen or permanent resident returning to Australia directly from India, with 5 years of imprisonment and/or a AU$66,600 fine. Australians are quite happy to keep everyone out, including their own fellow citizens….

The Covid Vaccination roll-out in Australia has stirred up a sediment that has long lain in our national psyche and is now clouding our democracy. This sludge is the ‘fear of invasion’ deposited at the dawn of colonial time. It has now shape-shifted into fear of contagion.

While the “Rabbit Proof Fence”, may no longer exist on the ground, it still exists in the Australian national psyche, in a different form.  Ever since European settlement of Australia, the whites of this country have lived under the shadow of fear of ‘invasion’ by non-Whites–much like Trump’s passion for a border wall with Mexico seems to lurk in Americans’ deep fears and resurfaces in times of crisis.

“Mongolian Octopus”, cartoon published in 1886. Photo: State library of New South Wales collection

When Australia federated in 1901 it developed a version of US Manifest Destiny called the White Australia Policy, the first law to be enacted in the national parliament. It was designed to keep out of Australia anyone not deemed sufficiently ‘white’. A ‘dictation test’ kept out Black, Brown and Asian people, and subversives too. Undesirables could be given a test in any ‘European language’ (story about how this worked here).

The children held captive at the Moore River Native Settlement in north of Perth in Western Australia. From “Rabbit Proof Fence”. Image from Youtube

One may ask: “So what about the Indigenous population?” In another alarming parallel with the history of Americas’ relations with their own native population, for many years it was assumed that Aboriginal Australians would eventually ‘die out’, a process that began with bloody frontier wars and was later continued by policies forcibly removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their mothers and fostering them into white families, a practice that was carried out also in the US in the 19th century against the Cherokee nation and other tribes and made infamous in the “Trail of Tears” removal. The Australian policy of child removal is vividly represented in the now-classic 2002 film directed by Philip Noyce, “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” which tells the story of three children who walk for nine weeks trying to get back to their families.

After WW1 Australian PM ‘Billy’ William Morris Hughes secured an exception to the racial equality clause in the League of Nations Charter, to the chagrin of Woodrow Wilson, in order to maintain the White Australia policy. This did not help relations with Japan, at the time our second largest trading partner.

As so often happens, the original sins of colonial settlement (or the establishment of nationhood) tend to perpetuate themselves in hidden ways until a crisis brings them to the surface. Even today Australian society harbors dark anxieties and fears that are quite the opposite of the easy-going image that its tourist industry likes to project abroad.

So, when Covid struck, the instant reaction by politicians was to shut down the borders in such a draconian fashion as to abandon to their own devices, the 40,000 Australian citizens living abroad who wanted to return. More recently, when there was the Covid surge in India the Federal government introduced a law threatening any Australian citizen or permanent resident returning to Australia directly from India or via a third country, with 5 years of imprisonment and a $66,000 fine, or both. There are currently about 9,000 Australian citizens or permanent residents in India. As a result, some Australians have died from Covid in India. Needless to say, most of these people are ‘not quite white’.

The devastation in India caused by the Covid surge. Photo: CNBC

This law, which expired on May 15, caused an uproar with accusations of racism. However, the strict attitudes that inspired it enjoys the broad support of three quarters of the population. Australians are quite happy to keep everyone out, including their own citizens, despite the fact that two of our major industries: international education and tourism have all but collapsed. Not to mention that our broader economy largely depends on immigrants to remain viable.

The Federal government under the conservative (I would say reactionary) Liberal-National Party Coalition is making much political capital out of closing the borders under the slogan ‘Keeping Australians Safe’. Evidently this does not include Australians living in Covid-ravaged countries. Within Australia the state-run health care systems have managed to keep the contagion mostly under control by quarantining the few arrivals that are allowed in, by contact tracing and by selective lockdowns. At the same time the Federal government has sought to take command of the anti-Covid vaccine rollout without collaborating with the states, who actually run the health care system on the ground. But it was complacent about putting in orders for vaccines from overseas manufacturers, particularly Pfizer, hoping to rely on the local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, Australia does not have the capacity to manufacture the more advanced Pfizer vaccines and so must rely on importing it. Given that the AstraZeneca vaccine generated blood clots in a small percentage of the vaccinated, the federal government suspended its rollout among people under 50, but continued for people over that age. Not surprisingly, a lot of people are now reluctant to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca. So even those who are over 50, are still not vaccinated, and we’re crossing our fingers that there will be no major outbreak before the Pfizer vaccine arrives from abroad, which with world demand being what it is, will take months.


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