Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series detailing how Australia has responded to the COVID threat. In part one, we discussed the encroaching authoritarianism and the closing of state borders. In this final segment, we examine how Australians are reacting to the coercive nature of the government’s plan for near-full vaccination.
With some now giving up on the “COVID zero” pipedream, Australia’s new solution to the pandemic is vaccination. A national reopening scheme – based on a vaccine push – has been met with support from 62% of Australians, according to the BBC. While states that have endured harsh lockdowns may be more willing to support the vaccine drive, others are not on board with the national plan.
Living in a Cave?
States such as Western Australia, where borders were shut tight against the pandemic, “basically have no transmission and no restrictions, people basically live normal lives so telling them they have to face the virus is really, really hard,” says Professor Ivo Mueller, a population health and immunity expert from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.
In one spat, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly offended the Western Australia leadership by referencing a children’s movie about cavemen: “Now it’s like that movie The Croods. Some wanted to stay in the cave and the young girl wanted to deal with the challenges of living in a different world. Covid is a different world and we need to get out and live in it. We can’t stay in the cave.”
Extortion by the State?
The people of Melbourne, the nation’s second-largest city, have endured over 200 days trapped inside their homes. Into their sixth harsh lockdown, Victorian state Premier Daniel Andrews has told residents the lockdown will end only once 70-80% of the population has been double vaxxed. With the state government refusing to lift lockdown restrictions until the goal is met, residents may feel they have little choice other than get the jab or remain locked within their homes indefinitely.
Having achieved a 70% first-dose vaccination rate in the last few days, Andrews has slightly eased restrictions. He announced that the 5km travel limit will be raised to 10km, daily exercise allowances will be doubled from two hours to four hours per person, and more than one resident per household will now be allowed out at once. Additionally, some small outdoor gatherings will be permitted – but, as the Daily Mail reported, “despite being able to picnic in groups [of up to five people], residents keen to have a beer with their mates will still be banned from taking their masks off to drink alcohol. Masks are mandatory both indoors and outdoors, except for at houses, with residents only allowed to remove them to eat and drink non-alcoholic beverages.” It was expected that the current 9am-5pm curfew would be lifted, but that has not been the case.
‘We are not going to have police in every park. We’re not going to have police out there requiring people to prove that they have been vaccinated,’ Andrews said. ‘We can’t have a situation where we are going park by park, picnic by picnic. That’s not an invitation to break the rules. There’s a degree of good faith in this. I’m asking people to do the right thing, if people do the right thing then we’ll be out of lockdown sooner. If people ignore these rules it will mean more cases, more people in hospital and it will mean we’re locked down longer.”
Many embrace vaccines as a way to get out of the endless lockdowns with few deaths; however, as a local told Liberty Nation, “Even people that hate it [the vaccine] are still being incentivized to get it. A lot of people are not keen but I think they figure they have no choice.”
“I was not pleased to be getting it [the vaccine] but we are being threatened by the government that we will not be permitted to do anything without it and we will stay locked down,” a resident told LN. “One thing I have noticed is that when it gets to 70%, they alter it – ‘oh, it’s 80%.’ When it gets to 80%, they alter it – ‘oh, it’s 90%’ … I wonder when 70% vaccination is reached whether they will come up with another reason why people cannot live a normal life.”
Can such a push be labeled anything other than extortion? A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Morrison had the nerve to reply to a journalist’s question about the potential health hazards of vaccines by claiming every individual must be responsible for his or her own wellbeing. “People make their own decisions about their own health and their own bodies,” he said in response to a case where an elderly man reportedly died as a result of blood clots after having the AstraZeneca inoculation. How can people be held personally responsible for their own wellbeing with this level of state coercion?
Meanwhile, talk of vaccine passports is gaining steam. The New South Wales state government has claimed the unvaccinated will be “locked out” of venues – at least until 80% of the population has been fully inoculated. “Government might say it’s up to business to decide whether or not they accept unvaccinated patrons … but we have not come to those conclusions yet,” said Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “We all have choices and if it’s your choice not to be vaccinated, well that might mean you cannot participate in things that fully vaccinated do.”
Australia is hardly alone in contemplating vaccine passports, but the sheer totality of its many harsh COVID measures has shocked those around the world who had considered it, as its national anthem proclaims, “young and free.” Federalized in 1901, the country may indeed be young, but it seems freedom was rather short-lived.
What Future for Australia?
U.S. paper The Atlantic – hardly a staunch defender of freedom – recently published a piece titled “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Author Conor Friedersdorf posed the question: “How long can a democracy maintain emergency restrictions and still call itself a free country?” He wrote:
“Australia is undoubtedly a democracy, with multiple political parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. But if a country indefinitely forbids its own citizens from leaving its borders, strands tens of thousands of its citizens abroad, puts strict rules on intrastate travel, prohibits citizens from leaving home without an excuse from an official government list, mandates masks even when people are outdoors and socially distanced, deploys the military to enforce those rules, bans protest, and arrests and fines dissenters, is that country still a liberal democracy? Enduring rules of that sort would certainly render a country a police state.”
Already fractured along state borders and polarized politically, will Australia ever be the same again? And, now that they know they can act with impunity, will state authorities give up the power they have accumulated?
With about 90% of Australia’s population largely concentrated in just six major cities, there is no equivalent of the U.S. heartland to balance the excesses of progressive urban elites. And with no Bill of Rights to protect them, Australians are finding that – to the dismay of many, and the relief of others – there are very few lines the government does not feel entitled to cross. But, as one person told LN, “The everyday people in the street seem to be trying to get on with life … I’m just going to get on with life.”
Read more from Laura Valkovic.