MELBOURNE, Australia — When Australian officials announced last week that the country was unlikely to fully reopen its borders until mid-2022 because of the coronavirus, the backlash immediately began building.
Critics warned that Australia risked becoming a “hermit nation.” Members of the Australian diaspora who had been struggling to return home for months saw it as another blow. The announcement drew dire warnings from business, legal and academic leaders.
Polls show that keeping the borders shut is a popular idea. But the opposition sees political opportunism on the part of the government. Others predict that a continued policy of isolationism means young people could “face a lost decade” because of prolonged economic loss and social dislocation.
Australian officials contend that the restrictions on international travel — some of the strictest in the world — are the main reason the country has been so successful in crushing the virus. The government is resisting pressure from many quarters to consider an earlier reopening, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring on Tuesday, “I’m not going to take risks with Australians’ lives.”
Australia is believed to be the only country to have announced that it intends to keep its borders closed for so long because of COVID-19. Officials have made it difficult not only to fly in, but also to fly out, requiring citizens and permanent residents to apply for exemptions for occasions like funerals. A group of experts warns in a report, titled “A Roadmap to Reopening,” of long-lasting damage to the country, and especially its young people.
“There is an illusion that Australia can go at it alone and be this Shangri-La in the South Pacific,” Tim Soutphommasane, a political expert at the University of Sydney and co-sponsor of the report, said in an interview. “But I think that’s a misguided view. Other countries that do have a vaccinated population will be able to attract skilled migrants, have their universities open up to international students.”
“Australia is a trading nation; it’s an immigration nation,” he added. “Our society, culture and economy are bound up in a globalized world. Australia should not be turning its back on the world now and become a hermit nation.”
The opposition Labor Party has accused the government of playing politics. The date for the next federal election has not been set, but it must happen by May 2022. The border closure is politically advantageous, with a recent poll showing that three-quarters of Australians support it.
“What they’ve said is, ‘We’ll open up after the election. Before then, we’ll give a different answer every day,’” said Anthony Albanese, the Labor leader.
For Australians abroad, the effects of being locked out of the country have been acute. Many were barred for weeks from flying home from India because of the COVID-19 crisis raging there. Tens of thousands have been separated from their families or have put their lives on hold as the country refused to budge on travel restrictions.
For Madeleine Karipidis, an Australian solicitor living in London, the travel hurdles have driven her to take a drastic step. She moved to London from her native Australia seven years ago. After a year of being unable to get home to see her family, and after the government announced the extended closure last week, she began the process of applying for British citizenship.
“I guess I feel less Australian,” she said. “It’s a startling thing to say, but I just feel like a second-class citizen.”
She said she could no longer see the values she grew up with — mateship, as Australians call it, and helping one another in times of crisis — reflected in present-day Australia. “I do feel like the U.K. would never lock me out,” she added.
Two of Karipidis’ grandparents have died during the pandemic. She was unable to fly back, repeatedly getting bumped off flights because of Australia’s strict weekly caps on the number of arrivals. Karipidis is desperate to see her mother, who recently battled advanced ovarian cancer, and to introduce her 17-month-old son to his grandparents.
“I just don’t know how much more of this I can take,” she said.
The impact of the closures has been both personal and professional for Gwendolyn Hyslop, an Australian permanent resident and a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney. She does not know when she and her children will be able to see her parents in the United States again. And she was rejected for an Australian travel exemption to go abroad and undertake a prestigious, yearlong research fellowship in Germany, even after she made sure she would be vaccinated before she left.
Hyslop warned that frustration would grow among academics who are not able to do the research they are hired to do.
“People like me are going to look for opportunities elsewhere,” she said. “The Australian government risks losing researchers to other countries.”
Some medical experts and politicians have called for vaccine targets to be linked to border reopenings. But the slow pace of vaccination is adding to the frustration. The country, which has a population of 25 million, had aimed to inoculate 4 million people by the end of March, but so far has vaccinated only 3.1 million. Government data released Monday showed that 1.5 million vaccine doses — a quarter of those distributed — had not been used.
Vaccine complacency is also a growing concern, with some Australians seeing the perceived risks of a shot as outweighing the danger of getting sick from the coronavirus.
Still, the government predicts that most people will be vaccinated by the end of the year. But that in itself will not be enough to trigger the reopening of borders, Morrison has said, because it excludes “millions” of children and those who choose not to be vaccinated. The vaccines may also not be equipped to deal with new variants and mutations, he added.
For Owais Ahmed, an Australian permanent resident and a cybersecurity consultant, the border closure has put his life in limbo. His family and his fiancée are in Pakistan, and though he has been trying to leave Australia to see them, his requests for an exemption have been denied.
Ahmed said he had been happy to wait out the border closure last year, but that the extended lockdown now seemed more political than medical. His plans to get married and start a family in Australia have all been put on pause.
“I just want to continue my life,” he said.