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Australians in India deserve repatriation, not incarceration
Australians in India deserve repatriation, not incarceration avatar

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Early last year, when the extent of the pandemic was becoming evident to senior health and government officials across the globe, many nations – including Australia – started putting the walls up. By February, the Morrison government banned anyone entering the country from China, with the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families. The following month, the ban was extended to most non-citizens from entering the country. In hindsight, it was the right call.

Australia’s hotel quarantine system was not introduced until late March, and the nation was still coming to grips with the measures that would be required to keep COVID-19 contained. The learning curve has been enormous ever since.

But learnt it has. Australia would now comfortably sit near the top of the table when it comes to restricting the spread of the virus. The most potent weapons in its armour in keeping COVID-19 at bay would be its hotel quarantine system and – when faced with an outbreak – its contact tracing system and a willingness of most people to follow the fluctuating social-distancing restrictions.

This has curbed the spread of the virus in Australia, despite concerns over new highly infectious variations of the virus, and an upsurge in cases in many countries, including Britain and America.

And yet, more than 12 months after first confronting the virus, Australia has determined to put the walls up even higher. For the first time ever, the national government has made it a crime for a particular group of its own citizens, who are in desperate need of help, to return home.

From Monday, any person who has been in India in the 14 days prior to entering Australia has been barred from entering the country, with those who breach the edict facing penalties of five years’ jail or a fine of up to $66,000. Even at a time when drastic measures have almost become the norm, this is an extraordinary step for the national government to take.

This decision has been justified on medical grounds. According to Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, the number of positive cases in quarantine should stay below 2 per cent. According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “we’ve seen a seven-fold increase in the rate of infection of those in Howard Springs coming back from India”.

There is no question that the influx of people with COVID-19 is going to put pressure on Australia’s quarantine system. But this is a system that has been in a constant state of refinement and improvement for more than a year. It has managed to quarantine hundreds of thousands of incoming travellers.

If it’s not capable of dealing with a surge in cases at this stage, surely the question has to be asked as to why not. And it’s not like this situation is not going to arise again. In many developing countries, the vaccination rollout will take until 2023 before it is fully underway.

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It is understandable that the national government may want to slow down flights from India. Many nations have already introduced some form of travel restrictions. But for Australia to completely abandon more than about 600 vulnerable Australians in India – and another 8000 wanting to come home – is an embarrassment to this nation.

This emergency deserves all the resources and focus that such a situation demands. These are Australians caught up in a human catastrophe of a scale that even this pandemic has not witnessed before. Each day, about 400,000 people are being infected and thousands are dying in India’s streets.

Pulling up the drawbridge will leave a permanent scar on Australia’s reputation for looking after its own. It’s time to bring these Australians home.

Note from the Editor

Herald editor Lisa Davies writes an exclusive newsletter for subscribers on the week’s most important stories and issues. Sign up here to receive it every Friday.

Since the Herald was first published in 1831, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first.

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