The lyrics to the legendary Australian musician Peter Allen’s iconic song “I Still Call Australia Home” have been bouncing around in my head over recent months as my homeland goes through one lockdown after another trying to keep the “lucky country” safe from COVID.
Australia, where I was born, initially did incredibly well handling the pandemic, closing borders, and containing outbreaks, with around 1,000 deaths recorded, dramatically less than the U.K. or the U.S.
But it has since made an epic mess of its pandemic response, and it is now clear Australian citizens who live and work overseas will pay the price.
On Thursday it was reported that the Australian government had quietly banned non-resident citizens who enter the country from leaving again. In a shocking change to the law, they will need to apply for permission to be able to travel back to where their job, home, and other family are.
At last count, there are around 40,000 Australians who desperately want to return home to see their loved ones.
And at any one time, one million Australians live and work overseas. They now risk losing the lives and careers they’ve built abroad if they dare to visit home and get denied permission to leave—all because of the Morrison government’s disastrous COVID planning.
Currently only 16 percent of Australians are fully vaccinated, with the Morrison government caught short ordering a significant amount of the AstraZeneca vaccine (with only a small amount of Pfizer) and people being scared off by the very rare incidents of blood clots.
While celebrities such as Zac Efron and Natalie Portman and sports stars have been allowed into Australia and given exceptions to quarantine at private residences—like the country is a luxury resort only for the rich and famous—Australian citizens have been left to pay exorbitant costs for flights and for the mandated two weeks in hotel quarantine.
The outrageous and moronic strategy is being driven by Prime Minister Scott “ScoMo” Morrison, a politician with a masterclass in spin, who never ceases to amaze you with how stubbornly incompetent he is.
Morrison, recently told Australians they were “prisoners of our own success” without acknowledging he was the prison warden with the keys to getting all Australians out of this never-ending nightmare.
His strategy is predicated on a cynical attempt to retain office as a federal election fast approaches. He won’t be getting my vote and the more Aussies I speak to both living abroad and back in Australia think his strategy could epically backfire.
Fellow U.S.-based Australian journalist Amelia Lester wrote in May about Australia being the new “hermit kingdom” after it was revealed the nation’s borders were likely to remain closed until mid-2022.
Since then things have gone from bad to worse as a nation lulled into a false sense of security deals with the Delta variant that has ripped through parts of the country.
The mental health cost of Morrison’s “Fortress Australia” strategy as well as the damage that’s being done to the country’s economy and tourism industry won’t be known for some time, but the anecdotal evidence is that his policy will come at a serious price.
“I think the fairness issue comes back to being human beings in a globalized world,” Professor Kim Rubenstein, an expert in citizenship law from the University of Canberra, told The Guardian about the change in the law. “Australia is a multicultural society. You are severely impacting the lives of people who have families abroad, who want to be able to connect with and spend time with their families in a Covid-safe way.”
I know all too well the importance of being able to reach my family back home.
I have returned to Australia at least once a year since I left the country and my hometown of Melbourne in 2004 as an ambitious 22-year-old journalist in search of a career. In the back of my mind, I always knew my family was only a flight away (or two flights and a day of travel, but it was still doable).
In April 2015, my world was shattered when my father was suddenly diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. I rushed back to Melbourne as doctors told him he had three months to live. He died in palliative care 10 days after I arrived home. I’m forever grateful I was able to have one last chat with him and hug him one last time.
I’ve thought a lot about that situation since Australia locked its borders down in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and have spent many a restless night pondering what would happen if I needed to travel back for another family emergency.
With the cap on how many citizens can enter Australia already reduced by 50 percent to just 3,000 a week and the prohibitive cost of flights and hotel quarantine, it was already looking like mission impossible, and that was before the government’s quiet move to potentially bar returning citizens from traveling back to the countries where they live.
Australia prides itself on being a multicultural society, and while racism is still a troubling and often not spoken about part of the nation’s culture, this draconian approach to close the country off from the rest of the world indefinitely only punishes its own citizens.
One day all Australians will have to wake to the harsh reality you cannot eliminate COVID entirely and the borders must reopen. I, like so many Aussies now locked out of their birthplace, look forward to seeing my family then.
As Allen sang:
All the sons and daughters spinning ’round the world
Away from their families and friends
Ah, but as the world gets older and colder
It’s good to know where your journey ends
And someday we’ll all be together once more
When all the ships come back to the shore
Then I realize something I’ve always known
I still call Australia home.