India travel ban: Has COVID-19 pushed us too far?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government is keeping Australia safe. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the government is keeping Australia safe. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Feeling uncomfortable at the moment?

At the back of your mind is probably the news that the federal government is threatening jail to around 9,000 desperate Australian citizens, as well as several thousand permanent residents, who are wanting escape from the COVID-19 hell which is India.

COVID-19 is ripping through India. The health system of the south Asian nation is collapsing as it reports 368,147 new cases on Monday and 3,417 deaths. But, the door has been firmly shut to those waiting their turn to come home to safety.

Until the horrific situation in India is reviewed favourably some unknown time in the future, flights have been paused and Australians now face up to five years in jail or a $66,600 fine under the Biosecurity Act if they try and return.

It's been called "heartless," "un-Australian" and even racist in singling out India for this tough stance, which the Prime Minister Scott Morrison denies.

In fact, he is unapologetic. It is a high-risk situation. He says he does not want a third wave in Australia.

"The best way I can effectively get them safely home is by doing what I'm doing right now," Mr Morrison told Sydney radio 2GB on Monday.

"I can assure people that (the Biosecurity Act sanctions) will be used appropriately and responsibly in these circumstances. But we've done all the right things to keep Australia safe during this pandemic. This is another very difficult decision. I feel terribly for the Indian community."

There is furious agreement that the move is "drastic".

In giving health advice on the government's move in a letter to Health Minister Greg Hunt on Friday, Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly conceded Australians become seriously ill and, in a worst-case scenario, they could die.

Professor Kelly advised the government on using the Biosecurity Act for a travel ban, but he did not advise on imposing criminal sanctions, however he did note it would be the first time that such a determination has been used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents entering Australia. The risk to Australia from COVID-19 was "severe and immediate."

He says risks of leakage into the Australian community is great concern. More than 15 per cent of people in the NT's Howard Springs quarantine facility have COVID-19 and most of them are returned travellers from India.

Implicitly, there are widely accepted problems with the current quarantine system, which is under the Australian constitution a federal responsibility, and the government wants to give it a "breather" to ensure safety.

Government members are standing up and backing it, while the Labor Party is preferring to talk about the government vaccine and quarantine failures while also sounding tough on borders.

"We'll do what is necessary to protect people from the virus," Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers said on Monday.

"If the Prime Minister hadn't comprehensively stuffed up the vaccine rollout, if he hadn't comprehensively stuffed up quarantine, then some of these drastic measures wouldn't be necessary."

So "drastic" is accepted, but there is dispute over whether the move is morally right and legal.

The Human Rights Commission says it has deep concerns and has asked for them to be justified as "not discriminatory" and the "only suitable way to deal with the threat to public safety".

Human rights groups and Indian community groups are outraged and lawyers are circling.

The Health Minister Greg Hunt insists it is legal.

"One of the things here is that we have been very measured," he said on Monday.

"There are many orders which have been put in place, in particular under the Biosecurity Act, nobody has been prosecuted in."

"The strong, clear view is that there has been no doubt in any of the commonwealth advice about this measure or other measures."

Mr Hunt defended the move as "sadly, what's required in a pandemic," but, "it's no less than what Australians would expect of the government."

Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh has been talking to community representatives in Canberra.

"I have been struck by their determination to do what they could to improve the situation, and their determination that Australia should do the same," he said.

"I wholeheartedly join calls on the government to work urgently to support Australians in India, including options to vaccinate Australians left behind in this high-risk situation, and provide extra financial support to those most vulnerable.

The Morrison government has had these laws in place for over a year, but this time the law captures Australian citizens. Criminal sanctions were not threatened, but international arrivals were restricted from China, Italy and Papua New Guinea.

One of Australia's main COVID-19 defences is international border control. Of course, it is very helpful that Australia is an island.

But Australian behaviour has also been a great defence as the coronavirus rages around the world. While grumbling, we have largely followed government orders. When required, we have put on masks, been socially distant and locked ourselves down for substantial periods of time.

We have, in the main, supported decisions by our governments at federal, state and territory levels. As they hold responsibility for our health and safety, we wish our governments success and we have rewarded those politicians who have stood tough on our behalf.

However, is threatening its own citizens with criminal sanctions, including jail, the right move for Australia?

Public health experts say the Morrison government should have started planning and constructing a national quarantine facility 12 months. It would have been up and running by now.

That may well be true, but it did not happen. So here we are now.

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For two decades now, first ramped up under the Howard government which declared that "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come", Australians appear to have become used to the bargain entailed by being "tough on borders."

By invoking sovereignty, we favour our own citizens over others.

The boats had to be stopped and "unlawful non-citizens" were told to go home and in many cases locked up in immigration detention centres until they did so. They lost hope as they were held in offshore regional processing centres on remote Manus Island and Nauru.

In being tough on national security, we accept that terror suspects who are dual citizens can be stripped of Australian citizenship even if they have spent most of their lives in Australia.

Now in these extraordinary times, is this a political line in the sand or not?

This story Has COVID-19 pushed us too far? first appeared on Mandurah Mail.