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Australia’s Hermit Nation Strategy Unravels

Australia, like other island states, has had spells of isolationist fancy and hermit dispositions. Protected by geography, distant and vast, the country’s first bit of legislation in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act. This nasty little statute came to be colloquially known as the White Australia Policy. Doors would remain open to Europeans and preferably those of Western stock.

Fortress Australia has also had a few modern manifestations. Refugees and asylum seekers who dare make their perilous journey to Australia via sea are rapidly whisked away into a privatised, Pacific concentration camp system. They are solemnly promised never to be settled on the Australian mainland.

Now, against another sort of traveller, far less tangible and distinctly invisible, Fortress Australia is again finding its shaky form. But the novel coronavirus cares little for such shuttering approaches. It specialises in spread and mutation, skirting around barriers, leaping over obstacles and coasting along aerosol transmission. The virus’s devastating product – the disease of COVID-19 – is indifferent to the fortress.

Since Australia’s borders closed in 2020 the fortress formula has become an article of faith. International travel was halted. Caps were placed on returning Australians and permanent residents. Arrivals were placed in quarantine for fortnightly periods in ill-fitted hotels.

For a time, the Hermit Nation strategy worked, if creakily. Quarantine breaches did take place with telling consequences – Melbourne suffered in June 2020 and endured a lockdown lasting 112 impoverishing days. But for the most part, breaches could be contained. Contact tracing and surveillance was sharpened. A sense of hubris developed: the virus could be outwitted. The country could bask in the isolation of “COVID Zero.”

While Australia was fashioning its suppression and elimination strategy, its politicians became bullish and complacent. The vaccine strategy, the crucial counterpart to containment, was neglected and left to wither. In August 2020, Morrison boasted that “Australians will be one of the first in the world to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, if it proves successful, through an agreement between the Australian Government and UK-based drug company AstraZeneca.” That agreement, at least initially, was merely a letter of intent.

The government then thought it sensible to focus on acquiring the AstraZeneca vaccine over all others. Alternatives were treated as distant contenders. Fictional numbers and targets were generated.

Countries which spectacularly failed in containing COVID-19 – the United States and UK foremost among them – showed greater prudence on the vaccine front. Contracts with pharmaceutical giants were drawn up to develop and manufacture a range of vaccines. Supply chains were guaranteed and mass rollout strategies scripted. From the rooftops of morgues, President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson could celebrate and distract. The needle and the jab could take over from death and catastrophe, working alongside a range of other containment measures.

In the meantime, Australia was left behind. Health Minister Greg Hunt called the quest to vaccinate the Australian populace “a marathon not a sprint.” Morrison similarly informed the press that this was neither a race nor a competition. The vaccination rollout, correctly seen as a “strollout,” only began on February 22; the UK, US and European states had begun around Christmas, if not earlier.

There was also inadequate supply to meet demand. Hunt’s March 22 announcement that people should make a friendly call to their GP to organise a vaccination was farcical and wishful thinking. GPs had little idea when or how many doses they would receive. It did not occur to the federal government that mass vaccination centres should also be set up as a priority.

 

Cartoon by Alan Moir (moir.com.au)

 

The pace of this “boutique” program was also affected by the bad press surrounding AstraZeneca’s vaccine. While it does cause rare blood clotting, the risk of death remains one in a million. But the communications strategy of the federal government was woeful and disunited.

As the health advice changed to prioritise older groups, the Morrison government realised it needed to consider other vaccine options. The problem was not vaccine hesitancy but hesitancy to AZ. Other options, notably Pfizer, were needed.

While the vaccine rollout crawled, COVID-19 did not. Cases of community transmission began to soil the COVID Zero record. A number of snap lockdowns were imposed in Western Australia and Queensland. Victoria, yet again, added its name to the list. Now, stubborn, resistant New South Wales has become another member of the lockdown family, with Sydney facing the Delta strain.

The Australian government’s response to this latest debacle? An advertising campaign crass in nature, ill-conceived and inaccurate. Designed to terrify people into vaccination, its amateurish clumsiness misfires in puns and insensitivity.

 

Image from CNN

 

More practical approaches have come from outside government circles. Former Prime Ministers have shown Morrison up. The ever-connected Kevin Rudd made his own intervention in lobbying Pfizer’s chairman Albert Bourla. This effort was bitchily dismissed by Hunt and watered down by the Morrison government. Rudd’s response was a snarl. He would “definitely not seek to associate himself with the Australian Government’s comprehensively botched vaccine procurement program.”

 

 

The Australian model, if it can be called that, has pricked international attention. John LaMattina, former president of Pfizer Global Research and Development, was all understatement about it in an interview on Australian television: “If I was an Australian, and I was seeing the rest of the world getting all these vaccine doses, and my country … was late to the party, I’d be a little disappointed to say the least. And it isn’t as if they were blindsided.”

The Financial Review was less reserved. Australia may well have developed “an enviable test and tracing system” that helped keep the COVID-19 death toll to less than a thousand. But it had “squandered its early victory over the virus, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries.” It now faced “a costly round of restrictions as it struggles to protect a largely unimmunised population from outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant.”

The country stood as “a warning to other nations, not least neighbouring New Zealand, that a fortress approach to the virus cannot succeed in the absence of an effective vaccine program.” The hermit approach is not only looking foolish but dangerous.

 

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7 comments

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  1. Phil Pryor

    Since 1901, the united nation of Australia has never, ever, been so betrayed, disappointed, embittered, by a lazy, uncomprehending, obtuse, superstition drenched, arrogance filled, politically perverted, utterly inedaquate government, led by a deviate from decency, a self inflating condom of caressed crapulous craziness, a huge pot of crooked, donor driven, primitive savagery of mind, a fantastic pope/emperor/dictator stew, full of ingrained dogmatic insolent idiocy, as we have under this Putrid Misfit, Mr. X Cremental-Grubb. Enraging…

  2. pierre wilkinson

    yet another debacle from this mismanagement, yet more announcements and pledges of success imminent, yet more undelivered promises and ill conceived changes in direction….
    what more can we expect from this shambles of a government whose only real success is in pork barrelling and corruption on a scale never previously imagined in our country?

  3. Jack Cade

    Nowadays, Australia is seen as a US lackey. Trailing after Uncle Sam as he finds reasons to destroy new countries that are actually none of his business (except assets, to get which Pompeo proudly bragged ‘We lie, cheat and steal’) in return for which devotion we get fuckall. Australia is the skid-marked underpants that covers Uncle Sam’s tumescence at the thrilling idea of keeping his 20,000,000 weapons-manufacturing employees in work by bombing the shit out of countries he doesn’t expect to be able to fight back. Out of Afghanistan? Note the renewed interest in Venezuela, for which the atrocity in Haiti was practice…
    China, though, will fight back. Starting with nuking Pine Gap and Darwin. That’s what being a lackey gets you. And the USS steals our markets!

  4. New England Cocky

    Come home Kevin, all is forgiven ……

  5. DrakeN

    “Fortress Australia” was declared long after bug-carriers had crossed the drawbridge and the side gate never fully closed, allowing selected persons to leave and return at the whim of the gatekeeper.
    As ever, we are being systematically ‘conned’.

  6. Kathryn

    Australia is NOW isolated by the short-sighted stupidity, climate-change-denying idiocy and callous inhumanity of its own inept, dysfunctional, cruel and xenophobic government! Isolated by our callous disregard for our island neighbours, snubbed because of our ongoing illegal and indefinite incarceration of desperate asylum seekers and ignored because of our government’s rigidly draconian steadfast adherence to the outmoded, unpopular and polluting coal and gas mining industries!

    Australia – once highly regarded when, under effective Labor management, we managed to be the ONLY country to escape the devastation of the GFC – is now considered the Pariah of the Pacific, a mean-spirited, insular nation of xenophobic, racist red-necks mismanaged by a lazy, bone-idle, totally dysfunctional but stratospherically smug crime minister whose corrupt, self-serving and born-to-rule government have defunded, decimated and destroyed just about EVERYTHING Australian taxpayers cherish, eg Medicare, our ABC, our (once) fine international reputation (kaput!), and our environment.

    Morrison, the holier-than-thou Minister for Relentless Vacuous Announcements, is nothing more than a superficial, publicity-seeking, bible-thumping hypocrite who is about as shallow as a carpark puddle and a signed-up member of a dangerous, prosperity-driven CULT that is now managed by Morrison’s close mate, Brian Houston, a megalomaniacal, profit-obsessed sociopath whose father was a serial paedophile; a cult that maintains the astonishing belief that the wealthier one becomes, the BETTER they are, the HOLIER they are and that it is the FAULT of poor, vulnerable people that they are in such a dire situation! WOW, this warped, twisted ideology does NOT bear well for any citizens in this nation who are poor, vulnerable, aged and/or destitute! According to Morrison and his sanctimonious religious ideology, you can forget about Christ’s advice “Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you!”; Forget any teachings of compassion, generosity or benevolence garnished from the Bible that Sloth Morrison and his CULT insist on misinterpreting to suit their OWN self-serving ideology and profit-seeking greed. Morrison’s unspeakably inept, undemocratic, autocratic and dysfunctional reign as the WORST PM in living memory, has been marked with a level of fascism, callous inhumanity and short-sighted ineptitude so bad that even past, moderate-conservatives like Malcolm Fraser have come out loudly criticising the EPIC FAILURE of Phoney Abbott and the equally appalling sociopath, Scott Morrison.

    Sadly, ever since the dark days when Abbott crawled into power on a platform of pathological lies, broken promises and character-assassinating slander against the LNP and, in particular, outrageous misogynistic attacks against Julia Gillard (a PM who was his superior in every way), Australia is going through very dark days. Problem is, just when you think this new ultra-conservative, totally corrupt regime of dangerous skirt-lifting misogynistic predators and pompous bible-thumping hypocrites could not possibly get worse, they manage to dig deeper and deeper!

  7. Kathryn

    Ooops, mistake in last paragraph – SHOULD read “… and character-assassinating slander against the ALP” – there is no way in history the LNP would EVER do or say anything against their own party – they have NEVER been known to apologise for anything!

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