Australian celebrity border exemptions make COVID-19 cruelty even more acute

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There is a famous expression that Australians use to describe their country of origin: the land of the fair. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarians, as a place where everyone has a right to a chance. Nowadays, tens of thousands of Australians might disagree as strict border policies keep them locked out while the rich and powerful cut the line.

Since March 2020, Australia’s international borders have been closed to most countries around the world, a policy that has played a critical role in the country’s response to COVID-19, helping to keep infections and deaths at a low level – less than 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Australia. But it has also fueled inequality in a country that traditionally prides itself on fairness.

More than a year after the start of the pandemic, tens of thousands of Australians are stranded abroad. About 38,000 Australians are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wishing to return home. On the other side, tens of thousands of Australians want to leave the country but cannot do so without an exemption. This month the government announced new restrictions that will prevent Australians living abroad who have returned temporarily from leaving without permission from border officials.

There is a famous expression that Australians use to describe their country of origin: the land of the fair. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarians, as a place where everyone has a right to a chance. Nowadays, tens of thousands of Australians might disagree as strict border policies keep them locked out while the rich and powerful cut the line.

Since March 2020, Australia’s international borders have been closed to most countries around the world, a policy that has played a critical role in the country’s response to COVID-19, helping to keep infections and deaths at a low level – less than 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Australia. But it has also fueled inequality in a country that traditionally prides itself on fairness.

More than a year after the start of the pandemic, tens of thousands of Australians are stranded abroad. About 38,000 Australians are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wishing to return home. On the other side, tens of thousands of Australians want to leave the country but cannot do so without an exemption. This month the government announced new restrictions that will prevent Australians living abroad who have returned temporarily from leaving without permission from border officials.

During the pandemic, the federal government gradually tightened travel restrictions for its own citizens while granting countless exemptions to the rich, famous and well-connected.

An extensive roster of Hollywood stars including Zac Efron, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts, as well as many lower level celebrities, have moved to Down Under to film their latest projects. Cricketers, rugby and tennis players have taken to tournaments. Even some religious figures come and go. Last year, the government expanded the list of essential skills that warrant an exemption to include religious and theological fields while completely exempting some wealthy visa holders from the travel ban.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australia’s Home Office has issued some 15,000 trade innovation and investment visas since the start of the pandemic, with more than 3,000 visa holders landing on Australian shores.

Although the government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under fire for these double standards, he has maintained that it is in the best interests of the nation.

None sparked controversy like far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins – who infamously famously migrated cockroaches – after posting a video of herself bragging about efforts to break Australian health protocols during quarantine at a hotel in Sydney.

Hopkins has since been deported, but her brief presence in Australia has rekindled questions about government values ​​and priorities during the pandemic. Australian Senator for the Greens from New South Wales, Mehreen Faruqi, called Hopkins’ arrival in Australia a “new low”.

“British far-right commentator Katie Hopkins – banned from Twitter for hateful conduct – has arrived in Sydney. Meanwhile, thousands of Australian families are separated from their loved ones abroad, ”she said. tweeted.

Hopkins’ arrival in Sydney coincided with a drastic reduction in the number of people allowed into the country each week in response to the spread of the delta variant. Capped at just over 3,000 people, these restrictions will likely remain for months to come. The data analyzed by the Guardian suggests that the current caps are “the most severe since the introduction of restrictions on inbound passengers”.

Responding to questions about Hopkins’ arrival in Australia, Australian Home Secretary Karen Andrews said “it happens quite regularly that state governments contact the federal government on the grounds that there is a economic benefit for some people who arrive beyond the quarantine limits ”.

It is not known how many Hopkins – who would have been in Australia to appear in a celebrity version of a reality TV series Big Brother– would have benefited the economy.

Certainly, movie stars flying around the country are expected to contribute billions of dollars to the local economy and create thousands of jobs. The country’s previous success in containing the pandemic coupled with government incentives have made Australia an attractive location for the industry. But many believe the government has prioritized the economy over the well-being and safety of its own citizens stranded abroad.

Australians have said they found themselves jobless and homeless after ending their lives abroad with the intention of returning home only to have their flights canceled at the last minute. Restrictions on arrivals have forced some planes to fly with fewer than a dozen passengers on board, prompting airlines to increase flight prices or prioritize more expensive first and business class tickets to remain viable. This means wealthy businessmen are likely to skip the line before ordinary Australians.

Stranded Australians have repeatedly told the media they feel abandoned. The government has budgeted for more than 100 additional repatriation flights over the coming year, but it will be able to bring back less than half of those currently registered as wishing to return home, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. A grant and loan program giving stranded Australians $ 1,467 to $ 3,668 to a family of four to help them until they can catch the next flight home – sometimes it takes several months – shows how disconnected the government is from the plight of its citizens abroad. And while some may also access grants and loans for flights, the eligibility criteria for these programs are strict.

The government justified the repatriation rates by not wanting to overwhelm the hotel quarantine system, but additional spaces were often found for sports stars. Earlier this year, the Victorian government not only found ways to quarantine 1,200 tennis players, officials and support staff for the Australian Open in Melbourne, but also managed to organize dedicated sites. where players could go to train every day. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that travel exemptions for families of tennis players have also been granted at a time when many Australians have not been able to see their own families for years. The government does not even consider the parents of citizens and permanent residents to be immediate family members.

And yet, far from the sympathy of their fellow Australians, the stories of these stranded people have generally been received with vitriol. Last December, former businessman Andrew Mohl described those returning as “potential biological terrorists” in an article published by the Australian Financial Review. (This line has since been deleted from the original piece on their site.)

“In most healthy democratic societies, there would be outrage if people were prevented from entering or leaving as so-called celebrities enter and leave the country,” said Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab.

Outrage came largely from those who found themselves on the wrong side of Australia’s international borders. And although legal scholars and human rights organizations have repeatedly questioned the legality and ethics of Australia’s border policies, the government has received little backlash for the treatment of its victims. own citizens abroad. A poll by a Sydney-based think tank found that nearly 60% of those polled said the government had done the ‘right amount’ to bring Australians home, and 7% said the government did. does “too much”. More than 40 percent of those polled support the government’s current system of requiring Australians to apply for a travel permit. Numerous polls show that Australians overwhelmingly support closing borders.

However, pressure is mounting for Australia to start rethinking this policy. A task force made up of leaders from various sectors has drawn up “A Roadmap to Reopening”, which urges the country to reconnect with the world as soon as possible or risk “economic, social and cultural harm”.

The recent outbreaks of the delta variant across the country, which have forced more than half of the population into lockdowns over the past month, only demonstrate more than living in isolation from the world to pursue a strategy to eliminate the virus. is not sustainable.

In late July, Morrison said he wanted 80% of eligible Australians to be vaccinated before the government eased international border restrictions as part of the cabinet’s pandemic exit plan. Although currently only about 20 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, some experts believe Australia can reach the 80 percent target by the end of the year. But what if it doesn’t?

Stears, co-author of “A Roadmap to Reopening”, warns that the country’s current approach to international borders and that Australians who attempt to cross them “will come back to haunt us.”

“At some point the pandemic will subside, the borders will reopen and there will be some kind of recognition that people have been treated this way,” he said.

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