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9 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 9:02am

How failure on Covid-19 has exposed the dangerous delusion of “Fortress Australia”

The country’s complacency on vaccines reflected the false belief that it could cut itself off from the world.  

By Tim Soutphommasane and Marc Stears

Australia was the envy of the world for much of 2020, but it is not anymore. Having endured the first year of Covid-19 with aplomb, the country is firmly in the grip of the virus once again. As London and New York open up, Sydney is in lockdown. Even outside the nation’s most populous city, travel restrictions mean many Australians are unable to move within the country. More than 30,000 residents also remain stranded overseas, with borders closed and no obvious way to return home anytime soon.

Australia’s political class have blamed the Delta variant of coronavirus. Delta is a “beast”, a “game-changer” in its ability to transmit in the community, unlike anything else seen since the pandemic arrived.

But that is only a small part of the story. The real tale is one of political failure – a truly seismic failure in which Australia’s politicians, civil servants, business leaders and medical experts have all played a part. That is why Australia’s Covid-19 response has collapsed so spectacularly.

It all started so well. Back in March 2020, while Donald Trump and Boris Johnson dithered, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison locked the country down, closed its borders and decided the nation would wait it out. The initial result was magnificent.

The destruction visited on so many other countries largely passed Australia by (only 104 deaths were recorded up to 25 June 2020). With the exception of one prolonged lockdown in its second city, Melbourne, Australians lived their day-to-day life in the old normal rather than the new one. Children kept up with their education, the economy boomed, the elderly did not live in fear. The country became the aspiration for the zero-Covid movement worldwide.

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But then things started to go wrong. Slowly but surely, Australia started to believe in its own mythology. People began to believe the virus was vanquished. Commentators insisted that Australia had “taken Covid seriously” while other countries had not. Australian politicians, journalists and public health experts believed they had seen the enemy off.

This hubris had devastating consequences almost immediately. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case of vaccines. While other countries directed their attention to approving, procuring and then distributing vaccines, Australia decided, in the words of its prime minister, that it “isn’t a race”.

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Public health experts told Australian citizens in broadcast interviews that, while other countries were using emergency procedures to check the efficacy and safety of vaccines, Australia could afford to take its time. One expert advising our own work told us that “a rushed vaccine rollout is an unsafe vaccine rollout”.

The authorities eventually did approve the AstraZeneca (AZ) and Pfizer vaccines. The clinical trial data was simply too strong to ignore. But Australia then decided that caution should prevail.

Soon, there were public rows about blood clots and the AZ vaccine. Anxiety quickly spread. Even though AZ is the only Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in Australia, the national authorities recommended that its use be restricted: first to the over-50s and then, just as the vaccine rollout was getting underway, to the over-60s.

[See also: How mistrust is fuelling a Covid-19 surge in Russia]

This was only the beginning of Australia’s vaccine woes. Prominent politicians from all sides expressed grave doubt as to AZ’s safety. The Australian Labor Party began attacking the government for procuring it. Medical representatives and Twitter activists demanded that all except the elderly “wait for Pfizer”. And the Liberal-National coalition government led by Morrison decided just to sit tight.

As a result, as the rest of the world moved forward, Australia remained utterly stuck. By the middle of 2021, it had fully vaccinated just 5 per cent of its population, the lowest proportion in the OECD. And so, it was no wonder that when the Delta variant arrived on its shores, although case numbers remain under 100 a day, Australia’s politicians felt that they had no alternative but to lock down once again.

Future generations of public policy researchers will look back on this as one of the great policy disasters of the pandemic, and they will learn from it a broader lesson about Australia. The country’s hubris in the early phase of Covid-19 was not just a result of its apparent success in keeping infection rates low and deaths to a minimum. It was a result of its belief that it could cut itself off from the world.

Throughout the pandemic, too many Australians have attributed the country’s success to its status as a hermit kingdom. Australia’s much-vaunted zero-Covid strategy essentially has been to seal the borders and keep the rest of the world out. Not even Australian citizens were exempted from these restrictions. Australians require a permit to leave the country and most applications are refused. Those overseas lucky enough to return home have been required to stay in hotel quarantine at their own cost.

Yet almost nobody has called it out. The idea of “Fortress Australia” has been invested with almost magical properties. It has been fed by a protectionist strain in the national psyche, one that says all evil comes from foreign sources and that Australia can flourish in isolation from the rest of the world. Except it can’t. Australia is a trading nation. Its prosperity depends on deep connections with other countries. And it is a multicultural nation. Half of its population were either born overseas or have parents who were.

However hard it tries to cut itself off from the rest of the world, the rest of the world always comes back. And that is at the heart of Australia’s political failure on Covid.

A global pandemic cannot be defeated by wishing not to be part of the globe. It is defeated by learning from the experiences of others, collaborating with neighbours and peers, and beating the virus together.

Fortunately, many other countries have learned this. Australia’s national sense of exceptionalism means it has yet to catch on.

Professor Marc Stears is the Director of the Sydney Policy Lab and Professor Tim Soutphommasane is Director of the Culture Strategy, both at the University of Sydney. They are co-authors of the recent report on Australia’s Covid strategy, “Roadmap to Reopening”.