As should be common knowledge by now, on May 1st, 2021, Health Minister Greg Hunt declared a temporary complete travel ban on India until the 15th of May, invoked under The Biosecurity Act passed in 2015.
Now, in today’s day and age, travel bans aren’t exactly uncommon. Most travel bans previously engaged, however, allowed a certain degree of freedom, along with an exception for those with special circumstances. Although we have seen an increasingly worrying trend of targeting countries Australia has political discourse with (namely China, despite its extremely minimal infection rates), citizens have been put at ease by the travel bans enacted on our borders.
Yet this was all promptly thrown out the window with the recent India travel ban. Under the Biosecurity Act, no one, not even Australia citizens and permanent residents, can set foot in Australia if they had been in India for the last 14 days. Furthermore, should they go against this ban, returning Aussies could face up to5 years of jail, a $66,000 fine, or both. As one can imagine, the outrage was instantaneous.
But before we get to the gruesome details, let us first explore what the biosecurity act comprises of. According to the document, the health minister can “determine any requirement that he is satisfied is necessary to prevent or control the entry of the disease into Australia”. Any requirement. Apparently, that applies to the extent of denying citizens the basic right, according to The Australian Constitution, of returning to their country. Although there are fines and measurements in place if the health minister abuses this power, one must question: by the time he’s been deemed as abusing his power, how much damage would have already been done? How many people would have died, and how many more would have been denied their basic rights as a citizen? That is, if the health minister will even be held accountable for his actions, should things go awry.
As we all know, India is currently facing one of the worst pandemics in the world. Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds, overflowing crematoriums, and increasingly horrifying daily death tolls are now the norm. Videos in India depict what looks more like hell on Earth than a place for people to live. In the middle of all this, 9,000 Australians have been stranded in India. Of them, 900 have been identified as vulnerable. Many are children who have been separated from their parents by the ban.
It came without a surprise that the “ban without a plan” was met with ceaseless criticism. Verbal attacks came from stranded Australians, the local Indian community, human rights groups, conservative commentators, many of the opposing party, and some Coalition MPs. Cases have been lodged in the federal court, challenging the ban on constitutional grounds. Out of all these, it was surprisingly a tweet on Twitter from star cricketer Michael Slater, claiming the now infamous Scott Morrison had “blood on his hands”, that drew the most attention. This comment, perhaps a little too close to home, was one of many that pushed the tide to increased awareness regarding Australia’s current border control.
With the recent controversy regarding India’s travel ban, the media also highlighted other harsh border control measures Australia had quietly snuck into place. Since March 2020, Australian citizens and permanent residents have been barred from leaving the country without a permit. Philine Matzer, single mother of two, was denied twice to see her dying father in Germany, despite having “birth certificates, passports, a medical statement in both German and English from doctors which noted that Ms Matzner’s wish to come from Australia as soon as possible should be granted”. It was a dark day for her when she received a midnight call from her brother that her father had passed away. Yet even Ms Matzer’s third attempt to leave was to no avail, and the rejection came despite the inclusion of a death certificate in relevant documents. “I felt … discriminated [against], that my human rights were violated”, confessed Ms Matzer to reporters.
Sadly, Ms Matzer is just one of many. At the end of April, 305,000 requests were made to leave Australia and 74,000 were denied. Many, like Ms Matzer, had made multiple applications, and were denied at every turn. The health minister’s response to all this? “These measures … are keeping Australians safe”. This attitude was mirrored by the Prime Minister in a following interview.
On May 4th, after the government had come under prolonged fire for its decision, Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted a temporary withdraw in his comments that chances were “pretty much zero” and it was “highly unlikely” for jail time and fines to be reduced for returning Australians. An interview showed ScoMo go from emphasizing him and his associates’ supposedly “responsible” use of their power to his motivation of “not failing Australia” and “protect[ing] our borders at this time” before “bring[ing] back people safely”. The irony of his comments was not lost, when he left the citizens of the very country he claimed to protect stranded in another, making them feel unwanted and ostracized by their own government whilst fearing for their lives.
Politically, what are the implications of this fiasco? Andrew Cooper, president of LibertyWorks, a human rights group, said in an interview that “there’s an authoritarian streak running through various governments that I find quite troubling”. The Tasmanian election has more than demonstrated the political sway of general opinion when parities are tough on control, and our Prime Minister’s recent actions have shown that he also plans on making the most out of this influence.
Amidst this all, my answer is this: focus on the most important thing in a pandemic – saving lives. For all our focus on the ban, there have not been many voices for us to lend further, much needed aid to India. Whilst we are over here fighting the logistics of an intangible policy in the name of justice, there are others across the world also facing the very real and very terrifying problem of death and grief. To end, I would like to present a recently favourite quote of mine from author Kamila Shamsie: “civil rights [are] eroded in the name of security”. Perhaps this observation rings true now more than ever, when we plagued not only by deadly viruses, but also by the prejudices of mankind.
ABC News. 2021. Review of India Reports Another Record Daily Rise in COVID-19 Deaths, as PM Narendra Modi Becomes Focus of Mounting Anger, May 5, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-05/india-surpasses-record-number-of-deaths/100118374?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_pm_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm_id=1616597%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&sfmc_id=304344262.
Calderwood, Kathleen Calderwood. 2021. Review of Federal Court to Hear Challenge against Ban on Australians Travelling Overseas. ABC News, May 6, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-06/federal-court-to-hear-challenge-on-travel-ban/100118998?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_am_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm_id=1617336%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&sfmc_id=304344262.
Dziedzic, Stephen. 2021. Review of About 900 Australians Stuck in COVID-Hit India and Wanting to Return Now Listed as “Vulnerable”, High Commissioner Says. ABC News, May 5, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-05/australians-health-high-commission-india-supplies-covid-19/100117620?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_pm_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm_id=1616597%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&sfmc_id=304344262.
Probyn, Andrew. 2021. Review of Indian Travel Ban Headed to Court as Australian Stuck in Bangalore Launches Legal Challenge. ABC News, May 5, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-05/legal-challenge-federal-government-court-india-covid-travel-ban/100115540?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_pm_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm_id=1616597%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&sfmc_id=304344262.
Speers, David. 2021. Review of India Flight Ban during Coronavirus Spike Shows Worrying Scope of the Biosecurity Act That Caught Johnny Depp’s Dogs. ABC News, May 6, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-06/biosecurity-act-applied-to-australian-citizens-in-india-a-first/100117658?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_am_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm_id=1617336%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&sfmc_id=304344262.