A postcard of kangaroos lounging among gumtrees arrives in our letterbox in London, addressed to my 4-year-old daughter.
“My darling,” it says. “How are you? Are you enjoying school? Do you have friends? Your brother is one year old now. I hope you can come and see me in Australia one day. I love you and think of you often – from ‘Nana in Australia.’”
“Nana in Australia” is the pixelated face on my laptop, the voice cutting out on my phone.
She lives on the other side of the world, in a place where Covid-19 doesn’t exist, or at least not to the degree that it has ravaged the United Kingdom with a terrifying ferocity.
For much of 2020, Australia’s success in controlling the virus was the envy of the world. By March of that year, as Italian hospitals drowned in cases and the UK dithered about restrictions, Australia decisively closed its borders – and the tactic initially paid off.
A country of 25 million people, it has recorded just over 900 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began. Its total case numbers are around 32,000 – a figure the UK is exceeding daily. And its economy has bounced back.
But more than a year on, Australians remain shut inside their gilded cage, relying on a series of short, sharp lockdowns to quell an outbreak of the highly-contagious Delta variant.
More than half the population – including those in state capitals Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide – are again living under lockdown measures following dozens of new cases.
While other Western countries surge ahead with their vaccination rollouts and begin to reopen, Australia’s has been achingly slow. Just over 11% of Australians are fully vaccinated – the lowest of the OECD’s 38 countries.
“Fortress Australia” is now facing uncomfortable questions about just how far this island sanctuary is willing to go to protect itself from external threats – including raising the drawbridge to its own citizens.
Australians have been willing to “put up with restrictions which elsewhere in the democratic world would have been entirely politically impossible,” said Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney.
That’s because these restrictions speak to “quite a deep cultural sense that danger lurks overseas, and the best thing that Australia can do in these moments is cut itself off from the world,” Stears added.
The challenge now is how to rejoin it.
‘Couldn’t quite believe our luck’
As a kid growing up in Australia, I always believed my home was the “Lucky Country” – a beautiful, peaceful nation with cool marsupials and the best Olympic swimmers.
It was only later I realized that “Lucky Country” was an ironic phrase, penned by author Donald Horne in the 1960s: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.”