For much of the pandemic, Australia has been the envy of the world.
The nation leveraged its geographic isolation and resilient economy to close its borders and largely block out Covid-19.
The results spoke for themselves. While other countries faced prolonged lockdowns and overwhelmed hospital systems, the majority of Australians enjoyed large public gatherings, sporting events and open societies.
The backbone of this business-as-usual way of life has been a strict limit on international arrivals and a government-run quarantine system. Together, these policies have kept the virus at bay, but separated thousands of Australian families in the process, and made it near impossible for stranded citizens overseas to return.
Making the situation worse, Australia’s limit on international arrivals has been cut from a little over 6,000 to about 3,000 passengers a week as of July 14, crushing the hopes of roughly 34,000 Australians who have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being stuck overseas and wanting to come home.
The decision was made by the national cabinet, after recurring breaches in the quarantine system caused the highly infectious Delta variant to seep into communities across the country, exposing the fragility of Australia’s main line of defense.
The new caps will be reviewed on August 31, but the federal government has indicated they will likely be in place until the end of the year.
Australian officials have said reaching herd immunity is key to reopening borders.
Yet despite living in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, only 9% of Australian adults are fully vaccinated, putting the country dead last compared to rollouts in the 38 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and leaving Prime Minister Scott Morrison unable to commit to a Christmas 2022 reopening.
In the coming weeks, international airlines will be forced to bump thousands of Australians already booked on their flights due to the cap reduction. Some may even suspend passenger flights entirely, as they struggle to make the journeys commercially viable, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA) told CNN.
“A number of international airlines have told BARA they’re reviewing their schedules, and reductions to the frequency of their flights into Australia is likely,” said Barry Abrams, the organization’s executive director.
The Australian government’s plan to increase repatriation flights will do little to offset the new caps, said Abrams, who added that the backlog of stranded citizens overseas will substantially increase in the coming months.
“An additional 10 repatriation flights from July 14 to August 31 would allow say 1,700 arrivals into Darwin, a small fraction of the over 21,000 that have lost their seat into the major capital city airports,” he explained.
Even before these new caps, airlines had been forced to land in Australia with less than 20 passengers per plane, which led them to prioritize selling business and first-class tickets at a premium in order to break even.
Back in March, passengers CNN spoke with said they paid upwards of $20,000 AUD (roughly $16,000 USD) for one-way business class tickets to Sydney from various European cities, and the new limits have caused ticket prices to skyrocket further.
As more stories of stranded families are shared, legal scholars are questioning whether the Australian government is breaching international law by violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his [or her] own country.”
The United Nations has taken notice, and in April, the Human Rights Committee announced it would consider two separate complaints from Australian citizens stranded abroad, about the impact of the government’s border restrictions.
‘I’ve never felt so helpless for so long’
An Australian citizen living in Germany, who requested CNN not use her name for privacy reasons, says she has been trying to get home with her partner – a permanent resident – since April 2020.
The pair said they have already spent $6,200 AUD ($4,650 USD) on two one-way economy tickets, but have been bumped from several flights and are still yet to secure seats. The money spent on those flights is tied up in credits with Singapore Airlines, she said.
Booking new flights, or upgrading her current flights with Singapore Airlines to business class in order to increase their odds of flying is not an option, as it would cost upwards of $19,000 AUD (roughly $14,000 USD) and leave the couple broke, she added.
The couple has suspended their wedding twice as they wait for clarity over when they’ll be able to return, and earlier this year the woman had a miscarriage, making the pain of being separated from family and friends even more acute.
“The stress has been enormous,” she told CNN. “I haven’t seen my parents in two years … I fell pregnant this year but had a miscarriage at nine weeks and I swear the stress of the uncertainty played a part in my body’s decision to delay motherhood.
“We have accommodation here so we’ve been holding back so people seriously struggling can take the repatriation flights, but the homesickness is overwhelming. I’ve never felt so angry at the Australian government for making citizens feel like outcasts, and I’ve never felt so helpless for so long,” she added.
Hannah Miller, an Australian mother living with her husband and daughter in Chicago, faces a similar dilemma. She had planned to move home to Melbourne with her family in March of 2020, but put that on hold due to the ongoing border restrictions. Now, she says her husband is at imminent risk of losing his permanent resident status if he doesn’t enter Australia within the coming months.
“My husband needs to make his first entrance into Australia to secure his permanent resident status, but the government isn’t extending the dates even though they’re capping arrivals,” Miller told CNN.
“I’m so disappointed in how Australia is handling this, especially when numerous studies show the quarantine system isn’t working as they said it would. There will never be zero cases again, Australia needs to accelerate vaccinations and return to some sense of normalcy.”
Slow vaccine rollout
With millions of Australians living untouched by the harshest realities of the coronavirus for most of the last year, the message from leaders was that there was no rush to get everyone immunized as other nations scrambled to launch their vaccination drives.
Prime Minister Morrison has repeatedly said Australia’s rollout is “not a race,” and it was only on Sunday evening that the federal government launched its first ever vaccination advertising campaign, almost six months after the program began.
The campaign has already been widely criticized for its graphic nature, and because it appears to target young Australians, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
The reason the rollout has been so slow stems from a supply shortage. Despite doing deals with several candidates early in the pandemic, Australia’s immunization program is currently reliant on two approved vaccines, AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
The majority of vaccines secured by the government are AstraZeneca, with Australia buying 53.8 million doses in 2020. Millions of those vaccines are now being donated though, after the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) raised the recommended age for the AstraZeneca jab to people over 60, leaving millions of Australians reliant on Pfizer.
From the start, Australia was months behind its allies when it came to securing Pfizer doses. The government struck its first deal to buy 10 million shots in November 2020, while the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada had all signed agreements in July or August.
Scrambling to fill the gaps, the government secured another 30 million Pfizer vaccines in mid-2021, however those doses are not due to arrive until later this year.
To complicate matters further, doctors across Australia have reported a surge in the number of people canceling their AstraZeneca vaccine appointments, due to conflicting messages from politicians regarding the vaccine’s safety.
Now, as millions continue to wait for vaccines to break the new cycle of lockdowns and tens of thousands of citizens remain stranded overseas, Australia may once again be seen as exceptional in this pandemic, but for its complacency rather than its success.