Every evening during March and April 2020, large crowds gather near my office in downtown Adelaide. Several hundred meters away, a food bank began to buckle under the unprecedented demand.
Typically catering to homeless families and refugees inside Adelaide, the number of those in need of food bank support has exploded as COVID-19 kills the city’s economy.
The line, which winds more than a hundred meters, is made up almost entirely of international students – mainly from India, Nepal and China – who have been excluded from any form of monetary support by the Australian Government, even though they live in the country.
Barred from work due to widespread lockdowns, and without access to any financial support, this community of foreign nationals has nowhere else to turn but the bread line.
The images have stuck with me throughout the pandemic, serving as a constant reminder that, although Australia’s response to COVID-19 has managed to contain the spread of the disease, it has been tainted by repeated moral failures.
The Australian Government, led by a 52 year old conservative, Scott Morrison, is very proud of its efforts to tackle COVID-19.
On the surface, the numbers speak for themselves: Australia has everything but the virus. There has only been one COVID-19 death in the country this year. And, for most Australians, normality has returned to everyday life.
We were told at the start of the pandemic that “we are all together”; that this achievement is ours, as Australians, to enjoy.
For tens of thousands of Australian expats, the Government has a different message: You are alone.
This week, the approach reached its logical end.
When India’s wave of COVID-19 shocked the world, the Australian Government reacted by banning all incoming flights from the country, without exception.
Then, citing unpublished medical advice, the Morrison Government – in a 1am press release – took that policy a step further, announce on Saturday that any Australian currently in India who makes it home will face criminal penalties. The maximum penalty is 5 years in prison, and a fine of US $ 50,000.
It is worth repeating: The Australian Government imposes criminal penalties on incoming Australian citizens their own country.
In defense of these actions, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg debate it is necessary to “keep Australians safe.”
The simple argument asserts, however, that the 9,000 Australians who remain in India are, in some cases, less Australians rather than who happen to live on the Australian continent – even though they have an Australian passport.
The racial tone of this measure is impossible to ignore. During the COVID-19 wave in the UK, Europe and the United States, the Australian Government never considered such action. Among the Australian color community, this has been noted.
“One rule for people of color, another rule for white people,” write Neha Madhok, director of Democracy in Color, a leading racial justice advocacy group in Australia.
While absurd, this overreach in Australia should come as no surprise.
The formal criminalization of most non-white Australian citizens returning to their homeland is the logical end point of the year of anti-expatriate mania that has spread fiercely across Australia. And it comes after two decades in which the strongest border control administrations have served as a constant, ugly undercurrent in Australian political debates – but who often win elections.
At the start of the pandemic, Australian expats were told to “go home” by Scott Morrison. This simple command ignores the complex ways in which Australians, as a highly multicultural and global citizen, are connected to the world.
Many cannot simply quit their jobs, or leave their children, and go to Australia for a penny without imposing untold economic – and potential health – risks to them and their families.
Yet in making this request, the Morrison Government blames all Australian expats for being legally outside of their own country, and relieves itself of any responsibility to protect them.
The decision created a culture of COVID-19 in Australia where Australian expats, regardless of their Australian citizenship, have been abandoned by their own government, and often humiliated by their compatriots for having left Australian soil.
Australia is a rich, powerful and sophisticated country. It has the 13th largest economy in the world.
But it continues to place an unprecedentedly cruel financial and logistical burden on its own citizens who happened to be abroad when the pandemic began.
The Morrison government is leading the charge, but it is not alone.
Queensland Prime Minister Anastacia Palasczuk was the first to charge $ 3,000 for all returning Australians.
Many cheered for the action. But I regret that the progressive Labor government has effectively enforced a capability test on Australians returning to their place of citizenship.
It was an act that quickly spread to every jurisdiction in the country.
After promising to bring Australians home before Christmas, the Morrison government has done little to achieve that goal, and has ignored repeated calls to build quarantine facilities that would allow more Australians, regardless of ethnicity, to return home.
The reality is that Australia is now governed by those so deprived of leadership and imagination that they find it easier to criminalize returning Indian-Australians than to fund and design a more sophisticated quarantine approach.
We started the pandemic in Australia by prohibiting international students in Australia from getting financial assistance. A year later, we are now at the point where most non-white Australians have been left behind by their own governments in the face of an unprecedented health crisis.
Australia can cheer about its success in tackling COVID-19. But the treatment of Australian expats, and the diverse communities to which they are often members, will be a dark chapter in the history of Australia’s COVID-19 response.