It seems that after political calculations about the pandemic have been made, an expatriate’s passport isn’t worth much

Last modified on Mon 28 Jun 2021 01.42 BST
Some expatriate Australians have expressed forgivable anger about being treated as second-class citizens throughout the pandemic.

But as the rest of the world emerges into a post-Covid world, some of us living overseas look at our country of origin and wonder if it offers us a home worth returning to.

Some may ask the question simply because they don’t have the money to come back.

My home state of Queensland is currently charging $3,710 for two weeks of confinement for two people. With Qantas’ international flights suspended, there’s thousands to spend even before you get to cool your heels in a Marriott for 14 days.

Even for those with the means, but who still have to work for a living, two weeks in a hotel makes a visit impractical.

It’s obvious this is designed as a disincentive. Anyone who isn’t wealthy or desperate will stay where they are, and thus reduce the burden on a patchwork of quarantine arrangements which have already encountered multiple failures.

I, along with many other Australians resident in countries with more effective vaccine rollouts, am fully vaccinated. If the measures were simply about public health, that would make a difference. Currently, it does not.

That brings us to the political dimension of Australia’s Covid response. For a quarter century refugees have been used as a political football, to the extent that mandatory detention and a blanket denial of resettlement is now bipartisan public policy.

Not coincidentally, many Australians appear to experience closed borders as a kind of psychological security blanket. Sealed borders – at national and state levels – have been popular and by now are a lever governments pull at the smallest hint of trouble. If they’re feeling any significant pressure to reopen the country, it’s not evident in their actions.

For all of that, it’s not clear from where I stand that Australian governments have made the most of the opportunity they had when the virus was initially at bay.

In the months Australians seem to have spent largely on interstate bickering, the United States has vaccinated more than half of its population.

There is a lot of blame to go around for that. The federal government botched procurement and did an appalling sales job on the Covid vaccine they managed to acquire.

State governments have shown wildly variable competence in managing outbreaks.

But governments were square-dancing with the selfishness and entitlement of a segment of the resident population.

Some decided that the vaccine on offer was just not good enough for them, even though the chances of developing side effects from AstraZeneca are as little as four in a million for those over 55.

Those odds are far better than the chances of catching Covid-19, or of being hospitalised, or of dying once you have it.

Many people not only ignored this, but dreamed up conspiracy theories asserting that the vaccine was procured in order to fatten the wallets of government ministers.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to contemplate the monetary cost of coming back. I might even be able to make the time. But what I’ve observed about Australia from overseas may be a more telling disincentive.

I look at Australia and see a claustrophobic and insular place, which appears disconnected from the world that is putting itself back together after the pandemic.
I also notice that Australians like to flatter themselves over their response to the pandemic.

It’s true that aside from the anomalous case of Victoria, outbreaks have been well contained, with contact-tracing working well to rein them in.

But it rarely seems to occur to Australians how much good fortune they have enjoyed in having sole possession of an island. That island is not really a thoroughfare to anywhere else except for New Zealand and the other island nations in the region, whose successes in controlling the epidemic have been even more striking.

The United States was an unremitting horror show in 2020 as the virus surged first in spring, and then even more aggressively in winter. The Trump administration’s response was little short of criminal.

Since January however, things have unfolded quite differently, and the medical workers, government officials and ordinary people have acted in a way that cannot help but inspire feelings of loyalty.

Vaccines are being freely administered anywhere where this can practically be done – in pharmacies, convention centres, government buildings and even open fields. Slowly, haltingly, life is beginning to look recognisable again.

No sane person would say that the US is better off for the enormous, and ultimately needless, loss of life it has endured. But it has meant that few people here – except for Trumpist diehards on the conspiracist right – are operating under any illusions.

Everyone holding or receiving a needle knows that Covid-19 is here to stay. Messaging from agencies like the CDC has shifted to talk about the need for booster shots as new variants emerge.
This pathogen is, now, a part of the furniture, like seasonal colds and flus, an ever-present danger around which we will have to subtly but definitively restructure our lives.
AstraZeneca presents a small but manageable risk, especially to over 59s. Covid-19 is a killer in our midst.
It’s true that a wealthy and powerful country should never have crumbled in the face of the virus as the US did in 2020.

But the same can be said for Australia’s 2021, where the precious advantage of time is being squandered.

Despite the fact I have been fully vaccinated for months, and notwithstanding my possession of the same passport that residents have, by the time Australia reopens it’s likely I won’t have seen a single family member for three years. I have developed a clear impression – especially after citizens in India were told that returning to Australia could land them in prison – that after political calculations about the
pandemic have been made, an expatriate’s passport isn’t worth much.

The country where I live as a guest has treated me far better than the one that happened to issue that passport. Perhaps it’s time to trade up.


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