Australia's Pandemic Rules Kept People Safe, But At A Price
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Australia is one of the world's global pandemic success stories. There's been less than a thousand deaths in a population of 25 million. But that success has come at a price, as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Fremantle.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. You ready, guys?
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's choir night at the local pub. No one here is masked. There's no distancing. Few people here are vaccinated - no matter. Drinks in hand, dozens launch into an Australian classic.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) That's why I tell you, you better be home soon.
SOPHIE MCNEILL: We've lived relatively normal lives for most of the past year, but this has come at a cost.
HADID: Sophie McNeill is the Australian researcher for Human Rights Watch. She says the cost has been the Australian government keeping the borders largely closed.
MCNEILL: So foreigners mostly are barred from entering the country. And even Australian citizens - there are caps on how many of those are allowed to arrive each week.
HADID: Those who do arrive must undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a hotel or facility, and that policy of limiting the number of people entering has pushed up ticket prices. Add to that quarantine costs, which start at over $2,000. Now more than 35,000 Australians are stranded abroad.
JENELLE ASTNER: It's heartbreaking. It's so heartbreaking.
HADID: Jenelle Astner is an Australian who lives in Germany. One of her children lives with her. Two study in Australia. Since the pandemic began, Astner has been trying to reunite her family. One time...
ASTNER: We're all getting really excited. The family was going to be together.
HADID: But the airline cancelled her flights two days before they were meant to leave. Those cancellations are common, partly because the government can announce sudden reductions in the number of Australians allowed to enter on a given week. It's the economy seats on flights that tend to go first, so to try to guarantee her passage home, Astner purchased a $12,000 first-class ticket. She says it's worth it.
ASTNER: Oh, I can't wait to hold my kids and my mum.
HADID: Other Australians haven't been so lucky. Selena Murray's mother lived in Cairo. Last year, she suffered a stroke.
SELENA MURRAY: I could tell she was starting to get a bit worried towards the end, and her health was failing.
HADID: Murray says she asked her, do you want to come home?
MURRAY: What did she say? Well, yeah. She said, I - yeah, she didn't have the money.
HADID: Months later, Murray got a call to say her mother, Robyn, was dead. The hospital said it was a heart attack. Murray partly blames the Australian government.
MURRAY: If you're loaded, it's fine for you. But yeah, for everyday people, it's very segregated and terrible, what's going on.
HADID: The government has arranged around 140 low-cost repatriation flights, but they often sell out in minutes. And for a while in May, it was illegal for some Australians to return.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As of last night, if an Australian citizen in India tries to come home, our government is threatening to lock them up.
HADID: That temporary ban was imposed after concern that the highly contagious delta variant first discovered in India could overwhelm the quarantine system. That move was met with a furious backlash.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BOLT REPORT")
ANDREW BOLT: Australia today failed a moral test.
HADID: Andrew Bolt is a prominent conservative commentator, so it turned heads when Bolt asked on his show...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BOLT REPORT")
BOLT: I wonder if it would be that hardcore if you were talking about Australians stuck not in India but England.
HADID: That stung in a country still grappling with its legacy of only allowing white people to migrate here until the '70s. The temporary travel ban has since ended, but there's still one cohort struggling to return - dozens of Australian children stuck in India.
NAVEEN KRISHNAMURTHY: Oh, she is absolutely a lovely kid to be around, and she is so perceptive. And I'm not telling that because she's my daughter.
HADID: That's Naveen Krishnamurthy talking about his daughter, Saanvi. She was 2 1/2 when they first took her to India to meet the family. That was in November 2019, before COVID. His parents begged him to leave Saanvi behind so she could get to know them better. Then the pandemic happened, and Australia's borders slammed shut in March last year.
KRISHNAMURTHY: And that has turned into, I think, almost 18 months now. We missed her third birthday.
HADID: Krishnamurthy applied twice to the government for his parents to escort his daughter home. It was denied. Then Krishnamurthy and his wife requested permission to fly there and bring her back - denied. He says his daughter could fly here if he can find a fellow passenger to take care of her.
KRISHNAMURTHY: It's totally ridiculous to expect someone to accept this. She is not a parcel. She's a person, and at that, she is a 3-year-old. She's a kid.
HADID: So for now, she's staying put with her grandparents. But Krishnamurthy says...
KRISHNAMURTHY: She's showing signs of depression, that she can't communicate. Her growth is stunted.
HADID: He adds he's grateful that his government has kept the pandemic away from Australian shores. But surely, he says, there's a way of doing it that doesn't leave Australian children behind. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Fremantle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.