Convicts sent to Australia from England and Ireland were sentenced to either seven years of hard labour, fourteen years or life. None were allowed to return home. That was the punishment: to live out their lives on the opposite side of the world, far from civilization.
Those who escaped mostly assimilated into Aboriginal tribes beyond the frontier of settlement. Finding a berth for the perilous, eight-month return journey was almost impossible.
In one of history’s customary ironies, some convicts found life in the antipodal hellscape agreeable enough to send for their families, a policy encouraged due to the severe sex imbalance. Colonial women frequently suffered problems during labour because they were small from growing up in poverty while their unborn babies grew large from their mother’s new, protein-rich diet.
They were still poor but land was plentiful and mutton was cheap.
Few of the big, colonial-born subjects of the Empire returned to their ancestral homelands. They were allowed to but the tyranny of distance meant that few could even consider such a journey.
In later years, many Europeans would emigrate as free settlers in hope of a better life. Like the convicts, their farewells were mostly final as few saw their relatives in the old country again.
In 2021, we see a rebirth of this strange phenomenon of prison-island-as-haven.
Few countries were as strict with Covid as Australia. Only citizens and permanent residents (plus a few businessmen, sports stars etc.) are allowed into the country and all have to undergo a mandatory, two-week quarantine in an approved hotel for $3,000.
A tight cap on arrivals means that the price of flights from some places has skyrocketed, with only business class tickets likely to be honoured by airlines and all others bumped. The main bottlenecks seem to be the UK, India and the Philippines. For the record, I could probably get home now if I made a concerted effort but the total cost would be the same as my living expenses here for six months or so.
For two weeks, all flights were banned from India and citizens trying to get home from there were threatened with fines and imprisonment.
The greatest restriction was our traditional, convict one: no one was allowed to leave the country without permission. That’s one reason I’m less anxious to get home – I might have to stay there. I’ve heard reliable accounts of those with jobs waiting abroad who were nevertheless refused permission to go. One guy snuck back to Russia via New Zealand and faces prosecution if he ever returns.
You will have read that Australia is now a Covid success story, with the virus all but eliminated.
However, the country has hit a snag.
The original plan was to reopen the borders once most of the population was vaccinated.
However, first there were supply problems due to EU export bans, then there were distribution problems, and then AstraZeneca was declared only suitable for over-50s due to a small blood-clotting risk. This has had the effect of making all Australians wary of it and many older people are waiting with the young for Pfizer to arrive later this year. There are no other vaccines currently available.
The lack of urgency even among the elderly and infirm is a direct result of Australia’s Covid success: with so little of the virus around, why not wait for the best possible vaccine?
In addition, Australian states tend to lock down as soon as there’s the slightest quarantine outbreak. Why should the elderly take a risk with a vaccine when everyone will be forced to stay home if the virus starts spreading anyway?
If federal and state governments threatened to refrain from lockdowns henceforth or to open borders upon some iron-clad future date, say, July 1st, 2022, vaccination rates would rise dramatically.
But that would be politically difficult. From ABC News:
What’s dubbed “Fortress Australia” is objectively driven by the slowness of the vaccination rollout, which has [Prime Minister] Morrison under pressure, not least because it holds back the economy.
But politically, the shut gate suits Morrison, because polling and premiers’ electoral experience tell him the public strongly support closed borders.
This week’s Newspoll showed 73 per cent agreeing “international borders should remain largely closed until at least mid-2022, or the pandemic is under control globally”, and this included 78 per cent of Coalition [the governing parties’] voters.
Only 21 per cent agreed “international borders should open as soon as all Australians who want to be are vaccinated”.
The online debates are ferocious, with those for the Hermit Kingdom accusing Open Borders Fanatics of selfishly wanting to attend weddings and go on frivolous holidays abroad, while in the opposite direction fly complaints that those needing to travel may never see their families again.
Team Hermit Kingdom have not so far explained what circumstances would make it safe to open borders. Some say ‘when the global situation is safe’, but that will be never because the vaccinations are no panacea and Covid is probably here to stay.
Accustomed to near-perfect safety and a death rate that is extraordinary low, some would prefer to remain locked up in Glorious Isolation forever.
I mean that: forever. They don’t realize it but that is what they want.
This has sparked a debate between those with much of their family overseas – about 30% of the population – and the rest.
It would be easy to make this racial and some have tried, but it is not. The largest foreign-born group is from Britain and there are many others with family in Italy and Greece.
And then there are the expats like me who wish to visit family in Australia but we don’t count.
I watch this debate with consternation but growing acceptance.
It’s a retvrn to tradition. The tyranny of distance, long eliminated by cheap air travel, has unexpectedly returned. Once again, only the extremely rich and privileged can travel back and forth. For the rest of us, the momentous decision to come or go may be permanent.
Our island always was a gilded cage.