In a tweet that has gone viral, someone asked what the world’s largest prison looks like from space. The answer was a map of Australia. It seems a farfetched claim at first. But seeing the draconian restrictions the Australian government has put in place due to COVID-19, the tweet makes perfect sense.
Before March 2020, Australia was often celebrated as a role model of liberal democracy, with free elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, a functioning political system, and a market-based economy. Its citizens enjoyed a wide range of political rights, including freedom of speech and assembly.
Australia also stood out for having one of the most open immigration policies globally. As a result, 30 percent of its population was born outside of Australia.
Then COVID-19 swept through the world like wildfire. To contain the infection, the Australian federal and state governments have imposed tyrannical restrictions on their citizens.
Australia’s borders have been closed since March 2020. Australian citizens inside the country are not allowed to leave. Most of those stranded abroad and foreign visitors are not permitted to come back (unless with government approval). The once free and open Australian continent has effectively become a giant prison for its 26 million residents.
Australia’s State Governments Restrict Residents
State governments in Australia have also closed state borders, preventing most Australians from traveling across states. In a recent example, the Queensland government initially prohibited a three-year-old boy from coming back to the state to reunite with his parents after he got stranded in another state, New South Wales, while on vacation with his grandparents.
The Queensland government officials only let the boy back after the case caused much public outcry and media attention. The image of the little boy and his mother running towards each other at the airport is enough to make anyone weep.
In addition to strict border closures, each state has repeatedly imposed lockdowns, sometimes because of a single new case. Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, is currently experiencing its sixth lockdown. Sydney locked down for the second time on June 26, and if the government extends the order to October 18, when it says vaccination rates might lead to loosened restrictions, residents will have been in lockdown for 114 days.
To impose and maintain the lockdowns, state governments have resorted to oppressive measures often associated with authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. For instance, the state of New South Wales has deployed soldiers to Sydney to enforce the lockdown rules, such as a 6.2-mile travel limit.
The state of Victoria has imposed the most tyrannical COVID measures on its residents. Last year during one of the lockdowns, Victoria imposed a strict daily curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Residents were only allowed to leave their homes within a three-mile radius for a limited time to buy food, provide care, exercise, or attend approved work. Victoria police were seen using force to disperse anti-lockdown protests.
Another ridiculous example of Victoria’s overreach was when Victoria Police handcuffed and arrested a pregnant Australian woman in her pajamas in front of her children. Her alleged crime was creating a Facebook post calling for a peaceful anti-lockdown protest. She was “the fourth person to be charged with incitement in Victoria amid a crackdown on anti-lockdown protests,” according to The New York Post. Victoria police claimed the protest was a “public health risk.”
The state of South Australia rolled out an app at the end of August that allows residents required to quarantine to do so at home. The app uses geolocation and facial recognition software to ensure its residents comply with the state’s mandatory quarantine orders.
The app allows government officials to randomly contact people and ask them to provide proof of their location within 15 minutes. Those who fail to comply with the check-in will receive a follow-up phone call to explain not responding in time, and if they miss that, a “compliance officer” may visit their home.
Anyone who violates the lockdown order will face an AUD$1,000 fine. Outside of Australia, probably only Communist China has this level of digital surveillance of its citizens.
Down Under’s Overreaction
Has Australia suffered from COVID-19 particularly hard to warrant these Orwellian measures from the state? Hardly. As of September 8, 2021, Australia ranks 117 out of 220 countries in its number of cases of COVID, with 65,000 cases and 1,052 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
About 90 percent of the cases occurred around Melbourne and Sydney, while six out of eight states in Australia hardly have any cases. But most Australian officials have adopted the “COVID zero” policy, meaning they will continue to impose repressive COVID restrictions and harsh enforcement until there is no new case reported for 14 consecutive days, an unrealistic goal.
Moreover, Australia’s oppressive COVID restrictions have failed to stamp out the spread of the virus as the nation reports more daily new cases than last year while the country is in a new round of lockdowns. Australians also have paid the steep economic price for lockdowns. Australia’s economy is losing an estimated $319 million a day in domestic and international air travel.
Yet polls throughout the pandemic repeatedly show the majority of Australians support their governments’ oppressive COVID-19 policies. Australians believe these restrictions kept them safe, and losing liberty, perhaps forever, seems like a small price to pay. Recently, even Prime Minister Scott Morrison determined the country’s “COVID zero” approach is not “sustainable.” He proposed to reopen Australia after 80 percent of the country’s adults are fully vaccinated.
Still, some Australian citizens have recoiled at Morrison’s reopening plan because they are so afraid of COVID-19 that they are not ready to have their freedom back. When will Australian citizens realize “living in fear is just another way of dying before your time?”
Australia Considering a Social Credit System
Australians should also learn from their experience that even a liberal democratic government is not immune from using fear to control its citizens and intrude on civil liberties while expanding its power. In addition, there are signs the Australian government won’t give its power and control back even after the current crisis is over.
Morrison’s government is considering a social credit system to combat “online abuse.” Under the plan, police would have access to individuals’ social media accounts, which would be linked to people’s passports. Another country that uses a social credit system to dictate its citizen’s behaviors is Communist China.
Australia offers a cautionary tale of how an open and free society will quickly become dystopian because of fear. We Americans shouldn’t relax because our governments’ COVID-19 restrictions often haven’t gotten as extreme as Australia’s. Instead, we must treat what has happened to Australia as a warning.
The liberty we have taken for granted is fragile, and we will lose it rapidly if we succumb to fear. We must protect our freedom as if it is the most precious thing in our lives and be willing to fight for it vigorously. Otherwise, as President Reagan warned, “One day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”