But belated political nuance can’t compete with a more general image of a government bluntly threatening its own stranded, imperilled citizens and the politically corrosive argument this is unfairly singling out Australia’s Indian community. He has to try to somehow now reassure India and a 700,000-strong Indian-Australian community that none of this is discriminatory.
It’s not just ex-Test cricketer Michael Slater unleashing on the Morrison government as the cricket commentator fled to the Maldives to escape the Indian Premier League’s immersion in India’s COVID-19 crisis. Once cricketers get caught up in this disaster, community attention in both countries will always spiral beyond the usual style of political damage control. Then add in the emotional stories of the anguish of thousands of Australian Indian families desperate to get parents or children to safety.
What has happened also focuses attention on the Morrison government’s failure to move quickly enough to greatly increase capacity at Howard Springs near Darwin.
Of course, many other governments, including the UK and US, have also blocked flights from India in response to the COVID-19 disaster there – although most have not banned their own citizens from returning. Last month, the Ardern government in New Zealand did temporarily refuse to allow NZ citizens coming from India before lifting the ban after two weeks. But this measure didn’t attract the same ire, presumably because NZ didn’t simultaneously raise the notion of punitive jail sentences.
Federal Labor is dancing around its approach, having also backed banning flights from India. It is now focusing more on the government’s clumsy threat of jail and fines as well as the risk of undermining its relationship with India at a time of regional political tension with China.
What has happened also focuses attention on the Morrison government’s failure to move quickly enough to greatly increase capacity at Howard Springs near Darwin to allow more repatriation flights, including coping with the prospect of a rising percentage of COVID-19-infected travellers.
States’ arrival caps swell backlog
Howard Springs is the one operating quarantine facility the Commonwealth does control and, almost accidentally, its low-rise, cabin-style origins as a resources worker camp offers the best building style for combating potential airborne spread of the virus. Its expansion from a capacity of 850 to 2000 returning travellers will only be ready this month, despite a long lead time.
It’s true, as Morrison repeatedly notes, the hotel quarantine system has been 99.99 per cent effective in bringing back 500,000 people with only a minuscule number of breaches resulting in occasional outbreaks of community infection – most disastrously in Victoria.
It’s also true premiers insisted a year ago on controlling their own quarantine hotel systems with limited federal assistance. Few premiers have shown any hesitation in regularly slamming their own borders shut to all Australian citizens from other states. All state governments other than NSW had already blocked direct commercial flights from India.
In fact, the states’ strict caps on weekly arrivals from overseas are the key reason for the backlog of Australians stranded offshore or forced to pay exorbitant business-class fares to be assured of not being bumped from near empty flights. State government failure to ensure adequate hotel ventilation systems and protective equipment is also the primary culprit for the rare breaches that have occurred.
But India’s high infection rate has meant that one in eight recently returning travellers on repatriation flights to Howard Springs have COVID-19, apparently straining the medical system’s ability there to deal with any more cases.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says this would have overwhelmed the agreed aim of keeping the active infection rate of those in Australian quarantine to 2 per cent.
The Prime Minister is now stressing the temporary pause in all flights from India to be reviewed on May 15 will actually allow more Australians to come back safely, including from India. The commitment is to use the two weeks to improve the facility’s capacity to cope with the higher rate of infection evident in those returning travellers.
Morrison is also suddenly sounding more welcoming of the Victorian government’s proposal to build a dedicated quarantine facility north of Melbourne. He praises it as a far more detailed plan than an alternative proposal from Queensland despite Victoria’s ambit claim for the Commonwealth to pay almost all the $700 million cost.
“We can’t be complacent in this country,” he said. Including in the politics of the pandemic.