When I saw headlines announcing omicron, the newly emerged "worst ever" variant of COVID-19, my heart sank—not because I was worried for my health or even surprised about a new variant, but because I was afraid of what this could mean for those of us in Australia who are still checking off "firsts" after lockdowns. Last week was the first time I'd been to the movies. This year is supposed to be the first time I'll spend Christmas with my family in three years, as well as the first time my parents meet my partner.
But with omicron on the loose, my hopes lay in the fickle hands of politicians. International border openings have already been delayed by two weeks until December 15 and the list of banned countries has expanded.
For Australians with family just across state borders, the situation is sometimes even worse. In Western Australia, life seems to go on as normal in a lovely zero-COVID bubble, but like The Truman Show, no matter how hard they try, Western Australians can never leave. Their premier has refused to even provide a date for when the borders will open.
The health department for Queensland has confirmed that those seeking organ transplants will be denied surgery if they refuse to get the vaccine. The rules do not make exceptions for those who choose not to get the vaccine for legitimate health concerns.
In the state of Victoria, tens of thousands have taken to the streets for weeks to protest the Pandemic Management Bill which passed the state parliament last week. The bill replaces the premier's emergency powers with permanent powers to deal with "long COVID." Premier Daniel Andrews and the state health minister can now unilaterally declare a lockdown for the whole state of 6.7 million people even if there are no cases. With little to no judicial oversight, the police can enter private homes and detain people. Additionally, specific pandemic rules can be created for groups or classes of people based on their "characteristics, attributes or circumstances."
The people of Melbourne, Victoria, spent 262 days combined under one of the world's strictest lockdowns, and they are struggling as a result. The state government recognizes the harm lockdowns have had on people's mental health, but state leaders refuse to give individuals the certainty they need by ending lockdowns for good. Instead, the government is simply building dedicated mental health hospitals.
Most controversially, the Northern Territory has set up a quarantine facility at Howard Springs for those traveling from abroad and close contacts in need of a safe place to isolate. But social media has been infected with overreactions to these facilities, with non-Australians claiming they're reminiscent of concentration camps.
While the optics are bad, the reality is less sinister. The facilities aren't five-star resorts but having spent two weeks in hotel quarantine this July, I am a little jealous of the balconies and laundry room. Any comparisons to the squalor and death of Auschwitz are as ridiculous as they are unhelpful. They distract from the real abuses of freedom seen across Australia, and cause further anxiety for those in Aboriginal communities.
While some people have been so bored that they try to take off early, no one is being forcibly injected with a vaccine. Right or wrong, mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers is not unique to Australia—for example, the United Kingdom once scrapped its mandatory hotel quarantines but brought them back when the omicron variant emerged.
Close contacts still have the option to isolate at home, but for those in remote Aboriginal communities, that is often not possible. This is an at-risk group living in an area often hundreds of kilometers from a hospital without much access to transportation. The release of COVID-19 into these communities would inevitably lead to tragedy.
Large extended families often live together, sometimes with more than 30 people living under one roof. Self-isolation at home is simply not a feasible option for keeping loved ones safe. No one should be shipped away without consent, but for many going to Howard Springs is the only option to protect themselves and their families.
Whether it's panic over omicron or comparing Australian quarantine facilities to Auschwitz, people need to calm down. Often the reaction to a threat causes more damage than the threat itself.
This article first appeared in Reason Magazine on 10 December 2021.