Dr. Kaushik Sridhar

Winning the Border Lottery!

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So, I was one of the lucky people to travel overseas during the pandemic (for unfortunate reasons), from one country with the most hardest/severe lockdown (not only with the rest of the world but within across the States), to another country which is hypersensitive to a cold, let alone a pandemic. Over a period of four weeks, I experienced numerous cancelled flights, confusing travel bubbles, media announcements around vaccines and new COVID strains, uncertain airlines, and finally a journey that took me from Chennai, through Bengaluru, Maldives and Colombo, back to Melbourne.

I went through the Melbourne lockdown; I have now gone through the hardship of getting back into Australia, despite being a citizen. As an insider and outsider, I want to put pen to paper on border closures, lockdowns and its actual impact.

A Global Disaster

Covid-19 has been a terrifying global health threat since its detection. In comparison to the familiar seasonal influenza, C19 is more contagious, insidious, deadly, and potentially overwhelming of health care systems (Resnick & Animashaun, 2020). Governments around the world have responded by implementing various restrictions, which had been relatively unprecedented in Western civilizations. Despite these restrictions’ capacity to save lives (Alwan et al., 2020), prolonged regulation of human contact and economic activity is not without devastating health, welfare, and economic costs (Glover et al., 2020). Minimizing fatalities and health system burden, while simultaneously protecting people’s social wellbeing and livelihoods appears unattainable. In the absence of effective and widely available vaccines or therapeutics, no country is well positioned to provide both sustained health care and economic support for all. Because resources are finite, difficult trade-offs surrounding lives and livelihoods are inevitable. How do people evaluate such trade-offs?

The human cost of COVID-19

Data is key in this crisis. It tells us the story of how the virus is spreading, who it affects most and, with political will, it could help pave the way out.

Although putting a value on a given human life is impossible, economists have developed the technique of valuing “statistical lives”; that is, measuring how much it is worth to people to reduce their risk of mortality or morbidity. This approach has been used as a standard in US regulatory policy and in discussions of global health policy.

Although no single number is universally accepted, ranges are often used. In environmental and health policy, for example, a statistical life is assumed to be worth $10 million. With a more conservative value of $7 million per life, the economic cost of premature deaths, in the US alone, expected through the next year is estimated at $4.4 trillion.

Statistics aside, what really is the human cost of this pandemic that advocates social distancing in a world already out of touch and re-scripting the handshake?

If you asked a migrant labourer, he’d say, his sense of self-worth.

If you asked, say UNCTAD, they’d say it’s going to cost the economy $1 trillion in 2020.

But ask a daughter who lost her father, and she’d say it isn’t the question of where we go, but the brutal fact that not everyone is getting out of this alive.

We are on a life raft, drawing lots to see who can be sacrificed so the others might live. It isn’t easy pitting life against life, quality against quantity as we perch ourselves gingerly on this raft. We’re all navigating the choppy waters of the pandemic and trying to stay afloat. Thinking clearly is a near-drowning experience. But dry land, for some of us, has become a submerged reality.

With over 1.85 million deaths to date, my heart goes out to the families of the deceased; my mom had COVID twice and I can understand the brutality of this disease and the grief, pain and trail of destruction it has left along the way.

Having said the above, my lens for this article shifts, not completely, from a human perspective to a linear perspective i.e. how have we reacted to this pandemic and is it ideal?

Do border closures actually benefit society?

As countries around the world rushed to close their borders to the United Kingdom (and other countries) to prevent transmission of a new — and potentially more transmissible — variant of SARS-CoV-2, research has estimated the effect of international travel restrictions on COVID-19 spread earlier in the pandemic. Models have found that strict border closures could have helped limit viral transmission in the pandemic’s early days. But once the virus started spreading in other countries, border closures provided little benefit.

Did you know, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the highly infectious coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 a public-health emergency, the agency advised nations to keep borders open. But almost every country ignored the advice, and many countries even closed their borders to all nations, contributing to an unprecedented drop-off in global travel that continues today, and costing the global economy some US$400 billion every month.

Bordering on the Ridiculous

According to the eighth edition of the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report, 70% of all global destinations have eased restrictions on travel introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison, just one in four destinations continue to keep their borders completely closed to international tourists.

So, what’s been happening within our own turf? Australia has implemented the strictest safety measures regarding COVID-19 prevention.

For one, international tourism is nearly invisible albeit a small travel bubble with our neighbour (and other smaller neighbours); but not all of Australia is part of this bubble (thank you to the Republic of Western Australia for this division).

Let us ignore the ‘international’ debate for the time being. What is happening locally? Here are some (tragic) facts:

25 infections and a lie locked down South Australia for 6 days. That decision had already had tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact!

Western Australia implement a “hard border” everytime the east coast sneezes! Yes, they can implement a hard border. Why? Its multibillion-dollar iron ore industry would be enough to sustain a small country!

Queensland’s hard border closure stance led to 138,000 Queenslanders losing their 138,000 jobs since the pandemic started. Their hard stance  has cost businesses almost $17 million a day.

139 active cases made the rest of Australia shut their borders to New South Wales; this left 1,500 Victorians stranded across the border (less than 3 marathon lengths away from home)!

Being a Melburnian, I write this with confidence: following a significant government error/oversight, this city of 5 million people survived, a few months back, from one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns that shuttered businesses and confined residents to their homes for more than three months. We have seen celebrations and kudos for the effort; but isn’t this absolute hypocrisy? While infections have dropped from a daily peak of about 700 in early August to just two new cases in October, the economic and social impact of Melbourne’s second lockdown since the crisis began was enormous. The lockdown slashed A$100 million ($71 million) a day from economic activity and through August and September resulted in a daily average of 1,200 jobs being lost across the state, demand for mental health services has surged by more than 30%, and alcohol consumption has risen and domestic violence spiked.

There may be more data and research on the above; perhaps a lucky person’s PhD topic one day?

Winning the Border Lottery

The world’s 272 million international migrants are having difficulties returning to their home countries due to the increased travel restrictions and fewer commercial airline flights. About 37% are from countries that have implemented near-complete border closures to noncitizens and nonresidents. Another 54% of the world’s migrants are from countries that have seen at least a partial border closure to travelers.

The number of Australian citizens stuck abroad and waiting to return doubled in December to 36,875 since September.

While the country celebrated zero locally transmitted coronavirus cases for the first time since March on October 31, many of the Australians stuck in coronavirus hot spots around the world went back into lockdown.

The government is not only depriving citizens of their right to return, but is also failing to provide adequate support to those stranded abroad. The right to return to Australia might be legitimately restricted by laws for quarantine, but only as long as the restrictions are proportionate, and limited to the public health emergency.

From a human rights perspective, Australians cannot actually be stopped from returning, that is, they could not be turned away or refused entry if they reached the border.

In theory, stranded Australians could appeal to the United Nations for help. In 1980, Australia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees citizens the right to enter their own countries.

COVID-19 may never go away

As cases worldwide approach 50 million, social distancing, hygiene and tight international borders are essential. So is planning to manage future outbreaks without inflicting protracted crippling lockdowns on society and the economy.

The lockdown may have quashed the virus for now, but it’s clear from outbreaks around the world that it can come back with a vengeance if not coupled with ongoing requirements such as mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature checks and a robust testing and contact-tracing regime.

We need to have the conversation on what the new normal looks like so we can live alongside this virus without more lockdowns.

Do you agree?

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