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One of Australia’s best-known public intellectuals, the late Clive James, once said, “The problem with Australians is not that so many of them are descended from convicts, but that so many of them are descended from prison officers.”

Japan won deserved global plaudits for the 2020 Olympics held under uniquely challenging circumstances. Athletes and national delegations were required to be fully vaccinated, lived in a highly controlled bubble and were tested daily for COVID-19. Australians won 17 gold medals, the sixth best. On completion of the Games, the delegation returned home to two weeks of international border quarantine.

South Australia’s 16 athletes must quarantine for another two weeks — 28 days in total — on getting home from Sydney. Commentators have slammed the cruelty of this “Covidiocy.” Australian Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll said: “While other countries are celebrating the return of their athletes, we are subjecting ours to the most cruel and uncaring treatment.”

Vaccines have proven effective in reducing deaths but not so much delta variant infections and hospitalizations. Some of the world’s most vaccinated countries are being advised by their scientists — such as Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, the U.K.’s David Livermore, professor of medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia and professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group — that breakthrough infections mean herd immunity via vaccines is unattainable.

Instead, people must learn to live with the virus as an endemic disease that will keep circulating and mutating over time. But Australians find themselves mouse-trapped in an endless cycle of lockdowns by governments mesmerized by the idea of “zero COVID-19.”

Consequently Australia has morphed from being the envy of the world last year for its incredible pandemic management to international incredulity at the brutality of its authoritarian measures to “crush and kill the virus.”

In America, popular conservative TV host Tucker Carlson calls Australia a “COVID dictatorship.” With unconscious irony, the video clip was removed from YouTube. His colleague Laura Ingraham was incredulous at learning that soldiers and police helicopters were patrolling Sydney’s streets and skies to enforce the lockdown.

The premier of Australia’s largest state said on Aug. 14., at a time when the Taliban were making lightning advances across Afghanistan, that this current pandemic is “literally a war.” The U.K. Telegraph said in an editorial, “How has it come to the point that Australia needs to call up the military to eradicate a virus that is now endemic in the world?”

Beijing is enjoying a moment of schadenfreude. In an article in Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Lu Xue recalled comments from Foreign Minister Marise Payne that were critical of China’s aggressive pandemic management. “Some countries,” she said in June 2020, “are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.” Lu added, “Now, quite ironically, it turns out that Canberra plans to send its military personnel to help enforce social lockdown.”

The authoritarian streak has seen various instances of what some people would call inhumane treatment. At a time of zero active cases in Canberra, a woman was denied permission to fly to Queensland to see her dying father. A mother from across the border in New South Wales lost her baby last year after being unable to get timely treatment in Brisbane because of the time it would have taken to fill out the paperwork to cross the state line and enter the hospital to receive emergency care.

A fully vaccinated Sydney grandmother was also recently denied a permit to go to Melbourne to help care for her grandchildren while her daughter battles advanced breast cancer. And in a country town in February, a pregnant woman posting on Facebook to support a peaceful protest against Victoria’s lockdown was handcuffed and arrested in her house in the early morning hours, still in her pajamas.

Abroad, thousands of Australians remain stranded and unable to come home because of government limits on daily arrivals. During the last wave in India, citizens attempting to return were threatened with hefty fines and imprisonment. Now the government has decreed that Australians who live overseas and come home for whatever reason, including emergencies, must apply for special exemption to fly out again. Try to make sense of that.

Yet special arrangements have regularly been approved for billionaires and celebrities to fly in and quarantine at home or in five-star resorts. Athletes and sports officials have also been granted special dispensation.

Then there’s the sheer perversity, officiousness and what some call the anti-scientific idiocy of many of the rules, like mandating a mask while walking outdoors, sitting in a park or driving alone. Peta Credlin, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and now a media commentator, concluded in her weekly column in The Australian, “Never has this country been more over-governed yet so starved of leadership.”

Courts have refused to provide redress no matter how arbitrary, draconian, unscientific and ineffective the regulations. According to one analysis in the Sydney Morning Herald, public health measures issued under the enabling emergency powers can only be assessed as a package of measures, not individually, and they could go on indefinitely if the health authorities just declare the emergency still exists.

The inability of the judiciary to provide legal relief from the COVID-19 madness and other issues have served to deepen public distrust of political authorities, health officials, the police and even the media. Australia’s current daily number of deaths from all causes is around 460. As of Aug. 18, the total number of COVID-19-related deaths this year is 63. For this we are hollowing out entrenched practices, principles and institutions of democracy and parochial state premiers have heavily diluted Australia as one nation, fragmenting it into several different states and territories that have frequently closed off their borders to other Australians. Sad.

Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

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