The coronavirus pandemic is creating perhaps the biggest crisis for Australia’s federal system since 1901 when six disparate British colonies in the so-called Great Southern Land united to win collective independence. The country has never been as divided as it is now.
State borders that were previously little more than photo opportunities are now fortified in a bid to keep out residents from Covid-hit places. Separated family members are defying police orders by hugging each other across the barricades, and some Australians have been denied the right to retrieve their children or visit dying relatives.
In the densely populated southeastern states where Sydney and Melbourne are located, governments are abandoning the aim of eliminating Covid-19 and want to start reopening closed businesses and schools as early as next month and borders later this year. But the country’s more sparsely populated north and west are doubling down on “Covid Zero,” zealously defending a strategy that’s allowed local residents to live maskless and with ease, though cut off from the rest of the country and the world.
“Before this pandemic, no one would have cited freedom of movement—between states and to and from overseas—as being important or significant to Australians, because it was just assumed,” says Frank Bongiorno, a professor of history at the Australian National University in Canberra. “But those rights have been drastically reduced, and that will forever change people’s conceptions of where they fit in the political order and even how they relate to authority.”
Things were very different last year. In March 2020 the country closed its international borders to noncitizens and nonresidents. It won global praise for stamping out local outbreaks with snap lockdowns. Australia’s 26 million residents were able to lead largely normal lives, and deaths from the virus stayed below 1,000 even as hundreds of thousands died in the U.S. and Europe.
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