Australia is so isolated even citizens can’t easily enter. For the next year, it’s happy to stay that way

June 18, 2021, 9:30 PM UTC

Australia pursued COVID-19 perfection and largely achieved it. 

In 2020, Australia successfully implemented ‘COVID-zero’ strategies—mostly eliminating the coronavirus with harsh border closures, strict lockdowns, and intensive testing and contract tracing. And eighteen months since the onset of the pandemic, Australia is still enforcing the toughest restrictions for the smallest of virus flare-ups. 

On May 24, authorities in Melbourne, a city of 5 million in Australia’s southeastern Victoria state, detected four COVID-19 infections, breaking the state’s 86-day streak without recording a single case. Days later, authorities found 26 local cases, prompting the government to institute its fourth state-wide lockdown since last year, closing schools, shuttering most private businesses, and banning all public gatherings. Victoria residents were confined to their homes with exceptions granted to stock up on food, exercise, get vaccinated, or go to jobs that the government deemed essential. 

“The vast majority of Australian states take this approach… As soon as there’s even a single case, they move to very restrictive practices very quickly,” says Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. 

The latest lockdown is proving successful. Cases have tapered off in Victoria, and the state started to ease restrictions this week, allowing some private businesses to re-open and lifting limits on small, private gatherings. 

Since the start of the pandemic, Australia, a country of 25 million people, has recorded just over 30,000 cases and 910 deaths. By comparison, Canada, a country with a slightly larger population and GDP than Australia, has recorded over 1.4 million infections and over 26,000 deaths. 

Australia’s ultra conservative strategy has no doubt saved lives, but that same approach may now leave it isolated in comparison to countries like the U.S., where rising vaccination rates are accelerating reopening plans and stoking economic recoveries, even as the virus continues to circulate. 

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, like China, Singapore, and New Zealand, have successfully deployed COVID-zero measures to virtually stamp out the disease within their borders. But as some COVID-zero economies consider re-opening borders as vaccination rates climb, Australia looks set to stay shut well into next year, satisfied that its policies are popular and wildly effective, even if they so isolate the country that even some citizens are barred from entering.

The border

In addition to lockdown measures, Australia continues to deploy some of the world’s harshest border restrictions. 

Australia maintains a near universal travel ban on all non-citizens coming to the country. And even Australian citizens living abroad don’t have an easy time entering. They need to fight for a limited number of plane seats per week to get into the country and must serve a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine upon arrival. Australians in countries deemed at high-risk for COVID-19 like India, are completely banned from returning home, and face potential prison time if they attempt to circumvent the ban. (In May, Australia launched some repatriation flights to bring select citizens home from India, such as those with medical conditions.)

Australia has also imposed an exit ban that bars most of its citizens from leaving the country. A rightwing think tank called Libertyworks challenged Australia’s outbound ban in court, but a federal judge dismissed the case earlier this month.

Australia’s COVID-19 response largely has been dictated on a state-by-state basis, but the travel restrictions are one of the few policies imposed by the federal government, Stears says. That top-down nature may contribute to their staying power. 

“The federal government is very unwilling to relax international border restrictions, because they know that it’s much more effective in keeping cases low than almost any other intervention they’ve made,” he says.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government will face elections next year, and his party may not want to retreat from what’s arguably its most successful COVID containment measure, he added. 

It helps that travel restrictions have public support. In May, some 79% of Australians said in a poll that they want to keep borders shut until the global pandemic is under control.

“Once we got COVID-19 under control pretty early in Australia, the community was very reluctant to see those borders open,” says Sue Vercoe, managing director of Newgate Research, a firm that tracked Australian attitudes to the travel restrictions until earlier this year. 

The vaccines

The clearest path to open borders is by way of vaccines, but Australia’s campaign has gotten off to a slow start.

As of Friday, 3% of Australians are fully vaccinated. Still, the immunization drive is showing signs of life.

Some 21% of Australians have received one vaccine dose and the government says it aims to fully vaccinate its population by the end of this year. 

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the university of Hong Kong, says that once COVID-zero economies like Australia vaccinate 70% of their populations, they should begin thinking about re-opening their borders, at least to fully-vaccinated travelers. 

“At that [70% vaccination] point, even if the virus gets in… there will be a big barrier to any kind of large epidemic,” he says.

But even if Australia reaches high vaccination rates, it may not open its floodgates to arrivals.

In May, the Australian government’s annual budget said that Australia did not plan to resume international flights until the middle of 2022.

The delay has frustrated those hoping for a global restart of travel.

“We face the risk of the rest of the world leaving us behind,” says Margy Osmond, chief executive officer of the Tourism & Transport Forum. She says the government has provided little guidance on when and how it plans to reopen international borders. “I certainly hope that we are not headed to be the lost kingdom of the South Pacific.”

China and Singapore 

Australia is not alone in opting for an isolationist path. 

China also restricts foreign travelers from entering its borders, mandates hotel quarantines for all citizens returning home, and deploys lockdowns to contain minor outbreaks. It has announced few plans to re-open borders even as its vaccination campaign picks up speed.

China is set to reach a milestone of distributing 1 billion COVID-19 shots to its citizens in the coming days, and the country’s public health leaders say it’s on pace to vaccinate 80% of Chinese citizens by the end of this year. Still, Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s top health officials, said earlier this month that China likely will not consider re-opening borders, even on a limited basis, until the first half of 2022.

“With the high vaccination rate, you would expect that China is going to consider relaxing the border control restrictions. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the opposite seems to be true,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Huang said that China may be worried about the rise of new, more transmissible variants and may not be confident in the efficacy of the home-grown vaccines it’s distributing.

Similar to Australia, China may feel little public pressure to re-open the borders, given that the policy has succeeding in keeping out cases, he said. 

“Opening the borders does not seem to be a major concern to the domestic population,” Huang said.

Tommy Wu, lead economist at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, notes that while travel restrictions may inflict economic pain, some zero-COVID economies have fared well without international travel thus far.

“These ‘COVID-zero’ economies [like China and Australia] are more export-dependent, and they have been benefiting from strong global trade recovery,” says Wu.

Australia’s economy fell into recession in 2020, contracting 2.5% in comparison to the previous year. But in the first quarter of 2021, Australia’s economy beat expectations to grow 1.8% on the back of rising iron ore and gas exports and strong consumer spending.

China, meanwhile, was the only major economy in the world to grow in 2020, while exports boomed 38.7% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the previous year. 

For these sprawling nations, domestic travel is also helping alleviate some of the burden of closed borders.

During the recent May Day holiday in China, Chinese travelers took 3.2% more trips around the country than they did in 2019 before the onset of the pandemic. The Australian airliner Qantas, meanwhile, reported in April that its passenger capacity on domestic flights is up to 90% of pre-COVID levels due to the return of internal tourism and business trips.

But in some smaller COVID-zero countries, a sense of claustrophobia and angst over lost tourism dollars and seem to be setting in.

In a speech on May 31, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong vowed to lift internal lockdowns and re-open borders in coming months as domestic vaccination rates improve, even if it means tolerating some new infections. 

“One day this global pandemic will subside. But I do not expect COVID-19 to disappear,” he said in the speech. “In this new normal, we will have to learn to carry on with our lives even with the virus in our midst.”

If Singapore is able to safely and successfully re-open its borders, places like Australia and China may attempt to catch up.

“If Singapore is the first to go back to normal later this summer, then I think a lot of other parts of Asia will be itching to follow in their footsteps,” says Cowling.

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.