It is astonishing to witness the Australian 'border wars' given our Covid response so far

Bridie Jabour
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Diego Fedele/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Diego Fedele/Getty Images

On Wednesday the ABC published a story that is a fairly straightforward example of journalism. Nicole Clark began miscarrying her four-week pregnancy while trying to get home to Adelaide from coastal New South Wales as the borders shut. She was told confusing advice, turned away from one border crossing and then rung by the policeman to say he had been mistaken, turned away again at another point and sent down 150km of unsealed road before ending up sobbing while in pain as police questioned their movements in NSW.

It’s a story that does not suggest any cause for the miscarriage – they do just happen – but illustrates with a very human face the issues with how border closures have been managed in past few weeks. A standard way to frame a story, used pretty much every day for a range of topics.

Related: Victoria's border unlikely to open this month as thousands stuck in NSW wait on exemptions

The responses on Twitter were appalling.

“Four weeks pregnant? Really? Most of us call that a missed period! More media sensationalism! Sick of it!” one person posted. “4 wks, barely enough time to really know if she was pregnant ... wasn’t just a period was it?” another said. “If you only had to go down a bumpy road to miscarry a baby why do we have medical terminations?”

Most of those dismissing the miscarriage were attacking the perceived criticism of the border closures which they are strident supporters of, and most of them were devoted to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in particular.

It is astonishing to witness the “border wars” as people have become warriors for their state and developed particularly strong parasocial relationships with their premiers along the east coast of Australia. It has featured in Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia too but is most venomous in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

The Northern Territory seems to be chilling.

The borders NSW share with South Australia and Victoria were closed last month with very short notice despite NSW regularly recording fewer than 10 cases a day, with 18 being the peak so far and six of those from one family.

The debate that has accompanied has verged on hysterical at times with Gladys Berejiklian being attacked for not mandating masks sooner, allowing the SCG cricket test to go ahead, not locking down more of Sydney, and being a Liberal. Each premier has certainly used the coronavirus response to their political advantage at times and in the process helped fuel what is becoming quite deranged behaviour from various sides.

I jokingly joined in at one point, declaring NSW the “best state”, but no longer can see the funny side of the discourse as it descends into pure viciousness.

After enduring a harsh lockdown it is understandable Victorians are skittish – when my sister arrived in Sydney from Melbourne just before Christmas there were certain outings that gave her anxiety after so long wearing a mask and seeing only her boyfriend and his family.

Who could forget reports of Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s “Queenslander!!” text message amid requests from NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian to discuss when the NSW-Queensland border would open – I certainly won’t as my parents-in-law, who live in Queensland, waited to be able to meet my baby. Border closures were understandable, the rhetoric around it though (Queensland hospitals are “for our people only”) was at times blatantly political and agonising for anyone affected.

NSW took four months to successfully suppress the virus after the Crossroads breakout and could possibly do it again without a harsh city-wide lockdown. It is shocking an inquiry can find “no one was responsible” for the hiring of private security for the Victorian hotel quarantine scheme that those cases originated from. It did not go unnoticed that the report was released on the same day Andrews announced closing the border to Sydney and surrounding areas.

Similarly in NSW we got an apology for 2,650 passengers being allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess ship when hundreds had respiratory symptoms, but nobody has taken responsibility. It is also concerning that there seems to have been more than one Covid-19 leak from Sydney hotel quarantine since the beginning of December and no explanation so far. (Although NSW has taken far more international arrivals for quarantine than Victoria or Queensland).

What Australia’s pandemic response needs is intense coordination across state health departments and clear guidelines about what should lead to border closures and when we need them at all. National cabinet last met in mid-December and since then premiers have been happy to take potshots at each other with the prime minister being borderline partisan in comments he has made supporting NSW.

Related: Australia's national cabinet to discuss tougher border processes 'in context of UK variant'

It’s a relief the cabinet has been reconvened to meet on Friday to discuss the UK strain but concerning a meeting initially wasn’t scheduled until mid-February as cases rose and borders shut.

Despite these issues the response over the past year has been a very good one. Whether you’re a Dan Stan, a Gladys Gladdy or an Annastacia Admirer, the facts are that no single premier has been solely responsible for Australia’s successful response to Covid-19. And overall, it is successful. It’s a combination of the actions of our premiers, the prime minister, various state health departments, contact tracers, nurses, doctors and every person in Australia who stayed home when we had to.

It is kind of a joke that such hateful political tribalism has been bred in the wake of a total of 28,519 cases when the UK has recorded more than 60,000 cases in a day and 74,570 deaths in total. The punchline is not exactly funny though.

As someone who gave birth during the pandemic, with a father who works in hospitality, a mother who is a nurse, a brother who treated Covid patients in a Sydney ICU and a sister working as an AIN in a nursing home, I am most of all just so thankful that this is the way it has turned out (so far).

But there have been failures of political leadership at different points and our leaders should be held accountable for that without people turning it into some ridiculous State of Origin spectacle.