Civil liberties in Australia are on the verge of extinction, thanks to the government's response to the COVID crisis. What has been heralded as a triumph of science and quick responses has drifted towards something far more totalitarian that imposes its will on the country's citizens, restricting them from living their lives, much less enjoying supposedly guaranteed liberties.
Change has been a constant in response to this pandemic. But in countries considered to be part of the "free world," some balancing has been put in place to contain the spread of the virus while preventing citizens from being subjected to extreme measures usually only deployed by dictators.
Australia has proven particularly resilient. But while people here in the US have entertained thoughts of kidnapping governors in response to minimal restrictions on social interactions and shopping, the residents of Australia have endured severe restrictions that seemingly only get more severe as time goes on.
This is the exchange of liberty for safety -- an exchange that's been made involuntary by government officials. The arrival of the Delta variant has again complicated matters. And already severe restrictions are becoming draconian, thanks to the government of Australia believing there's no involuntary sacrifice residents won't make to keep COVID infections to a minimum
Conor Friedersdorf has compiled a compendium of Australia's latest COVID prevention efforts -- many of which haven't been seen in countries that aren't being run by Supreme Leaders or Presidents-for-life.
“Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” a government website declares. “International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.” The rule is enforced despite assurances on another government website, dedicated to setting forth Australia’s human-rights-treaty obligations, that the freedom to leave a country “cannot be made dependent on establishing a purpose or reason for leaving.”
Australian courts have, so far, sided with the government and its increasing encroachment on civil liberties and personal freedoms. They have found that the government's needs outweigh the complaints of the governed in these COVID times, under the assumption these extreme measures are not only justified, but temporary.
But it's not just travel in and out of Australia that has been restricted. Travel within the country has been affected by COVID policies, turning a cohesive nation of states into separate territories whose boundaries are enforced with "papers, please" demands from people trying to do nothing more than move freely within the borders of their homeland.
Moving around one's own city or town is being restricted as well, enforced by a government-owned-and-operated app.
[T]he government of South Australia, one of the country’s six states, developed and is now testing an app as Orwellian as any in the free world to enforce its quarantine rules. Returning travelers quarantining at home will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person.
While not technically a crime, the involvement of law enforcement makes existing within the confines of a single town -- but not abiding by quarantine requirements -- something indistinguishable from criminal activity. It's not just law enforcement in the mix in Australia, though. It's also the military, which has been sent to places the government feels contains too many citizens unwilling to stay under the government's thumb.
Australia has deployed hundreds of soldiers to Sydney to help enforce a Covid lockdown.
A Delta outbreak which began in June has produced nearly 3,000 infections and led to nine deaths.
Australian Defence Force soldiers will undergo training on the weekend before beginning unarmed patrols on Monday.
In COVID-era Australia, those who refuse to respect the constantly shifting, tending-towards-totalitarianism policies will be greeted with a show of (possibly unarmed) force by local cops and the government's military.
Soldiers will join police in virus hotspots to ensure people are following the rules, which include a 10km (6.2 miles) travel limit.
State Police Minister David Elliott said it would help because a small minority of Sydneysiders thought "the rules didn't apply to them".
All of this is already concerning. But beneath the policies imposed out of supposed concern for the public's safety runs an unhealthy undercurrent. Once countries put drastic measures in place in response to unexpected threats to public wellbeing, they're rarely eager to roll them back once the crisis has passed, or even lessened.
What remains to be seen is whether Australia can maintain that performance without permanently ending core attributes of life in a liberal democracy, including freedom of movement, peaceable assembly, and basic privacy.
If the government likes its new powers, and its ability to keep its citizens contained, it may decide the crisis has no definite end in sight. And with the virus continuing to mutate (as all viruses do), these severe, but temporary, precautions and restrictions may become permanent -- allies in the government's never-ending War on COVID.
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