Opinion: Did Australia’s approach to COVID-19 sacrifice too many freedoms?

Australia is renowned for its effective response to the pandemic, and its low COVID-19 rates have become envied by other countries. This could be due to many reasons, notably its strict lockdown restrictions: some parts of Australia have had the strictest lockdowns in the world. Melbourne, for example, had six lockdowns since March 2020, adding up to a total of nine months in lockdown. As more states in Australia reach higher levels of vaccine uptake and move out of lockdown, it seems imperative to ask whether Australia really did have it right, after all.

Firstly, it’s important to note that Australian political structure and outlook is very different to that of the UK or US, despite being part of the commonwealth. When writing for Standpoint, Helen Dale explained that many people make the mistake of wanting to emulate Australia without understanding that it’s not as simple as just importing its methods. Australia, she argues, follows a Hobbesian understanding of politics, whereupon the “state of nature” is violent and brutish, and the state provides the individuals with rights so long as they give up most of their freedoms, meaning that ‘Australia favours democracy and majorities over liberty and rights.’ The UK and US, however, value the individual and their rights before the government, following the political thinkers such as John Locke (who is said to have influenced the Declaration of Independence).

On a podcast, Dale further explained that Australia’s ability to run systems very well – such as lockdowns, the gun system, and points-based immigration system – ‘comes at a price,’ which is that ‘the country is actually very authoritarian.’ She paraphrases Prof Katy Barnett to say that ‘Australians may be the descendants of convicts, but they are also the descendants of their jailers.’ Dale argues that Australians ‘tolerate a level of authoritarianism that [Brits] would find very alarming,’ and this is in part due to their different views on rights, in that the Australian constitution does not include any rights at all.

Australian’s authoritarianism is evident when you look at their so-called vaccine mandate – “so-called” because the vaccine is not technically mandatory, but is effectively mandatory in its strictness and scope. Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, claimed that they wanted to make the vaccine ‘as mandatory as you can possibly make it.’ Australia’s Northern Territory require authorised workers to have had at least their first vaccine by 15th of October and their second by 26th of November, or be at risk of losing their job or receiving a $5,000 fine. Politician Michael Gunner explicitly claimed that ‘simply not wanting the vaccine is not a reason’ to not get it, dismissing the importance of an individual to make a choice about their body.

Percentage of citizens who have received both vaccines has been the metre stick by which Australian governments have determined when some lockdown restrictions can ease. In Melbourne, lockdown restrictions began to ease once the population vaccine uptake had reached 70%. Even when Australian states move out of lockdown restrictions, it arguably enters a society where there are two classes of citizens: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. In New South Wales, for example, the unvaccinated can only gather in groups of two outside, whereas the vaccinated can gather in groups of fifty. It seems that, for Australia, one’s bodily autonomy is secondary to the country’s drive to reduce COVID-19 levels that are already incredibly low compared to most other countries

These vaccine mandates have not come without resistance: many protests have taken place in cities such as Melbourne and Perth, all leading to arrests due to the breach of lockdown rules. As is often the case with protests that reject the status quo, mainstream media have rejected the validity of the protestors by likening them to extreme far-right groups such as Proud Boys or QAnon, or simply rejecting them as ‘anti-vaxxers’. Yet, this is an unfair characterisation of most protestors against the vaccine mandate: it is not the same thing as disbelieving the effectiveness of vaccines as a whole. Personally, I had received both vaccines by May because I believed it was the best thing for my health. However, my personal decision by no means legitimates me in making such a decision for anyone else, let alone the rest of the nation.

When commenting on the protest in Melbourne, ABC News claimed that the protestors ‘are in their own information universe,’ and ‘in that world, they saw police actions this week as close to outright tyranny. The legitimate right of protest has been squelched, they [the protestors] say, and people are being forced to live in a society divided between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.’ Overlooking the dismissive and patronising tone, the protestors have a valid point: protestors arguably do not have the freedom to protest as they are arrested for breaching lockdown restrictions, and – as described previously – citizens have different freedoms depending on their vaccination status. Ruskshan Fernando, who was wrongly characterised by ABC news as being a ‘far right’ journalist with a ‘large, far-right following’, expressed that the police were using ‘very draconian measures we thought we’d never see,’ such as firing rubber bullets at unarmed protestors.

Dr Mark Duncan Smith, president of the Australian Medical Association of Western Australia, said that ‘unfortunately some people are pro-disease,’ and ‘other people are more rational.’ Paul Everingham, Chamber of Minerals and Energy CEO, continued that ‘with freedom doesn’t come the right to impose your illness on other people.’ Yet, supporting an individual’s right to bodily autonomy is by no means synonymous to being ‘pro-disease’ or supporting the ‘right to impose your illness’ on others. Both claims are non-sensical and inflammatory, and completely undermine the valid points that most of the protestors seek to make.

For me, Australia has undervalued the importance of individual rights and freedoms in favour of extreme and authoritarian measures against a virus that had not greatly impacted the country. Perhaps there are arguments to be made that the Australian government needs to protect its vulnerable Aboriginal population, or that the Delta variant has been more dangerous than previous variants. It would seem to me that Australia has been willing to sacrifice too many freedoms in order to achieve low COVID-19 rates, regardless of how effective their authoritarian measures have been. From a British perspective of rights and liberty, I would say that Australia has prioritised the wrong thing. 

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