Governments the world over have struggled to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we’ve seen large-scale shutdowns of businesses, mask mandates on planes and in buildings, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it is the Land Down Under — Australia — that has really pushed the envelope.
This week The Atlantic carried an eye-opening article about some of the governmental edicts that have been imposed in Australia–edicts so draconian that the article carries the provocative headline “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Consider this partial list of emergency decrees and requirements:
- Australia has dramatically curtailed its citizens’ ability to leave the country. The article quotes a government website (which you can see here) that states: “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.”
- Travel between the six states that make up Australia also is restricted. You can access the governmental website that discloses the current restrictions, which include closing state borders, limiting ability to travel within a state, and mandatory quarantines, here.
- States have imposed curfews, have banned anti-lockdown protests, and have used the military to disperse and arrest anti-lockdown protesters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, more than five million people have been in lockdown status for more than two months.
But the most draconian requirement of all is being tested and rolled out by the state of South Australia. It’s an app that the state would require its citizens to download, and the Atlantic article describes it as follows:
“People in South Australia 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. ‘We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,’ Premier Steven Marshall explained. ‘I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.’”
It’s a pretty amazing development when a democratic government claims the ability to unilaterally require citizens to download an app, respond to random government texts, and be required to respond within a specified time period with a personal photo showing they are in “the location where they are supposed to be” or receive a visit from the local police. It’s even more amazing that the head of that government actually thinks citizens should be proud that their state government is the leader in imposing that kind of extraordinary government intrusion. I’d like to think that no duly elected government in America would think that kind of action was anything other than an egregious overreach–but then, I would have thought the Aussies would never have done anything like that, too.
There’s obviously a delicate balance between preserving individual rights and liberties and dealing with public health issues. As The Atlantic article notes, Australia’s dramatic decrees can be cited as allowing it to achieve COVID-related death statistics that are far below those in the U.S. But Australia also shows how the balancing of health and rights can tip decidedly to one side, in a way that strikes at the core of freedoms that are a defining characteristic of democratic societies. Citizens of other countries should be looking at what has happened in Australia and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?” and “Could that happen here?”