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Australia’s Coronavirus Travel Bans Feed Old Fears

With the spread of coronavirus now global, arbitrary travel bans such as those implemented by the Australian government are ineffective and nourished by old xenophobic anxieties. The solution to this crisis can only be a coordinated, international effort.

An empty departures hall is seen at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2020. Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg via Getty

Over the last two months, the Australian government has been at the forefront of the global wave of travel bans purportedly implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19. By making border control a key element of his response to the pandemic, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to regain the political ground lost during his disastrous handling of Australia’s bushfires during the southern summer. The pivot seems to be paying off, with Morrison’s coalition government receiving a recent bounce in public opinion polls.

What is striking is that no outright bans have been imposed on countries from the “Anglosphere” — that charming euphemism for England’s global network of white settler colonies — where the epidemic is rampant. With the government’s decision to place its heaviest restrictions on those coming from Asian countries instead, these travel bans can hardly be understood as the effective mitigation methods they purport to be; they instead reflect Australian colonial fears dating back to the nineteenth century and a xenophobia that has always been close to the surface.

Old Fears

When Scott Morrison suspended travel from China on January 31, his decision ran against the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), which explicitly advises against travel restrictions, particularly over long periods of time. Their logic is that such measures are ineffective, “divert resources from other interventions”, and have negative social and economic side effects. Paying no heed to the expert advice, the government went on to ban travel from Iran on March 1, but did not restrict flights from Italy — despite Italy already having more confirmed cases of the disease (1701) than Iran (978) at that point in time. Three days later, South Korea was added to blacklist, while Italy remained exempt.

Instead, Italian visitors would be “screened” by having their temperatures checked at airports, another measure deemed ineffective by the WHO due to the long incubation time during which virus carriers may not exhibit symptoms. This, when Italian deaths from Covid-19 sat at 107 on March 4, more than triple the number of deaths recorded in South Korea on that date. It wasn’t until the government in Rome declared a nationwide shutdown that Italy was finally added to Morrison’s list on March 11.

In contrast to the supposedly safe, hygienic Anglosphere, Italy too has now been deemed semi-peripheral, an echo of Greece’s experience during the financial crisis when it suddenly found itself ostracized by the European Troika. Part of the dishevelled, disorganized underbelly of Europe, Italy has now joined the ranks of the unclean.

When President Trump implemented a travel ban from Europe last week he temporarily exempted travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland, despite evidence that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau­ — wife of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau — had been infected during a trip to London.

Colonial Imaginaries

Last week, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, was diagnosed with the virus after returning from Washington. It is just the most high-profile case demonstrating that the coronavirus is now being regularly transmitted between Anglosphere countries. The disastrous state of the health care system in the United States and the low rates of initial testing there have also resulted in a significant underreporting of cases.

The uptick in confirmed cases in the United States closely resembles the trajectories of Italy and Iran. If the travel bans were applied consistently, the next step would be for Australia to block flights from the United States but instead Scott Morrison has simply announced a two-week forced isolation policy for passengers arriving from anywhere in the world, with no explicit ban on US flights.

This three-part hierarchy — Anglosphere-Europe-Asia — in Australia’s travel bans shows the lingering ideological effects of the country’s colonial history. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Australia implemented a series of immigration restrictions culminating in the White Australia policy, a bizarre and brutal experiment that the federation’s founding fathers hoped would cement the continent’s place on the pale side of a “global color line”, alongside the United States, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Great Britain itself.

It is telling that Peter Dutton caught Covid-19 after attending a meeting of the Five Eyes Alliance, an intelligence-sharing network between the United Kingdom and its four most aggressively genocidal settler colonies (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). It is just as telling that South Africa, the only one of those former colonies where white settlers no longer have full control of the state apparatus, is not a part of that espionage alliance.

The Anglosphere is an exclusive club that encourages imitators while never fully accepting them. Brazil’s ultraright Bolsonaro clan discovered this during their recent trip to Florida, when one of their lackeys accidentally exposed both Jair and Trump to the coronavirus. The Bolsonaros come from the Italian-German elite of Southern Brazil, and view themselves as the rightful (white) rulers of a diverse tropical ex-colony, but their self-image isn’t reflected in the eyes of Trump.

Unfortunately for them, when Bolsonaro was diagnosed with the virus, and his gormless son Eduardo, in a Trumpian move, claimed the test was negative, Fox News cast him as a deceitful foreigner putting Trump’s life in danger, rather than a loyal ally. Just as Italy holds second-tier status in Australia’s travel ban policy, Italian-Brazilian white settler wannabes will always occupy a subordinate position in American hierarchies of race and power.

The coronavirus is an extremely serious pandemic, but government responses to these crises are rarely neutral, rational acts. Instead, they reflect the historical paranoias and racial delusions of each nation-state. The virus has now spread across the globe, rendering arbitrary travel bans even less effective in countries where domestic transmission has already accelerated. The states now showing the most success in slowing transmission, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, are focusing on mass testing, treatment, and self-isolation within each country, supported by (comparatively) well-resourced public-health infrastructure.

As Shan Windscript has pointed out, racism and dehumanization will not defeat the coronavirus. The best long-term method to deal with this and future pandemics, as Mike Davis argues, is the establishment of a genuinely international public health care system. Covid-19 cuts across national borders, and our solidarity with those affected needs to cut across these borders too.