Indian community leaders say they feel helpless watching their families engulfed in a COVID-19 crisis, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison has denied the federal government is “forsaking” stranded Australians by pausing flights between the two countries.
“Why the different strategy now, compared to last year?” said Professor Greg Dore, infectious diseases expert at the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute.
“We should be more confident. We’re in a better place than last year.”
Mr Morrison said mounting COVID cases among returning overseas travellers prompted the sudden change, with infections in hotel quarantine jumping 50 per cent in the past fortnight.
The pause might help relieve pressure on a hotel quarantine system already under scrutiny from public health experts, but it also leaves 9000 Australians in India in limbo.
Quarantine fears behind closure
Two commercial flights and two government-backed repatriation flights into Australia have been cancelled, with the government facing questions about how it can help its citizens stuck in the world’s deadliest COVID hotspot.
“This is the difficult challenge in a pandemic. You don’t get the perfect of all situations,” Mr Morrison said.
“You have to ensure you have the integrity of your quarantine arrangements, which have withstood any number of challenges, and we need to ensure that the load in those quarantine facilities is manageable so we can take more people in down the track, which is what we definitely intend to do.”
Mr Morrison said the decision to ban flights from India – an action Australia did not take at the height of outbreaks in Britain and the US – was due to a “jump” in cases in hotel quarantine among people coming from India.
The PM said there were 90 COVID-19 cases in hotel quarantine across the country two weeks ago – rising to 143 last week, in step with a growing proportion of returned travellers from India.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese claimed Australians in India “are now trapped”.
Mr Morrison noted the federal government had helped repatriate about 20,000 people from India, and pledged flights would resume when possible, with a focus on the most vulnerable.
In a Sydney press conference, Mr Morrison rebuffed a question about whether the decision was “forsaking” Australians in India.
About 500 people were scheduled to fly on the four flights cancelled due to the travel ban.
“We will resume the repatriation flights from India … we will work through our consular offices in India to ensure that we’re focusing those repatriation flights on the most vulnerable,” he said, adding he hoped to “increase the frequency” of flights if possible.
Mr Morrison also said a large aid package of masks, ventilators, gloves and goggles would be sent to India, with more to come.
But others criticised the government’s decision to shut off Indian flights given it had taken a different approach to other global outbreaks.
Labor MP Brian Mitchell called it “reprehensible”.
Professor Dore said hotel quarantine issues should not be a concern.
“In the context of vaccinating border and quarantine workers, we should be more confident of controlling transmission,” he told The New Daily.
“We’ve had the UK strain and some cases of quarantine breaches of that, and we’ve been able to manage them. They haven’t led to significant transmission. We controlled that.”
Liberal MP Dave Sharma pushed back on criticisms, saying India’s situation was “like nothing that we have ever seen”.
“We imposed a travel ban on Italy and Iran and a few other countries in the early stages of the crisis when numbers were at a similar level,” he told the ABC.
Indians in Australia ‘panic’
But despite criticism from others, Indian groups in Australia say they understand the reasons for the flight pause – even if it dashes hopes of getting back to help loved ones.
“It’s for the country’s sake,” Sandi Mitra, president of the India Australia Association of Canberra, told TND.
“We’ve got to make sure Australia is secure. I have no criticism.”
Mr Mitra’s mother in India is recovering in hospital after contracting COVID, with his blind father cared for by neighbours.
“I would be the first one to go if I could. My bags were packed … I should be the first person crying about it, but I’m not,” he said.
“I’m seeing the stresses every moment. But when you look at the two countries, you see every household in India being infected. It’s quite dangerous.”
Sury Soni, president of the Federation of Indian Associations Victoria, called Australia’s aid package an “extraordinarily good gesture” but said the Indian diaspora in Australia was “panicking” as the outbreak grew.
“People are getting worried reading the news,” he told TND.
“We’re locked into Australia for a year now. My dad had a cardiac arrest last month, my sister is infected with COVID and in hospital, and I can’t visit. It’s creating lots of mental pressure on everyone in the community.
“We all feel helpless.”
Mr Soni acknowledged any Australian with friends or family overseas was experiencing similar emotions, but said the situation in India was making people feel “anxious”.
“There are not many people coming each week on the flights. Only 500 people, for such a large population,” he said.
“It will be difficult. Every day is difficult, but I think people will take this as a pause and not a stop.”