Australians See Freedoms Slide Amid Pandemic

Draconian lockdown orders, geo-targeting, smartphone tracking, vaccine coercion, military deployment: Australians worry over 'health dictatorship'
By Caden Pearson
Caden Pearson
Caden Pearson
Caden Pearson is a reporter based in Australia, with a background in screenwriting and documentary. Contact him at caden.pearson@epochtimes.com.au
and Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev
Daniel Khmelev is an Australian reporter based in Perth covering energy, tech, and politics. He holds bachelor's degrees in math, physics, and computer science. Contact him at daniel.khmelev@epochtimes.com.au.
October 16, 2021 Updated: October 16, 2021

In the 20 months since the CCP virus first came to Australia, it has been linked to the deaths of about 1.19 percent of the about 113,000 total confirmed cases in the country, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite low rates of hospitalizations and deaths in comparison to other countries, the state and territory governments of Australia have imposed strict measures in response to the virus, sometimes locking down capital cities and regions at the emergence of only one or a few new cases.

In attempts to suppress the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, Australia’s second-most-populous city, Melbourne, which has been named the world’s most liveable city seven times, has endured six lockdowns and more than 240 non-consecutive days under stay-at-home orders since March 2020—more than any other city in the world.

To ensure compliance with the rules of what one New South Wales (NSW) state official deemed—in what was perhaps a slip of the tongue—“the new world order,” authorities in Australia have at times taken draconian, even harmful, measures in the name of protecting the people from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, dissent against the health measures has been met, mainly in the states of NSW and Victoria, with a heavy martial response, resulting in some violent clashes, multiple arrests, and continued civil pushback.

The authoritarian nature of the Victoria Police’s response to days of protest in September against vaccine mandates and health restrictions in Melbourne led to riot squads, mounted police, and armored vehicles patrolling the city.

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A man looks out a window at the Flemington Towers public housing complex in Melbourne, Australia, on July 6, 2020. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the government’s stated goal of suppressing the CCP virus has prompted at least one state, Queensland, to mandate smartphone QR code check-in apps for businesses to implement at their premises.

In some states, such as Western Australia (WA) and South Australia (SA), similar technology with facial recognition and geolocation ability is used to ensure compliance with home quarantine orders.

But while state and territory leaders report new case statistics at daily press conferences, the collateral damage of their virus response, such as the harm to mental health, is rarely conveyed.

As the end of 2021 draws near, the governments of Australia have pushed harder than ever to achieve an 80 percent vaccination target that would trigger phase two of the four-phase national plan to reopen the country. State leaders, particularly in Victoria and NSW, have even refused to ease COVID-19 restrictions until 70 to 80 percent of the population is vaccinated.

Lockdowns and Restrictions

After the WHO declared SARS-CoV-2 a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, 2020, Australian lawmakers amended the Biosecurity Act 2015 to give the government powers to create and enforce public health orders to take measures to control the novel coronavirus by declaring a human biosecurity emergency.

After this, health officials could impose human biosecurity control orders on people who may have COVID-19. This was the government’s main method of managing risks to human health, according to the Biosecurity Act 2015. The powers extended to aircraft and vessels that entered Australian territory.

The Act also gives the federal health minister special powers to enact WHO recommendations. However, Australia doesn’t always follow advice from the WHO. For example, Australia closed its international border in March 2020 against the WHO’s advice, potentially reducing the early transmission of the virus from arriving via international travelers.

During the emergency period, which has been extended every three months since March 2020, the Act also gives officers powers to investigate and enforce penalties for noncompliance with COVID-19 health orders, such as fines and providing for warrants to enter premises. In some limited cases, officers can enter premises without a warrant or consent.

At one point in July 2021, over half of Australia’s population of 25 million was subject to stay-at-home orders.

Currently, at the time of publishing, 5 million Melburnians are required to comply with the Victorian chief health officer’s directives, with many unable to leave their homes except for five essential reasons, and even then there are limits on the distance people can travel from their homes. There are also mask mandates and curfews.

Extreme restrictions have led businesses and venues to shut down, and placed significant limitations on attendance at places of worship, and at weddings and funerals.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has referred to some of the state government measures as a “health dictatorship.”

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Police pepper spray a protester during a rally against COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates, in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 22, 2021. (CON CHRONIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Homes can be entered, people can be detained, and the ordinary law of the land suspended,” Abbott said on his podcast.

These restrictions are replicated in similar ways across the country’s six states and two territories.

The Greater Sydney region has been under stay-at-home orders since late June, with restrictions eased last week but only for the fully vaccinated. Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklean, who resigned at the beginning of October, extended the lockdown in that region on July 28, citing “low vaccination rates.”

During this time, the NSW government used Australian Defence Force personnel to expand police compliance operations, with 800 soldiers deployed to the city as the state moved to enforce stricter lockdown rules.

Meanwhile, other states, such as Queensland and WA, went the route of “go hard, go fast” snap lockdowns almost as soon as cases emerged.

This year, Queensland imposed restrictions after recording three cases of COVID-19 and introduced lockdowns after four cases. Similarly, the Northern Territory (NT) imposed restrictions after recording one case and introduced lockdowns after four cases.

On the west coast, WA imposed restrictions after confirming one case and imposed lockdowns after three cases, while SA at one point imposed restrictions after recording no cases.

Further, WA, with a population of 2.6 million, has imposed stay-at-home orders three times this year following single-digit cases.

Additionally, state border closures have displaced residents and separated families. For example, thousands of Queenslanders were locked out of their home state in September when Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk “paused” entry for residents trying to go home but allowed the wives, girlfriends, and families of National Football League players to enter. She later apologized for this.

To help those displaced, the charity Angel Flight Australia mobilized to help individuals reunite with relatives in special circumstances by offering free compassionate flights. Those flown across borders included toddlers and children separated from parents, sometimes for months, as well as individuals seeking to visit dying relatives.

Track and Tracing

Australia has utilized smartphone technology as a key tool to ensure quarantine compliance and in a bid to help COVID-19 contact tracers work faster in the event of an outbreak. But there are privacy concerns.

Every jurisdiction has implemented some form of contact tracing, often requiring residents to check in when visiting businesses and other venues. Most of this is done via smartphones, with users required to scan QR codes positioned near venue entrances.

Governments say the measure is critical in tracking down individuals potentially exposed to known cases within the community, with every state and territory equipped with its own contact tracing app. For example, Queensland has made it mandatory for businesses in that state to use its Check in Qld app.

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A parent uses the QR code check-in at a playground in the Brunswick suburb of Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 3, 2021. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

But the ability to maintain registers of the exact whereabouts of residents has raised concerns that the data could be used for non-health purposes.

For example, the SafeWA app was guaranteed by Premier Mark McGowan to be used for contact tracing only, and that the data would “only be accessible by authorized Department of Health contact tracing personnel.”

However, an audit into SafeWA later revealed that police ordered WA Health to provide check-in data on six occasions, of which three were granted before the state passed legislation prohibiting its use for purposes other than contact tracing.

“The public were explicitly told that contact tracing check-in data would not be used for anything other than public health contact tracing purposes,” a Digital Rights Watch spokesperson told The Epoch Times. “Police access to the WA COVID-19 check in-app data is a betrayal of this public trust.”

Other states have promised that their own apps will only be used for health purposes.

Digital rights advocates were also concerned about international access to data, given that Queensland and WA contact tracing information was hosted on Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure Cloud Services, both of which are “subject to both Australian and overseas laws” that may require the disclosure of information to government authorities in those jurisdictions.

Aside from contact tracing, the states and territories have also utilized apps to enforce stay-at-home quarantine orders.

Typically, West Australians subject to two-week self-quarantine orders would receive random in-person checks by police. But WA Police streamlined the process with the G2G Now app. The app sends a notification, potentially multiple times per day, requesting the user for a picture which is then cross-referenced using facial recognition and geolocation services.

Users have five minutes to respond. Failure to do so will prompt a second notification, upon which further noncompliance will prompt a user to submit a reason—with police left to determine if a physical check would be needed.

The G2G Now app is used in some cases in the NT, with similar geolocation and facial recognition measures being trialed across Australia, including SA’s Quarantine SA app, and NSW’s Home Quarantine NSW app.

Vaccine Mandates and Rewards

The Australian federal government’s policy is that COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary for most people, but it aims to have as many people as possible choose to be vaccinated.

To achieve this, the approaches of both federal and state governments have been to launch messaging campaigns, hold daily press conferences to report new COVID-19 cases, and partner with the private sector to incentivize vaccinations by offering rewards.

Meanwhile, some politicians expressed concern that elements of these approaches were coercive and said that it was “dangerous” to take away freedoms and only restore them to those who have been vaccinated.

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A sign reading “Go straight home and Isolate” at the exit of a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Highpoint shopping center in Melbourne, Australia, on July 4, 2020. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

For example, from Sept. 13, NSW authorities allowed vaccinated people one extra hour of “low risk” recreation outside their homes once six million first doses had been administered.

Liberal-National Party (LNP) Sen. Eric Abetz in early August expressed concern that plans for “freedom incentives” as well as “vaccine passports,” combined with the power for employers to force workers to divulge information about their health status, could create second-class citizens out of people who have been hesitant to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, some of Australia’s largest companies have offered rewards for those who have been jabbed.

National carrier Qantas was among a number of organizations that offered “vaccinated rewards.” The airline offered “mega prizes” such as unlimited travel for a year and flight vouchers, according to a federal health department flyer (pdf).

“As a large company that relies on travel to put our people and planes back to work, we’re obviously motivated to help with the national vaccine effort,” Qantas customer officer Stephanie Tully said on May 28.

HAG Imports offered fully vaccinated staff $100 Myer vouchers, while Melbourne’s Classic Cinema and Lido cinema provided free popcorn and ice cream to vaccinated customers.

In addition, airline Virgin Australia began a competition open to fully vaccinated people to win one million Velocity Frequent Flyer points.

Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said on May 17 that Australia needs to open its borders once an appropriate rate of vaccination has been achieved, for the sake of the economy and health.

“It will make us sick but won’t put us into hospital. Some people may die, but it will be way smaller than the flu,” she said.

But Abetz suggested that vaccination inducements, megaphoned across the country, might amount to coercion.

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Demonstrators march through the streets to protest lockdowns in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 18, 2021. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

In an Aug. 4 statement, Abetz said that the COVID-19 vaccination rollout should be done under the legal requirement of informed consent. The Australian Immunisation Handbook states this as needing to be “given voluntarily in the absence of undue pressure, coercion, or manipulation” to be legally valid.

While the official federal policy is that COVID-19 vaccinations are mostly voluntary, on June 28, the federal government announced that it would be mandatory for residential aged-care workers to get their first dose by September.

“This is not something any government should do lightly … we have been considering this matter for some time now, based on the best possible medical advice,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, following a special national cabinet meeting of all Australian state and territory leaders.

The federal government offered paid leave for staff who experience side effects from the vaccines. This also was a bid to ensure no other unintended consequences, such as aged-care workers leaving the sector.

Of the more than 1,300 deaths in Australia linked to the CCP virus as of early October, 735 have been aged-care residents, and the vast majority have occurred in Victoria.

Additionally, some state and territory jurisdictions used public health orders to mandate the vaccine for certain industries, such as for certain health workers in Queensland, NSW, and WA. But at least one Queensland nurses union, the Nurses’ Professional Association of Queensland, has pushed back against the mandate.

Collateral Damage

The widespread strategy of strict lockdowns has had a severe toll not only on the nation’s economy, but on the mental health of many Australians constrained by stay-at-home orders.

Some estimates put the cost of this year’s lockdown in NSW, Victoria, and SA at $2.8 billion (US$2.07 billion) per week, with the restrictions in Greater Sydney accounting for two-thirds of the costs at $257 million per day.

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People cross a quiet Flinders Street in Melbourne on Sept. 1, 2021. (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Previous economic modeling found Australia’s preference for lockdowns—for example, locking Perth down after only three confirmed cases in June—could cost the country an estimated $319 billion by 2022.

“Eliminating COVID-19 means eliminating jobs, freedom, and hope,” said Daniel Wild, director of research at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Many small businesses have reportedly struggled to sustain themselves during the lockdowns, with many forced to shut down entirely.

“Lockdowns have brought about one of the greatest regressive transfers of wealth and power in Australia’s history,” Wild said. “Young Australians, small businesses, the self-employed, and those otherwise embedded in the productive, private parts of the economy have been smashed, while public servants and bureaucrats are flourishing.”

One barbershop owner in Sydney recounted his struggles in July.

“I’m just going to lose my job,” Nam Nguyen said. “I still have to pay for my rent, living cost, food, insurance, utilities, you name it, all while I’m losing my income.”

“They said they would lock down until the pandemic ends, but you can’t tell when it will end,” he said. “People will have to learn to live with the virus somehow.”

Concern is mounting about whether the effects of lockdowns have caused more deaths in youths and young adults than the virus itself.

The seemingly endless lockdowns and restrictions, along with the loss of jobs and freedoms, have also played a devastating role in the decline of many Australians’ mental health.

One in four Australians knows someone who has committed suicide during the past 12 months amid the pandemic, according to figures from Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA).

SPA found that 25 percent of Australians knew someone close to them who died, or attempted suicide, while 27 percent said they had directly, or indirectly, sought assistance from a suicide prevention service in the last 12 months.

Respondents said the biggest risks contributing to potential suicide over the next 12 months were social isolation (64 percent), unemployment and job losses (58 percent), family and relationship breakdowns (57 percent), and cost of living issues (55 percent).

Surging demand for the services of the national suicide helpline, Parents Beyond Breakup, led them to plead for extra government funding amid repeated COVID-19 lockdowns.

Last year, Patrick McGorry, a professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, warned that results from population surveys showed a substantial rise in mental distress.

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Members of the Victoria Police patrol through Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 20, 2020. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

“We have already seen a rise in self-harm and suicidal behavior,” he said.

“What my colleagues tell me on the frontline is about a 20 percent increase in people presenting,” McGorry said. “Often in quite acute and complex presentations now too.”

Recent modeling by the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre has noted that for the next five years, Australia could see an estimated increase of 13.7 percent in suicide rates—close to 20,000 deaths.

The report stated: “Uncertainty regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve, with associated lockdowns, physical distancing, and quarantine measures, is driving uncertainty around the extent and duration of the resulting economic breakdown, further exacerbating psychological distress and mental health problems among previously healthy people.”

Pushback and Protests

Thousands of Australians have taken to the streets, defying stay-at-home orders to voice their dissent to strict COVID-19 measures.

At a protest in Perth on Oct. 1, a nurse told The Epoch Times that she believed the decision to force staff into receiving the jab went against the principles of health care.

“It’s coercive,” she said. “One of the foundations of health care is that care should be consented to. You can’t forcibly treat someone with a therapeutic—that’s just not what health care is.”

The nurse said there was insufficient evidence around the long-term safety of the vaccines given they had not completed longer-term clinical trials. Pointing to the protesters wearing white shirts, the nurse said they were all willing to lose their jobs over it.

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Protesters march against lockdowns, in Melbourne, Australia, on Aug. 21, 2021. (Getty Images)

“All these professionals are willing to give up years of work. Look at the numbers on everyone’s shirts, 15 years, 17 years, 20 years,” she said. “I’m devastated to lose my job, but I’m not going to be coerced into taking an experimental drug.”

Protests in Melbourne drew international attention in September due to the authoritarian nature of the police response. Police fired pepper ball rounds and large-sized projectiles at unarmed civilians on Sept. 22.

During one of the almost daily protests in Melbourne against Victoria’s sweeping vaccination mandate for all of its 1.25 million “authorized workers,” a video from citizen journalist Rukshan Fernando on Oct. 2 showed the protesters marching peacefully and yelling slogans such as “my body, my choice” and “freedom now!”

In the video, crowds can be seen chanting “no more lockdown” and “sack Dan Andrews,” referring to the state’s premier. Videos from that day showed police spraying protesters with pepper spray, sometimes unprovoked. Protesters were also seen throwing projectiles such as bottles at police officers.

In a live video by Fernando, officers can be seen tackling several protesters to the ground and arresting them. Some police officers on horseback chased the protesters in the park, while a helicopter could be heard flying overhead.

Police tried to thwart protesters by prohibiting access to both Sydney and Melbourne’s central business districts (CBD) on certain days when rallies were planned. Police also monitored groups on the Telegram app to gain intelligence on potential planned activities.

Despite the dissent, the government’s statistics show that the majority of Australians have chosen to be vaccinated.

Plan to Reopen Australia in December

While other countries have already removed all their health restrictions and vaccine passports around COVID-19, Australia is enacting a national plan that might see lockdowns continuing into 2022.

Denmark has removed all COVID-19 restrictions, except external border requirements on Sept. 10, after it reclassified COVID-19 as no longer a critical threat to human life. The downgrading of this classification means vaccine passports are no longer necessary.

Norway announced on Sept. 24 that it would be removing all domestic COVID-19 restrictions.

Down under, state and territory leaders have affirmed a four-phase plan to transition Australia’s national COVID-19 response from its current pre-vaccination settings that focus on the suppression of transmission to post-vaccination settings that focus on the prevention of serious illness, hospitalization, fatality, and the public health management of other infectious diseases.

The phases will be triggered by vaccination thresholds being achieved. The third phase would see authorities manage the virus consistent with the flu. The last stage would see the full return to normal with no lockdowns or border closures, and quarantine only for unvaccinated travelers.

Mimi Nguyen Ly and Daniel Teng contributed to this report.

Caden Pearson is a reporter based in Australia, with a background in screenwriting and documentary. Contact him at caden.pearson@epochtimes.com.au
Daniel Khmelev is an Australian reporter based in Perth covering energy, tech, and politics. He holds bachelor's degrees in math, physics, and computer science. Contact him at daniel.khmelev@epochtimes.com.au.