‘Unethical and immoral’: Travel bans, COVID-19, and disregard for human dignity

Monash Lens

On 25 April, 2021, The Australian republished a report titled “Modi leads India into viral apocalypse”. The next day, the High Commission of India in Canberra sprang into action on Twitter asking the paper to publish a rejoinder to, “set the records straight, and also refrain from publishing such baseless articles in future”.

  • Rashmi Rangarajan

    PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education

Those of us from India and currently living in India following the recent exponential surge in COVID cases are well aware of the premature and unethical political rhetoric of India being “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

It came as no surprise to us when the second COVID-19 wave took shape in the country around mid-March. What has, however, shocked us (Indians and those of Indian heritage) to our core is the magnitude of the tragedies unfolding inside our homes and around us, as we experience collective grief.

Most Indian cities are experiencing a crash in already inadequate health systems. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the amount of people in need of care, along with a severe shortage in oxygen supply and life-saving equipment.

Furthermore, although the government of India recently announced its vaccination drive open for all persons aged 18 years and over, this has been met by unavailability of vaccines.

A faulty vaccination policy with mismanagement of pricing and distribution of vaccines has led to responsibilities being shifted onto individual state governments and private hospitals to procure vaccines on their own. This has not only resulted in differential vaccine pricing, but also the egregious exclusion of those who cannot afford the vaccines nor access private health centres.

Even more outraging has been the criminalisation of some citizens from seeking help on their own through social media. For example, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh announced that those found to be “spreading rumours” about shortage of oxygen and hospital beds on social media would have their properties seized.

The Supreme Court of India has condemned this criminalisation of ordinary citizens by warning state governments and the police against contempt of court action if citizens’ SOS messages were treated as an offence.

Australia’s hardline response

With the backdrop of these distressing experiences in India, the Australian government’s response was to announce a blanket travel ban and criminalise the return of its citizens from India. The government’s ban is to be lifted next week, but its initial hardline approach still bears further discussion, given the backflip is likely politically motivated and in response to a severe backlash to its initial decision.

Australia’s disproportionate response of denying its citizens the right to return home or travel to comfort their loved ones and perform last rites for those lost is fundamentally unethical and immoral. Another aspect that hasn’t escaped people’s attention is the discriminatory subjection of India to the Australian travel ban.

Australia’s disproportionate response of denying its citizens the right to return home or travel to comfort their loved ones and perform last rites for those lost is fundamentally unethical and immoral.

One cannot help but question why such a blanket ban, along with the criminalisation of returning Australian citizens, did not take shape with primarily white countries, such as the US and the UK, when they faced their own devastating versions of the pandemic. This could be reflective of the racist roots of Australia as a settler colony.

Indeed, political leaders in positions of power from both India and Australia have demonstrated a failure to ensure human dignity in these very trying times.

International travel restrictions and bans had first been implemented more than a year ago in a bid to outsmart the virus and its spread during the first wave of the pandemic. Australia has been very successful at curtailing the spread of the coronavirus; however, it’s also left thousands of people in distress at being separated from their loved ones across borders, with many international students stranded and unable to rejoin Australian universities.

Moreover, already marginalised individuals and groups, such as refugees and migrants, are even more at risk.

A baggage carousel in an all-but-empty Indian airport terminal

On reading about the effectiveness of international travel restrictions to control the pandemic, I found that researchers recommend temporary international travel restrictions in the initial stages of a pandemic to cut the spread of the virus. In fact, public health experts have pushed for the strengthening of transmission-reduction interventions instead of travel bans and mass quarantine. These interventions

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