In the 2016 film, Lion, Saroo (played by Dev Patel) experiences a moment of rupture, on one of Hobart’s secluded, twinkly streets. “We swan about in our privileged lives. It makes me sick.”
While we toast to Australia’s success as an almost COVID-free country, less affluent nations – most urgently, India – are being pushed to the brink. As case numbers in the world’s second most populous country continue to swell, Australia’s oligarchy of media outlets clinged to a style of visuals that rendered the country a warzone; what Nandagopal R Menon sums up as “rows of corpses perched on top of funeral pyres waiting to be burned, hapless relatives in PPE kits hugging each other near fires swallowing a loved one, aerial drone shots of mass cremations, the remains of a pyre that has burned down”. When Italy was experiencing their own COVID crisis this time last year, the news coverage felt vastly different. Who could forget the life-affirming footage of lovely Europeans playing “My Heart Will Go On” on their balconies?
It’s hard not to draw parallels between this conflicting imagery and Scott Morrison’s decision to threaten Australian citizens looking to return to their home country with a criminal record (up to five years jail time and a $66k fine). And I’m not the only one. Many have commented that the same draconian penalties weren’t levelled on Australian citizens returning home from the similarly COVID-ravaged countries like the US and UK last year, suggesting, of course, that our consummate master in Sri Lankan cuisine may be letting a little something called ‘race’ inform his policies yet again; an accusation he of course denied. (The man hates identity politics, after all.)
“There has been one rule for people of colour and another rule for white people during this pandemic”
Too many of us have grown accustomed to the Australian tradition of denying what’s so plainly there. “It's so blatant how there has been one rule for people of colour and another rule for white people during this pandemic,” remarks Neha Mahdok, co-director of Democracy in Colour, tells MTV Australia. “When the US, UK, Italy and Spain were in COVID crisis Australia never refused Australians entry to their home. When China was first in crisis, the majority ethnically Chinese-Australians were forced to quarantine on Christmas Island, in detention centres. Now Indian-Australians are primarily impacted by the ban.” Neha, who has Indian heritage, adds that the policy made her feel like a (literal) second class citizen. “That even with my citizenship I may not have the same rights and protections as other people with the same citizenship, purely because of my connections to a country that's in crisis.”
“I feel helpless, and guilty for feeling lucky to be here”
The emotional toll that Scott Morrison’s actions took on Indian-Australians or Australians with Indian heritage has been heavy. For those of us with family in the region, it exacerbated what is already a painful experience. Neha adds that she is anxious about her family in India every day. “Every person with Indian heritage I've spoken to knows someone who has had COVID and worse, most of us know someone who has died”, she says. Similarly, Sydney man Varishit Goshan hasn’t seen his Thailand-based partner in 15 months, and is worried about leaving the country in case he’s not able to return, or indeed, banned from returning altogether. “Finding a flight back to Australia if I need to come back in an emergency will be a challenge,” he says.
Varisht also explains that Scott Morrison’s travel ban put enormous emotional strain on him and his family. “I know that my parents are very worried for my close family in New Delhi,” he says. “The heartbreaking issue is that we cannot go back to India to help them out, not without taking a big risk knowing we may not come back for a long time.” Varisht says he’s extremely anxious about his family in India and he also noticed the impact Scott Morrison’s India travel ban has had on his friends and colleagues of Indian descent. “I feel helpless, and guilty for feeling lucky to be here,” he adds. But like many people of colour, Varisht is used to being seen as less of a citizen than our white counterparts. “The ban is cruel and heartless, but unfortunately not surprising.”
“Australia left me with an impossible choice”
Aakanksha Verma, who has been living in Adelaide for two years on a path to permanent residency, recently hit a wall due to Australia’s blanket ban on incoming arrivals to the country. She moved to Australia in 2018 – where her sister is a citizen – and had been waiting for her mother to join them in 2020. But because of the blanket ban implemented on anyone who wasn’t a citizen or permanent resident travelling to Australia during the pandemic, her mother stayed in India. “That was a huge blow,” Aakanksha recalls. “It meant our 64-year-old mother was now alone in India in the middle of a pandemic with no immediate family member by her side.” After several attempts to get her mother an exemption, Aakanksha made the painful decision to return to India in April 2021.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life,” Aakanksha reveals. “I’d spent the past two and a half years building a life from scratch in Australia. Being a person of colour in a small Australian city in itself wasn’t easy. When I finally felt like I was settling in, Australia left me with an impossible choice.” And while others were granted exemptions to travel to Australia and quarantine in The Hilton, she says the Australian government refused to classify her mother as an ‘immediate family member’. “Our suffering was a non-issue for Australia,” she recalls. Even if you’re a law-abiding, tax-paying samaritan willing to pay thousands of dollars to bring your family onshore, Australia doesn’t care.”
Of course, Australia’s closed borders have undoubtedly helped minimise the spread of the virus, but the suffering these policies are causing remain mostly hidden from view. “The fact that we have continued to maintain our lifestyle while other countries deal with devastating second and third waves is vindication for a closed border strategy,” Varisht says. “But the [human] cost of this has been downplayed. There are desperate people waiting to come back home who have had multiple flight cancellations. There are couples, separated for more than a year, unable to reunite.” He suggests that while the federal government could easily do a lot more, they are instead “skirting their responsibilities to Australian citizens for a semblance of normalcy”.
As a (former) Australian immigrant, Aakanksha says the Australian government’s message to her has been loud and clear. “That you can choose to build a life [in Australia] but that comes at a hefty cost. The cost of your family and your relationships back home.” She stresses that while her story is one of relative privilege, she worries for those who have had to return to India after building entire careers in Australia. “This isn’t a sob story … but we need the decision-making authorities to understand that their blanket travel ban is breaking families apart and causing irreversible emotional damage, that their hugely celebrated strategy to tame the virus is insensitive and insular at its very core.”
Aakanksha contracted COVID shortly after returning to India, she tells us, as did her mother a few weeks ago. Both of them are now recovering. “I’m just so glad that in these dark times, we are finally here for each other.”
Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @purpletank.