opinion

'Dear Mark McGowan: I've been silent for two years. But enough is enough.'

Dear Mr McGowan, 

I say Dear Mr McGowan but this letter is also for any Western Australian who has responded with indifference or contempt throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic at the ongoing and real-life struggles of WA citizens living overseas or those with loved ones in Western Australia.

This letter is for any Western Australian currently celebrating the indefinite cancellation of the border opening and claiming it as a victory of border policy. 

Please allow me the opportunity to explain the current situation from the perspective of a Western Australian currently living overseas. 

The pandemic began and the Australian border policies sacrificed its citizens overseas in a way that literally no other country in the world did. I said nothing.

I had my first child and my parents were unable to come and meet their grandson or offer me support. I said nothing.

Growing rhetoric emerged from Australians in Australia saying it was our own fault if we chose to leave our country and the government therefore had no responsibility to help its citizens who found themselves overseas when the pandemic hit. I said nothing. 

The time my husband and I had available for parental leave came and went without us being able to bring my son home to meet his family and my oldest friends. I said nothing. 

I heard the most heartbreaking stories of Australian citizens trapped overseas, whose situations were infinitely more tragic than my own. I said nothing.

I struggled with my mental health and the most intense homesickness I have ever experienced. I said nothing.

While the rest of the world seemed to accept that COVID-19 was here to stay and took steps to learn to live with the virus, Australia clung to the illusion that COVID-zero was a long-term possibility and squandered the advantage that the extreme border policies had afforded it. I said nothing. 

My son began to crawl, said his first words, celebrated his first birthday and took his first steps all without most of my family or friends ever having met him. I said nothing. 

Expats from almost every other country in the world began to be able to reconnect with their loved ones, while Australian expats were still cut off from theirs. I said nothing. 

Some of my best friends got married, had their first child, struggled with illness and I was unable to be there for any of it. I said nothing. 

Other States began to open up their borders while you continued to postpone setting a date to open, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those unable or unwilling to get vaccinated were going to remain so, regardless of when borders open, while those who are simply hesitant or complacent were much more likely to get vaccinated if you set an opening date and stick to it! I said nothing. 

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My grandmother passed away without me having the opportunity to say goodbye, to introduce her to her great-grandson or to attend her funeral. I said nothing.

You finally set a date to reopen borders. Myself and so many others interstate and around the world rejoiced and finally exhaled the breath we’d been holding for two years. I booked flights.

You cancelled the border opening ‘indefinitely’ without saying a word about what you were going to do to get WA better prepared to open, beyond hoping people get boostered and kids get vaccinated – the one thing that takes the onus off you. And this time, I have to say something. 

For almost two years now Western Australians overseas have felt completely abandoned by our own country. We have waited and waited and waited to be able to reconnect with our loved ones, the mental health cost of which cannot be overstated. It’s not ok, we’re not ok, and we haven’t been for a long time.

While you and many Western Australians are scorning other countries’ responses to the pandemic and congratulating yourselves on achieving what almost nowhere else in the world did, I would just like to point out two things that made this possible which most other countries don’t have – the ability to close borders and a willingness to go against basic human rights (perhaps not surprising given our treatment of refugees). 

It is the right of a citizen to be allowed entry to their country! Full Stop. 

I know there are many who will say that we were never officially banned from returning home, but the obscenely small number of flights and hotel quarantine places, not to mention the cost involved, made it impossible for anyone not wanting to return home permanently. Even those trying to return home permanently often found it impossible. 

So if West Australians living overseas are once again to be the sacrificial lambs, could you at least do us the courtesy of explaining your long-term plan?

It seemed from your press conference that the entirety of your plan is currently ‘see how badly Omicron ravages the other states and then think about it a bit’?! And what happens when there’s another highly infectious variant after Omicron, where even the booster doesn’t seem to be effective, what then? 

You don’t need to be an epidemiologist to see that if you are planning to wait until COVID no longer poses a threat, Western Australia could remain a free range prison for a long time yet. 

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I understand the concerns about Omicron and overloading the healthcare system are completely legitimate and I understand lives are at stake. But it cannot continue to be impossible for Western Australians living overseas to come home – which will continue to be the case for most of us with the extremely limited number of hotel quarantine placements. 

This may be news to you, but being deprived of contact with the people you love most in the world also isn’t great for long-term health and happiness. Not to mention the long-term problems that could emerge from the growing ‘us against the world’ mentality in the Western Australian Hermit Kingdom. 

I’m not suggesting you lift all border measures – they have protected the people in WA from COVID for a long time. All I’m saying is make it logistically possible for fully vaccinated Western Australians to come home.

Which means, all I’m really asking is – wherever possible, let us quarantine at home with family. That’s it, just let us quarantine at home, so that we can come home. And while we are waiting, do everyone a favour and get prepared!

You’ve had two years where, instead of congratulating yourself and getting people to believe in the COVID-Zero myth, you could have been getting ready. 

Here’s an idea, instead of boasting about your budget surplus, use it to get WA ready.  Increase and improve quarantine facilities, organise more ICU beds and ventilators, put plans in place for schools (RATs, air filters, masks and a plan for supporting teachers and parents through home-schooling if it should come to that) and for protecting the industries that could be hardest hit, like the arts and hospitality. 

I’m sure there are hundreds of things you could be doing – I’m not an expert in the field, nor are you, but you have access to them – ask them. 

And most importantly, communicate these measures to the public so that when it comes time to open, people are responding less out of a place of fear! 

Please, Mr McGowan, enough is enough, make it practically possible for us to come home – because it can’t go on like this, we’ve been the sacrificial lambs for too long! Let us quarantine with family.

Yours sincerely, 

Helen Mather

Feature Image: Getty/Supplied/Mamamia.

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