KAtie Grace was at home on a Sunday evening in November when police came to tell her that her son had killed himself. The 20-year-old had left her home in Melbourne nine months earlier to play semi-professional rugby on the opposite side of the country in Perth. Since then, Grace felt an overwhelming urge to see Jordan, yet Western Australia’s strict coronavirus border closure had foiled their attempts to reunite. She was told she and her husband de ella would have to quarantine for two weeks in Perth, away from their two other children, as he lay in a morgue. The fully vaccinated parents offered to wear protective gear, collect his body and belongings and leave, but they were refused.
“He was my baby. I just needed to be with him,” she says. “It was heartless.”
Four months later, the state border restrictions that have vexed her family and countless others have finally ended. On Thursday, after almost two years, Western Australia welcomed fully vaccinated visitors from across the country and around the globe without quarantine.
For months, as waves of the Delta and Omicron variants led other states and territories to abandon their goal of reaching “zero covid,” Western Australia remained the lone holdout. With almost no local cases but vaccination rates lagging behind other regions, Premier Mark McGowan kept the border shut. Life inside the state largely went on as normal.
But when Western Australia began to face its own outbreak and most adults were boosted, McGowan believed it was time to open up.
“The virus is already here and we cannot stop its spread,” he said last month. “Having the border is no longer effective.”
Lifting of restrictions brings a major shift for a state whose reluctance to open led the head of the country’s major airline, Quantas, to like it to North Korea. It’s also the end of an era for Australia, which sacrificed personal liberties for the sake of public safety during the pandemic. In a nation whose strict policies earned it the nickname “Fortress Australia”, the last rampart is coming down.
The moment is bittersweet for the many who missed weddings and funerals, first steps, final moments and much-needed interventions.
“Jordan would still be alive today if the borders weren’t closed,” his mother says.
McGowan has called Jordan Grace’s suicide a “very sad situation” and says he sympathizes with every family that were affected by Western Australia’s rules. But he has also defended his policies, saying they saved thousands of lives – a claim some analysts support.
Western Australia wasn’t the first part of the country to restrict travel in March 2020. But the state, which was the last to join the Australian federation and has a history of secessionism, soon distinguished itself in the rigidity of its approach by shutting the door to anyone who did not have a special exemption.
“These new harder border closures essentially mean we will be turning Western Australia into its own island, within an island – our own country,” McGowan said at the time. The state’s isolation – it is separated from the rest of the country by deserts – was “now our best defence”.
It worked for more than a year and a half, during which Western Australia experienced only a couple of brief lockdowns. Cases hovered at or near zero, even as an outbreak of the Delta variant in June spread from Sydney to Melbourne and much of the country.
“They managed to avoid the worst, at least the worst so far,” says Anne Twomey, a constitutional law professor at the University of Sydney. “They completely avoided the Delta strain. They didn’t have their hospitals overrun.”
By November, when Jordan Grace died, New South Wales and Victoria were opening up despite thousands of cases. Western Australia, meanwhile, had almost no infections – and still no interest in abandoning its zero-covid policy. McGowan said the border wouldn’t soften for at least two more months, when the state fully vaccinated 90 per cent of people over the age of 12.
For Heike Langer Jones, that meant another holiday season without her husband, Mark, one of approximately 5,000 fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers whom McGowan had urged to move to Western Australia permanently during the pandemic. The couple had gone nine months without seeing each other in 2020. But with both of them fully vaccinated, and Mark still required to quarantine each time he returned to Western Australia after a trip home to Tasmania, it began to feel as if they were being punished for not being able to find jobs in the same place.
At one point, their teenage daughter wrote an email to McGowan saying: “You’re keeping my dad from me.” An assistant said it would be forwarded to the premier, Langer Jones says, but they never heard back.
“The FIFO life is hard enough as it is, but that’s a choice we made,” Langer Jones says. “This – being separated like this because of one man’s tyranny – is not our choice.”
The pandemic was the first time many Australians realized the power the country’s constitution gives to the states, Twomey said. State officials took charge of mask mandates, quarantines and borders – drawing anger that in some cases has turned violent. In November, two men were arrested for allegedly threatening to behead McGowan over his coronavirus policies.
“Enormous number of lives were saved by the fact that we did have states that reflected the views and wishes of their communities,” Twomey says. “You get people saying, oh this is terrible, we’re no longer one country. No, it’s how the federation is supposed to operate.”
McGowan’s popularity slipped from a stratospheric 88 per cent one year into the pandemic, to 64 per cent since he reversed course on a plan to open the border on 5 February. I have pushed it back indefinitely at first, then to Thursday, to give Western Australians additional time to get boosted against the more contagious Omicron variant of the virus.
“I think the government made the right call to delay reopening the border,” says Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia. “It bought crucial time to get third-dose levels up, and that’s going to keep a lot of people out of hospital.”
But the decision, which came just two weeks before the planned opening, left thousands in the lurch.
Louise Bosserman, an Australian living in New York City, had already canceled a trip to Perth for Christmas to introduce her parents to her baby daughter, their first grandchild. Then she woke up to messages from relatives and friends saying her February trip wouldn’t be possible either.
“It was heartbreaking,” Bosserman says. She has a flight this month, she says, but isn’t holding her breath.
Teleisia Tatafu and her two teenage children were stranded in Queensland after Western Australia changed its quarantine requirement during their Christmas holiday. Then McGowan’s reopening reversal deepened their predicament. Tatafu and her son de ella were able to receive exemptions and return to Perth on 5 February. But her 18-year-old daughter has spent the past three weeks stuck in Brisbane, “miserable” without her social life. She was scheduled to fly back on Friday.
“We’re big fans of Mark McGowan,” she says, “but I guess when you’re thrown in that situation yourself, it makes it different.”
Katie Grace says it is painful to see the border she blames for her son’s death open four months too late. Jordan had been struggling financially and emotionally in Perth, she says. The border closure forced her and her husband to abandon their plans to go see him, and Jordan didn’t want to risk his spot on his rugby team by flying to Melbourne and quarantining for two weeks on the way back.
Two days before his death, Jordan was detained overnight by police over an alleged theft, then released, according to his mother. She says the incident was minor but he probably thought he would be cut from the team.
“He probably thought his whole life was over,” she says.
Then it was, and the police were knocking on her door.
Two weeks later, a woman from Western Australia took her life in Sydney after the state rejected her two applications to return home, despite depression and a previous suicide attempt. When her parents of her came to Sydney to collect her remains of her, they too got stuck there after Western Australia tightened its border.
“People say the premiers kept the states safe, but at what cost?” Grace says. “I wish to God we had just got him home.”
© The Washington Post