Yet Morrison is the most popular prime minister Australia has seen in years, though he had been one of the most unpopular just five months ago because of disapproval for his handling of the national bushfires crisis. A poll taken in late April shows him with a personal approval rating of 68 percent, the highest reading any Australian prime minister has seen in a decade. Apparently, Australian citizens are content with the self-imposed isolation of the country and either do not mind the economic consequences or cannot imagine the full negative effects.
While Hong Kong and Taiwan are not as dependent on educational services as either Australia or New Zealand, there has been no answer to the looming question of when will their borders be opened again for visitors and business people. The success in fighting the virus domestically has created a dilemma. Citizens have been told that this a dangerous disease. Whether that is correct or not does not matter: People believe it and expect their governments to protect them.
A Taiwan government statement is revealing. On May 6, Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung said that as long as there is neither a vaccine nor a drug for treatment of the virus, Taiwan’s borders will remain sealed. Considering that there is no vaccine for the other six known coronaviruses, Taiwan may have to wait quite a while before it will welcome international travellers again. Hong Kong is in the same situation. Chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s government, still shaken by pro-democracy protests that began last year, appears to want to keep the city closed and is willing to gamble away the city’s economic future.
What the star performers seem to forget is that large countries – China, the European Union, the United States – can live for a long time without the rest of the world, whereas small, open economies will suffer dire economic consequences if they stay closed. As a matter of prestige, it is entirely unrealistic to expect larger countries to open travel to their countries asymmetrically. The member countries of the EU will probably not open their borders for New Zealanders as long as Europeans are not permitted to fly to New Zealand.
Of course, alternatives to the current closed border policies exist. Countries could demand virus tests before leaving and after entry as well as two weeks of health monitoring, possibly with smartphone apps. The requirement of a two-week quarantine, currently standard in many countries even for their own citizens, is draconian and is hardly an incentive for anybody to board a plane.
With good intentions, the border sealers have created a potentially disastrous situation. Their citizens expect protection, but as long as the coronavirus ravages the outside world, the price for that security will be a severely reduced level of prosperity. The real risk is not the virus itself but unconsidered and short-sighted policies to combat it.