In the context of this article, my use of ANZAC refers to Australia, New Zealand and Canada and not to that fine fighting body, the Australia New Zealand Army Corps. I wish to explore how these countries could each have implemented their notably draconian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, with some restrictions extending well into 2022. Apart from China and some other countries in the Far East, they implemented the most severe pandemic measures with genuine implications for human rights such as freedom of movement, expression, and assembly. Some European countries—such as Italy, Spain, and France—implemented severe pandemic measures, with vestiges of these still in place, but none were as severe or prolonged as those in the ANZAC countries.
In mid-September, when I wrote this, New Zealand had only recently opened its borders, preceded earlier this year by Australia. Canada maintained closed borders until nearly the end of 2021. Island nations—such as Australia and New Zealand—can raise their drawbridges more easily than countries with land borders. This may partly explain the earlier opening of Canada; it certainly explains the shorter and less severe restrictions observed in Europe where frequent—often daily and certainly weekly—movement between countries is an absolute necessity for many people for employment and educational purposes.
It is worth exploring what the ANZAC countries have in common that could explain their responses to the COVID pandemic. They are all former British colonies, all remain within the Commonwealth, and have a common head of state, the British monarch. I have visited all three countries—Australia many times, Canada a few times, New Zealand only once—and the average citizen does not care to be reminded of their former colonial status. Few would shed a tear if the links with the British monarchy were severed. These countries have independent streaks, their own identities, and thus an admirable tendency to do things their own way. But this is unlikely to explain fully their response to COVID.
Right thinking people across the globe were surprised at the responses to COVID in both Australia and New Zealand. We have a mistaken impression of Australia as a freedom-loving country with adventurous people who are unlikely to be easily herded, and we hold a similar view of the New Zealanders to whom they are relatively closely related geographically and with whom they maintain many close economic and diplomatic ties. The image perpetrated by Crocodile Dundee has misled people about the true nature of Australia and Australians. The fact that the country was founded, from its days as a penal colony, by free-spirited criminals and rebels from whom the population descends is uppermost in our minds. However, as the late Clive James is purported to have said, the real problem is that it was also inhabited by prison officers and a large number of people are descended from them. Surprise at the Australian response turned to shock at images of people being brutally treated by police for breaking curfews, refusing to wear masks out of doors, and being arrested for questioning the response to COVID. Violence spilled on to the streets of Australian state capitals several times.
While protest and violence was not a prominent feature of the response to COVID in New Zealand, people were left open mouthed at some of the comments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she exhorted people in her famous ‘Unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth’ speech to trust a government imposing lockdown, mask mandates, and compulsory vaccinations because it was always right, as if this was a self-evident truth. More shocking were events such as shooting rescue dogs in New Zealand in case they spread COVID. In both antipodes the prolonged separation of friends and families across the world and even within their borders left people to die without seeing loved ones, weddings postponed, and job offers rescinded.
While violence did erupt towards the end of COVID restrictions in Canada, the worst was witnessed at the very end when the country began to move again and it became apparent to truckers, the backbone of the Canadian economy, that they would be unable to work without being fully COVID vaccinated. Widescale but peaceful protests ensued, and the violent response of the authorities, combined with the freezing of truckers’ bank accounts and the insensitive utterances by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shocked people outside Canada.
New Zealand and Canada are both led by World Economic Forum apparatchiks and graduates of the Young Global Leaders programme, which may explain the similarity in their responses that were mirrored to some extent in France, also led by World Economic Forum apparatchik Emmanuel Macron. However, this does not explain the Australian response.
The ANZAC countries have something else in common, and I propose that this is their extensive interiors that, in the case of Australia and Canada, are vast and uninhabited. The interior of New Zealand is not as extensive, but nevertheless, having taken a train north to south and driven back again on the north island of New Zealand, there are certainly—in common with Australia and New Zealand—miles and miles of nothing.
The interior of Canada is dense with areas that remain unexplored, while the interior of Australia is sparse but equally has unexplored areas. New Zealand’s two main islands are mostly explored but some of the islands belonging to New Zealand remain unexplored. The sheer size of Australia can be illustrated by taking a flight from Sydney to the Far East. It is possible to have lunch, watch a full length film, snooze, and then wake up with a substantial area of the country yet to be traversed before leaving Australian airspace. To look down over the vast landscape at night, without a cloud in the sky, and not to see a single light indicating human habitation is awe inspiring. Similarly, to approach North America on a flight over the North Pole impresses upon you the sheer emptiness of much of the north and middle of Canada.
I am convinced that in all three of the ANZAC countries, despite their advanced Western societies and large multinational cities, the knowledge of living on the edge of territory yet unknown has a significant effect on their collective psyche. The sense that ‘out there’ there may be monsters is profound. In the cases of Canada and most certainly Australia, to venture too far into the interior is to invite disaster and possibly death, and the best way to avoid this is to stay put and keep a safe distance between the known and the unknown. Having tamed parts of these large and uninhabited places, and having kept death and danger at bay, must exaggerate the sense of threat from anything foreign while concomitantly instilling an attitude that they can remain safe from danger if they take sufficient steps. Defeating the pandemic became a matter of national pride, and the wishes, freedoms, and even the lives of individuals become secondary to that aim. Consequently, almost anything was permitted—including brutality in pursuit of the aim of winning the fight.
Thus, the pandemic ends justified all manner of means. But the Australian government in charge at the time of the pandemic was recently soundly defeated, while the leaders of New Zealand and Canada—both once highly popular—are losing support. It seems that those who presided over the most severe COVID restrictions may pay the price electorally. They will not be alone across the post-pandemic world among prime ministers and presidents seeking alternative employment, but I am sure that prime ministers Ardern and Trudeau were expecting to be in a very different place right now. I imagine they were expecting to emerge as heroes of the global pandemic, possibly sharing the Nobel Peace Prize or some similar accolade. Instead, while the rest of the world has more or less put the pandemic behind them, they are currently presiding over COVID disasters with COVID cases increasing beyond all expectation in New Zealand and COVID deaths continuing to increase in Canada. Apologies have not been forthcoming, and the verdict of their electorates will surely end their political careers.