NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Even in the dreadful season of the pandemic, Australia's initiative is reassuring. The country's Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison's decision to lift the ban on the arrival of its citizens from Covid-ravaged India will be generally welcomed Down Under and arguably in India as well.
Though the resumption of direct flights from Canberra is unlikely quite yet, Mr Morrison has asked his government to accept additional repatriation flights. It is pretty obvious that he has stopped short of a hardline approach, fearing that such a praxis will, on the one hand, sour the country's relations with India while on the other unleash a domestic backlash. Already, there had been angry protests by Australians stranded in India, including by some cricketers.
Mr Morrison has even pledged to speak to his counterpart, Narendra Modi. Australia will charter three repatriation flights between May 15 and 31. Priority will be given to 900 people deemed most vulnerable. Prospective travellers will need to return a negative Covid-19 test, and will need to undertake a test on arrival.
They will of course be required to undertake the standard 14-day hotel quarantine imposed on incoming travellers.
The government in Canberra has estimated that there are around 9,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents in India.
The outbreaks in scattered parts of the country appear to have been contained, though New Zealand has decided to partially suspend a travel bubble with Australia as a result of new infections in Sydney, even as this action has been binned by the Prime Minister of New South Wales as an "overreaction".
The grim reality cannot be discounted, however. Australian health officials reported on Friday (May 7) that more than 13,000 tests conducted over the past 24 hours had found no additional cases, easing concerns about a more critical outbreak.
New social distancing restrictions have been imposed in greater Sydney, including the wearing of masks in public transport and limits on home gatherings. With many people expected to gather over the weekend for the annual Mother's Day celebrations, the restrictions are scheduled to remain in place till Monday morning.
On closer reflection, Mr Morrison has stood by his decision to impose a biosecurity order barring all travel to and from India, a policy that was severely criticised by lawmakers, expatriates and the Indian diaspora.
The Prime Minister said that the travel ban, which was controversially backed by jail terms and financial penalties for anybody who attempted to circumvent it by flying via a third country, had impinged on Australia's hotel quarantine system.
"The order that we have put in place has been highly effective. It's doing the job that we needed it to do, and that was to ensure that we could do everything we can to prevent a third wave of Covid-19 here in Australia," Mr Morrison said.
Hopefully, the decision to relent will lead to a change in how his government is perceived, both domestically and internationally.
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