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Covid Testing Rackets And Flying Again

The young boy of seven or so was kissing a toy doll affixed with an alarmed face. The doll, no doubt of full Chinese make, was fully tarted up, lips glossy, eyes wide, a blonde with curls. “Stop making out with her,” cried her mother, sitting in the seat beside him with concern. “It’s creepy.”

The passengers on this Melbourne to Brisbane flight were taking a moment to compose themselves. The customary hard cushion seating, cool, slightly refrigerated, touched the skin, imposing itself upon the visitor. The cafeteria, plastic tray tables that must be put up prior to lift-off and descent. The sardine can phenomenon of being kept close and packed. The mandatory wearing of fitted facemasks, a rule constantly subverted by people nibbling snacks or sneaking a drink or too. People were flying again.

The mother and her child were awaiting to travel to the Queensland capital. She, weary and bleary-eyed, seemed fascinated with another toy her son had also taken on as hand luggage: a classic example of macho moronic strength, an elastic muscle man who could be abused and distorted into any shape of your preference. “Look,” she squealed, “I can tie his arms up.” Just what a traveller needs: a bit of cruelty inflicted on a plastic figure by a desperate human.

Prior to getting on board this Melbourne flight destined for Brisbane, travellers were subject to the delights that have marked out a new form of vaccine apartheid. It is not merely that Queensland will only accept visitors fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They must also perform a valid PCR test within 72 hours of the flight, receive a negative result, and make sure they have obtained a border pass. Evidence of double-vaccination status must be uploaded, along with the test result.

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The application for the border pass is wordy, suspicious, and demanding. It is also far from welcoming, suggesting the spirit of the hermit kingdom or an old communist bloc country suspicious of insurrection. The voice of the entire process is threatening; false or misleading information will result in fines running into the thousands of dollars.

The PCR testing regime has become a bazaar of opportunities, a massive racket that shows a certain number of entities and individuals are making some ruddy cash. Governments give a misleading impression that the cost for such tests will be covered by the States, or the Federal Government or a mixture of both. But the devil lies in the detail, and that detail is fiendish.

At times, even the respective governments have little idea what the other is doing regarding the testing regimen. In the latter part of last November, the Queensland state government had a few testy words with their federal counterparts over the issue of costs. “Testing has been proceeding without incident for the last 18 months,” remarked Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. “This includes testing required to support entry into another state or territory.”

Queensland’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles was only partially satisfied by the clarification, responding that he wished it had been sooner. “There was certainly an orchestrated campaign to confuse people.” He welcomed the fact that PCR tests “would be free for people travelling to Queensland”.

In practice, seeking such a subsidised test in good time prior to travel is impractical, and assumes you have a day to spare. Every testing site recommended by the Victorian state government has been, during the course of December, a picture of long queues and interminable waiting times. They feature submissive, masked citizens waiting quietly as they fiddle and toy with their smartphones.

On 227 Bourke Street in Melbourne, a sombre, passive line on December 14 stretched half-a-mile. When one of the marshals overseeing the barely moving procession was asked if this was the story at other testing centres, she regretfully confirmed that to be the case. “All of them, the same,” she said in an Indian sing-song manner, head shaking. And what about if you are arrived at 7 in the morning? “The same,” came the reply.

The result of such tardiness and chaos is obvious: seeking a PCR test at a pathology lab or clinic, many of whom are doing a thriving business in granting paperwork for imminent travellers. Even then, this field is uneven and inconsistent. Some refuse to do PCR tests for international travel. Others seem to remark on how they specialise in it.

What matters for them is the coin they charge, especially when the test is being done for asymptomatic patients. This will leave you out of pocket to the nice sum of $150 if you were silly enough to claim you were not suffering flu-like symptoms. If conducted on Saturdays, and here, a particular University based clinic comes to mind, the fee is $190. There are no student or staff discounts but you were guaranteed paperwork and a quick result.

With such generosity, the traveller can also look forward to doing another PCR test within five days of arriving in Queensland. Whether this one is subsided or not will depend on the fine print politicians tend to regard as beneath them. By that point, the rage and excitement of the Omicron variant may have changed minds again. The Queensland Premier, like a butler keen to shut the door on unwanted guests, may well close the borders again.

The aggressive reaction taken against 700 or so interstate arrivals is a case in point. With six new cases reported amongst interstate travellers soon after Queensland had opened its borders, a panicked health bureaucracy sprung into action: the passengers on two Virgin flights should self-isolate for two weeks. One of them, a Virgin flight from Newcastle to Brisbane, had recorded an Omicron case. The sunshine state’s covid record risked being blotted, as was any suggestion that it really wanted travellers from other states coming in, despite being fully vaccinated and tested.

Within hours and a number of unspecified cancellations of holiday plans, the decision was refined: only a certain number of passengers – those sitting in the rows behind, front of and beside the infected passenger in question – would have to self-isolate over the Christmas period. The rest would only require a negative test result before being released from isolation. Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath used that defence of long standing: caution. “We took the same cautious approach when we first started seeing Delta. Omicron is new but I welcome the advice of the Chief Health Officer in relation to these issues.”

One source of amusement did greet those arriving in Brisbane. During D’Ath’s December 16 press conference, an unwelcome visitor was spotted. A huntsman spider had found its way onto the health minister’s leg. “Can somebody please get that spider off?” she pleaded. The spider, having made its point, scarpered. The trip was looking up.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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