Published daily by the Lowy Institute

State of mind: How Australians see the pandemic and efforts to help

New polling by the Lowy Institute looks at Australians’ attitudes to Covid-19 responses at home and abroad.

Perth, Western Australia, on 25 April 2021, during a three-day period of lockdown restrictions over Anzac Day weekend (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)
Perth, Western Australia, on 25 April 2021, during a three-day period of lockdown restrictions over Anzac Day weekend (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

The Australian public are rightly proud of their efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Almost all Australians – 95% – believe Australia has handled the pandemic well, according to new Lowy Institute polling released today.

This is for good reason. Despite the slow vaccine rollout, Australia has consistently ranked as one of the best performers in the world.

And Australians see our efforts as miles ahead of most other countries. Two-thirds (66%) say that Taiwan has done well, but are disappointed in the performance of the countries listed in the poll.

The United States and United Kingdom stand out in particular – only one in five Australians (19%) says that the United Kingdom has handled Covid-19 “very” or "fairly well”, and 7% say the same about the United States. No Australians say that the United States has handled Covid-19 “very well”.

Australia’s success has stood in contrast to other countries’ failures around the world. But the Australian public has appeared to be remarkably willing – or even enthusiastic – to make sacrifices for the sake of public health.

I wrote with my colleague Noah Yim last year that science, bipartisanship and public will were the key factors in coping with the pandemic. Australians have generally been internationalists, and the poll results suggest the pandemic hasn’t shaken their belief in globalisation.

But 15 months of closed international borders – along with intermittent shutdowns between states – could be testing this will. And one third of Australians were born overseas, which means closed borders are not just a matter of preventing holidays or business travel, but also of keeping apart families that have been separated for more than a year.

Very few countries in the world have closed their borders to their own citizens. However, four in ten Australians support the current policy that only allows special exemptions for overseas travel (and this polling took place prior to the New Zealand travel bubble opening). But the same number say that Australians should be able to travel overseas when vaccinated. One in five (18%) says that Australians should be able to leave now.

These policies have come into more horrifying focus as tragedy unfolds in India. As others have written, cutting off flights from India when the same policies were not put in place for the United Kingdom and United States is questionable. Critics have rightly questioned the legality and morality of imposing criminal penalties on Australian citizens for attempting to return from India. And although they were polled prior to the crisis in India, Australians rated India’s response to Covid-19 as better than that of the United Kingdom and United States.

The issue of Australians stranded in India, and elsewhere, is of even more concern. The majority of Australians (59%) say the government has done the right amount in getting Australians back home. A third (33%) say Australia has not done enough. More than 36,000 Australians still want to return to Australia, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade classifies 4860 Australians overseas as vulnerable.

It appears that Australians see these tragedies unfolding across the globe and want to help. As a general rule, Australians have typically not been supportive of foreign aid in the past. Australians consistently overestimate how much the government spends on foreign aid and would prefer that Australia spend less. But not when it comes to Covid-19.

Concern about the Covid-19 crisis in Papua New Guinea may have affected Australian views. In this new polling, eight in ten Australians (83%) say that Australia should help Pacific island countries pay for Covid-19 vaccines. This is striking in comparison to 2019, when less than half the population said that Australia should spend more in the Pacific. And six in ten (60%) say Australia should be helping Southeast Asian countries pay for vaccines.

Australians have much to be proud of in their exceptional performance – but the pandemic is not over. Most Australians appear to recognise that and want the government to do more.

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