Australian border community cleaved in two by coronavirus lockdown

Located on each side of the Murray river that separates New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, the twin cities of Albury and Wodonga, more commonly referred to as Albury-Wodonga, have long operated as one community and one economy.

Many of their 100,000 residents cross the border to travel to work and school everyday. Businesses run on both sides of the river. The two cities even share the same hospital, located in Albury on the NSW side but covered by Victoria’s health system.

But that border was sealed on Wednesday, as authorities scrambled to prevent a second wave of infections spreading across the country. Over the past few weeks, Victoria has struggled to contain a sudden reemergence of coronavirus in Melbourne, as case numbers have continued to rise.

Authorities blocked major roads between Victoria and NSW after midnight — the first time in 100 years since the border was last closed during the Spanish flu pandemic.

People from Victoria are banned from entering NSW, but exemptions are made for some purposes and professions, including cross-border residents in settlements like Albury-Wodonga.

Online applications for cross-border permits started on Tuesday night, but the website crashed just 45 minutes after launching as 44,000 people applied, according to Australian national broadcaster ABC.

There are 55 ground crossings between Victoria and NSW, on a border that stretches over 1,000 kilometers (621.3 miles). Albury-Wodonga lies on the busiest crossings of them all — and on the biggest freight route in Australia, raising concerns about the potential economic damage to the region.

“Complete frustration and chaos”

On early Wednesday morning, traffic stretched for miles at the border checkpoint on Lincoln Causeway, a major thoroughfare connecting Albury and Wodonga, as police officers scrutinized each car making the crossing.

It took some Wodonga residents — from the Victoria side of the border — 50 minutes to get through the checkpoint at 6 a.m. to go to work in Albury, said Wodonga Mayor Anna Speedie, who called the situation “unacceptable.”

“Unfortunately today did start off as we expected with complete frustration and chaos,” Speedie told reporters next to the checkpoint.

“By 7.30 a.m., we had a traffic banked out to the middle of my city, right to the heart of the city,” she said.

Police stop and question drivers at a checkpoint on July 8 in Albury, Australia.

Speedies said her government would continue to work with the NSW police to put in place some more practical approaches.

“We have to do better, we absolutely need to find solutions because this is absolutely unattainable for our community.”

Albury Mayor Kevin Mack said three people from Melbourne had been caught trying to drive across the state border into Albury since 2 a.m., Wednesday. They were turned back by the police, he said.

This week, Albury recorded two new coronavirus cases for the first time in weeks. A resident returning from Melbourne contracted the virus and passed it to a family member, according to local health authorities.

Bikram Gujral, a truck driver waiting in line at the checkpoint, said he understood the strict border restrictions that have been put in place.

“Obviously it’s frustrating for anyone. But whatever the government is doing is for the benefit of us anyway, so I feel like it’s the right thing to do if it’s in the favor of us being safe,” he said.

Separated by the border

But for some, the border closure may cost them their last chance to see their loved one.

April Smithers, 29, is being treated for terminal bone cancer at the Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Center in Albury, on the NSW side of the border.

She and her husband Chris Carter live in Wodonga, on the Victoria side.

“Our home is in Victoria. We cross into New South Wales almost every day to come to this hospital. With the border closure…I’m gonna stay here. Luckily the hospital gave me a bed last night,” Carter said.

April Smithers (left) is being treated for bone cancer in Albury in New South Wales. She and her husband Chris Carter (right) live in Wodonga, across the state border in Victoria.

But Carter’s parents, who had traveled from Canberra to Wodonga to see the couple, can’t cross into the NSW side, he said.

“My parents have come down to help me and April to go through all of this,” Carter said. “But now they’re not residents, they don’t have medical treatment themselves to go to New South Wales…They can’t see April until we figure out how they get their pass.”

The reemergence of the virus points to the difficulties faced by authorities the world over, as they attempt to reopen cities following protracted lockdowns. Australia has been heralded as among the world’s most successful countries in tackling and containing the virus, shutting down its border and restricting international travel early.

Australia to reimpose six-week coronavirus lockdown in second largest city as country battles potential second wave
But weeks after states in Australia eased social-distancing restrictions, a fresh outbreak resurfaced in Melbourne last month. On Tuesday, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews announced Melbourne will return to a six-week lockdown starting from midnight Wednesday.

Residents in the second largest Australian city will no longer be allowed to leave their homes unless it’s for grocery shopping, caregiving, exercise or work. Cafes and restaurants that were allowed to reopen weeks ago will return to take away and delivery only. Beauty and personal services will be closed, as well as cultural and entertainment venues.

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