Today marks one year since the Northern Territory opened its borders to the rest of Australia, ending nearly two years of tough travel restrictions.
Many Territorians were separated from loved ones interstate, and businesses that relied on tourism buckled as authorities worked to protect the most vulnerable.
For a long time, it worked.
As COVID-19 cases exploded around the world, sending billions into lockdowns, the NT’s strict border controls created a territory-wide haven with little to no coronavirus in the community.
The NT eventually recorded its first case of community transmission in early November last year.
Then, from December 20, 2021, the Territory flung its doors open to vaccinated travellers.
Families reunited at last
For two years, Joydip Roy was separated from his wife Reemi and daughters Rupankita, 10, and Rajonya, 13, who had been stuck in Bangladesh due to border closures.
The family was reunited in Darwin on Christmas Day.
“When I saw them, I told my wife that I left a little girl and she became a grown-up,” Mr Roy said of his eldest daughter.
“She was almost the same height as me.”
The territory’s population turns over by one-third every five years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, meaning many Territorians have family and friends interstate.
A day after being reunited, Mr Roy said he took his wife and daughters to the beachside suburb of Nightcliff to show them “his favourite sunset”.
Over the following months, he showed them the Kakadu and Litchfield national parks, including the famous crocodiles at Cahill’s Crossing, as well as Jim Jim falls.
“Those two years [without them] were very tough for me,” Mr Roy said.
“I’ve never stayed alone in one room because I was the youngest kid in my family … so that was a big learning curve for me, staying all alone for two years in a house without any people.”
‘A tricky situation’
At least 84 Territorians with COVID-19 have died during the pandemic, according to NT government data, compared to nearly 5,700 COVID-related deaths in New South Wales and more than 6,200 in Victoria.
Hundreds have been hospitalised in the NT due to infection, with First Nations people consistently over-represented in hospitalisation numbers.
John Paterson, chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT (AMSANT), said it was “very sad for us to have those high death rates”.
“It was going to be expected … that we were going to see a lot of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population make up the greater number of deaths, particularly around COVID and any other chronic illnesses,” he said.
The NT has the highest rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, with 30 per cent of the Territory’s population identifying as Indigenous.
The stakes were high.
Reflecting on the timing of reopening the NT’s borders, Mr Paterson said: “It was a tricky situation.”
“I think we managed that, on reflection, reasonably well,” he said.
He said the NT health department and the Aboriginal community-controlled community sector had “worked very effectively for us here in the Northern Territory”.
“That’s why I think we’ve done our job reasonably well, to keep up vaccinations, and to keep the number of serious illness and deaths to a reasonable number compared to other jurisdictions around the nation.”
However, he urged Territorians to keep getting vaccinated and continue taking precautions, especially in remote communities.
Data from NT Health shows coronavirus case numbers have been steadily increasing ahead of Christmas, with the NT recording 831 new cases last week, up from 286 this time last month.
Quarantine and the recovery
NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles, who served as health minister during much of the pandemic, said: “The Northern Territory had a fantastic response to COVID-19.”
“Not only did we care for our community, but we were able to repatriate thousands of Australians through the Howard Springs facility,” she said.
“We cared for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and it was a community response.”
Nearly 64,000 people undertook mandatory quarantine at the Howard Springs centre near Darwin between July 2020 and June 2022.
That group included Olympic athletes returning from Tokyo.
Thousands of people are still yet to pay for their stay at NT quarantine facilities, which cost $2,500 per person, or $5,000 per family group.
As of September 30 this year, at least 2,700 invoices remained outstanding, leaving the NT government more than $4 million out of pocket, according to the latest data provided by NT Health.
Ms Fyles said the government was chasing the money through mechanisms such as debt collection.
Meanwhile, the Defence Department has confirmed it is in negotiations with the NT government about leasing the quarantine facility.
Tourism continues to rebuild
Charles Vears, who runs YKnot Fishing Charters out of Darwin and Dundee, said many operators in the tourism sector were hit hard by the border restrictions and COVID rules.
“We lost about half a million dollars in charters with the restrictions and lockdowns,” he said.
“When we started getting those snap lockdowns, we started losing 10, 20, $30, 000 on top of that again.”
Mr Vears praised the NT government for its tourism voucher scheme, which he said “saved us”.
However, he said the charter fishing industry “definitely felt forgotten about” during the pandemic, and called for more support across the sector more broadly.
“I’d love to see the government put the spotlight on tourism a lot more because we are the backbone of the Territory,” he said.