In early March last year, I was self-isolating in my flat in London. Even though there were only a few hundred confirmed cases of Covid a day, I had met someone the week before who had tested positive.
This was before anyone knew much about the virus, but people were worried by the news coming out of China and northern Italy. I made frantic calls to 111 to try to get a test. No luck.
‘Why don’t you just come home?’ my mum in Sydney asked.
‘I can’t,’ I replied. ‘I work here as a journalist, I have a flat, I have shelves full of books too heavy to ship back. I have a life. If it gets really bad, I’ll be on the first flight home — I promise.’
When I made the decision to stay, it never occurred to me that more than a year later I would be wondering if I would be able to get home by Christmas 2022.
There are thousands of Australian expats around the world in my position. The border rules make it impossible for us to see loved ones unless we are willing to give up our lives abroad completely. A lottery-style system can secure a flight to Australia, but these are often cancelled at the last minute. Two weeks in hotel quarantine follow. Anyone unlucky enough to fly into an Australian city that’s far from home risks running up against further domestic border closures between states.
Take James Turbitt, an Australian living in Antwerp, who rushed home to see his mother in a Perth hospital. His flight landed in Melbourne and from hotel quarantine he applied for an exemption to travel across the country to see her before she died. His request was denied. He was forced to say his final goodbyes to his mum over a video call on a shaky wifi connection. When asked about it, Mark McGowan, the premier of Western Australia, said that Mr Turbitt’s case was ‘one of the issues when you live overseas’.
This was just one of many egregious examples. A Melbourne woman in hotel quarantine in Brisbane after travelling home from Qatar was separated from her baby after she gave birth prematurely. Despite several negative tests, Queensland’s health authorities deemed her too much of a risk to see her child in the neonatal intensive care unit.
As for Australian residents who want to leave the country, they have to beg bureaucrats for an exemption for international travel. A neighbour from my home city was refused the right to go to his mother’s funeral in England. Earlier this month, the government quietly closed what it called a ‘loophole’ which allowed people who reside permanently overseas to leave Australia without an exemption.
Australia once valued adventure and independence. Growing up in Sydney, I idolised older girls at school who ‘went overseas’. They represented an Australian dream, taking what they knew and forging a path for themselves abroad. Our unofficial national anthem (much more popular than the official one) is used in an advert for Qantas, the national airline: ‘No matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.’
There is a rotten side to the isolationist mindset that has captured my country in the pandemic. A prominent businessman, writing in the Australian Financial Review, has called for complete border closures ‘with no exceptions’ for the foreseeable future — describing returning international travellers, desperate to see our families, as ‘potential biological terrorists’.
Few Australians seem willing to stick up for those of us abroad. Many of the same teachers, mentors and family members who once encouraged us to move across the world, pursue our passions and represent our country are silent. Even those sympathetic to our plight are unwilling to concede that the rules should be relaxed. What if we bring Covid with us? ‘We don’t have a problem here,’ is a common refrain. ‘And we don’t want your problems’ is the unspoken second half.