I left Australia in 2008. “I’ll be back in a year. 18 months, tops,” I told my parents. If staying an extra decade or so hasn’t led to their forgiveness, 2020 sure hasn’t helped.
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Border Security, or tried to carry an apple through Sydney’s airport arrivals, you’ll know that Australia doesn’t mess around with its border controls. Its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been similarly strict. In March, international travel was effectively banned. Qantas, the national carrier, then suspended its international fleet until mid-2021. This week, treasurer Josh Frydenberg further crushed the hopes of homesick Aussies abroad.
“International travel, including by tourists and international students, is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year,” he said, adding that even this would be on the presumption of a vaccine.
His words stung. I should have been in Australia this week, celebrating my mum’s 60th (first I miss it, then I draw attention to her age publicly – sorry, mum!). We’d been hoping to reschedule for summer 2021, but that now looks distinctly unlikely.
It’s been 992 days since I last visited my home country. I have a home here in the UK, on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border, but even after so many years, Australia will always be home in a way only expats truly understand. Our trip this month would have been the first time my dad, my brother, and my extended family had met my 15-month-old son. “He’ll be at school by the time you finally see him in person,” I nervously half-joked to dad on Facetime a few days ago. Add to that two unwell grandmothers and a dwindling supply of Cherry Ripes and my homesickness is like nothing I’ve experienced in my 12-odd years away.
Like anyone with Zoom fatigue can attest (and at this point in the pandemic I’m guessing that’s almost everyone currently working from home), there’s only so far technology can go to replace face-to-face interaction. Weekly family video calling is great, but it’s not the same as being in the same room. Particularly when you have a toddler and a preschooler who are yet to master the concept of sitting still for longer than 20 seconds so that Nanny and Poppy can marvel at how fast you’re growing up.
Potentially being forced to wait another 448 days until we’re reunited in person seems an enormous stretch to me as an adult, but to my three-year-old, it may as well be a lifetime. “I can’t have a sleepover at Ruby and Max’s house in Australia,” she tells a friend who asks about her cousins, “because of the virus.” There’s emphasis on “virus”, and the accompanying sad face – even she’s exasperated by its impact on our lives.
I know it’s a position I’ve put us in, choosing to live on the opposite side of the world to my family. It’s perhaps the only downfall in marrying my particular Englishman. But it was a decision made with the knowledge that, if needed, I could jump on a plane and be sitting on the back of my parent’s houseboat, watching kangaroos jump across the banks of the River Murray within 24 hours or so. Coronavirus and the Aussie government’s austere response have wiped out the convenience that decades of aviation advances have created in one fell swoop.
There are avenues for Australians overseas to make it back Down Under, but they’re expensive, unreliable and seriously inconvenient. Even the government’s own Smarttraveller website warns those trying to get back into the country to “be prepared for delays and disruptions”.
Only a handful of airports are accepting international passengers and even then, in very small numbers. In Sydney, 350 people a day are allowed through arrivals and all must complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a designated facility, monitored by police and costing AU$3,000 (£1,666) a pop. This isn’t an option for tourists, just returning residents and citizens. Even then, a successful journey isn’t guaranteed. Facebook groups and online forums are awash with unlucky antipodeans who’ve had flight after flight cancelled, rescheduled or delayed with no definite end in sight to their travel woes.
Numbers-wise, Australia’s tactic of pulling up the drawbridge on incoming passengers has fared them well. Fewer than 900 deaths in a country of 26m pales in comparison to the UK stats. But it’s also a decision that’s decimated international trade and tourism, and left Australians in my position stranded, with family ties stretched to the limit.
Travel to Australia not possible until ‘late next year’
Australia expects COVID-19 vaccination is still a year away
Australia plans massive pandemic budget, record deficit
Student cycles from Aberdeen to Athens after flight cancellation