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At first glance, the headline of this blog post makes no sense. Australia ranks 117th in the world in terms of cases so far, 99th in terms of deaths, 178th in terms of cases per 1m population, and 153rd in terms of deaths per 1m population. On the surface, Australia has done extremely well during this pandemic, and I thank the Australian government for keeping myself and my family here safe. What you may not realise is that this safety comes at a huge cost for many.

 

Yes, we forgot.

Yesterday was Anzac Day. Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations”. It is a day where we say, ‘Lest we forget’. I thought this referred to all Australians who have suffered or are suffering, but it turns out that it doesn’t apply to Australians stranded overseas. The term ‘mateship’ is often associated with Australia’s diggers in World War I and is about not leaving your comrades behind. Again, this doesn’t appear to apply to the 5,000 vulnerable, stranded Australian citizens, or the other 30,000 who are stranded overseas but not classed as vulnerable (yet).

Of course, I am not comparing those who risk and lost their lives during the war with those Australians stranded overseas. But surely their lives are equally valuable. These are our fellow citizen’s lives we are talking about. And I believe it is un-Australian to not help a fellow citizen in need.

My words might seem controversial, but I’m in good company. The UN Human Rights Committee has ruled that the Australian government must “facilitate and ensure” the prompt return of two Australians who are arguing that caps on travel are a breach of international law. The lawyer of these two Australians is none other than prominent barrister Geoffrey Robertson, QC. Like most Australians stranded overseas, I am not against the concept of quarantine for those returning here. Of course, we all want to keep Australia safe, just not at the expense of other’s safety.

 

Why are Australians still stranded overseas?

Below are just a few examples of the many reasons…

  • People have had 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. 9 flights home cancelled, often not receiving a refund for weeks/months upon end. Yet, they are expected to pay for another flight home, pay for another private Covid test, pay for more travel to the airport their flight to Australia is from (often not their closest airport, as flights are so limited).
  • People are staying illegally in countries around the world as their flights are cancelled and visas expire. Without a visa, they cannot work. And without a job, they cannot pay for rent and food etc. Many of these people are now homeless and have children to look after. If they are lucky, someone may offer them a couch to sleep on.
  • The amount of certainty is extremely stressful. Enough to push some people over the edge.
  • One lady was stuck overseas with her daughter who needed two surgeries, yet she could not get an exemption for her husband to travel to help them.
  • I know of someone who is the only daughter of a man who died in the UK. She made the incredibly hard decision to not fly to the UK for her father’s funeral. If she went, would she take her daughter and make her daughter miss months of school if their flights were cancelled? Could her husband get an exemption to fly and extended time off work? Or would she leave them behind and risk not seeing her husband and daughter in Australia for months? The worst part is that I personally know one person this has happened to, but from all reports, it happens often.
  • Many children have not seen their Dad for a year, either because the father cannot gain an exemption to fly overseas and/or because the mother and child cannot get a flight home to Australia.
  • Husbands and wives have been separated for 14 months for the same reasons.

Despite all of the above reasons, every time there are a few cases in NSW hotel quarantine, I am saddened by those who say, “close the borders”.

The other comment that frustrates me is “they were told to come home over a year ago” or similar. This is actually not true. The federal government actually advised that you should stay where you were if you had a stable income and a safe place to live.

And to say that they were all told to come home is to say that nobody’s circumstances are allowed to change over 13 months. Nobody could lose their job, nobody could lose their visa, nobody could have a family member in Australia who was ill or dying, nobody could travel from Australia to attend their parents’ funeral or try to spend time with them before it was too late.

 

Other reasons why Australians didn’t come home earlier

  • Many people are forced to wait for airline refunds from cancelled tickets, before booking their next one.
  • It is hard to leave a stable job, perhaps one you’ve had for years, knowing that there is no guarantee of a job in Australia, especially with higher than normal unemployment rates.
  • Some airports were closed, and by the time they re-opened, flights were non-existent, cancelled or had jumped to $10,000!
  • Being too pregnant to fly, having a newborn without a passport, having flight after flight cancelled.
  • You can’t pack up your whole life, including selling a home and taking children out of school, in just a few days.
  • One lady arrived in Italy to help her elderly mother just before they announced the pandemic. Nobody could have predicted how bad it would get, so she decided to stay until her booked flight home (April 2020). Sadly, it was cancelled and she has had many flights cancelled since then. As she has been looking after her mum, she has no income and is still stranded, a year later in Italy.
  • Medical issues preventing them from travelling sooner.
  • Being frontline workers in countries that needed them.
  • If all Australians had decided to return in March 2020, there would not have been enough flight seats for them.

In all honesty, though, these reasons should not matter. It should be every Australian’s right as a citizen to go to and from Australia, as necessary. Obviously with some form of quarantine at both ends.

 

However, is the current form of Hotel Quarantine the best way to handle it?

There is a lot of debate about this. Originally, over a year ago, it was the obvious choice. But we have learnt a lot since then. At least some of us have. Even WHO (World Health Organisation) stated that “Ventilation is an important factor in preventing the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading. Recirculated air from split air conditioning units, fan coils or any system that runs with a recirculation mode should be avoided where possible, unless in a single occupancy room with no one else present. If recirculation is unavoidable, increase outdoor air exchange by opening windows, if possible and safe to do so, and minimize air blowing from one person directly at another.” 

According to Epidemiologist and Head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Professor Nancy Baxter “that’s why most of the superspreading events that have occurred have occurred in indoor settings with poor ventilation.” And it’s no secret that many of the hotels used for quarantine have poor ventilation. They weren’t designed for this purpose.

Dr Schofield, University of Melbourne environmental scientist, said that outside air is “considered the best sort of ventilation we have”. Luckily, everyone who gets a repatriation flight to Darwin and quarantines at Howard Springs has their own veranda with fresh air. In NSW, only the health hotels and family apartments have a balcony with access to fresh air. Most people quarantining in Australia are not as lucky.

 

Australia’s vaccine rollout so far

The other way Australia has failed us is our vaccine rollout. As of 23 April 2021, 1.9 million Australians have so far received at least one dose. We have a population of approximately 25.8 million people. According to the ABC, at the current pace of roughly 354,000 doses a week, we can expect to reach the 40 million doses needed to fully vaccinate Australia’s adult population in mid-May 2023!  For someone like myself, who has parents and family overseas, this embarrassingly, slow rollout is inconceivable. But for people like Andre Rivenell, it could be a matter of life and death. You can read the full tragic story here, but essentially, he travelled to the US to visit his sick mother-in-law in late December 2019, had a couple of cancelled flights, then got really sick in December 2020, but he can’t afford any medical treatment as he doesn’t have any health insurance.

Meanwhile, in the UK, all adults are expected to have been offered their first dose of vaccine by July this year. One of the reasons for the delay here is that they are now recommending under 50s don’t have the AstraZeneca jab, which is putting off many of those over 50 from having it.

 

So what am I proposing?

Did you know what currently returning citizens are much more likely to catch Covid19 on the flight to Australia, on the bus from the airport or in hotel quarantine, than they are to pass Covid19 to someone in the Australian community? If you are in hotel quarantine, you are more likely to catch it in quarantine than in Bondi after you left.

Did you also know that New Zealand has also managed to successfully handle this pandemic and their returning citizens, without the uncertainty our citizens have? New Zealanders must book their place in hotel quarantine before they can book a flight. Their quarantine space is held for 48 hours whilst they book their flights. And importantly, once both are booked their flight home is guaranteed. No wondering if their flight will be cancelled time and time again. Our fellow Anzac country has proved that it is possible to help its citizens already in the country, as well as those trying to get home.

Did you know that one week after the Victorian government announced they were halving the caps for returning citizens due to a lack of space in suitable facilities, they announced they had found over 1,200 spaces for tennis players and support staff? And just 4 days after The Open started Victoria closed their airport to Australian citizens again for 2 months.

Did you also know a resort in South Australia has been converted to house 1,200 fruit pickers from the Pacific Islands? I am fine with this, but why have state and/or federal governments not built or converted resorts in every state and territory for Australian citizens wishing to come home? We need these buildings. Buildings with ventilation, and the option for fresh air, like at Howard Springs and the health hotels in Sydney.

A year ago, my proposal would have been deemed ridiculous, but I believe that by now with 13 months’ experience and knowledge, major changes should have been made. Basically, I believe it comes down to this:

  • All Australians who wish to come to Australia should be able to, if it is to return home, for work or to visit family
  • All Australians should be able to leave Australia if they want to visit family overseas
  • Everyone entering Australia should still complete quarantine, but with guaranteed fresh air
  • More facilities like Howard Springs are converted throughout Australia, possibly away from capital cities, so that the weekly caps can be dramatically increased
  • A booking system is set up, like New Zealand’s, so that once a ticket is booked, the passenger doesn’t have to worry it will be cancelled.

In summary…When I mentioned to someone the headline of this article, they asked how Australia had failed if 80,000 people were able to go to the MCG yesterday. My response was and still is, that they have “failed those overseas & failed those with family overseas (especially those with family who are ill or dying)”. When I mentioned to someone else that we need to speed up the vaccination process as many Australians have family overseas, he asked why they can’t just use Facetime! Clearly, this person has no family overseas or even a heart.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

#bringthemhome #removethecaps

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