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I Live in a Country With Virtually No COVID. Sounds Great, Right? It’s Not

Australia’s response to COVID has been to shut down its international borders, but what impact has the border closure had on those with family overseas?

It’s my dad’s birthday and we gather for a family Zoom call. We did this last year, too, making it over 12 months since my family was last able to reunite. I see my mom and dad, sitting excitedly at the kitchen table, my sister on another camera, and our family dog snuggled up on the kitchen floor. However, the happiness of a family birthday is tainted with underlying anxiety.

When will we be able to be together again for real, not via video calls? None of us are getting any younger—even Max, our beloved family chihuahua, is turning gray and losing his hearing as time slips by.

Since COVID began, my worst fear is getting a phone call that one of my parents or loved ones is unwell, as I know I might not be able to get back home. Because I’m an American living in Australia, the country’s strict border restrictions make it nearly impossible to travel freely.

Australia has shut down its international (and, sometimes, state) borders for over 12 months now, prohibiting almost all international travel. Australia’s efficient and strong response to the pandemic has meant we’ve nearly eradicated the disease—but what do the border closures mean for the tens of thousands of ex-pats who are unable to leave the country to be with family in emergency situations?

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COVID has become a rare occurrence in Australia, with case numbers in the single digits and weeks on end of zero transmission. Contact tracers are able to work out the origins of almost every locally transmitted case, giving Australians the freedom to enjoy domestic travel, dinners out, and even concerts, providing the country with the confidence to return to a semblance of normality. I, along with my friends, are grateful for the return to day-to-day life as we know it. Although, for me, this comes with a tinge of guilt for having it so good, when others around the world are suffering.

However, this freedom comes at a cost, especially for Australians living overseas and for ex-pats living in Australia. In March 2020, the Australian government closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents—no reopening date has yet been announced. Currently, anyone who wishes to leave Australia (and come back) needs to apply to the government for a travel exemption, only given for personal travel in the case of “a compelling reason for three months or longer.” Temporary visa-holders are not permitted to come back if they leave. If you do manage to get an exemption, which isn’t easy, you face the challenge of limited flights, due to strict caps on flights arriving from overseas and you’ll need to leave Australia for a duration of at least three months.

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American ex-pat Alyssa Galley moved to Sydney in December 2019 but a few months later, COVID hit. She lost her grandfather to the disease and was unable to travel back to be with her loved ones.

“It’s been almost a year now and I still haven’t been able to fly home or see any of my family. The cost of flights are ridiculous and quarantine coming back into Australia is another expense a lot of people (including me) can’t afford. The worst part is not knowing when everything will go back to normal,” Alyssa explains.

On return to Australia, passengers are escorted directly from the airport into a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine program, at your own cost of AUD $3,000 for one adult or AUD $5,000 for a family. Once inside your hotel room, you’re not permitted to leave the room until your quarantine finishes, with meals being left at your door for the duration of your stay. Together, this means even if you are granted a rare government travel exemption, the financial cost and time requirements make it impossible for many to get home in an emergency. This is before you even consider the mental toll it takes and the stress and loneliness that come from forced isolation.

Rachel, an American ex-pat, has lived in Australia for the last 10 years. Since the borders have been closed, her father became ill. She made the hard decision to return to America to see him—while her travel exemption was granted, her husband and children were refused, since they weren’t direct relatives, meaning her only option was to travel alone.

“Flights were not that expensive to leave but expensive to return but, thankfully, we have savings and could afford it. I know not every person would have been able to,” says Rachel. 

“It was extremely scary making the decision to go but I knew in my heart I needed to. I literally walked off the plane into the car with my brother and mother straight to the hospital where they had made a special exception for us to be there due to COVID restrictions to remove the life support and say goodbye to my dad. It was hard to grieve without my kids and husband by my side and hard to get off the plane (back in Australia) straight into a hotel quarantine, not being able to see my children.

This has been mentally draining and exhausting for me, as well as my entire family. I can only hope things will get better and we can be together again for more positive occasions.”

It’s not only ex-pats with families overseas who can’t return home. There are thousands of Australian citizens who were working or traveling abroad when COVID hit and they still haven’t been able to get back. Currently, around 37,000 citizens[1] and residents are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being overseas and wanting to return. With the strict caps on incoming flights and limited hotel quarantine facilities, many have been waiting for months and months to reunite with family and feel like they’ve been abandoned by their government in a time of need.

While the impact COVID has had on the Australian tourism industry is also devastating (In January 2021, international arrivals to Australia were down 99%, compared to January 2020), the impact on families is being talked about far less. The freedom to travel is so much more than vacations, Instagram photos, and passport stamps—for those residing in another country, the affordability and convenience of modern air travel is your lifeline to loved ones back home. It makes it easy to live somewhere far away like Australia since you know your home is just a flight away. But once that’s taken away, what do you do?

For me, it’s a waiting game—I know this won’t last forever, but that doesn’t make it any easier. While countries around the world, including Australia, are eagerly awaiting the COVID vaccination roll-out, many ex-pats remain separated from their loved ones, missing funerals, weddings, graduations, and the simple joy of hugging their parents or children as they step off the plane and into the airport arrivals terminal. While it’s generally assumed that international travel to Australia will resume, in some capacity, once the majority of the country is vaccinated, that day can’t come soon enough for this American.

wesedo April 18, 2021

It seems from reading your article you do have a choice in terms of returning to your country of origin.  We all miss interacting with aged parents (92 & 93 respectivley) despite living in same community due to covid 19 protocols (not in immedaite bubble) so can sympathise with your missing family time.  You are more fortunate than many of us in that you seem safe from death by Covid 19, able to dine out and socialize thanks to prudent government decisions and actions.   Be thrilled and delighted you live somewhere where individuals aren't dying in large numbers.

kennethsnyder April 15, 2021

Very interesting.   Are AU citizens wearing masks.  Personally I don't think masks help.
I am glad we have the vaccine, but how is AU able to control it w/o vaccine and w/o wearing masks?   Is it strictly testing with contact tracing?   

P0rtlandia April 15, 2021


johnaldeborgh3055 April 15, 2021

At some point in the future, when we can look back at the COVID-19 pandemic with more objectivity and less emotion I think the lives saved by the strict measures will be seen as a wise and prudent step.  In America the pandemic has been a political football from day one and it's resulted in countless tragedies.  The only real positive action has been the rapid development of vaccines, the rollout of the vaccines has been poorly handled and an ongoing political football.  While I sympathize with the author the trade-off of lives saved and relative freedom inside Australia seems like a good one.  The best way forward is getting everyone vaccinated, just look at Isreal as an example. 

ruthjpf April 15, 2021

I sympathize. I am an American living in America, but my daughter is married to a kiwi and lives in New Zealand, which also has closed borders. They have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, and we have been able to stand their being so far away only because we can normally go there and visit for a month or two every year. We were there for the births of each child. Now, we haven't seen our running, jumping, hilarious 2-year-old, except on zoom, since before he could even walk, and have missed being there for our granddaughters first year of school. They are growing up so fast, and the younger one does not know us at all. Earlier in the pandemic, I was worried that I might die without seeing them again, and I know my NZ daughter was very relieved when my husband and I were finally vaccinated. This pandemic is no fun for anyone, and being retired, I don't have the unemployment worries that so many are dealing with. We are lucky in many ways. But not being able to see our daughter and only grandchildren creates an underlying sadness. By the time we get to NZ again, it will have been 2 years at least - a long time in the lives of little ones, and we too are old already and travel is getting more difficult anyway.