In a faraway land lies a modern metropolis that COVID-19 can’t quite reach.
It is a city the size of Philadelphia where the coronavirus pandemic has never really existed. For nine months, my hometown of Perth has thrived behind its so-called “Pandemic Wall.” With its borders mostly closed even to other Australian states, it has now gone 250 days, as of this writing, without a community-based COVID-19 infection.
To be allowed into this city of 2.2 million people, you either must spend 14 days in hotel quarantine to prove you aren’t infected or be traveling from another Australian state which has no current COVID-19 outbreak. Essentially, Perth has been made airtight.
Few people have risked breaching the quarantine laws of Western Australia (WA), of which Perth is the capital, because the penalties are severe—up to 12 months in prison or a $38,000 USD fine. The WA government’s response to the pandemic was so swift and strict that it’s created a COVID-free bubble. Perth looks like a parallel universe where the virus never took hold. No masks, no social distancing, no lifestyle restrictions of any kind.
Pubs were full, restaurants were bustling, shopping centers were packed and, soon after I left quarantine, 25,000 spectators attended an Australian football match at Perth Stadium.
It was a shock to the system when I landed back in Perth from Europe in late June. Pubs were full, restaurants were bustling, shopping centers were packed and, soon after I left quarantine, 25,000 spectators attended an Australian football match at Perth Stadium. The pandemic seemed to be a distant crisis.
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That return from Europe felt like being lifted out of a Category 5 hurricane and dropped next to a placid lake. I’m one of a relatively small number of people in Perth who have witnessed, firsthand, the carnage occurring beyond our sturdy, reassuring Pandemic Wall.
I spent four months in Ireland as the pandemic touched ground and then flattened Europe. More than half that time, my family and I were in a heavy lockdown in a small Irish town. Most shops were closed, public facilities were shuttered, and we were not allowed to travel more than two kilometers from our home, except for urgent business. I barely left our house and when I did, I was wearing a mask and disinfecting my hands compulsively.
These were the most anxious months of my life. I could not wait to escape back to Perth, where family and friends were relishing a comparatively carefree existence—eating at cafes, exercising at the gym, going on shopping sprees, watching movies at the cinema, and swimming at busy beaches. Six months on and I feel enormously relieved that we left Ireland.
My ancestral homeland is riddled with coronavirus. On January 4, Ireland had 6,110 new cases, a huge amount for a tiny country of just 4.9 million people. That single-day figure is seven-times the total number of cases WA (869) has had during the entire pandemic.
The reason WA has been spared is that most of those 869 infections were identified in hotel quarantine. Anyone who flies into WA from overseas gets a police escort straight to quarantine, cannot leave their hotel room for the next two weeks, and aren’t let out until they test negative for COVID-19. This makes it nearly impossible for the virus to spread into the community. Anyone who brings it into WA is immediately isolated and treated.
For the past nine months, only Australian residents have been let into the country, and we have not been allowed to leave Australia unless it’s an emergency situation.
The strict rules don’t end there. For the past nine months, only Australian residents have been let into the country, and we have not been allowed to leave Australia unless it’s an emergency situation. These rules seem unlikely to change until Australia is well into its coronavirus vaccination program, which is not scheduled to begin until March.
I won’t lie, it is frustrating that I’m not permitted to leave Australia. I have close family in Ireland and Thailand who I miss dearly. And as a full-time travel journalist, I rely on overseas trips to gather new stories. But these are extraordinary circumstances, so I accept my government’s extraordinary measures. It is these stern policies that have gifted my Australian family a safe, tranquil life amid a global catastrophe.
Over the recent festive season, we went out for dinner, celebrated at bars, attended parties, and joined the shopping center crowds for Perth’s renowned Boxing Day sales. We also took advantage of the cloudless skies and mid-80 degree temperatures to swim at several of the gorgeous beaches that flank our city.
The only anxious (pandemic-related) moments my family and I share are when we watch the nightly SBS World News. The scenes of distress and despair we witness from around the globe return us to reality. We need that daily reminder that this disaster isn’t over. Because it’s easy to forget that when you live in a city where the pandemic never really existed.