Earlier on in the year, when Adelaide and South Australia were enjoying a period of months without any COVID-19 infections, I was totally supportive of the idea of Australians overseas being allowed to come home. International flights came in regularly bringing people back home. I was shocked right from the start just how many of these flights seemed to have COVID positive passengers on board – it was an indication of how ubiquitous the virus was elsewhere in the world.
Then came the Melbourne outbreak. Then came the Adelaide outbreak. And now the Sydney outbreak. On each of these occasions the respective cities have been put into virtual lockdown – Melbourne for several months – and this means cancelled events, no travel, closed businesses and bankrupt companies. The economic impact of these sudden shutdowns is massive. And each time they occur you are reminded that in today’s world nothing is certain. You can make plans but you can have no faith that they will come to fruition. Today I learned of a friend whose grandchildren had just arrived from Sydney to spend a few days with their grandma in Adelaide. She has been told that she and her 2 grandchildren now need to quarantine for 14 days at home because of the new and evolving cluster in Sydney’s northern beaches. Not a tragedy; just further evidence that you can’t rely on anything happening as you planned.
As someone who has travelled a lot, lived several years outside of Australia, and who has many friends overseas, some of whom want to come back right now, and who has often in the past had close family living overseas I find this hard to admit. But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want any more expats returning to Australian unless they are quarantined outside of the major cities. Darwin has already done this. All the major COVID outbreaks in Australia have been linked to hotels where returning travellers are held in quarantine. As Shaun notes in the comments below, somehow the virus escapes. Catrina says that Singapore is also accepting returning residents via hotel quarantine and in Singapore housing these quarantine hotels outside a major population centre is not possible. Still, there have been no cases of the virus escaping into the community in Singapore. Bravo Singapore.
Singapore’s system may simply be better run, but the fact is that I, and I believe many other Australians, no longer have faith in the various state governments to do this properly. And as Gerry notes, there has been zero leadership from the federal government on this score. In a sense it’s a no brainer. Why on earth would you willingly house people with a highly infectious and potentially lethal virus in the middle of the most densely populated parts of the country? We found the resources to put refugees in facilities outside the of the metropolitan areas so the facilities for housing large numbers of incoming travellers do exist.
As Fred and Catriona illustrate there are many expats hurting – they’re enduring indefinite separation from friends and loved ones, and in Fred’s case in Canada, it’s actually getting scary as the virus runs rampant through America. As much as I would like to see these good friends be able to return to Australia, I believe there is a bigger issue at play here – the gradual erosion of the mental health of the entire Australian nation. This COVID storm is subtle and relentless and I know I am feeling more stressed than I ever have before . I am always aware of this persistent underlying low-level anxiety that never leaves you. Mental health practitioners have been predicting this for some time, and I think this is probably why I’ve changed my mind about the expat situation. Had Australia shut its doors in the same way as Western Australian shut its doors to the rest of the country, we would now be COVID free.
It’s not just economics. The mental health of 25 million people is at stake. It’s time to call an immediate halt to people returning from overseas until we have a system in place that allows for quarantine facilities and resources to be sited outside the major cities. No one is saying expatriate Australians can’t come home. It is their right. But housing quarantined people in the major cities will eventually just result in more of the same – sporadic outbreaks, bouts of lockdown, and ongoing uncertainty about everything.
Below is the commentary in response to the question I posed on Facebook: is anyone else in Australia feeling like it's time to call an immediate halt to people returning from overseas unless they are quarantined outside metropolitan areas?
Shaun: Absolutely. Christmas Island for me
Catriona: Oh, that hurts! If I did need to get home for an emergency, I would have near zero chance of doing so. Firstly, the daily quota makes it impossible with tens of thousands of Australians stranded and still unable to get home. Secondly, the cost of a return ticket (for a 5 hour flight) and quarantine could cost anywhere between 14K and 20K for the two of us. That's all dependent on being able to get a flight and not have it cancelled multiple times. We have accepted that we're unlikely to get back any time soon and I pray that we are never in an awful situation where we can't be with loved ones when we need to the most. If there is a problem of imported cases spreading into the community, which I think is what you are referring to, then it is because the processes in handling this are uncoordinated and inadequate. Fix the real problem... and the problem is not the Australians trying to get home! Making them quarantine outside of the metro area won't solve a thing!
Michael: well it might if all service personnel (security etc) were isolated as well....I'd love you to be able come back but 'experts' are saying that the only reason we have the virus here is due to expats. And how long can businesses survive the sudden stopping and starting? Not to mention the persistent underlying anxiety of it all...
Catriona: actually, the only reason you have the virus is because of lack of safety protocols and complacency. Singapore too has returning citizens and pass holders. All are quarantined for 14 days in the city... there is no area outside of the urban area. All must have a test to come into the country. Some return a positive result during their quarantine but because safety protocols are strictly followed, there is no community spread as a result. Returning people are not a risk to the community as long as the procedures are followed. As I said... fix the real problem.
Michael: Perhaps Singapore would like to come down here and show us how it's done!
Catriona: I agree... perhaps the leaders of Australia need to start looking outside of their own country for examples of best practice!
Fredy (in Canada) Looks like I’m stuck here then!
Michael: No Fred - come. Just a couple weeks in a detention centre and you'll be fine. Govt kept telling us how good these facilities were when we put refugees in these places so gotta be good enough for returning expats. I hear Baxter is quite charming at this time of year. (Just a bit north of Port Augusta.)
Fredy: I'll take it!
Mary: Yet another medical expert commented that a number of returning Australians have non COVID medical issues that may or may not require treatment while in quarantine. This would be very difficult from remote locations like Christmas Island. Two years ago a family member was on Christmas Island for work purposes. What was a ten day stay became 5 weeks because of weather conditions flights cancelled. Maybe the Darwin setup is better? Regional locations near a good hospital? Although I doubt that would work in our region - even slightly complex emergency cases are air lifted to Melbourne hospitals.
Michael: Thanks Mary. Highlights just how complex this whole issue is.
Barbara: They should do the PCR test before they come.
Julie: No one will fly anywhere unless there is a flight crew. From what I know, the recent outbreak in Sydney could be because a few of them failed to self isolate. Now they will be locked down in a couple of hotels near the airport. In any case, they could not be put outside metro areas.