On the 17th of March 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that all Australian citizens must return back to Australia at the earliest and quarantine, or stay put wherever they are.
Whilst some were able to return immediately, many others could not with over 35,000 Australian citizens still stranded overseas. Sydney’s Shirley Jacob shares her story as she is still stuck in India and is waiting for an air ticket so she can get back home to her family.
Below is Shirley’s story
I came to India in February as my Dad was critical in the ICU, on a Ventilator. As his condition was deteriorating, I postponed my initial return ticket that was on the 10th of March to the 30th of March. Fortunately, he was weaned off the Ventilator successfully and was able to go home. COVID cases meanwhile were rapidly increasing worldwide and return flights to Australia became sparse. As my tickets were booked for the 30th of March, I thought I was safe and could get back without any issue. Unfortunately, the Indian government announced an immediate lockdown starting from 25th of March with little notice and the airline I was booked on sent an email saying that my ticket was cancelled due to the closure of Australia’s borders.
Shirely with parents
Last week, I was approached by Sky News Australia for an interview on “Weekend Live,” to elucidate the reality of the hardships Australians abroad are experiencing, and more importantly dispel the rumors that we ‘chose’ to stay overseas. Most of us were incapacitated in our ability to modify our travel plans as strict border restrictions, local government policies and price gouging resulted in thousands fighting for a handful of return tickets.
In my case, the few Indian charter flights were operating from cities with Australian consular offices like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. However, if you were not in those cities when Modi announced the lockdown it became impossible to reach those cities for months as state borders were closed. It is now over six months and I am still stuck overseas, away from my family in Sydney. Although there are new flights occasionally chartered, tickets are often sold in minutes and distributed on the black market.
My days here often feel the same. I sit at the computer every day incessantly scouring the net for some hope – new flights, more compassionate policies from our government…. I have come to accept that the answers we desperately seek from our government is not near as the world still plays catch-up in developing a COVID-normal world. Scott Morrison has painted the country’s strict policy as a necessary solution to avoid the rampant proliferation of the virus evidenced in other countries with looser restrictions such as the United States. This approach was fair a few months ago especially when COVID was rampant due to border mismanagement, adapting public health legislation, and poor quarantine procedures. Surely now the government can start prioritizing our cases and make concerted efforts to repatriate its citizens instead of propagating the ‘trying our level best’ mantra that has become dull to our ears. My family back home in Sydney say life has for the most part returned to normal; fewer are wearing masks, lower community transmission, and no more shopping fiascos!
Shirley with family
Apart from my job, we have all lost so much these past few months, and the only thing we want now is to be with our families. I have found solace in the many groups that were formed across the world on Facebook, Whatsapp and Telegram. Here strangers from around the world are each other’s pillar of support as we share our stories, fears, frustrations with this situation.
“We feel our voice has been silenced – especially Australian citizens of subcontinental ethnicity. As Australian citizens the federal government has a duty of responsibility and protection towards ALL its citizens.” – says a user from the Stranded Australians in India Facebook group.
Speaking with Danica Giorgio from Sky News, she asked me how my family was coping. It was a simple question, but one that took me by surprise as everyone thus far has been focused on the stranded and have forgotten that our families are sharing this grief and suffering too. It was great to know that someone understood and still cared.
Many people have asked me how could the government have improved this situation or made things easier for us? And I always tell them that we just sought transparent and continuous communication, rather than becoming their political puppets. I understand Australia’s unique situation as an Island nation means stricter quarantine procedures, but there is surely a more economical and efficient solution that is compliant with public health legislation rather than just locking us out. Whilst Australia’s response to COVID has largely served as a successful example to the international community, its negligent and dismissive response efforts towards reuniting citizens overseas has been appalling. These tough regulations have raised the political and legislative ire of many Australians as the right to freedom of movement has left many citizens in mental, financial, and physical strife across the world.
My story echoes with thousands of others who have been sequestered and isolated due to Australia’s strict border policy. I have become tired of the government’s response and just want to return home and celebrate Christmas with family again – this will be the greatest gift of all. Recently, the travel cap increased but this does not solve any problems as there are still limited tickets and exorbitant airline fees. I’m still waiting for a ticket.