Australia’s last international COVID travel restrictions are lifting. But their legacy for those caught up in them remains

Australia’s borders will reopen to all fully-vaccinated travellers
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For the first time in almost two years — 704 days — Australia’s borders will reopen to all fully-vaccinated travellers tomorrow. But for many the ordeal is far from over.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood in front of the nation, flanked by two Australian flags, and announced a complete travel ban on non-citizens and residents entering the country the following day, many knew exactly what was coming.

A day earlier, Morrison had announced a worldwide “do not travel” warning for Australians as COVID-19 cases multiplied. Days later, this was strengthened to a “ban” on Australians travelling overseas without an exemption.

It was the first time in history Australians had been barred from leaving the country.

A map of the world coloured in red drove the severity of the situation home.

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It was an unprecedented step for a country where just under half of the population have at least one parent born overseas.

At the time, in March 2020, Morrison justified the travel ban on the basis that 80 per cent of coronavirus cases detected in Australia stemmed from overseas transmission.

“We are looking at a situation of at least six months for how we deal with this. It could be much longer than that. It could be shorter,” Morrison said as he warned Australians against leaving the country.

Few expected the actual time frame would be closer to two years.

On Monday, after 100 weeks shut off to the world, Australia’s last remaining international border restrictions for fully-vaccinated travellers will be lifted, allowing international tourists to return. In November, the restrictions barring fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents from leaving were removed, and weeks later, fully vaccinated eligible temporary visa holders and international students were given the green light to return.

Much has changed: babies have been born, had birthdays, and started walking, without their grandparents, or even parents, there with them. People have died, without family by their side. Couples have lived and cried apart, brought together only by screens, and many others have been forced to make drastic life changes due to policies outside their control.

While the travel ban helped keep Australia free from the pandemic-induced calamity elsewhere in the world, at least for a while, they also attracted sharp criticism — not least of all from thousands of Australian citizens who found themselves stranded overseas, unable to return to their country of birth due to travel caps and unreliable flights.

Many citizens have now come home and more have reunited with their families overseas. Others are waiting for the final restrictions to lift on Monday, and some still don’t know when their circumstances will allow them to return.

For West Australians, the uncertainty has lasted even longer. After years cut off from the rest of the country, on Friday Premier Mark McGowan announced the state’s hard borders would lift on March 3 — a week and a half after the rest of the country.

But as Australia’s “hermit kingdom” chapter closes, the pain of the past two years is still very fresh. There are many thousands of stories of people impacted by the travel ban — here are five of them.

Those still stuck overseas

Childcare worker Visha Sunyasi is among those still waiting to come home.

For the past two years, her home in Western Australia, full of belongings, has sat untouched after a family emergency days before the travel ban was announced forced an unexpected trip to Mauritius.

When the news of the travel ban spread, Visha, her husband and her son, immediately tried to return to Australia — but because they were not citizens or permanent residents, it was too late.

Visha and her family have been stranded in Mauritius for two years.(Supplied: Visha Sunyasi)

“We were only supposed to come for a week,” the 36-year-old, who had lived in Australia for five years, says.

The family has left their dog back in Australia.(Supplied: Visha Sunyasi)

“We came with nothing, everything is over there. We didn’t even bring our clothes.”

Visha says her new, unexpected, life in Mauritius has been difficult. She’s had to find foster carers for her dog, who she left in Australia. Her 11-year-old son only speaks English and can’t attend public school because he doesn’t have a Mauritian birth certificate.

Instead, the family has been forced to pay for expensive private school so he doesn’t fall behind. When he left Australia, he was in year 4 — he’s now starting high school. “He misses his home, he misses his friends, he still hasn’t been able to learn the language here properly,” she says.

For her, finding work has also been impossible with all her qualifications and diplomas in a box in Australia.

“We came with nothing, we’ve had to start from zero here,” she says.

“It kills me, I can’t be there for my dog, I can’t use my own computer, I can’t have my stuff, our life is still there.”

Visha’s bridging visa expired months after becoming stranded, adding another hurdle to returning. She’s since applied for a skilled work visa, which allows invited applicants to live in Australia for five years.

“It’s been two years now and they haven’t even processed it,” she says. McGowan’s shock announcement on Friday offers some hope however, opening up the possibility the family can soon return home as tourists.

Those who couldn’t leave

Over in Australia, it’s the pain of being unable to leave the country that stays with Sydney resident Harry Karandikar.

In May last year, as Delta tore across India, the 38-year-old risk consultant got a call he had been dreading: both his parents in New Dehli had tested positive for the virus.

People around the world had watched terrifying scenes playing out on Indian streets; hospitals were over-stuffed and turning people away and family members were barred from attending the cremation of their loved ones.

As a result, the Australian government pushed its travel ban for India even further: for the first time, citizens and permanent residents were temporarily threatened with jail time and heavy fines if they tried to return to Australia. Likewise, Australian civilians were unable to get an exemption to travel to India.

Over three weeks, as his father’s condition deteriorated, Harry — who is an Australian citizen and has lived here for 20 years — kept applying for exemptions to leave the country so he could see him. Each time, he was knocked back.

“It was like that gambler’s fallacy, where you continue to sink money into something when you know the returns are highly stacked against you but you still do it,” he says.

“Except, in this case, I was gambling my emotions instead of cash.”

When flights resumed, it was too late: his father, due to a combination of a blood clot and COVID-19 infection, died on June 13. The funeral happened without Harry the next day. He hadn’t seen his father in two years.

“Video calls over WhatsApp are not the same thing,” he says.

An only child, he was then desperate to be with his mother (who was also rejected from coming to Australia).

“She was in her 60s, managing a lot of things alone, and needed to see her only child,” he says. “Even that was knocked back.”

Now, more than half a year later, Harry’s mother is planning to travel to Sydney in May. On the anniversary of his father’s death, they will hold a small ceremony to mark his life — this time, together.

“[The past two years] are going to remain with us for the rest of our lives,” he says. “As a group of people, with connections across multiple continents and countries, we feel that we’ve been let down by the system.”

The new mum left to go it alone Rheanon reunited with her partner, Joseph, in the Phillipines late last year. (Supplied: Rheanon Ronquillo)

Nurse Rheanon Ronquillo is similarly still working to unpack the trauma of being separated from her partner during her pregnancy and first year as a new mum.

In November last year, Rheanon’s husband met their daughter for the first time in the Philippines — a year and a half after she was born in Mildura, in regional Victoria — when  permanent residents were once again allowed to travel overseas.

The family is overjoyed to be together and will finally arrive in Australia together this week, but the road to this moment didn’t come easily.

Rheanon, a permanent resident, discovered she was pregnant after one of her regular trips home in late 2019.

When months later the borders closed, panic set in: “I was crying, thinking ‘I will be alone in the delivery room, it will just be me’.”

When her colleagues threw her a gender reveal party at work back in Australia, Rheanon’s then-fiance was forced to watch through a video screen.

The family’s first “photo” together — taken during a video call shortly after their daughters birth. (Supplied: Rheanon Ronquillo)

But the real challenges began after the birth. A first-time mum in a foreign land, without family nearby for support, Rheanon relied on friends and the local Filipino community to juggle looking after her daughter and continuing her work on the pandemic frontlines. For extra support, she moved in with a friend’s family.

“I was just crying every night, but I didn’t want to show my colleagues and friends. You try to show them that you are ok,” she says.

“But deep in myself, I knew it wasn’t going to be OK, asking myself: ‘How will I take care of this baby? I don’t know how to take care of a baby. It’s my first time’.

“The baby’s growing, it’s not slowing down. One day she was really small, and then you blink, and she’s walking and running. It’s really sad when you’ve been witnessing these milestones alone when your husband is on the other side of the world.”

It was with this mindset, in November, that she made the decision to go back to the Philippines for three months. “Our daughter didn’t want to go to her dad at first, it was like warming up: ‘who’s this guy that looks like me’,” she says. “Now she’s got the hang of it … they’re inseparable.”

Once they’re settled in Australia, the couple plan to start the process of applying for a partner visa that will allow her husband to stay permanently.

But even now, Rheanon doesn’t feel completely secure. “The rules in Australia can change at any minute,” she says. “I just hope they don’t lock the borders anymore. Whatever happened to me, I don’t want it to happen to my worst enemy.”

The couple who took a leap of faith

Courtney Courier and Cameron McDougall credit the pandemic as the reason they met — but it’s also forced them to take extreme action to stay together.

In early 2021, both working from home — Courtney, 28, in Portland in the United States and Cameron, 33, in Hamilton near Brisbane — they turned to a new social media platform called Clubhouse to meet new people and stay connected to the outside world.

Quips in group chats quickly became long, one-on-one conversations that would continue late into the evening. Soon they were “on FaceTime 24/7”.

Courtney and Cameron fell in love during the pandemic and had to take drastic steps to be together.(Supplied: Courtney Courier)

“We’d be falling asleep on it, I’d be waking up to it, I’d set my kitchen on fire and she’d tell me before I knew about it,” Cameron says.

Cameron moved to the United States late last year. Now, the couple is planning to sell everything and move back to Australia.(Supplied: Courtney Courier)

“And then it got to the point that I realised I couldn’t live like this.”

But in the middle of a pandemic, being together physically wasn’t going to be easy. Ideally, Courtney wanted to relocate to Australia because of Cameron’s career — but the travel ban meant that wasn’t possible.

Instead, they decided to take a “leap of faith”: In October, Cameron quit his job at an electric vehicle start-up, sold his belongings, and applied for a six month US visa. The final step was providing their call logs and entire WhatsApp history as evidence to support Cameron’s exemption to travel.

“It’s COVID, we didn’t know where the world was going, and the most important thing was to figure out a way to be together,” Courtney says. “During this time, if you’re going to be in a relationship that crosses borders, you have to make sure you’re committed to this.”

Now, with Cameron’s visa coming to an end and Australia’s borders reopening, the newly engaged couple are facing the prospect of packing up and doing it all over again.

The hope is Courtney will now be able to travel to Australia as a tourist and transition to a partner visa, but there’s still the fear that backed up visa processing times could mean another separation.

“Essentially, it could be upwards of two years until either of us get any sort of legal right to work in either country,” Cameron says. “It’s going to be a long, long battle.”

“The main thing we don’t want is to be apart for any length of time,” he continues. “Because with COVID, there could be a new strain or variant and they could lock borders — we’re at the point where we are going to do our absolute best not to be separated.”

Those who want to make every year count Valerie is eager to get back to adventuring overseas.(Supplied: Valerie Preston)

Like many Australians, Valerie Preston is eager to get back into the world.

Not only is she missing her daughter in Canada and elderly family members in New Zealand, who she hasn’t seen in more than two years, she’s also keen to make the most of what she calls “the pointy end” of her life.

This involves a long bucket list, from long-distance walks in South America, to a trip to the Galapagos Islands and a tour around Iceland. But at 69 years old, she’s realistic. “The years to do these things are running out. Every year really counts in what’s available, my capacity, and whether I could actually manage to do these things,” she says.

“I know people who are in their mid and late 70s who are fit and able, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll be right up there with them.”

From her home in Picton, just outside Perth, she’ll watch tourists arrive on Monday. Until Friday, she had no idea when she would be able to do the same.

Western Australia was originally scheduled to reopen its hard border on February 5, but the Omicron wave prompted McGowan to delay the decision by almost a month.

Valerie is conflicted when she reflects on Western Australia’s approach to borders during the pandemic: on one hand, she recognises that the strict rules allowed her life to continue in relative safety while the pandemic raged elsewhere.

Because of her age, she also doesn’t know “how she would fare” if she was to catch COVID-19, even with her relatively good health. “I’m a reasonably fit person, but sometimes that’s not a guarantee,” she says. Travelling overseas, she acknowledges, will come with a degree of risk.

But on the other hand, she adds: “Every day your life is getting shorter … I just hope I’m up for it.”

Editor’s note, February 22: A previous version of this article said that all restrictions to international travel had been lifted, but there are still restrictions for those who choose not to be vaccinated.

Credits

Words and production: Maani Truu

Posted 19 Feb 202219 Feb 2022Sat 19 Feb 2022 at 6:00pm, updated 9 Mar 20229 Mar 2022Wed 9 Mar 2022 at 2:44am

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