COVID-19 has been hard on many of us. Working in travel, it's been particularly difficult, with both my husband and myself losing our jobs and now finding ourselves unable to get back to Australia.
We tried to get home in 2020 as my father was ill and we were told he might not have long to live. We booked flights from Singapore to Sydney and announced on December 23 that we would be home in January. Unfortunately, due to caps on arrivals, our flights to Sydney were via Adelaide and would have required two weeks quarantining there. Then the Northern Beaches outbreak happened and our flights were cancelled.
My father, who had Alzheimer's, but who still remembered his youngest child, had been asking me for months when I would be back. When I told him we would see him in January, he cried with joy, as did my mother, sister, daughter and myself. I used to travel home every eight to 10 weeks and it had been 18 months since we'd seen each other. Three days later, I had to tell him we would not be coming.
Sadly, he passed away in January and I never got to say goodbye. The only way I could get a flight back for his funeral was to present a death certificate and even then only business class fares were available. There were 23 passengers on that flight – seven in business class – and hundreds of empty seats in economy. I was not sure why I had been chosen to pay business class over others sitting in the back. But what price do you put on family?
I did two weeks in quarantine, alone, in a room without a window to open, while I mourned my father's passing and wrote the eulogy I would deliver to a group that was missing many of his loved ones due to border closures and restrictions on numbers. As a fully vaccinated (tax-paying) Australian arriving from Singapore, I posed very little risk to anyone. Singapore had fewer than one case a day and deaths for the entire pandemic were at 32. Yet I spent $3000 to be apart from family at such a crucial time. My mother came to the hotel and waved at me from the street, tears pouring down our cheeks like rain.
Not long after I returned to Singapore, my husband lost his job. Weeks later, so did I. Tourism and hospitality have been decimated by this pandemic and about 40 per cent of our colleagues were also let go.
Our daughter is in her second last year of high school in Singapore, with a beautiful circle of friends and outstanding academic results. We planned our move back to Sydney and booked flights to find a home, introduce her to a new school, and showcase the freedoms of living in Australia. Again, only business class flights could be found due to those flight caps, at a cost of over $22,000 and we had to quarantine for another two weeks, for another $4000.
We arrived into Sydney on June 15, following 42 days with zero cases. And then a driver working at Sydney airport, somehow allowed to work without being vaccinated, tested positive. We watched the case numbers climb from our quarantine hotel and screamed at the TV for Gladys to lock down so that things would be under control quickly. And then had to break the news that we could not see our loved ones.
Coming directly from quarantine, you are considered in a green zone, so we made a plan to visit Victoria for two weeks before returning to Sydney to see my widowed mum and the rest of our family. Five COVID-negative tests later and exemption papers in hand, we were off. We even left a full suitcase in storage at our quarantine hotel because we thought we would be back soon. Then came (yet another) lockdown in Melbourne.
Ultimately, we had to fly back to Singapore (another $2700 to change our tickets) without seeing our family and friends in Sydney. On our return, we spent another week in home detention in Singapore, complete with tracking bracelets and surprise visits from the government to ensure we were not sneaking out.
Across both trips, we spent over $40,000 that we can ill afford, especially now we are both unemployed. Our daughter missed out on experiencing the wonders of a free Sydney and we are now reconsidering moving back at all. Why return to a country you can never leave? Where you can't even visit friends and family in another state of the same country? Where you are demonised for having left to pursue your career?
Back in Singapore, the vaccination rate is over 75 per cent and freedoms are returning. From September, we will be able to travel to several countries considered safe, but sadly not to the one country we want to visit most. Earlier this year, there was much talk of a green lane between Singapore and Australia, where Aussies could come into Singapore without any requirement to quarantine. From next month, we can travel to Europe, the US and some parts of Asia from Singapore, but it looks like Australia is off the table for the forseeable future.
Unless the government acts quickly to get the population vaccinated and borders open, Australia will lag behind the rest of the world for years.
Meanwhile, my mother and I still cry a storm of tears on twice-weekly video calls and our daughter gets further and further from the place of her birth. For those Australians who say expats had all the time they needed to come home, I hope you never have to watch a loved one's funeral on a video call or lose a job without a way to find another. I hope you never have to take out a mortgage to hug your mother. The financial cost has been enormous, but it's the emotional toll that hurts the most. That and the realisation that what you thought was "home" was just an illusion.
Gaynor Reid is a communications specialist from Sydney who has been living in Singapore since 2013.