Coronavirus in Australia: I just flew in from Italy and Australia isn't doing enough

We made it. Out of Rome. Out of Italy. Out of coronavirus hell and back into a country that is surely on the verge of the exact same thing.

It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I was writing about my decision to stay in Rome, about my confidence that it was the right thing to do, about my faith that things would work out and my family and I would enjoy the rest of our Italian adventure and not be too badly affected by the coronavirus outbreak in the country's north.

It seems like it was only a few weeks ago, because it was. Two weeks was all it took to go from supreme confidence that staying in Rome for a holiday was a good idea, to fleeing the country on one of the last flights out, escaping a nation in lockdown, a people in crisis.

Italy spiralled out of control in the same way the whole of Europe is now spiralling out of control, in the same way the US seems likely to spiral out of control, in the same way that Australia – if we keep on our current trajectory – will surely spiral out of control too.

Two weeks ago, when I wrote my column, Italy had about 2000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. When we fled, eight days later, on the final flight before Singapore Airlines suspended its service to Rome, there were almost 20,000 cases. Now it's getting up towards 30,000. This thing moves fast. Faster than us, that's for sure.

That flight out of Rome was like none I have ever been on before. It wasn't a full flight but it was busy, and people were freaked out. There were passengers dressed in full disposable hazmat suits, with dust masks and plastic safety goggles. One family draped a large sheet over the top of themselves and refused to come out for the whole flight.

The Singapore Airlines crew battled on gamely, admirably. Most weren't even wearing face masks. They just smiled and went about their business as we swabbed our entire area with disinfectant wipes and doused our hands in sanitiser every time we touched something new.

That was not an enjoyable flight.

Entering Singapore was surprisingly easy. There was a temperature scan in the terminal but other than that, no restrictions (though things have since changed for Italian travellers). Stamps in the passports, through we went. Nothing to declare, no stop at customs. Freedom in Singapore.

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We stayed there five days, hoping to do some of our mandatory 14 days of Australian isolation with Singaporean freedom. Only, the rules in Australia changed halfway through our stay. We would have to do 14 days at home regardless, the same as everyone else.

So on Monday night we flew back to Sydney on a surprisingly full flight. International tourism might be in turmoil, but there's still no shortage of Australians trying to get home. No hazmat suits on this plane. Just a few surgical masks. The odd pair of goggles.

We weren't sure what to expect in Sydney. Australia has a tendency towards heavy-handedness when it comes to border security, so surely we would be in for a torrid time getting into the country, given our Italian travel history.

Only, we weren't. Our plane was held at the gate while a customs official moved through handing out bits of paper explaining the self-isolation rules: a single A4 sheet that most passengers around us folded up and stuffed in a bag.

In the terminal everything proceeded as normal, until we spotted a tiny sign directing those who had been in China, Korea, Iran or Italy in the last 14 days to move to a separate area for "enhanced screening". This will be big, we thought. Medical workers were dressed in plastic gowns and surgical masks. A huge queue had formed thanks to a flight coming in from Seoul.

Only, it wasn't big. One of those gowned medical staff came and took our temperature and asked if we had any symptoms of coronavirus. We said we didn't, and so were pointed back in the direction of the general immigration area, where we sailed through passport control, on through customs in the usual way, and out into the big wide world, clutching our A4 sheet of paper.

What now? We self-isolate for 14 days. Not that anyone will be checking. There are just too many people coming in. It seemed clear to us on Tuesday morning that this thing was working on a trust basis – we wrote down our address as usual on our landing card, but other than that, no details were taken.

Is Australia taking this thing seriously? There were no temperature scanners in Sydney airport. No other travellers were asked anything about their health. A friend of mine arrived in Melbourne a few days ago direct from Italy, and she says she asked some detailed questions of a customs official about self-isolation. The official just smiled at her: "Just do your best darl."

Australia is heading for trouble. This isn't a country in lockdown, it's a country going through the motions.

Just a week before we left Italy, no one there was taking coronavirus too seriously. People were joking about it. They weren't changing their habits or changing their way of life. My family and I were the same.

But then everything changed. As it will here. Soon.

Have you entered Australia since the 14-day self-isolation began? What were your experiences? Do you think this threat is being taken seriously?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Can masks actually protect you from coronavirus?

See also: Airline bans man for life after he is confirmed to have virus mid-flight

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