COVID-19 and international borders: I returned from Australia to Rome, where locals can't believe our restrictions

Opinion

I'm one of the ones who got out.

An Australian citizen ordinarily resident overseas, I flew into Rome last week after spending 16 months with my family for four of Melbourne's five lockdowns.

I'm a journalist and author who has lived in Rome for 10 years, but flew out when the Italian lockdown began in March 2020 (arriving before Australia's hotel quarantine program began). It broke my heart but I knew I'd made the right decision. Looming global uncertainty made being with family in Australia my only priority.

I packed for my mercy flight in an hour and, months later, I still worried about milk I'd thought was left in the fridge. Nowadays we talk knowingly about lockdowns, "flattening the curve", quarantine and isolation. But Italy was the first Western nation to shut down. And in the dead of the night on the way to the airport I didn't even know what that meant.

Eighteen months later and where we're all headed is still unknown. But with safe and effective vaccines circulating, much of the world is hopeful and cautiously moving into a very different phase of the pandemic, while Australia seems stuck and continuing to prefer bunkering down.

Flying out of an eerily empty Melbourne Airport I didn't know what to expect. In transit at Dubai airport, my mind was blown. Life. Departure calls. A packed business-class lounge. People, movement. The sights, sounds and freneticism of international travel that I'd almost forgotten existed.

After a COVID-tested Emirates flight, my arrival at Fiumicino was smooth and, one rapid antigen test later, I returned to my home in Rome to roam free. If I'd tested positive, I would have isolated at home for 10 days under the direction of the local health department. Hotel quarantine doesn't exist. Just as it doesn't for most countries.

After being in Australia for so long, being in Rome at the moment is like another planet. I feel the pull of life, something that seems to have sadly been sucked right out of Melbourne.

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Like much of Europe, Italy is experiencing another wave of infections via the Delta strain. Yesterday Rome recorded 401 cases and there are currently more than 70,000 active cases nationally.

But life goes on. Currently there is no lockdown threat (though locals fear that could change in winter). While Melbourne closed businesses and cancelled events for merely 15 daily cases, my Roman friends are attending the opera and I'm travelling to Ischia and Capri for a holiday; all 20 regional borders are open.

There are no QR code check-ins but a focus on vaccination and testing. You can take a rapid test at pharmacies and get vaccinated while you're there too! And you can pick up DIY COVID tests and antibody tests at the supermarket - a world away from "rings of steel" and "doughnut days".

It's super hot but we all wear masks indoors. There are temperature checks in many stores, hand sanitiser galore, capacity limits and increased outdoor dining. More than 60 per cent of eligible Italians have been fully vaccinated and on 6 August, the Green Pass comes into effect, meaning you can't enter public places or dine indoors (among many other things) without proof of vaccination, immunity from having recovered from COVID or a negative text within the past 48 hours. Following the announcement, some Italian regions saw vaccination bookings increase by 200 per cent. Precisely the objective.

Rome does feel different since I've been back. Something in the mood. Like all of us, people here have experienced much trauma and many lives and livelihoods have been lost. Perhaps that's why there is such a desire here to be hopeful and move forward.

After so long, it's surreal to feel at home again here, watching tourists line up for a gelato or stare blankly at Italian street signs they're trying to decipher. It's a world that may seem foreign to many Australians but this is what it feels like to live with COVID-19.

When people here ask me how Australia is faring with the pandemic, I tell them the truth: we managed really well to begin with, then squandered our advantage. Our border remains unfairly closed and as a result, our own citizens (around 40,000 of them) are stranded with limited avenues of return and only 15 per cent of eligible Australians have been vaccinated (I'm sorry Prime Minister, but it is a race).

When I say I am nervous about getting back into Australia later this year for events planned for my new book, they don't really understand.

I attempt to explain the hotel quarantine system: passengers met by local police on arrival, security escorted to government-managed facilities to quarantine for 14 days, with no fresh-air breaks. They look at me in disbelief and then ask: but aren't you an Australian citizen? To which I respond, Yes. Followed up usually with: but aren't you vaccinated? Yes.

And that's without discussing the blanket ban on Australians leaving the country! When I explain that you have to apply to the government for permission, I blow their minds!

Here I often change the subject. Because since I've left it actually feels too stupid, too disproportionate and even too embarrassing to explain.

As an Australian expat I've never felt so disenfranchised and disappointed. Australia's shameful system has excluded so many and seeing how other countries are moving forward makes it hurt even more. For anyone who has family overseas, who has lived overseas or still does, the trauma of this unsustainable COVID-zero approach - at the expense of many Australian citizens - has been a hard pill to swallow. The scars remain. I will try to enjoy my Italian summer and let the healing begin.

Maria Pasquale is an Italo-Australian food and travel writer based in Rome. Author of I Heart Rome and How to be Italian she is the founder of the award-winning blog HeartRome and her adventures can be followed on Instagram @heartrome.

See also: Will AstraZeneca mean some Australians are unable to travel overseas?

See also: 'Back to normal': The Aussies living in America's most-vaccinated city

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