There are some real-life travel stories you want to write. Others you just have to write as catharsis to the author or caveat to the reader. I’ll let you decide which category this tale falls into and what message it sends about the future of international travel. Most voyages involve challenges and setbacks, but Covid has thrown up more than even the most intrepid travellers are prepared to cope with. Yet a hardy few persist, mostly because they have no real choice. For your diarist, that journey started in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Omicron was casting a dark shadow over many people’s holiday travel plans. The more determined souls were frantically navigating the changing Covid-testing and admission rules in destination countries near and far.
As an Australian citizen, the window of opportunity to return home opened at the beginning of November 2021. Messages poured in from relatives and friends saying, ‘You can come back now, no problems, no quarantines…’. The sceptic in me held out a few weeks, having seen the Australian government, and their state equivalents vacillate sometimes weekly on how to stop the disease in its tracks. They eventually agreed on a strategy to simply stem its spread, and they almost succeeded. Almost.
By early December, some new measures had been introduced in my state (Victoria) for international returnees, which meant a 72-hour quarantine would then be imposed. That was quickly replaced by a home-quarantine until a first (24-hour) test was returned ‘negative’. Similar to what many European countries were then imposing.
As these measures did not really affect locals, it mattered less that it went against the political momentum at the time, which was towards ‘no more lockdowns’. To Australians, or at least Melbournians (the most locked-down city on the planet, it transpired), that term describes measures ranging from mask-wearing and checking-in – track and trace in public places, shops, restaurants, etc. – to stay-at-home orders, curfews and even incarcerations for the recalcitrant few.
1. Off the leash
Having been effectively told to ‘stay away’ for nearly two years (making the total time abroad closer to four and half years), the uncertainty brought on by these swings and changes needed to be weighed against the prospect of Omicron really getting off the leash. Behind this was the hope that Australia might be protected somewhat by the timing of this rather virulent strain, emerging as it did in the southern-hemisphere summer. Because experience has taught us that this typically keeps the spread in check, as we spend more time outdoors.
That was the thinking. But Omicron had different ideas. It spread as fast in summer as it did in the European winter, which might be taken as something of a precursor for future strains or ideas that July-September 2022 will be a summer of freedom for weary Europeans. But I digress.
Entering the country demanded a double vaccination certificate (no problem) and a pre-flight ‘negative’ PCR test (only just managed when most test centres closed over the holiday break leaving the airport centre inundated). It also required a battery of detailed forms to be completed, satisfying the federal government and destination state government that you, the returning Australian, did not pose a health risk. All fair enough and handled rather well by both authorities under the circumstances. But the irony that emerged almost immediately upon arrival was that this was a country not accustomed to a ‘pandemic’ in the true sense of the word, because it had previously managed to keep a tight lid on it by closing borders (state and international) for basically the whole Covid journey bar the last couple of months.
2. Pandemic pandemonium
The result was pandemic pandemonium. Page after newspaper page heralded every possible angle and reported the daily rise in cases and deaths. Counts and analysis, over-the-fence comparisons, tales of friends, families, friends of friends who had the latest variant but also the ‘true’ veterans who claim to have contracted the earlier strains.
I was asked many times, ‘How does Australia compare to Belgium or Europe?’ A very tricky question to answer except to say, ‘It’s different.’ Europe had been dealing with 27 countries trying to work through it without having to close down too much internally and to each other. I might have said it felt reminiscent of how it was in early 2020 and, for the most part, what that taught us.
No smugness was imparted, I hope, when the source of such sentiment is a painful reality that Belgium had indeed around three million reported cases to date and lost nearly 30,000 souls to the disease. More deaths than cases in Australia up to a few months ago.
That Australia is now considered a ‘red country’ by the European Centre of Disease Control is an irony, to say the least. And as of late January, case numbers had topped 2.5 million with over 3,600 deaths. Unlike the Australian Open or Olympics, this is not a competition Australians want to be favourite to win.
3. Arriving during ‘the’ outbreak
But it’s not my position to pontificate, merely to tell the story of how I ended in one of the two states in Australia where Omicron exploded on the scene post-Christmas and through New Year’s and January. How the government testing system nearly collapsed due to onerous tracing requirements and the protocols for ‘risky’ contacts had to be adjusted (i.e. to several hours of exposure to an infected person) to stop what had become a spate of ‘panic testing’.
And how it was eventually decided to accept rapid antigen tests (RATs) as proof of infection with no need to queue up and wait for potentially days for the results of a full ‘confirmation’ PCR test. This freed up the services but did nothing to stem the daily case numbers, which went from around 1,200 just before Christmas to peaks in mid-January of high 30,000s before tapering off to the low teens in the latter part of the month, thanks partly to better ‘measures’ but also to less stringent reporting.
Never certain I would ever pull it off during that hectic period, my series of three connecting flights got off to an inauspicious start when it emerged that my airline was suffering chronic staff shortages, with ground crews forced to stay home as more and more tested positive. (Stairs don’t get attached to the plane door using remote technology and bags don’t load themselves.) A one-and-a-half-hour delay between Brussels and Helsinki blew out to two-plus hours by the time we reached Singapore. A mad dash from plane to plane left no doubt that the luggage would not be joining me for the next leg. A minor sacrifice.
In Singapore, the dozens of Australians on the flight – all returning for the first time in years, it seemed – were told that checked luggage could not be processed in time, so were all rerouted to Sydney on a flight leaving two hours later. That meant a domestic hop to Melbourne later in the morning. In itself that was fine if it still meant I’d get home. After some tense hours and much uncertainly it eventually all worked out that way.
And even the luggage managed to find me in northern Victoria about three days later. In 30-plus heat with a pool in the backyard, home quarantine with no change of clothes wasn’t the worst punishment either. Sure, the 24 hours promised turnaround on the day-1 Covid test blew out to three days because labs couldn’t keep up. But again, it could have been worse.
Many Australian travellers missed flights due to the delays and the rules for pre-testing for domestic flights, at least, had to be lightened… After the first test did come through – ‘negative’ thankfully – it meant more freedom to now see my ageing parents and other family members who had been waiting impatiently for my release. I was still not allowed to be in large groups, visit schools, hospitals, other states, aged care facilities, etc. but that made sense until the follow-up test could clear me of the ‘arrival protocols’.
The second test, then required between five and seven days after arrival, posed a problem because test centres were only really accepting suspected or proven (RAT) positive cases. The test-two result came approximately five days later! Again a negative test. The ‘recommendation’ at that time was that a day-12 test be taken as well. No need to elaborate on how that test was regarded by your weary diarist!
In the meantime, the state government has developed a platform for positive RAT-confirmed cases to be uploaded, which relieved the testing and tracing system somewhat. I dare say it would have made the testing protocol for new arrivals smoother too. But all authorities are learning on the go and it is a testament that new systems are integrated as fast as they are.
4. RATs wanted!
Of course, the demand for RATs then far exceeded supply and it led to some stern questions and a few YouTube wags offering their ironical take on the story. But of course, there’s nothing funny about any of the stories of people under stress and families being separated for days, months and years in my case. For people living in West Australia, that agony continues as the state holds out on opening up completely to travellers.
As someone whose been through a version of the ‘returning to Aus’ saga, I have been fielding questions from Antipodean friends in Belgium whose parents are ageing and facing life-threatening illnesses who simply want to know ‘how hard’ it really is to get back.
‘Bloody hard!’ has been my stock reply. But if they have elderly or ailing family and this is the only window you might be offered, then they just have to take what Covid throws up and push ahead.
Another question: ‘Would I return soon or with my family?’ Not until there are signs of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel. We’ve been teased a few times by the prospect, but the cycle of ‘winter-summer, mutate-and-repeat’ just keeps adding to that journey.
All told, I’m glad I made the effort and my family and friends were thrilled and somewhat amazed it panned out. But it was not a trip I would undertake yearly in the current regime, unless absolutely necessary. That attitude is something the tourism industry is having to grapple with. It could be months, maybe years.
The image of empty gates and shuttered shops in the international terminal of Melbourne airport as I departed a month later and many kilos lighter, leaves no doubt that the travel sector is already reeling. Based on my experience and the story as told, the vaccination certification, testing, tracking and general sectoral information flow needs to be more joined up globally – and in Australia’s case from state to state – if undecided travellers are ever going to ‘enjoy’ the freedom of international travel again.