It was the trip of a lifetime. A dream trip. Robyn (not her real name) was flying with friends, a couple (we’ll call them Max and Min), from Perth in WA to go to the Antarctic, via South America. As her closest relatives (other than her daughter) we had a copy of her itinerary, as we so often do when she travels. Or when we travel.
On the day they left, February 17 2020, we knew about the problems they were having with a new disease, possibly a strain of flu, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. A week before we ourselves had flown to Darwin for our own dream trip on the Ghan [earlier blog – Darwin Delights].
On 11 February while we were in Darwin, our tour bus took us past the quarantine station being prepared for people coming back to Australia from Wuhan. We are a country with close ties geographically and culturally to China, and with Chinese New Year so freshly past, there were people who had gone to visit family in China and who were unable to come home. It was in our news and on our minds. We heard news of cruise boats that had recently departed from China who, it turned out, had sick people on board. The countries they were going to had to find a way to assess the situation and determine the best course of action. Different countries handled it in different ways.
To start with, it was only China. Through January, we watched as first early reports came in of a new respiratory illness in Wuhan, possibly associated with a ‘wet market’ there, a place where a wide range of live exotic animals were held together in close proximity for the bush meat market.
By 30 January the virus had spread to all of China’s provinces and World Health Organisation (WHO) finally declared a global emergency. Then on 31 January two Chinese tourists tested positive in Italy.
The only cases outside China were from people coming directly out of Wuhan and these appeared to be isolated and contained. Then it was becoming apparent that the infection in Italy may not have been contained in time. Still, it was all in either China or Europe. An occasional sporadic case in Thailand, always with that connection of ‘out of China’ origins. There was a cruise ship off Japan, the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined there because about ten people had tested positive on 4 February. However, quarantining them was not enough to prevent spread of infection on the ship. There had also been other places that ship had docked since a passenger disembarked in Hong Kong on 25 January and later tested positive. The Diamond Princess was quarantined off Yokohama with passengers and crew falling ill.
Around the world the situation was being downplayed. They kept saying it was all under control, “nothing to see here.” True, Aussies were being evacuated from other contaminated cruise ships or flown home from China and would be isolated in Darwin for two weeks. All under control.
There were no travel advisories for Robyn and her friends, South America was well out of any infection zone. May as well enjoy the trip to a safe part of the world, they said.
We were arriving from Darwin in Adelaide by train the day that Robyn, Max and Min left for Chile and Antarctica. We followed their trip via photos on Facebook. They spent time in Santiago, Chile and explored the Amazon. By 24 February they were flying to Lima, Peru to join their tour on 27 February starting in the Sacred Valley. There were seventeen people on their tour and it really did look marvellous. At that time the virus, now known to be a coronavirus or ‘a kind of flu’ was still mainly in China but had, courtesy of some early travellers who had carried the disease from there, arrived in the Middle East, Europe and the UK, still well away from the part of the world in which they were.
On 24 February we arrived home from our own trip within Australia. No border closure problems then.
Back in Japan on 1 March passengers were allowed to leave the Diamond Princess in Japan and self-isolate at their destination. Those flying home to Australia were to be quarantined in the facility in Darwin.
By Monday 2 March Max and Min were with Robyn at Macchu Pichu; the entire tour group then stayed at Cuzco; some amazing photos of Inca ruins. They were well away from the spread of infection in the rest of the world.
Max, Min and Robyn arrived in Argentina on 6 March with a quick flight to ‘the end of the world’, Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego the next day to board their luxury yacht to Antarctica. Before being allowed to board on 7 March all passengers, numbering about 170, had their temperature taken. Everyone was well. We found that through the wifi on the boat, Robyn was able to send us SMS messages, and she would update us with each wonderful discovery. The yacht was luxurious and they felt spoiled.
On 9 March Robyn sent us excited notes about their first sighting of penguins, orcas and humpback whales from the ship whilst crossing the Drake Passage. We exchanged tips on photography and waited for the next news. Their first landing on Antarctic soil was 10 March.
On 11 March WHO finally declared Covid-19 a pandemic. By that stage Max, Min and Robyn had experienced two landings in Antarctica.
As we ourselves back home listened to the news each day, we became more anxious. Robyn and her friends were at least safe at sea in a part of the world where there was no infection, but we were hearing other stories of problems with cruise ships carrying infected passengers, and ports insisting on quarantining them. Robyn’s ship, with its relatively small numbers and rigorous hygiene protocols, had no sick passengers.
On 15 March the Captain made an announcement that with a severe storm forecast in the Southern Ocean, it was decided to head back to Ushuaia one day early. The trip was turning rough.
When the Australian government announced on 17 March that Australians overseas who wished to return home should ‘get home as soon as possible’ we started to really worry for Robyn and her friends. They were still a few hours out of Ushuaia. Then came the bad news — Ushuaia would not let the ship dock. Until the ship had been quarantined at sea for a fortnight, Argentina would not let them dock. To achieve the fourteen-day quarantine period it was decided by the travel company to use the time to sail to Buenos Aires, also in Argentina, where they would have been flying to anyway, from Ushuaia.
However, instead of arriving in Buenos Aires by plane on 18 March, they wouldn’t be allowed off the ship until 21 March (allowing for the two-week quarantine period). They were supposed to fly from Buenos Aires to Santiago on 21 March for a flight to Sydney, then a transit through to Perth in Western Australia so they were still happy enough at this point as booked connections could still be met.
Meanwhile on 17 March the eastern states of Australia declared a state of emergency and the Australian Federal Government mandated that people returning from overseas would have to self-isolate at home for two weeks on their return. Public events were cancelled. The Melbourne Grand Prix was cancelled at the last minute. Sydney’s Royal Easter Show — cancelled. New rules suddenly came in that gatherings outdoors were to be restricted to 500, indoor gatherings to 100. We went to a friend’s funeral that day and experienced our first public outing with social distancing. In just a few weeks we’d gone from news of a virus in China, to global lockdown imminent.
On board the luxury yacht now off Buenos Aires, the dream holiday had suddenly become a nightmare. They had daily briefings when they were updated with the world news as well as the next steps in getting home. Temperature checks were taken every day for every person on board, staff and passengers. Records were kept.
As the ship waited outside the port of Buenos Aires, the travel agent was desperately cancelling the Buenos Aires hotel bookings. Buenos Aires then announced that there’d be another couple of days’ delay. So now they would miss their flights. The travel agent then cancelled those flights and re-booked them for a few days’ time. Trying to make light of things, I asked Robyn if her Spanish was any good, and did she know where the keys to the Zodiac were kept?
With flights cancelled again and fewer planes in the air, the tour company investigated hiring a charter to get them all home. This would entail extra costs for all the passengers, which would not be covered by travel insurance because anything due to a pandemic is not covered, we were told.
Meanwhile back home cruise ships were being eyed warily as they arrived. People arriving by plane or ship were asked to self-isolate for two weeks on arrival, but they still had to get home, often by public transport or taxi. We were talking to Robyn’s daughter and putting in plans for her to self-isolate at home.
We were warily going grocery shopping and discovering surprising shortages in supplies. We reported back to Robyn. “What do you think? No toilet paper! Hand sanitiser is out, too. Crazy!”
I was at a writers’ meeting on 21 March, in a very empty club, and talked to fellow writers about my worries for Robyn.
“She should never have travelled,” one person said. “Why leave the country during a pandemic?”
I explained that when she left, there was no concern for her travel. Events had moved so fast that she and her shipmates had found themselves trapped by circumstance.
On 22 March, after waiting offshore until the required two weeks at sea had been reached, Buenos Aires announced that the port was now closed to them. No one knew what was to happen. After some anxious days, Montevideo said they would take them. They could see the coast of Uruguay from the ship, tantalisingly close.
For us, we were hearing horror stories. Australian people trapped in Peru, unable to get home, deciding to wait out the few weeks this would take… A neighbour who had been in Peru visiting family with her new baby found herself struggling to get home with flights cancelled and borders closing all around her. At the same time that Robyn’s ship was still off Buenos Aires, our neighbour tearfully reported the problems she’d had, the terror she had felt when she thought she was going to have to face a pandemic on the other side of the world from her husband, terrified for her health and that of her baby. Her husband had to organise visas for her and pay extra fees to hurry them along.
On the ship, waiting off Montevideo, the 170 passengers were trying to keep occupied but monotony was setting in as well as the ever-present worry about getting home. What if, after the waiting, Montevideo closed their port too?
Meanwhile back in Australia, our Prime Minister was saying that any Australians not cancelling their existing plans and getting themselves home on the next plane would only have themselves to blame. But Robyn, Max and Min were trying to get home!
On 25 March they docked in Montevideo at last and were allowed to disembark on 26 March. From there, things moved as quickly as they could. They were given a sterile corridor from the ship to the airport, flown via charter flight to Santiago in Chile, and from there the passengers from other countries went their own way. The Australia-bound passengers were put on another charter flight and flown to Sydney, due to arrive at 10 pm on Friday 27 March. As their transit flight through to Perth wasn’t leaving Sydney until 8 am the next morning, the travel agent had booked them into a Sydney hotel overnight. That would have them winging their way to Perth 36 hours before the NSW compulsory quarantining of incoming travellers on Sunday night at midnight. Phew! Max, Min and Robyn had made it by the skin of their teeth, after having already spent nearly three weeks in isolation in the Southern Ocean with no cases on board in that time. A clean ship.
It took them six hours to be processed through immigration in Sydney. By 5 am, they had cleared it all and were thinking that the ‘overnight in the hotel’ was a waste of time, with a plane for Perth due to leave in three hours’ time.
And that is where things went awry. The NSW government lockdown of incoming passengers, due to start on Sunday midnight, was kicking in early. It was only when they were collecting their luggage off the carousel that they were told that if they could get from the airport via their own car left for them by a family member who was getting themselves home by other means, then they could leave. About half the passengers took themselves off, including some who were heading to Canberra and Queensland. But those without access to vehicles were to be transferred to a Sydney hotel for two weeks’ enforced isolation. In vain they pointed to the plane waiting for them.
So that was yet another plane that they had to miss.
I got on the phone immediately, as did Robyn. We had to get them home!
Robyn was deeply upset and exhausted. She got on the phone to us. She had expected to be home on 23 March and here it was, five days later and she was looking at two weeks locked in a Sydney hotel room with no opening windows. No fresh air. No exercise except pacing the floor and trying not to jump to conclusions about the universe conspiring against her. She’d run out of some basics, having taken just enough to last her trip. We took a shopping list from her and while we drove to the shops I rang around even further. I talked to the Department of Health to point out that they should have been allowed to transit through to their final destination state. They’d already had three weeks of quarantine, now it was another two weeks, and when she finally got back to her home state of WA, she would have another two weeks of isolation. Seven weeks in all.
We were told different things depending on who we spoke to, but yes, they should have been allowed to transit through. The night’s accommodation booked in Sydney, however (even though they didn’t get to use it thanks to delays in getting through Border Control) meant that they were not considered to be transiting through. Once they were transferred to the hotel for quarantine, that was where they had to stay.
We left to do some shopping for Robyn, and for Max and Min. She was in touch by phone with Max and Min. For the previous six weeks, she had been in daily face to face contact with her friends, had shared Max’s birthday party on the Antarctic ship, had evening drinks with their group as they watched the sun go down. At least Max and Min were in a room together. Robyn was on her own. She was miserable.
It took us a couple of hours to get all the items on Robyn’s shopping list. Some stores were shut. We realised Robyn, having been away from all the changes for several months, had not seen anything of the ‘new normal’, a socially isolated outside world. She was surprised that our shopping trip was taking so long.
We drove through empty inner Sydney streets on a Saturday afternoon, and parked outside the hotel in what is normally the busiest part of Sydney. Once at the hotel, we ensured the shopping was double-bagged as had been requested (a bag for Robyn, and another bag for Max and Min). Reception at this hotel was on the first floor, we had been told to leave the bags there.
Problem. They wanted room numbers. We didn’t have a surname for Max and Min. The hotel was politely insistent. So, even though she was somewhere upstairs, we had to ring Robyn and ask for her room number. She rang Min (Max was in the shower). Robyn and Min had to open the door to their rooms, read off the room number and call us back. By opening the door, they attracted the attention of the security guard on the floor so they had to quickly go back inside. We gave the room numbers to the hotel reception who then confirmed, took the bags and wrote the room numbers on them. “Thank you, goodbye.”
We turned and left this ghost town as fast as we could. Without breaking speed limits, we had a record fast run back home.
Both Robyn’s and my phone calls continued, to try to get Robyn’s, Max’s and Min’s quarantine shortened so they could get home and do their two weeks there. It was becoming urgent. Their home state of WA had already been enforcing quarantine of all people arriving. Now it was announced that on Sunday 5 April, WA would close its borders.
Each day I would be on the phone for hours, going around in circles. Robyn was also having the same runaround, being told time and again that someone would phone back, but they never did. There seemed to be a standard response, either sympathetic or terse, but all with the same initial message, “You must comply. No exceptions.” The National Coronavirus Hotline was trying to drive the car while it was still being built. When I mentioned the specific problems trying to get these people home interstate after they’d served their quarantine, I got a response. I needed to talk to the Department of Health, I was told. They gave me a phone number. I rang the number. It asked for a postcode. Because I did this multiple times, I had the chance to test, and found that it didn’t matter what postcode I put in, the automated call would transfer me to the reception desk at a particular city hospital. If I had a family member who was a patient at the hospital, I would have rung the same people. At one point (I wish I knew how!) I was transferred to someone who really did work for the Department of Health. “How did you get my number?” was one of their questions for me. By this stage people were sympathetic and I was told, “Leave it with me, I’ll make enquiries.”
Possibly as a result of the phone calls, or maybe just luck, Max, Min and Robyn each got a phone call, very hush hush. “We’re trying to get you home,” said the doctor attached to the hotel. “Don’t talk to anybody about it, but if all goes well we should have all eight WA people on a flight to Perth tonight, before the borders are closed. I’ll call you back in an hour with news.”
A health check was done and then they heard nothing more. They waited, packed, all day. Finally a text message was sent to them at 8.30 pm saying they wouldn’t be leaving. When they asked next day, they were told that staff had gone off duty without handing over, and nothing more was said or done.
Four days later, we still hadn’t heard and WA closed its borders, even to residents. The only exception, I was told, was WA residents arriving back from overseas. Again, trying to drive the car while it was still being built.
We did another emergency supplies shopping run. Lots of wine! At the hotel the “comfort packages” were stacked on a wheeled luggage rack just inside the main entrance. Judging from the clink of glass, I suspect many of the incarcerated guests were drowning their sorrows. On our first visit we had seen one policeman guarding the fire escape. This time we saw three army and three police all sitting in the foyer, carefully socially distanced. We texted Robyn to let her know we had just delivered, and joked that if her package did not arrive intact, to ask the gun-toting security detail.
Then there was a ray of light from WA. People serving quarantine in another state could get exemption and be allowed to travel home. But they needed a way to get home, not easy when flights were cancelled due to lack of passengers. In order to get the exemption paperwork, Robyn, Max and Min needed to have a flight booked. They would have to travel from the hotel direct to the airport. But without an exemption certificate, NSW Health would not let them leave the hotel. Not knowing what date they could leave was causing problems.
I know I wasn’t the only one lobbying. I can’t have been. Robyn had talked with her local member in WA. But Max, Min and Robyn were in the first wave of displaced travellers, interrupted on their journey home despite the urgency. What would happen when their quarantine period was up but they had no way to continue their journey home? One phone call told them they would be out of the hotel and have to find their own accommodation if they couldn’t get back to WA. The uncertainty, lack of information and empathy was horrible.
It took days of back and forth. The routine seemed to be to call Coronavirus Hotline, then they would refer to Service NSW, who when I first rang wondered why they were getting the job. Again, driving the car without steering wheel and engine attached yet… Service NSW would refer me to NSW Health and give me the number, which went to an automated service asking for my postcode, and then transferred the call to the reception desk at a city hospital. They would then transfer the call back to Coronavirus Hotline. Someone did phone Robyn saying her sister-in-law was worried about her, but there was nothing that could be done as no one knew the process. The goal posts kept shifting.
Hopes would be raised, then dashed. NSW Health said they could leave early if they had the exemption paperwork from WA Health, but WA Health needed a flight number in order to organise the paperwork.
Finally things worked out for Max and Min. A flight was available (not many of those now) with a seat also tentatively booked for Robyn. But while the exemption certificates came in for Max and Min, Robyn’s failed to materialise. She saw the taxi pull up and watched her friends get in and drive away, knowing she was once again missing out on a chance to get home. Two hours later she got a phone call from WA police. “Your exemption certificate has come through. You should still have time to get to the airport, I believe the flight is at 7.45pm and it’s just after 5 pm now.”
Robyn looked at her watch in Sydney. It was 7.15 pm Sydney time. “You do realise,” she said with some acidity, “that 5 pm in Perth is already 7 pm in Sydney?”
With yet another plane winging Perth-wards without her, the whole application process had to start over. Again. An exemption certificate was only good for that particular flight.
Finally, almost two weeks after she and her friends had arrived in Sydney, Robyn was given a day’s notice by NSW Health that she would be able to leave quarantine. She would have to go straight to the airport and catch a flight, but only if she had the exemption certificate. A flight she had booked for the Saturday was cancelled. Thankfully there was enough time for yet another (the third application) exemption certificate to be organised. On Good Friday, (10 April) just on sunrise, my husband collected her from the hotel to drive her to the airport. We were on tenterhooks until she arrived back at Perth airport where her daughter had left her car for her to drive herself home. No closer family contact was permitted. She spent the next two weeks quarantined in her own home with her daughter leaving groceries at the door.
All over, at last. Quarantine completed by the end of April, Robyn began doing her own shopping, sorting out medical appointments and trying to forget the ordeal of feeling like a criminal with the plague in lockdown in her own country. Nightmares of not being able to get home then of being closed in, no fresh air and being told off by the cop on duty on her hotel floor simply for daring to exchange a hello with the fellow shipmate across the corridor when they happened to open their doors at the same time to collect their meals off the floor (no such luxury as a tray!) now in the past.
On 27 May, I got a phone call from Service NSW. “You rang with a query about a relative in quarantine. What is it you need help with?”
No, I did not hang up, but the nice young man on the other end of the phone now has a story to dine out on.