“But aren’t you a citizen?”
That’s the first thing most Italians ask when I tell them I can’t make it home.
People here are baffled by Australia’s border control approach to the pandemic. It might have made sense 18 months ago, when a new quarantine process had to be established, or even eight months ago, before we had a vaccine.
But now I’m fielding questions I don’t know how to answer. One question in particular: “Why?”
When her work contract ended, my partner and I were were ready to go home. We sent off our shipping, gave notice on our rented apartment, said goodbye to our friends. We went on what we thought would be a last hike.
But no sooner had we come down from the mountains than our flights were abruptly cancelled, a week before takeoff.
The last 18 months have made us resilient; we already had a contingency plan. Still, the cuts to arrivals into Australia have thrown us, and many others, into a last-minute scramble for housing, work, visa extensions.
Before the arrivals were halved, there were already more than 30,000 people waiting for a subsidised Dfat flight. This figure will now be much higher.
That number doesn’t include a lot of people. There are many who want to get home but aren’t registered. Anyone with a commercial flight booked, even if they know it will probably be cancelled, is told not to sign up. It doesn’t include those who have already given up and decided to stay where they are; the frustration, rejection and simple expense all having their own inexorable logic.
People back home tell us that there is assistance available. That they are prioritising those most in need. What actually happens is an online auction: you’re sent a booking code, and then there’s a scramble, tickets vanishing in minutes.
There’s no orderly queue and little time to plan. These “subsidised flights” are more expensive than regular flights – the subsidy, it turns out, is for Qantas.
The “financial assistance” is a loan, and you have to prove you can’t borrow the money elsewhere. When someone suggests I might be able to draw on my superannuation to pay for a business-class ticket, I can only blink at them in freelancer.
When I got my second vaccine dose, I again found myself trying to explain why I couldn’t get home. The doctor knew about the outbreak in Sydney. “It’s seasonal,” she said, “that’s why we’re pushing here, it’s a race against the winter.”
“Yes, but only 9% of Australians are vaccinated,” I said. Her eyes opened wide in horror above her mask.
“Why? Don’t they want it?”
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Everyone here envied Australia’s early success in containing the virus. It should have bought time for a world-class vaccination campaign. Instead, the country has senselessly squandered its advantage. How do we explain it?
Drawing a line around the island, keeping the virus out – it’s tempting to believe it will work forever. It’s consistent with decades of escalating xenophobia, with offshore detention, and with centuries of penal-colony paranoia.
The states want to look in control, and Morrison knows that locking the country up is an election winner. But if all you have is “stop the boats”, then everything looks like an invasion.
Even between states, words like “incursion” are used, every little outbreak an opportunity for more blame-shifting, more policing. It’s just as Behrouz Boochani wrote in No Friend but the Mountains: Australia is still a prison.
As a fiction writer, it all feels eerily familiar. Even the language is predictable: the Centre for National Resilience sounds so dystopian, I might have made it up myself.
With stories of hate-speech celebrities skipping into Australia despite the cap, it’s obvious that Fortress Australia is selective. It would be easy enough to get home quickly if we had money to burn. When it comes down to it, wealth is the deciding factor. The line around Australia is not a border at all. It’s a filter. Deporting bigots might be satisfying, but it only reinforces that fact.
Being stranded is a logistical and emotional challenge. I miss my family and friends.
I’ll miss my book’s Australian release – I’ve had to move the launch online. But I know that many have it worse.
So many people have lost loved ones in this pandemic, missed milestones, remain separated from partners or sick relatives. People from migrant backgrounds in Australia are feeling just as forgotten as we are. When will we see our families again? Aren’t we citizens? And this is nothing compared to what we’ve been putting asylum seekers through for years.
It’s not the first time the pandemic has made the future uncertain. But right now, it doesn’t feel like Covid-19 has disrupted our lives. Citizens or not, it feels like we’re on the receiving end of our nation’s cruelty, and learning that it knows no bounds.