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An army of PPE-clad officials greets us as we come off the flight bridge at Melbourne airport. They’re directing us to sanitise our hands, get temperature checked, replace our masks with new ones. But most of all, they’re insisting we maintain social distance.
Little do they realise we’ve all just spent 16 hours in a closed cabin, packed like sardines, with not more than 6-inch distancing.
* * *
I’m so glad – and thankful – to be back in Australia, even though it’s going to be another 14 days before I can hug my wife and kids. It’s been nothing short of a nightmare getting here. The process was racked with uncertainty, and anxiety, not to mention the emotional turmoil of leaving my recently bereaved elderly father behind, and the angst for my business that has taken a pummelling since I rushed off to India ten months ago. I’m physically and emotionally battered.
* * *
I’ve lived in Australia for 37 years. My sister, my only other sibling, lives in the US. Our parents preferred to continue living in India.
In July last year, my mother passed away at our family home in Delhi, aged 87 years. With international travel bans in place, I asked for an exemption to travel for her funeral, and managed to get onto a plane four days later.
Our father (92 years) cannot live independently, so my sister and I came to an arrangement of 6 monthly shifts to live with him in India. She returned to the US in August 2020 and I had no option other than staying on to care for Dad.
When the new COVID wave came in March, there was carnage all around me. My mind was singularly focused on reuniting with my family in Melbourne and reviving my business. By April, countries were issuing travel warnings for India, or worse, banning flights from India.
The Australian Govt dropped a bombshell with its ill-conceived 2-week flight ban with fines and penalties. My anxiety to get back home and my sister’s reluctance to come to COVID ravaged India, whilst being completely understandable, didn’t go without some emotionally charged conversations.
* * *
Thankfully the ban was lifted on 15 May with the announcement of flights to evacuate 1,000 vulnerable candidates out of the 10,000 registered.
The million-dollar question was, who is deemed “vulnerable”? It was all speculation, as my mind went into a tizzy, seeking the answer to “Am I on the list of the 1,000?”
Computing that at a rate of evacuating only 150 passengers per week, it will take more than six weeks to get the 1,000 back home. What if I am way down the list of priority? Should I even share this information with my sister and get her to delay her arrival? What if I get a flight, and she isn’t here or can’t get here? Or the other way around – what if she arrives on 25 May as planned, and I still don’t have any way to exit? Is it fair for me to subject her to the COVID exposure in India?
My calls to the Australian High Commission could not shed any light either as they themselves had no clue.
* * *
Finally, I received an email invite to register my interest for a Govt-assisted evacuation flight from Delhi to Darwin on 14 May but with due processes of pre-flight rapid Antigen Test, isolating at a Delhi hotel, then another test pre-flight and then once in Australia, more quarantine.
I would have to pay $1,500 towards the costs of hotel stay, testing and flight to Darwin (trust me, this is hugely subsidised and very generous of the Australian Govt), especially when compared with the opportunistic pricing announced by Qatar Airways for flights out of Delhi into Adelaide starting at $10,000 One-Way with only Business Class seat availability.
And then a fixed cost of $3,000 – which seems like market rates.
However tempting it was for me to throw my hat in the ring by registering with no guarantee to be on 14 May flight to Darwin, I could not have made arrangements for my father to be cared for until my sister arrived on the 25th. And so, with a heavy heart I declined the invite and did not register.
* * *
Then came news dissecting the experience of passengers on the first flight that landed in Darwin on the 15th (great optics for ScoMo to lift the ban on the 15th by landing the first flight that morning!).
The flight left with only half the anticipated plane load – as learnt subsequently, due to bungled testing in India that authorities deny completely. Irrespective of the testing failure, you’d think a global airline of Qantas’ repute would have statistical modellers who predict no shows and exigencies to create a booking buffer.
I wasn’t sure how to react – bless my stars I wasn’t on it to possibly get bumped off, or to regret my decision as there were almost 80 seats abegging!
* * *
The next email arrived, announcing a flight anticipated a week later on 24 May, for which I would have to go into hotel isolation that very evening! Oh, and there would be no surety of boarding the flight.
How could I leave my father alone for 5 days?
But this time I had a human voice at the other end who answered my query about future flight options and there was one scheduled from Delhi every 2 days – 26 May to Melbourne, 28 May to Brisbane, 30 May to Darwin and 1 June to Perth.
Wonder why this was not broadcast to the thousands of us in anguish and despair here in India?!
For me Melbourne is home, and the direct flight was so compelling, I confirmed my acceptance.
My family in Melbourne were over the moon.
* * *
I checked in at the ITC Maurya Hotel and cleared my Rapid Antigen. Instructions were to remain in my room at all times, with meals delivered at my door.
For a hotel of very high repute and the finest Michelin-starred tandoori (Bukhara) and Persian (Dum Pukht) restaurants to rave about – the packaged vegetarian meal that was served was anticlimactic. [DFAT/Qantas/Maurya – please include a field in the check-in form for Meal Request like you do in-flight. Please do not stigmatise us as evacuees whom you are doing a favour. Not that I am ungrateful, but as a citizen who votes decision makers into office and pays my taxes in one of the higher contribution brackets, I think I deserve your protection in my time of grave need.]
A restless night followed, with worries about low internet connectivity, wait list, RT-PCR test outcome.
The next morning a lab technician arrived to collect my nasal and oral samples. Whilst his list had my room number incorrect he assured me that the container in which the samples were placed had the correct details. (Thankfully, it came the next day back negative).
I was vaccinated (Covishield) before commencing this quarantine, and rigorously tested to be COVID-free but the nagging thought remains – will I be susceptible to infection during my mandatory hotel quarantine in VIC, which has a terrible track-record of managing the process?
* * *
On the final day of the 72-hour isolation, I had not heard from anyone about the arrangements for the flight that evening.
I suppose it was just the lull before the storm. At 11:30 I got a call saying that in 10 minutes, I must have my check-in bags ready to be collected outside my door. For an 8:05 pm flight?
Then I got a call from Canberra saying, whilst I have a booking, I am not ticketed. This definitely made me skip a heartbeat. No one had asked me to get ticketed until now. I guess they had to be certain of me boarding with a negative RT-PCR first!
I was given an Australian Qantas number to contact for payment, but I did not have international dial facility on my mobile. My wife in Melbourne arranged payment and send confirmation – which occurred seamlessly in a 10-minute turnaround!
[DFAT/Qantas … once you learnt of my NEGATIVE test – would it not have been easier for you to email me with a link for payment? I received so many emails at various stages prior – why not just this crucial time?]
Anyway, I was finally on the bus to the airport – where, the perfect bubble we had been in for this long, was completely compromised.
There were 15-20 flights departing and passengers scurrying all around the place. So much for ensuring we did not get infected pre-boarding!
Through immigration, security, duty free and at the boarding gate, I was exposed to hundreds of staff and unrelated passengers. When we boarded, every seat was occupied.
At Melbourne I was told I would be going to the Mantra Hotel in Epping.
It’s the epicentre of the current outbreak that has sent the city into its most recent lockdown.
* * *
On the plus side, the Mantra WiFi connectivity is fantastic and I’m now connected with family and friends. My laptop is set up for work, and I’ve returned negative again in the RT-PCR test.
Can’t wait to finally get home!
When I do, I will be praying for all those who are still wondering how and when they will get back home. I urge the authorities to expedite the process and communicate, communicate, communicate.
I know I continue to receive emails of flight offers even after I have arrived here, and will perhaps continue to do so… unless I remove myself from the DFAT Portal.
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