Stuck in Tahiti with no flights available, Paul Stratfold was running out of time to return home to Australia and renew his residence visa. The Briton decided his best option was to travel 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) across the southern Pacific Ocean, a solo trip that lasted nearly a month.
A professional sailor, the 41-year-old had done nothing of this magnitude before. Stratfold’s 50-foot yacht was storm-battered for two days and slept no more than 40 minutes at a time to reduce the chance of a collision. “It was the only way for me to get home,” he said in an interview. It reached Southport in Queensland on July 3.
Desperate journeys like this, along with tales of tragedy and separation, are increasingly common as the pandemic spreads, especially when governments persist with quarantines and uncompromising border controls. Almost two years after the start of this crisis, tens of thousands of frustrated citizens in countries like Australia and New Zealand remain stranded abroad, unable to secure return flights to their home countries and one of the few slots allocated to mandatory quarantine at the hotel.
International passenger flights resume to Melbourne from Thursday, with Victoria introducing new hotel quarantine measures. International flights were banned in mid-February after Victoria was stranded for five days following a COVID-19 outbreak linked to the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport hotel, which has seen Britain’s most virulent strain virus leaking from the quarantine system and into the community.
Mandatory quarantines have helped isolate so-called Covid Zero countries from the worst of the pandemic by preventing the virus from entering. But as other parts of the world begin to move forward and reopen, maintaining these expensive systems becomes less and less tenable and cracks start to appear.
Besieged by a delta variant outbreak after a single case escaped its borders, Australia has repeatedly reduced its quarantine quota, with fewer than 3,000 overseas arrivals allowed each week. New Zealand’s hotel quarantine system has been mocked as demand exceeds supply, an issue exacerbated by the freeze on room releases during the current lockdown, also triggered by a delta incursion.
One of the few places to avoid a delta outbreak, Hong Kong still forces people from the US and UK to self-quarantine in a hotel room for 21 days, even if they are fully vaccinated. . The lack of affordable options has led to a mad rush for beds. Some who cannot withstand three weeks of isolation are flying through countries considered low risk to reduce their quarantine time.
After graduating from London, David Deka took this approach – known as the “wash out” – when Hong Kong abruptly suspended all passenger flights from Britain in July. He spent three weeks in Serbia, which still had flights to Hong Kong as it was considered less risky. While there, the only connection to Hong Kong was also suspended.
“It was stressful,” Deka said. “I thought whatever I did, Hong Kong would do something to keep me from coming back.”
He eventually returned to Hong Kong, where he still had to quarantine himself in a hotel for 14 days. Deka said he met dozens of people in Serbia who had traveled from India, which was on several blacklists due to its raging epidemic, to “wash up” before traveling to places like the United States and Canada.
The efforts are in stark contrast to many other parts of the world, where vaccinations are increasing and border restrictions are easing, or have never really been imposed.
Locking down countries and eliminating the virus nationwide should only be an interim measure until vaccination rates rise, according to immunologist Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, in New Zealand.
“Elimination has run its course,” he said. “It destroys the fabric of society.”
Angry at their inability to return to dying relatives, run businesses or come home for Christmas, some people are fighting back.
A pregnant New Zealander has become one of the most prominent challengers of the country’s quarantine model. Bergen Graham, 33, was living with her husband in her home country of El Salvador when she got pregnant in February. Her tourist visa expired, so she went to Los Angeles and started trying to get home.
Classified as medically high risk, Graham has applied for a place in New Zealand’s quarantine system six times, according to his lawyer Frances Joychild. Everything has failed.
The situation changed almost immediately when Joychild filed a complaint against the government, claiming the quarantine system violated New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act, a law which states that every citizen has the right to enter the country. .
“The government was on the phone the next day wanting to settle,” Joychild said in an interview. “They offered him a place. Graham and her husband landed in Auckland on September 16 and went into self-quarantine.
As Graham dropped her case as part of the settlement, she opened up a potential avenue for others. Joychild has been inundated with calls and emails from New Zealanders seeking to challenge the process in the same way. “A class action suit is a possibility,” she said.
Grounded Kiwis, a network of more than 3,500 New Zealanders around the world affected by politics, are also considering legal action. “It is causing too much suffering,” said spokesman Samuel Drew.
The stage is set for quarantine reshuffles across Asia, the region most actively deploying border regimes that have claimed fewer deaths but leave increasingly isolated countries the longer they persist. Opposition grows as once-tight systems struggle to keep the delta from being more transmissible. The latest virus outbreak in China, one of the main supporters of Covid Zero, was likely sown by a returnee who tested positive after 21 days in quarantine.
New Zealand’s chief ombudsperson Peter Boshier said last month he was considering a review of the quarantine regime after a wave of complaints. In a video message to expats this month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged the grief that many had suffered.
Arrivals to New Zealand typically stay for 14 days at one of 30 facilities across the country. For those who then leave New Zealand within 180 days, the quarantine costs NZ $ 3,100 ($ 2,200). The system’s reservation site received 19,600 daily visitors in early August. Grounded Kiwis said only 200 quarantine rooms are released each day, which equates to a 1% chance of success.
Some 45,000 people abroad wish to return to Australia, according to the government. They are increasingly powerless as international arrivals at the country’s airports are capped at just 2,286 per week, a number that has declined as delta cases have multiplied. The weekly limit in Sydney was cut in half to 756 passengers this month.
Morrison says he wants to introduce a home quarantine for returning Australians who are fully vaccinated. While one trial is underway in the state of South Australia and another will begin shortly in New South Wales, a transition out of hotels will only occur once the vaccination rate in. Australia will exceed 70% or even 80%, according to the Prime Minister.
The quarantine of hotels is clearly losing its relevance. It served as Australia’s primary infection detector last year, before delta sent much of the country to lockdown. But these days, the vast majority of new cases are in the community. Only 16 of the more than 9,000 cases recorded in New South Wales in the past week were from overseas.
For some, the solution is to avoid quarantine altogether. Eric Blackwell, 30, and Tim Wright, 28, return to New Zealand from Indonesia on a 47-foot yacht. Provided they test negative for Covid-19 upon arrival, they will not have to self-quarantine after the six-week trip as long as 14 days have passed since their last stopover.
While the trip is mostly an adventure for the two unemployed pilots, they take with them a couple who were in Bali and were unable to secure quarantine slots.
“There are a lot of people who have a hard time getting home,” Blackwell said in a video interview from their boat, Kiwi Summers. “I wouldn’t even try to fly.”
His compatriot Stratfold, who is fully vaccinated, was not so lucky. Unable to obtain a quarantine exemption after making landfall in Australia, he had to self-isolate in a nearby hotel for 14 days, at a cost of nearly A $ 3,000 ($ 2,200).
“Going through all these hardships and expenses is just ridiculous,” he said. “How could someone have Covid after 26 days alone on a boat?”