Australian citizen Mandeep Sharma feels completely abandoned by his government.
He is one of 9,000 Australian nationals stranded in India right now, left to fend for themselves after Canberra this week banned all flights from the pandemic-ravaged country until mid-May.
He has a wife and two daughters in Adelaide and fears their separation will last for months. Catching Covid in India is also a real risk.
The Australian government’s flight ban was the latest tough step taken to prevent the virus from entering the country. Infection rates are close to zero and Australia has recorded far fewer deaths than most countries, thanks to strict border controls and quarantine measures.
Yet these policies have left many Australians in lockdown. The ban on Indian arrivals marked an escalation – the first time the country has stopped evacuations and prevented citizens from returning home. These calls have intensified for more to be done to bring Australians home.
Why can’t citizens enter?
Before the pandemic, there were around one million Australians living abroad. Many have returned home in the past year, but many more have struggled to return.
Currently, around 36,000 nationals are registered to receive government assistance to return home, but the actual number who wish to return is estimated to be much higher.
Australia became one of the first nations to close its borders in March 2020. Only returning nationals and residents were allowed entry. Some exemptions have been granted, including celebrities, sports stars and contract workers. Since April, it has also made New Zealand travelers virus-free.
Those who returned were forced to undertake – and finance – a two-week stay in quarantine in hotels in state capitals. At the start of the pandemic rush, state governments agreed to shoulder the burden of quarantine instead of the federal government, given the lack of national facilities.
About a month later, a problem arose. The number of people returning home – mainly from New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom – threatened to overwhelm the system. There were only a limited number of hotel rooms available.
But instead of expanding the system – for example, adding a specially designed quarantine center – the government has dramatically reduced the number of plane arrivals allowed each week.
Premier Scott Morrison initially sold “travel caps” as a temporary limit. But the cap has become a permanent feature.
Currently, around 7,000 people are permitted each week. But the level can be reduced at any time resulting in flight cancellations and route changes. In January, it was cut in half due to community epidemics and viral mutations.
Many stranded Australians say they would be happy if they felt like they were joining an orderly queue to return home. But the system has proven to be chaotic and arbitrary, and lacks measures to prioritize those who need it most.
Who has been authorized to:
This means that people returning home are largely dependent on commercial airlines. Australia’s limit on arrivals has driven air fares up, putting them out of reach for many.
This has led to the current situation, where less than half of the people who arrived in Australia in February were citizens.
The government has organized a number of repatriation flights, but getting a seat is very competitive. They are also not free.
Is the hotel quarantine adequate?
More and more, no. Since the most infectious British variant arrived in Australia, the quarantine system has been tested.
Perth suffered a three-day lockdown last week after the virus leaked from one of the hotels. It was the seventh time since November that an Australian city has plunged into instant lockdown due to a quarantine leak.
In the past six months, Australia has witnessed 16 breaches of its hotel quarantine system as more infectious strains have arrived. Violations include transmission between travelers in separate rooms and infections transmitted to workers.
Despite efforts to fix hotel quarantine, including improving airflow and security protocols, the virus continues to spread.
Yet the 16 violations are few compared to the overall success of the system. More than half a million people have been treated under the hotel quarantine, Mr. Morrison says.
But every breach is a risk to the community, and recent examples have raised alarm bells about the advisability of quarantining people in city hotels.
How could quarantine be improved?
Critics have demanded an overhaul of the system to allow more Australians to return home. State governments, tired of having to plunge cities into lockdown, have called on the federal government to help build more appropriate facilities.
Experts have always suggested that travelers be moved out of city hotels and to purpose-built centers in regional areas.
Many point to the success of the Howard Springs Center, a renovated mining camp near Darwin. Instead of people being quarantined in cramped hotel rooms with shared hallways, they stay in single-family homes with outdoor spaces. The center will drop from 800 beds to 2,000 next week.
On Thursday, the state of Victoria announced that it would begin work on the design of a similar facility because “we need options we can take to make the community safer.”
“It is clear that the virus will stay with us for a while,” said Acting Prime Minister James Merlino, who also mentioned the delay in the vaccine rollout in Australia.
But the new quarantine center will need federal government buy-in. He called on Canberra to increase the A $ 100million (£ 56million; $ 78million) investment needed to build the center by the end of the year.
Experts have also suggested the home quarantine alternative, which has been successful in countries like Taiwan and New Zealand.
Will the system change?
As the plight of stranded Australians continues, calls for change multiply. But many of those who have been stranded abroad for months believe their calls will be ignored.
Polls throughout the pandemic have shown broad support among Australians across the country for keeping borders closed.
And when community fear was highest, during quarantine epidemics and lockdowns, there were even public debates about preventing Australians from re-entering completely.
During these times, such as with the recent lockdown in Western Australia, politicians have also sought to place the blame on individuals, rather than scrutinizing quarantine faults.
For people like Mr. Sharma, who traveled to India to mourn the death of his father, the lack of empathy is disheartening.
“It’s really devastating to see when people on social media say, ‘Let them stay over there.’ What kind of thing does that mean about a fellow Australian? ‘