After spending nine months living a “New Normal” life in Bali, I have to say returning to Australia has been a little of a culture shock, mentally and physically.
Back in March, when the pandemic took over the world, Indonesia was one of the few countries that made wearing a mask mandatory when outdoors. Along with strict protocols in whatever restaurants remained open, no big gatherings and our own decision to socialise with close friends only, it has meant we’ve led a pretty sheltered life for the majority of this year.
We decided against travelling home back then, against the better judgement of many people, we chose to stay in Bali at the time. We listened to the Australian government as they advised expats to stay put if they were safe, and also because there was no way we could have left within the 5-day window the government gave us.
It was April, when Australian media outlets projected 150,000 deaths in Indonesia by the end of the month. I woke searching the news every day, I knew what other countries faced and the thought of what Bali could and could not cope with, scared the crap out of me. I hardly left the house we lived in. We walked the dogs twice a day, if we needed anything then Rob would head to the supermarket, and then I’d make him change his clothes and scrub before he touched anything when back home. Not quite hermits, but sheltered none the less.
It was late August when we made the decision to close our Bali business and return to Australia. It’s gut-wrenching to think the past five years have been for nothing, and while the situation was out of our hands, it was the hardest decision we’ve ever made. Despite that decision being made, it would be 12 weeks before we could fly out. Gone are the days when you booked a flight and flew the next day or the next week. With Australian arrivals limited to ridiculously low amounts, airlines withdrew flights early on in the year. There were basically only two options for us to fly out of Indonesia to Australia, and at exorbitant prices to match. Once we booked, we received many questions as to why we weren’t coming home sooner, the short answer was — we couldn’t if we tried.
There are many other ways in which travel has changed. Prior to leaving Bali we were required to have a PCR test within 72 hours of our departure with Singapore Airlines. In Sanur, we visited the hospital where I was sat before a nurse behind a screen. Her hands came through two holes to swab my nasal cavities while another nurse held my head still. And then it was a nervous 24 hour wait for the results. While I was sure we were negative, the sore throat and headaches from lack of sleep could have been anything.
Still, a few days later we headed to the airport with negative tests in hand. The queues at the domestic terminal were the first clues everything wasn’t routine. We shuffled in line while remaining a safe distance from the people before us, all policed officially by airport staff. In the terminal every second chair was not used, and on board the plane there were many empty seats as we headed to Jakarta. Once in Jakarta, it was found my negative test paperwork had my name spelt incorrectly. Let me tell you, that was a long 30 minutes while we waited for it all to be fixed from Bali, not easy at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon.
In Singapore we were given coloured armbands to identify us as being in transit, then we sat in a cordoned off area with others as we waited for our flight. Staff regularly walked through to ensure distance was kept. It was an eerie sight, Changi airport essentially empty of people, pre-COVID at least 60,000 people used this airport every day. Once boarded on our flight to Brisbane, the relief of knowing we had made it disappeared as we looked at all of the empty seats around us. A total of 38 people were on our flight, an Airbus A350 which would typically carry 306 passengers. To me this was devastating, as I had followed the plight of many other Australians who were attempting to get home from all over the world. The Prime Minister’s promise to get everyone home by Christmas was never going to come to fruition and as we head into the new year, there are thousands desperately awaiting flights that hopefully don’t get cancelled.
Upon landing in Brisbane, we were met by police officers handing out paperwork to be completed before heading through immigration. Again, the airport was bare, no duty-free shopping on this trip, head directly to the customs officers instead. There is no one to help with your bags, we helped a young mum get her bags while she struggled with her young children. The Defence Force personnel and the police stand well back from the arriving passengers, it’s hard not to feel like you are completely diseased.
Once herded onto a bus, we were taken to our hotel quarantine on the Gold Coast, which we were quite pleased about. It meant we were a step closer to our family who all lived here. Again, the personnel checking us in were all distanced, but most were friendly. Once allocated a room, we took the lift with our bags and were met at the other end to be escorted to our room. It’s quite final when the door closes and locks into place, the reality of not having any social interaction with anyone for two weeks hits home.
We were extremely lucky, our room had a balcony and a gorgeous view, it meant we had fresh air when many other quarantinees don’t. But let’s face it, this was just a hotel room. A bed, a desk with a chair and one armchair. On the balcony was a small table and two chairs. We washed our dishes in the bathroom sink, our clothes in the bathtub and there was no exercise for the whole 14 days other than walking to and from the door. We were given linen to change the bed once, and told to bag up the dirty linen and leave it outside the door. Thank goodness for friends who delivered a vacuum, the carpets were a mess.
It was stupid how excited I’d get when I heard a food delivery, the peephole was used often. Looking over the balcony at Gold Coast life felt a little surreal, I was totally surprised by the normal existence I watched each day. Restaurants were busy, people were hugging when greeting each other, there didn’t seem to be any social distancing and there wasn’t a face mask in sight. The life we left behind in Bali was very different to this, elbow shakes, a nod of the head and masks worn by most everyone. As release day neared, anxiety again set in, I felt quite safe in my small hotel room.
On our last night when we were leaving, the policewoman warned me how different a world I would find, take it easy she said. And she was right.
Please do not think I'm pointing fingers at any government, each have handled this in their own way. This is purely my view as a returning Aussie and everyone who goes through the process has their own experience. But I do feel that many don’t understand what it feels like to return to Australia after a long absence during this time. Some refuse to understand.
On our first day out of quarantine, we were both hit with fatigue and headaches. While it felt good to be going about things normally, the fact no one wore a mask or kept a safe distance baffled me a bit. I had just spent 14 days isolated after all, I did this to ensure the safety of my family and my community, and at a price of $3700 for us both. I know first-hand how COVID can get out of hand, one transmitted case soon becomes 20 and so on, in no time at all. So, to see everyone going about their daily life with perhaps what I can only call complacency, frightens me a little.
I believe mandatory quarantine is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across our country, it has worked well and given all of us here in Australia a sense of normalcy. But I do think it can be done in a more humane way. Consider a family in our situation, they are also placed into the same sized hotel room, and at times with no balcony. That’s no fresh air for the children for the whole 14 days, and no exercise at all. The food which is provided is mostly full of sugar, salt and high carbs, hardly nutritious. Some of the so-called family and health hotels receive frozen meals where the list of ingredients features too many numbers to be called nourishing.
As I write this, new cases in Sydney and Melbourne are once again a common occurrence. At any stage we could see fresh border closures across Australia, leaving many with travel plans that will have to be abandoned. Today we visited a major shopping centre on the Gold Coast, it was crazy busy. While some stores followed protocols, others did not, and the food court overflowed with people. On New Year’s Eve, there were many venues packed to the rafters with revellers heralding in a new year, all hoping 2021 would bring fresh hope.
It’s the same currently with overseas arrivals, those with money can pay up to $150,000 to quarantine in their home and Australian diplomats or those who work for Foreign affairs were able to skip hotel quarantine, instead allowed to stay in their home as they returned for Christmas holidays. They were at home with their families who go about their daily lives… now let that sink in. Different rules for everyone. All while those who are diagnosed as positive in the local community are trusted to stay at home and do the right thing. And we know many don’t.
Today, as new cases are revealed across the country, its reality hitting hard again. Unless everyone is held responsible, not only those returning from overseas or those who work on the frontlines, but everyone in the community. Unless there is one set of rules and all safety protocols are followed, and when everyone comes to appreciate that this life is not the same for everyone, well…until this happens, this pandemic will never end.
Written by Jo Brierley