“Welcome home!” When I first heard Australian customs officers say these two words, I could hardly hold back tears.
- Our flights were cancelled shortly after the Government announced the travel ban
- We had to rebook our tickets at the airport because we could not get through on the phone
- After returning to Melbourne, we started our 14 days of quarantine at home
My family and I had finally made it back home to Melbourne on Tuesday morning after a 65-hour ordeal trying to exit Guangzhou, a city in southern China, during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
Still wearing our masks, we got off the packed plane. We were all exhausted and remained quiet — only the cries and discomfort of young children around us could be heard.
Quarantine officers came to check passengers’ temperatures and customs officials made sure everyone was eligible to enter Australia under the Government’s recent travel ban on visitors from China.
It was a real relief to be back on Australian soil, especially after our prolonged journey home.
Two hours before we were set to leave our accommodation for Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport on February 1, we heard the news that Australia would deny entry for people who left or transited through mainland China, effective from that night.
However, exceptions would be made for Australian citizens and permanent residents, as well as their immediate families like spouses, dependents or legal guardians.
Not long after that, we received a text message from China Southern Airline saying our flight to Melbourne was cancelled, as well as the other two direct flights from Guangzhou to Melbourne that night and the following morning.
One of my friends, who was due to take an earlier flight on February 1, also had his flight cancelled after his bags were already checked in and he was at the boarding gates. He was asked to return to the check-in area for further information.
We rang the airline to try and change our tickets, but we were put on hold for hours and couldn’t get through.
The next day, we decided to bring all our luggage to the airport to see if we could change our flights.
We arrived to chaotic scenes — about 100 people, all wearing masks, were crowded around information counters waiting to be served.
We waited for five hours before it was our turn.
‘Make up your mind now! Yes or no?’
The woman behind the counter was so tired and frustrated she sounded like she was screaming when she spoke.
We didn’t have many options. Direct flights from Guangzhou to Melbourne were reduced from three a day to only one.
We were offered to transit at Beijing or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, but with two young children — a six-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter — and the danger of exposure to the deadly virus, we declined.
Then the woman found a flight.
“There is a flight to Adelaide tonight,” she said.
My husband and I looked at each other, then asked: “When?”
“10:15pm,” she replied.
We looked at our watch. It was already 9:55pm.
“Are you kidding me? We haven’t even checked in our bag yet. How are we going to make it in 20 minutes with two kids?” My husband asked the woman.
Clearly impatient, she demanded: “Make up your mind now! Yes or no?”
We said “no”, and the flight was quickly snatched by a young couple behind us.
After arguing with airline staff for another hour, we were finally offered four seats on a direct flight to Melbourne departing the next day.
‘We will be stuck here’
Like many Chinese-Australian migrant families, we travelled to China to visit my parents and siblings and to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
While I heard there were a few cases of coronavirus in December, I didn’t give it too much thought when we flew there a month ago.
At the start of our holiday, we had a wonderful time: the weather was beautiful, we visited friends, went for yum cha and sightseeing. We were on a tight schedule every day, with lots to see and do.
But, that all changed on January 20, when we woke up to news that confirmed coronavirus cases had suddenly jumped to over 200.
The next morning, panic started to take over. Surgical masks at the chemists were sold out and prices more than doubled.
Hand sanitisers and anti-flu medicines were also sold out everywhere.
On January 23, the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve, authorities announced Wuhan was in lockdown and thousands of medical staff from around the country were sent to help.
My husband woke me up at 2:00am on New Year’s Day and said: “You go with the kids first, I heard Guangzhou will be locked down too.”
“We will be stuck here,” he said.
My teeth started chattering and my hands become ice cold.
“We should leave now,” he said.
“There are only three tickets left for tonight or tomorrow morning.
“You go with the kids first.”
I took a deep breath and told myself to calm down, and decided to wait and see what would happen. After all, Guangzhou was about 1,000 kilometres from Wuhan and with far fewer coronavirus cases.
I closely monitored the Chinese media coverage of the outbreak every day.
Without access to a virtual private network (VPN), I was only able to access news that was available to me inside the firewall.
Chinese state media launched large-scale coverage on the country’s fight against the epidemic, emphasising how much the Government had done to monitor and control the outbreak.
It also stressed how hard medical staff were working and how they had sacrificed family time and put their own safety at risk to combat the virus.
There were so many of these stories, but the ones that were missing were from the patients and those who didn’t get a chance to be hospitalised.
Most media outlets also chose not to cover the stories about the families whose loved ones were sent straight to the intensive care unit and cremated.
It was not until a few cases of coronavirus were found right across the residential building from where my mother lived in Guangzhou that I realised there was a chance we could actually catch the virus.
Members of the neighbourhood committee drove through residential areas warning people on megaphones not to come out of their homes, and urged them to report any “suspicious people” from Hubei province.
Back in Melbourne and under quarantine
I felt great relief when the Government soon dispelled the rumour that Guangzhou would be put under lockdown.
Within a fortnight, my family and I landed back in Melbourne and we are now a few days into our 14-day quarantine at home. At least five Chinese families I know of are doing the same.
But we are not alone. We have friends and neighbours helping us do the groceries and offering to help with whatever we need.
However, it hasn’t been easy. It’s been challenging trying to juggle working from home and keeping my two children busy.
They’ve started asking when they can go out again and start attending school, after they exhausted every activity they can do at home — from jumping in the puddles in the backyard to playing board games.
But we are all grateful to be back at home. Many people in the Chinese community either narrowly escaped the travel ban or made extra efforts to be able to come home.
While we all seem to agree the travel ban is a necessary measure to protect the community, I’m left wondering if it could have been arranged in a way that gave families more time to rearrange their plans.
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