Stuck in Tahiti with no flights available, Paul Stratfold was running out of time to return to Australia and renew his residency visa. The Briton decided his best option was to sail 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) across the South Pacific Ocean, a solo journey that lasted almost a month.
A professional sailor, the 41-year-old hadn’t done anything of this magnitude before. Stratfold’s 50-foot yacht was hit by a storm for two days and slept no more than 40 minutes at a time to reduce the risk of collisions. “It was the only way I could get home,” he said in an interview. He arrived in Southport in Queensland on July 3.
Desperate trips like this, along with stories of tragedy and separation, are increasingly common as the pandemic progresses, especially where governments persist with hard-line quarantines and border controls. Nearly two years after the crisis, tens of thousands of frustrated citizens from nations like Australia and New Zealand remain stranded abroad, unable to secure return flights to their home countries and one of the few spaces allotted for mandatory quarantine of Hotels.
Mandatory quarantines helped isolate the nations called Covid Zero from the worst of the pandemic by keeping the virus out. But as other parts of the world begin to move and reopen, the maintenance of these expensive systems becomes less sustainable and cracks begin to appear.
Under siege by an outbreak of the delta variant after a single case circumvented its border limits, Australia has repeatedly cut its quarantine quota, with fewer than 3,000 overseas arrivals allowed each week. That’s for a nation of 25 million known for its widespread diaspora. New Zealand’s hotel quarantine system has been ridiculed because demand outstrips supply, a problem compounded by the freezing of room releases during closure.
Hong Kong, one of the few places to avoid a delta outbreak, still requires people coming from the US and the UK to quarantine themselves in a hotel room for 21 days, even if they are fully vaccinated. The lack of affordable options has resulted in a mad rush for beds. Some who cannot endure three weeks of isolation are flying through countries considered lower risk to reduce their quarantine time.
After finishing his studies in London, David Deka took this “washout” approach when Hong Kong abruptly suspended all passenger flights from Britain throughout July. He spent three weeks in Serbia, which still had flights to Hong Kong as it was considered lower risk. While there, the only connection to Hong Kong was also suspended.
“It was stressful,” Deka said. “I thought that whatever he did, Hong Kong would do something to prevent him from coming back.”
He eventually returned to Hong Kong, where he still had to be quarantined in a hotel for 14 days. Deka said she met dozens of people in Serbia who had traveled from India, which was on various blacklists due to its rampant outbreak, to “wash up” before heading to places like the United States and Canada.
The distances taken are in stark contrast to many other parts of the world, where vaccines are on the rise and border restrictions are easing, or were never really enforced.
Blocking countries and eradicating the virus domestically should only be a stopgap measure until vaccination rates rise, according to immunologist Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand.
“The elimination has run its course,” he said. “It is destroying the fabric of society.”
Armed with their inability to return with dying relatives, attend to business, or simply go home for Christmas, some people are struggling.
A pregnant New Zealander became one of the most prominent challengers to the country’s quarantine model. Bergen Graham, 33, was living with her husband in her home country of El Salvador when she became pregnant in February. His tourist visa expired, so he left for Los Angeles and began trying to get home.
Graham, classified as a high medical risk, has applied for a place in New Zealand’s quarantine system six times, according to her lawyer Frances Joychild. They all failed.
The situation changed almost immediately when Joychild filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming that the quarantine system violated New Zealand’s Rights Act, a law that states that all citizens have the right to enter the country.
“The government was on the phone the next day wanting to reach an agreement,” Joychild said in an interview. “They offered him a place.” Graham and her husband landed in Auckland on September 16 and headed for quarantine.
While Graham dropped his case as part of the settlement, it opened a potential path 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 is a possibility,” he said.
Grounded Kiwis, a network of more than 3,500 New Zealanders around the world affected by the politics, is also considering legal action. “This is causing too much suffering,” said spokesman Samuel Drew.
The stage is set for quarantine changes in Asia, the region that most actively deploys border regimes that ensured fewer deaths but left countries isolated. Opposition is growing as systems struggle to keep the most transmissible delta variant out. The latest virus outbreak in China, one of the main proponents of Covid Zero, was likely seeded by a returnee who tested positive after 21 days of quarantine.
New Zealand ombudsman Peter Boshier said last month that 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 anguish many had suffered.
Arrivals to New Zealand typically stay for 14 days at one of approximately 30 facilities spread 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 website received 19,600 daily visitors in early August. Grounded Kiwis said that only 200 quarantine rooms are released every day, which equates to a 1% chance of success.
Some 45,000 people abroad want to return to Australia, says the government. They are increasingly helpless because international arrivals at the country’s airports are capped at just 2,286 per week, a number that has dropped as delta cases have skyrocketed. The weekly limit in Sydney was cut in half to 756 passengers this month.
Morrison says he wants to introduce home quarantine for returning Australians who are fully vaccinated. While a trial is underway in the state of South Australia, with another to begin in New South Wales soon, a transition out of hotels will only occur once Australia’s vaccination rate exceeds 70% o even 80%, according to the prime minister.
The hotel quarantine is clearly losing its relevance. It served as Australia’s main infection detector last year, before the delta outbreak shut down much of the country. These days, the vast majority of new cases are in the community. Only 16 of the more than 9,000 cases in New South Wales in the past week came from abroad.
For some, the solution is to avoid quarantine altogether. Eric Blackwell, 30, and Tim Wright, 28, are sailing back to New Zealand from Indonesia on a 47-foot yacht. As long as they test negative for Covid-19 upon arrival, they will not have to quarantine themselves after the six-week voyage as long as 14 days have passed since their last port of call.
While the trip is primarily an adventure for the two jobless pilots, they will take a couple who was in Bali and was unable to secure quarantine spaces.
“There are a lot of people struggling to get home,” Blackwell said in a video interview from his ship, Kiwi Summers. “I wouldn’t even try to fly.”
Fellow sailor Stratfold, who is fully vaccinated, was not so lucky. Unable to obtain a quarantine exemption after making landfall in Australia, he had to isolate himself at a nearby hotel for 14 days, at a cost of almost A $ 3,000 ($ 2,200).
“Going through all these difficulties and expenses is just ridiculous,” he said. “How could someone have Covid after 26 days alone on a boat?”