While Australia’s COVID border restrictions are being lifted, I’m nervous about returning home. Here’s why

Australia may be starting to reopen its borders, but after months of longing to return home, I am nervous about the prospect of returning.

I have long sat out of the pandemic in my apartment in Berlin and dreamed of hugging family, meeting friends’ babies and walking the beaches of Queensland in my youth.

I cannot forget what I have endured and how deeply the government’s extended border restrictions have hurt. Now I wonder how I can sit down to Christmas or Easter lunch and know that the person passing the salt might have thought it was fair to leave me in the desert during an international crisis.

How are returning Australians going to buy a round for old comrades who barely got a peep when we lost their loved ones, life savings and health without access to the home? I wonder if we can feel really safe among our countrymen or in our Australian citizenship ever again.

My compatriots’ support for Australia’s border policies, or silence in the light of their impact, has been traumatic and I am struggling with the consequences of the unrecognized trauma.

Australia, I think, needs an inventory – and much of it will be done within the family unit.

Decides to stay seated

I am not one of the unfortunate Australians who got stuck while visiting loved ones abroad or was caught by cancellations when flight ceilings were imposed. I chose to stay in Germany when the pandemic broke out.

I had just returned to Berlin after visiting Australia and was offered a job that could not be matched at home. Even when the pandemic started ravaging Europe in early 2020, I thought I would get more stability in Germany.

Returning to Australia would have meant living with my family on the Sunshine Coast – something I had not done in more than a decade – while trying to find work during a crisis.

I knew Australia’s border restrictions were tough, but I was not furious in the early days. I accepted and – dare I say it – proudly that Australia seemed to handle the virus better than many countries. This was a once in a lifetime public health emergency. I was able to cope with the sacrifice while the government established safe and reasonable avenues for return.

The problem is, it never really did.

The alarm bells start ringing

My sad acceptance of border restrictions turned into loud alarm bells in April this year when Australians in India were told they would be jailed if they tried to return home in the middle of one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks.

A woman is sitting at an outdoor table.
“The pandemic and Australia’s response to it has distorted my sense of nationality, probably irreversibly,” Rebekah said. (Delivered by: Rebekah Ison)

Then I started researching what it took to get home. What I found was a minefield of constantly changing bureaucracy, unaffordable airline tickets, cancellations and expensive hotel quarantine. My conclusion was that it just would not be possible for me to return home.

And it seemed that many Australians believed that our “strong borders” were not inhuman, but reasonable. The Australia Talks survey in March this year found that 79 per cent of Australians believed the international border should remain closed.

Even after Delta seized Victoria and NSW, fully vaccinated Australians were treated as a threat. They were greeted with hostility or told “you decided to stay there” or “you’ve had plenty of time to get home”.

My immediate family has been empathetic, but some close members have also said they can see both sides.

I have struggled to reconcile how my family can say they want me home but do not speak out against border measures or write to a Member of Parliament to protest. I do not understand how they can not see that not getting involved is a voice for the status quo.

There are things I can not expect my family in Queensland to really understand. They do not know what it is like to spend every day for more than a year pursued by serious illness. Most Australians, and certainly Queenslanders, where COVID-19 has had relatively little influence, do not know what it is like to try to avoid COVID outbreaks that appear as spotty fires among friends and colleagues.

But I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. Many Australians abroad feel misunderstood and invalidated by their friends and family back home.

I often feel that some Australians see me as a traitor who deserves limited rights for having chosen to cope with the pandemic in another country where I had a home and a job.

After so many different pandemic experiences, I wonder if my loved ones and I can ever really understand each other in this matter. The pandemic and Australia’s response to it has distorted my sense of nationality, perhaps irrevocably.

Maybe returning Australians should be okay with never being really understood. Perhaps it is possible if – and only if – we can first feel really heard.

Rebekah Ison was a journalist in Australia before moving to Berlin in 2017, where she works in communications.

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