Erin Handley Correspondent
Australians and many other westerners stranded overseas after their governments snap ban on flights from countries in southern Africa are calling for repatriation flights to be arranged to bring them home.
On Saturday last week, Sydney lawyer Debbie Anderson travelled to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, to bring her elderly mother home to Australia.
While her plane was mid-air, Australia closed its borders to travellers from eight countries in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe and her return flights were cancelled.
“My brother died recently in Zimbabwe, and so my mum is on her own,” Ms Anderson said. “It’s just quite an emotional time because of that, and then the overlay of uncertainty is awful.”
Her mother Sheila Lazarus is 85 and has Australian residency.
Ms Anderson had hoped to spend two weeks there to scatter her brother’s ashes and help pack up her mother’s life in Zimbabwe. Her husband and daughters in Sydney are worried she won’t be home for Christmas, after Ms Anderson had flights repeatedly cancelled.
“It’s all very well for the government to say that Australians and residents can come back, but there is no way for us to get back. We’ve tried everything,” she said. “Nobody wants to get sick or spread disease, but you do want to be able to get home.”
Ms Anderson added that countries in Africa tend to be lumped into one basket, but pointed out her mother’s city in Zimbabwe was leading the country in vaccine take-up and said Zimbabwe had also imposed border controls due to Omicron.
The Australian government has said the border security measures were based on medical advice and as a precaution to protect Australians from the Omicron variant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said a government facilitated flight arrived in Howard Springs from Johannesburg on November 25 with 20 passengers on board.
“We continue to monitor demand for government facilitated commercial flights.”
The ABC understands government facilitated flights are scheduled to depart from Singapore and Islamabad in December.
“I just think that the government should think about the repercussions of what they’ve done, and not just leave people stranded,” Ms Anderson said.
Several Australians now stuck in mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine had travelled to South Africa for compelling family reasons, including saying final goodbyes to loved ones who they have been separated from for almost two years.
One man, who asked not to be named, told the ABC he flew to South Africa to visit his dying mother.
When he saw the United Kingdom was shutting its border, he scrambled to get a flight out of South Africa on November 26.
His mother passed away the next day. He was unable to be there for her final moments.
He said he wanted an explanation from the NSW government, as he had travelled on the assurances from Premier Dominic Perrottet that hotel quarantine would be a “thing of the past” for fully vaccinated travellers.
The NSW Premier said hotel quarantine would be a ‘thing of the past’ in NSW from November 1, but the Omicron variant has changed that.
He said he was frustrated by the “knee jerk reaction” from countries shutting borders when there was still so little information about the new variant.
He added that health experts have pointed out vaccines may not stop people catching the virus, but are designed to prevent severe illness and avoid overburdening the health system.
One woman, Vee, flew to South Africa after her mother suffered an aneurysm in August. Her mother remains in a coma.
Vee said she travelled to help her father, who has early-onset dementia, and to arrange for her mother’s palliative care.
“I couldn’t go earlier, due to the requirements of quarantine and the cost involved, and not being able to afford that as a single mother,” she said.
“My dad’s really struggling … I was in the process of trying to get him to accept that my mum’s not going to wake up again.”
While in South Africa, she woke up to find 53 messages on her phone from family and friends — the UK had shut its borders, and other countries were following suit.
She rushed home to Australia, where her three children live, and is now dealing with the isolation of hotel quarantine.
But, she added, she was grateful to the staff who were “putting their lives on the line” in doing tests on potential Covid-19 patients.
“It’s really having an effect on my mental health,” she said, describing quarantine as “not only a physical but a mental jail too.”
Vee said she and other travellers from South Africa were isolated from other passengers at Singapore airport, but her flight to Australia was packed and she sat next to travellers from Europe and Asia, who were not required to quarantine as she was.
Travellers caught off guard by rule change won’t be charged for quarantine.
Vee said a major concern was a lack of clarity about whether they would be charged for the mandatory hotel quarantine.
Authorities in NSW and Victoria have said people caught off-guard by the sudden changes will not have to pay for quarantine.
South Africa sounded the alarm on the new variant, triggering travel bans. But Omicron was detected in the Netherlands a week prior.
“People who were in transit when the new Public Health Orders were introduced and didn’t know about quarantine requirements will not be charged,” a spokesperson for the Department of NSW Premier and Cabinet told the ABC.
“Arrangements for future arrivals are being considered and will be communicated to travellers.”
In Victoria, international travellers from an “extreme risk” country who enter hotel quarantine between 11:59pm on Saturday November 27 and 11:59pm on Saturday December 4 will not be charged a fee.
Cecil Bass, a registered migration agent in Sydney, said many of his clients were stranded and desperate.
They included a British family who were passing through South Africa on their journey to move to Australia permanently and are now stuck there.
His nephew, an Australian permanent resident, was due to leave South Africa on Wednesday, but his flight was cancelled.
He said he was not critical of the government, but felt South Africa and most other southern African countries had been treated unfairly after the emergence of the Omicron variant.
“It’s disrupted peoples’ lives,” Mr Bass said. “There’s a lot of sadness among South Africans, especially at this time of year when they should be together.” — ABC