Irishwoman in Perth: ‘We put to the back of our minds the fact that we can’t leave Australia’

‘Not knowing how long Australia’s borders will be closed is very difficult for us and our families’

Sonya Redmond, originally from Wexford, now lives in Perth in Australia, with her husband, Kenneth McCarthy. She is chief of staff at the University of Western Australia. She writes about the dual emergency they have faced

I've lived abroad in Australia for just under nine years. Perth has been home for the past seven of those. A home bird at heart, the thought of moving back to to family in Ireland is always on my mind, but I rationalise it away thinking of the lifestyle and job prospects I have here in Australia. At the end of this repetitive inner debate I usually decide that, just for now, I am better off over here, but it is always a very dissatisfying conclusion.

Phone calls to family are everything at the moment, but the time difference can be tricky. I usually take a late lunch at work and call the mammy at about 2.30pm – that is 6.30am in Ireland. By then, she says, she has been up for an hour already (although I am not entirely sure that is always true) and is just making her second cup of tea.

We have been lucky with coronavirus, and life has mainly carried on as normal over here. We were still going out for meals, to the pubs and even to festivals

I am fortunate to work in a beautiful university in Perth with lush green grounds, although that usually prompts the reaction from people in Ireland of, “Well, look where you are, sitting out in the sun, while we are freezing over here.” I typically play it down. “Ah, yeah, but it’s too hot, to be honest: it’s uncomfortable.”

My mam and I would always comfort ourselves with the fact that we are only 24 hours away from each other and can see each other the next day if we need to. Well, 2020 put a stop to that sort of thinking for us both.

When it comes to coronavirus, Western Australia has been incredibly lucky. For the past 10 months – until last week, anyway – there have been no cases apart from those reported by people in strict 14-day hotel quarantine after international flights. The state implemented a “martial law”-type border closure to other Australian states – so, much to their disgust, people from outside Western Australia found they couldn’t come and holiday here, or head down to the beautiful Margaret River wineries.

Our state premier, Mark McGowan, has been a force to be reckoned with: he has not bowed to any pressure from other states, or from the odd mining magnate miffed about the rules. Geographically, Perth is closer to East Timor than it is to Sydney – there is no city of comparable size anywhere in the world that’s so remote. This, along with the sunny climate, has no doubt helped us in the battle against coronavirus. We have been lucky, and life has mainly carried on as normal over here. We were still going out for meals, to the pubs and even to festivals.

Unfortunately, Western Australia recently faced two concurrent emergency situations. On Sunday, January 31st, at 12.30pm, McGowan held an emergency press conference advising that there would be a five-day snap lockdown from 6pm that evening, due to a hotel quarantine worker testing positive for Covid-19. We had to work from home unless essential, only leaving the house for necessary supplies and making the most of our one hour a day of exercise.

After three days, when we had had no local cases, it was announced that if we made it to last Friday with no cases, the lockdown would end. It did, but we need a clear 14 days with no local cases before all restrictions are lifted. I’m not going to complain about such strong measures. It may seem like a harsh reaction to one locally acquired case, but I felt safety and comfort in this strictness. We are again at a starting point that I am sure other countries wish they could be at.

Last week felt apocalyptic. We were in shock over the lockdown when power to some homes was reduced or cut and our usual blue bright sky had a heavy smoky-orange hue. Bushfires are not new to Australia. Last year thousands of firefighters and volunteers battled one of the worst bushfire seasons we have seen, and it isn’t unusual to hear of smaller bushfires burning “up north” or “out east”.

Being from Ireland, the reality of the damage that can be caused by such fires is truly shocking, and the fire warnings on the radio really jolt me. There are four warning levels:

  • advice: be aware and keep up to date;
  • watch and act: there is a possible threat to families and homes , so you need to leave or get ready to defend – do not wait and see;
  • emergency: you are in danger and need to take immediate action, as there is a threat to lives and homes;
  • all clear: take care and keep up to date.

These fires move rapidly; they jump motorways; they carry on the warm winds. Embers can travel up to 40km ahead of the fire, and fire itself can move at more than 25km/h. The danger can rapidly set in on you and your home. Can you imagine driving in your car and hearing your hometown named with a fire warning? “Residents of Wexford, you must leave now or get ready to actively defend.”

In Perth last week, more than 80 homes had been lost and hundreds of people had been forced into evacuation centres or friends’ homes – and all in the middle of lockdown. More than 300 firefighters, many of them volunteers who also have ordinary jobs in the community, are exhausted and injured from battling the blaze and defending the containment lines.

The Snapchats we send from abroad may be from a beach, or of a happy face sitting in the sun, but the reality is that there isn't a day that goes by when we don't miss home and worry about all of our friends and families back there

There were two concurrent threats to lives over here, then, but if the past year has taught us anything it is that we are resilient, strong, courageous and compassionate. We are trying to check in on each other, whether it is making sure your neighbour has enough face masks to do their shopping or ringing a family member in another country so you can both chat through the madness.

Not knowing how long Australia’s borders will be closed is very difficult for us immigrants and our families. My husband’s father passed away suddenly last year, and we had to watch his funeral on a livestream. Times when we would usually rally around each other, and go through our traditional coping rituals, are not what they were. Given the distance, we feel useless at a time when our families need us most. We try put the reality that we are not allowed to leave Australia to the back of our minds.

We are all together in this horrible state of flux. We are all, in our own way, suffering through this awful, unprecedented time, while also trying to summon some positivity to keep going. The Snapchats we send from abroad may be from a beach, or of a happy face sitting in the sun, but the reality is that there isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t miss home and worry about all of our friends and families back there. We all just need to look after ourselves and each other until we are together again for the longest airport hugs the world has ever seen.

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