Irishwoman in Brisbane: Stuck in Fortress Australia, with its frustratingly slow vaccine rollout

In ways we have it good here, with little Covid. But we also feel isolated, far from family

Australians wait to be vaccinated. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty

Australians wait to be vaccinated. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty

 

During the Covid-19 pandemic it has been easier than ever to look abroad, wherever one is, and think that, yes, the hills are greener far away. Here, far, far away from Ireland, in Brisbane, we have it good: few cases and few deaths, and in general life goes on compared with European countries. So why now, and throughout the past year, have we Irish down under been unhappy too? It’s because we are locked into Fortress Australia.

Since March 2020 almost everybody has been banned from leaving the country. I have permanent residency here; so far my applications to travel outside Australia have been turned down. Having older relatives in Ireland who may be ill, or even wanting to attend a family funeral, does not guarantee an exemption: the key factor is whether the Australian government deems the trip too high risk for you to return here, even given its very good two-week quarantine system.

Watching Ireland from afar, we now fear being left behind. Without a vaccine we cannot travel to Europe. So while families at home plan their get-togethers once again, we cannot be part of that

One way to ensure easier travel could be vaccination. But, strangely, Australia has one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the world. Watching Ireland from afar, we now fear being left behind. Without a vaccine we cannot travel to Europe. So while families at home plan their get-togethers once again, we cannot be part of that. This adds to the anxiety of many people in Australia, who have been dealing with lack of freedom and isolation over the past 15 months.

I am here after following the footsteps of my great-aunt from Co Roscommon, who travelled to Brisbane by boat in 1924. A nun, she spent the rest of her life in the city, nursing at the city’s Mater hospital. My position here as professor of health economics was in collaboration with the Mater and the University of Queensland, so I seemed destined to be here, trying to carry on the good work they started long, long ago, and help improve Australians’ health.

Being close to the Mater hospital now gives me a sense of connection to Ireland, especially in these isolated times. The day Australia announced it was closing its borders until 2022 – and possibly beyond – was very tough: May 7th, 2021, is a day we will not forget. International colleagues described feeling ill and unable to work that day. For me it was a moment of heightened fear of not seeing some older family members ever again, shock that was physical and emotional, and hit hard.

It is hard for people in Ireland to understand what we are struggling with here, and hard for us to know what they are dealing with. The solution is to let us travel, once vaccinated, so we can be together, and help each other. Fortunately, I will soon be vaccinated; others are not eligible just yet. Then the next challenge is to get that exemption to leave, so I can travel home.

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