real life

"Punching strangers, convulsing and vomiting: What I saw fleeing London for Australia."

The sound of my alarm shocked me.

‘Sunrise’ had become my grown up theme song; it was instilled in me. The soft tune had erupted my sleep at 5am, five days per week, for five years. On that particular day, I didn’t recognise it.

WATCH: Mia Freedman shares her thoughts on coronavirus. Post continues below.

Video via Mia Freedman

COVID-19, Coronavirus, Miley Cyrus, the ‘Rona’ (call it what you will) will impact us all in some way. My story began three weeks ago when I was living blissfully in London.

My lifestyle was quite bland for a self-confessed overachieving thirty ‘something’. I went for runs, I had dinner parties, I went to the pub, and most notably – I worked, I worked a lot.

It was a Tuesday, and I had been on an 11-day self-enforced, mucus sponsored sabbatical. I had been showing symptoms of COVID-19, and it was the right thing to do. That day, bleary-eyed me, was ready to return to my normal life.

8.31am and 8.32am were the two times that defined my future, and unbeknownst to me, would dictate how my last day in London would play out.

Before I explain the calls, it’s worth explaining my position. I was on my notice period in a role that I adored. But home had summoned, and there were only so many more pint hangovers I could maintain while living the Peter Pan lifestyle. I had an awesome job lined up in Melbourne, that was due to kick off in May, and I was ready to leave – or so I thought.

The first call was my future employer explaining that my role was on hold indefinitely. If that undercut didn’t hit hard enough, the uppercut came in the second call. It was my uncle in Australia, stressing that flights to Australia would soon be slashed, and I ran the risk of being stuck in London.

In that moment, I had to make a choice. I could play the risky game and hope that coronavirus would blow over lockdown free, or I could assume that the rumours that London was running two weeks behind Italy were true. I would find myself stuck, with closed borders, rent (London rent at that), no income past my notice period, no ability to find work, and no chance of getting back to Australia.

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I left my office 10 minutes later. I only took my tears, my notebook, my flight confirmation, and most bizarrely – my desk plant.

Then it was game-on.

I had 24 hours before my flight, and 24 hours to move countries. I threw out pretty much everything I owned, and I sent a few goodbye WhatsApp messages. I (rather dramatically) said goodbye to my life (and myself) as I locked the door of my home for the last time.

I thought I was being strong, I even high-fived myself in some strange solo clap gesture, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.

My departure

When I reminisce on my departure, I only see visuals. The boxes of my belongings (probably never to be seen again) sitting by my front door. My Uber driver sporting an LV print mask, rubber gloves and a questionable poncho as we sped towards Kings Cross station. The deserted central London streets that blurred past as I gazed out of the window and the UK PM Boris Johnson’s voice booming over the radio.

His words echoed through the Uber, and I can still feel them bouncing back off the interior and into my heart – “You must stay home.” My nerves fluttered. I had made the right choice, I had beat lockdown by hours, I was safe, and I was going home. But it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be.

The check-in line wasn’t just long, it was the human version of the Great Wall of China. It snaked out of the terminal doors and it ran through the carpark. It was 4 degrees and 7pm at night, and the people (old and young) in this line weren’t eagerly trying to get to the bar too, they were desperately trying to flee the country.

Raincoats, masks, gumboots, swimming goggles and crisp king-sized sheets. I saw it all. In one direction were human-sized condoms rushing and pushing in lines. In the other direction were people draped in white, crying, pleading for tickets and punching strangers, with the couch cushions that they were wearing as hands.

By the time I checked in, I still had 60 minutes until my delayed flight’s original departure, I was laughing, I would make it to the bar for that so anticipated goodbye drink. The laughter dissipated when I realised all retail was closed, and then vanished completely when I realised that for my second leg – I was issued a standby ticket.

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My flight to Dubai can be summarised simply – it was 10 hours of panic attacks. I was seated next to a giant sleeping bag, who didn’t pop her head out once. There were people huddled under plastic blankets, and there were people wrapped head to toe in cling wrap. Just when I thought that was the most confusing scene I had witnessed so far, we landed in Dubai.

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Image: Supplied.
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Image: Supplied.
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Now Dubai, the pinnacle of transit airports, is my favourite. There are waterfalls inside for Christ-sake. But, not this day. While my flight was in the air, Australia officially ordered the closure of its borders.

We were herded like cattle into Australian states. Prodded and pushed by desperate staff, and we were all terrified. In that moment it was everyone for themselves, and as I watched the non-Australian citizens peel away convulsing and vomiting in despair, I was granted the last seat, on one of the last planes home, and I knew I had won.

Everyone on that flight second flight had a story, and after the seatbelts sign flicked off, everyone removed their protective gear. There were teachers who had lost their jobs after schools closed, families who had run businesses in the UK for 13 years, there were students and there were love-sick travellers in long-distance relationships. I have never spoken to so many people on a flight, and I have never joined in singing ‘Hallelujah’ when my plane landed.

Why I still call Australia home

I may have mastered the unemployed quarantine route from the fridge to the couch (and repeat, consecutively for 14 days), and I may have had no goodbyes, and no welcomes. I may have no job, no home of my own and no possessions, but there is nowhere else I would rather be in a global pandemic.

There is a stark and scary comparison to the way Australia is practising isolation, to the way that the Brits ignored it. Coming from ground-zero, I can see that the Australian Government communications and healthcare systems are some of the best in the world.

The pride I felt for my homeland when I hit sovereign land is a feeling that has strengthened me. The peak will draw nearer, and more of us will lose our jobs. We will miss our families, and we won’t face a certain day for a while.

Throughout this time, it is important to remember that we are Australian, we are all in this together and we are very fortunate to call this nation home.

Read more on COVID-19:

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It's okay to feel this way, but it's also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus - How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

Feature image: Getty.

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