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"Returning travellers" have been cast as the villains of COVID-19. Let's talk about who they really are.

When Aimee Chadzynski bundled into her seat on a Perth-bound Emirates flight this week, she cried. 

After weeks of stress and upheaval, she and her husband were finally on their way back to Australia.

The couple had moved to the United Kingdom on a work transfer 13 months ago. Their intention was to remain for two years, maybe three. Then the SARS-CoV-2 virus leeched its way across the globe.


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Aimee lives with severe asthma and Type 2 Diabetes, which places her at high risk of serious illness should she develop a COVID-19 infection. Heeding the advice of her medical practitioners, as well as that of both the British and Australian governments, she had remained indoors, confined entirely to her London apartment for 17 weeks.

With cases still gripping the UK, her job as secondary-school teacher was no longer viable long term. Australia's relatively low caseload offered safety, and with people at airports by then likely to have been in lockdown, there was a window of opportunity.

Yet as Aimee made the difficult decision to uproot her life, she listened to the words of Australia's leaders, scrolled through press and social media, and it was clear: in the eyes of many of her own countrymen, she — and others like her — aren't welcome back.

'They should have been better prepared.' 'They had plenty of time to come back.' 'Why move overseas if you can't afford to live there?' 'Why should taxpayers have to pay because they wanted to go elsewhere?'

"It seems to be an 'us and them' rhetoric," she told Mamamia. "It's almost felt like, 'Well, you're all the problem; you're going to bring the virus here.'

"It's all been quite alienating and isolating, with very little understanding of people's lives and the reality of their situations."

Arrival anxiety: what inbound passengers face at the border.

On July 4 and 10, the Morrison government announced a raft of changes to border rules in order to ease the pressure on hotel quarantine.

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Among them was a reduction in inbound passengers, from roughly 6,500 people per week to about 4,000. This included a cap on the number of arrivals at major international airports, including Brisbane, Perth and Sydney.

In the latter case, for example, just 450 passengers are allowed to arrive per day, and no more than 50 can be onboard each flight.

Which passengers make that cap is entirely at the discretion of airlines. With flights suddenly overbooked, passengers are having their tickets cancelled often with little warning and, in some instances, reportedly in favour of those who can afford a business class seat. 

"It's an absurd situation where you've got commercial companies who, in many cases, are not Australian or Australian based or have any kind of management structure in Australia, making decisions about who can get on their flights," said Aimee. "It just seems ludicrous."

On top of that, some states have now moved toward a new model for mandatory quarantine that will see inbound passengers foot their own bill. In NSW's case, that will be up to $3,000 per adult for the two-week confinement period, and just 30 days in which to pay.

"This, we believe, is fair," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told media on Sunday.

"Australian residents overseas have had three or four months to think about what they want to do ... to make decisions about what is best for them."

The Quicky explores: who's entering Australia right now, and what does it take to get here?

It's rhetoric like this, and language like "returning travellers" being used by government and media, that has angered many expat Australians.

Sydney-born woman, Stephanie Nuzzo, is among them. 

She's been living and working as a freelancer in New York for the past two years, and since losing as much as 95 per cent of her income amid the pandemic, she's now trying to make her way back to Australia.

"The government seems to be seeking to place blame on people who have likely lost jobs," she said. "I can't speak for everybody, but a lot of the people I know that have stayed [overseas] until now have lived somewhere, they have worked; they're not backpacking, they're not travelling, and they're not being reckless in their choices. They have established lives overseas, and a lot of them have still been taxpayers in Australia.

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"It's disgusting that not only are [the government] leaving people feeling stranded overseas, but then they suggest, 'Well, it's your fault for not returning sooner.'"

For many, Stephanie included, it was a matter of safety. 

When COVID-19 infections began climbing in New York, the advice from authorities was clear: shelter at home; leave only when strictly necessary. As the number of cases in the city rose by several thousand each day through April and May, getting in a taxi, going to a crowded airport, was simply not something she was prepared to risk.

"The thought of me being potentially being asymptomatic — tests weren't readily available at that time — getting on a plane and possibly infecting people, possibly infecting my family when I arrived, that terrified me," Stephanie said. "I wanted to hold off until this city had the outbreak under control."

Stephanie Nuzzo. Image: Supplied.

By then, her income had taken an enormous hit, yet she's ineligible for income support payments from either country. (Despite still paying tax in Australia, Australian citizens living overseas are disqualified from any form of relief.)

On top of it all, her self-funded US health insurance is due to expire at the end of August. Renewal of the policy would not only be a huge financial burden, but wouldn't cover her for COVID-19-related illness.

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Without income, she couldn't afford to stay. But it was clear it would cost her a small fortune to leave, too.

"The financial impact is massive," she said. "I did not know what was going to happen. Me breaking my lease, there was talk that I could get sued. But then, I was thinking, 'how am I going to fill my room in the middle of a pandemic?' There were a lot of things to weigh up, so it wasn't a simple decision by any means."

But as Australia seemed to bring its caseload under relative control, and New York's outbreak passed its lethal peak, Stephanie booked a flight for the end of July, sold off what little she could of her possessions, gave away the rest, and managed to find someone to rent her room from the beginning of next month.

Then came the July 4 announcement of the cap on inbound passengers. She scrambled to move her booking forward, so she'd have a small buffer.

"There was a point where I was so stressed, that I wasn't sleeping and I couldn't eat for a couple of days," she said.

"Because if I have my flight cancelled after the 31st, I would be homeless," she continued, through tears. "Quite literally, homeless."

"I've never felt more letdown."

Aimee is now in hotel quarantine in Perth. Her family lives in Melbourne but a complete ban on inbound passengers was imposed in Victoria as cases spiked in the state earlier this month.

Aimee Chadzynski. Image: supplied.

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She stresses that she's in a fortunate position; she and her husband were able to complete one leg of their flight in business class and they have secured accommodation after quarantine until they can return to Melbourne. Her employer has also kept her on, with tasks she can perform remotely.

But she's been communicating with a lot of expats in far more dire circumstances, and it's in their interests that she and her husband have been contacting Australian state and federal politicians, highlighting the blatant flaws in the system — one which seems to only welcome Australian citizens with wealth, and leave the rest stranded.

Among her suggestions, that the Federal Government put structure around how the passenger caps are enforced.

"They should have been some kind of system for managing that process, so it isn't up to the airlines and a commercial decision where whoever can pay the most gets to return home," she said. "It's simply not fair."

While she also believes strongly in taxpayer-funded quarantine, she knows the public sentiment is contrary to that and politicians aren't likely to reverse their decision.

"But if you are going to have a system where the user pays for quarantine, I think it has to be clear and fair as to how that occurs. I think there has to be exemptions and the payment plans have to be published and feasible," she said. "There are families whose visas have expired, who are saying, 'We have no money. What do we do?' And no one can tell them."

Stephanie has been asking that very question.

She is now waiting to see if her new flight, scheduled for this weekend, will go ahead, and if there'll still be a seat for her on board.

At this stage it's unclear if she'll have to foot the bill for her mandatory hotel quarantine. While she booked her ticket before the cutoff imposed by the NSW government, the airline spelled her name incorrectly and didn't reissue her ticket until after.

She could end up having to wear the cost of their mistake, one she can't afford right now.

"Before this, I was pretty proud to be Australian and to see the way that the country was handling the response to this virus," she said. "And now I've never felt more let down."

Featured image: Supplied.

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