The Baxter family’s repatriation flight was canceled when the Morrison government imposed new travel restrictions
In Bangalore, a city besieged by India’s disastrous second wave of coronaviruses, Pippa Baxter and his young family remained stoic.
From their empty house, living on suitcases packed in anticipation, they could see a way out.
They would be on a repatriation flight home in Australia in just over a week, leaving a nation where crematoriums and cemeteries are being overwhelmed by the dead.
That would mean an end to Baxter’s constant anxiety over his two daughters, Kate, six, and Emma, four, who has a condition that leaves her vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.
But at about 10 am on Friday, Baxter’s phone rang.
An official in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had bad news.
The flight was canceled and nothing else would be available until the end of June.
“There is a limit to what we can handle,” Baxter told the Guardian, just minutes after receiving the call from Dfat.
The department was acting with new restrictions announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison the day before that cut direct flights from India by almost a third to mitigate the risk of the country’s second wave, which broke daily broadcast records and caused death in large scale.
Baxter and her husband, Chad, teachers in India for the past two years, have seen the situation deteriorate rapidly in their suburb of Rajanukunte, on the northern outskirts of Bangalore.
“There is Covid everywhere. We just hid in our house, we have been isolating ourselves and we continue to isolate … but it is literally everywhere, “she says.
“The stores are closed. You can receive deliveries of food, but you are obviously aware that you receive many deliveries, because the likelihood of that person having Covid is very high.
“We are just trying to stock up. It’s like being in a war zone. “
Bibhas Dutt was an Australian who was fortunate to escape India before the new restrictions.
Dutt returned to Delhi in 2019, before Covid, to attend his family’s weddings and planned to live there.
But money was tight during the second wave and he accessed superannuation earlier to survive.
He spent $ 5,500 on a flight back to Sydney.
“I was feeling very lucky when I was on that flight that left Delhi,” he told the Guardian from the quarantine. “I was feeling like I was in that 2012 movie, where everything was burning and I was on that flight.”
The chef is preparing to restart his life in Australia, finding a new job and a new home.
The solution is not to close flights for people like him who are trying to escape, he says. Facilities like Howard Springs, which he praises as “perfect,” should be expanded and used to reduce the risk of any quarantine outbreaks.
“At the moment, it is out of control in India,” he says. “I think that the government should not stop or reduce flights, but rather make a plan to send at least two flights to India or whatever so that they can bring them in steadily.
Even those who receive vacancies on repatriation flights are not safe.
The flights depart only from Delhi and Chennai, both epicenters of the second wave. This leaves those in other regions facing a risky journey to catch the flight.
“To get to Delhi, we need to take a domestic flight and take Covid’s test at one of Qantas’ test facilities,” says Baxter. “Obviously we will need to take a taxi to get to the test center and spend the night so we can catch the flight.”
“So, we’re going to one of the virus’s epicenters to try and leave, and if we’re unlucky enough to catch Covid on this treacherous journey, we won’t be allowed to catch our repatriation flight back to Australia. “
The longer the second wave lasts, the more difficult it becomes.
Other nations have considered or implemented travel bans, restrictions or precautions for India.
The UK last week added India to its “red list” of countries, banning travel by non-British and Irish citizens from India to the United Kingdom.
Hong Kong, Pakistan and New Zealand have also temporarily banned travelers from India.
There is also some excitement for a total suspension of travel in Australia, transmitted mainly by the Prime Minister of Western Australia, Mark McGowan. Your state is dealing with a quarantine outbreak related to travelers who have returned from India.
A similar outbreak of quarantine was witnessed in Howard Springs, but Northern Territory health minister Natasha Fyles said her government has a “humanitarian responsibility” to repatriate vulnerable Australians.
For Baxter, there is now little option but to wait.
“There is literally no option available, except to row a boat back to Australia, on its own.”