Sydney lockdown splash


Locked down and locked in: Irish emigrants in Australia, the world’s toughest rolling lockdowns

Almost 75,000 Irish-born people live in Australia, which is currently experiencing the world’s toughest rolling lockdowns. They share their experiences of cancer treatment, pregnancy and loneliness, half a world away and not knowing when they will see their loved ones again

By 

Joyce Fegan

you can skip to peoples personal stories here

Police officers patrol at the Opera House on July 11, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Picture: Getty

f or much of the past 19 months, Australia was the envy of the world. As Ireland remained locked down for much of 2020 and 2021, with people limited to a 2km radius in the harshest lockdown, pictures landed in from friends and families down under enjoying themselves at music festivals, on boat parties and in busy bars and restaurants.

While we locked down, the Australian policy was to lock people in and out, by closing their borders in March 2020.

 
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Slumberjack performing on stage at Castaway Unlocked at HBF Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Perth, Australia. Picture: Getty

 The Australian government promised that mass and mandatory vaccination wouldn't be their approach as they boasted a Covid-zero continent.

But by July 2021, as Europe's vaccine programme was in full swing with restrictions easing as a result, fewer than 14% of Australians were vaccinated - the worst rating among OECD nations.

Australia's Covid-zero approach, thanks to its international border closure, meant people living there could continue on as normal, but it meant expats could no longer get home, or have a loved one come visit. According to the last Australian census in 2016, there are 74,888 Irish-born people in Australia.

Being locked down is one thing, but being locked in is another experience entirely, as many Irish citizens and Irish support agencies have told the Irish Examiner.

The border closure did not just affect those wanting to leave, but Australian citizens and permanent residents who wanted to return too - especially when the Delta variant emerged globally this summer.

In June this year, there were 35,128 Australian citizens and permanent residents overseas registered as wanting to come home - 10,994 of whom were in India. This included 209 children.

The Australian government essentially locked out their own - with just three repatriation flights from India planned for June.

The protests and the riots over freedoms only began in earnest when Australians started to experience heavy and long lockdowns this summer, due to the Delta variant.

By July, half of the Australian population was in lockdown. Of the six states in Australia, New South Wales, home to Sydney and Australia's most-populous state, was under lockdown as were the cities of Melbourne and Canberra and the states of South Australia and Victoria.

This caused thousands upon thousands to protest over lockdowns, mask-wearing and vaccines programmes in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The crowds were so big in Sydney, that about 1,500 police officers were deployed to disperse the crowds.

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Violence erupted at an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne despite the city enjoying its first week of freedom from harsh restrictions since stage four lockdown was implemented. Picture: Getty

 

Politicians, from the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison down to states' premiers, branded the protests as "selfish", "violent" and "filthy".

The protests did nothing to ease lockdown restrictions, nor to stop the spread of the Delta variant.

The city of Melbourne is currently in its sixth and longest lockdown of the last 19 months, as is Sydney - home to the famous Bondi beach. While the government's previous approach was to keep borders closed, regardless of its effect on those locked in or out, its new approach of locking down can only progress if vaccinations are rolled out.

In September, there was a vaccine hesitancy of nearly 20% in Australia, for adults over the age of 18. This figure stands in contrast to promises of lockdown easing if double vaccination rates hit 80% in some states.

There is now division both in how various states are handling the lockdowns, and how vaccinations have become the hinge upon which the pandemic will turn.

“There isn’t a common Covid position across the country. The situation in Tasmania and Western Australia is, of course, very different to what we’re experiencing here in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales and Victoria, and different again in Queensland and South Australia, and of course the Northern Territory," Prime Minister Morrison said at the end of August.

In an almost flip reversal, as Ireland reopens its society with a 90% vaccination rate, Australia is mired in uncertainty. This uncertainty will do little for the wellbeing of Irish emigrants who perhaps face a second Christmas away from home, not knowing whether to book flights, because the risk of being locked out of their adopted home is too high.

 
Martine Dines and family
 

Martine Dines and Sean with her Parents

Martine Dines, 30: "Cancer sucks itself, but going through it in a pandemic in a different country is just the worst"


Martine Dines found two lumps on her breast on the day that was meant to be her wedding day. Living in Sydney, Australia since 2014, the Belfast woman had always planned to marry at home in Ireland. But Covid cancelled not one, but two of her and fiancé's planned wedding dates.

After they had cancelled a second time, the couple decided to mark the occasion by taking a holiday within Australia last May.

"On the day of our actual wedding, we were on Hamilton Island. It was a day we took things slow, we are usually hiking or paddle boarding or snorkelling, and we went from the pool back to the hotel room to decide about a helicopter ride.

"I was just lying on the bed and I just found two lumps. I called Sean in the shower and he said we'll get them checked when we get back to Sydney," explains Martine.

Within one week she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a total of three tumours were found as well as an extra diagnosis of carrying the BRCA gene.

Along with all of this is having her lymph nodes under her right arm removed, a mastectomy, having her ovaries put to sleep (so an early menopause at 30), egg extraction and egg freezing in the hope of starting a family some day, the nausea, hair loss and sleeplessness of chemotherapy, the worry about paying Sydney rent while on sick leave and then the extreme difficulty of getting her parents out to Australia.

"Cancer sucks itself, but going through it in a pandemic in a different country is just the worst, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," says Martine.

Martine Dines and Fiance

Martine Dines and Sean

However, one piece of fortune was the fact her parents were given permission to fly into Australia, although their holiday visas are about to expire and the travel ban remains in place.

"When I got diagnosed we immediately started looking to get my parents here and Covid was starting to pick back up. I reached out to the Irish Support Agency about getting my parents an exemption.

"There was just a heap of documents we had to get together and we even had to get politicians involved. Meanwhile I was meeting doctors and talking about mastectomies. There were a lot of balls in the air. We managed to get the exemption approved at the end of June and two weeks after that my parents were able to get the flight out," she explains.

But there was an exceptional cost that neither Martine nor Sean could cover. Her parents' flights cost $20,000, the equivalent of about €13,000 and the cost of the mandatory hotel quarantine - $4,500 or €3,000.

Also an issue was covering her part of the rent, and bills, while not working for several months.

So how did they cover the costs?
"Thankfully my friends rallied together and started a GoFundMe," she says.

The pot for Martine exceeded $70,000 - thanks to the Irish community in Sydney.

"It was just people putting their hands in their pockets, and some businesses, and that's purely down to the Irish community coming together and that had a lot to do with Covid. It shows just how much people were missing their family and then imagining being sick and not having their family with them," she explains.

Martine and Fiance

She, her fiancé and her parents now live in her two-bed apartment in a locked down Sydney, and while Covid is obviously a glaring threat for someone undergoing chemotherapy, so is something as simple as the common cold.

"Just one person will go to the shops, and we try to use the one supermarket to limit contacts and I'll wait until 9.30am to go for a walk to avoid the crowds," says Martine, who added that Sean has had to stop work on construction sites in case he brought home any illness.

He is however, working on his photography business, Sean's Perception - a source of excitement and positivity in the couple's life.

"He spotted the first blue whale off Sydney in 100 years on the drone and four weeks after that, lightning struck twice and he saw the second one. He was on all the stations at home, BBC and everything - so that really kicked it off for him," says Martine.

Her final round of chemotherapy will take place just before New Year's Eve, on December 28 - a highly important date in this woman's life.
"Last week the hair started falling out, so I shaved my head. I said: 'I'm taking this, not cancer.'

"And then you look in the mirror and you're 30 and you're meant to be at your prime - this week has been the hardest," says Martine.
In spite of all of this, she still finds herself thinking of others and imagining the scenes of reunion in Irish airports when the pandemic has eased and people can travel once again.

"The whole Irish community is holding out hopes that the end of this year will be the end of the travel ban and hoping for those sweet reunions. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at Dublin airport."

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The whole Irish community is holding out hopes that the end of this year will be the end of the travel ban and hoping for those sweet reunions. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at Dublin airport.

Eoin Ryan and Family
 
 

Eoin Ryan at home in Cork with his family

Eoin Ryan: A new dad in a pandemic, the Cork man is locked out of Australia and working remotely


there was a "welcoming committee" for Crosshaven man Eoin Ryan when he landed in Cork airport with his baby son Harry this summer. The last time he was home from Australia, there was no such thing as Covid and he and his wife were not even expecting a baby.

Fast forward more than two years, he is standing in an empty arrival hall in Cork airport with his 15-month-old son, surrounded by his mum and dad, his brothers and his niece and nephews.

"It was quite nice looking out and seeing Cork for the first time in a really long time. It was a really nice feeling to come into the airport. I had quite a few bags to get and the car seat and things so I was probably the last person to come out of arrivals. My parents were there and my brothers and their kids.

"I had no idea my brothers were going to be there and there wasn't anyone else around - we almost had the airport hall to ourselves. It was like a welcoming committee and they all had presents for Harry," says Eoin.

However, the reason Eoin was permitted to leave Australia was to support his mother-in-law in England, who underwent a quadruple bypass. He and his young family are now back in London, with absolutely no idea when they can return to their home and life in Bondi, Sydney.

"Jen's mum was having some issues from February 2021, she wasn't feeling right and she was feeling dizzy. After loads of different tests she ended up having a quadruple bypass. We made the decision to come back pre-surgery. We applied for a travel exemption and we were approved within two days. We were approved on a Tuesday, that was the start of July, and we flew on the Thursday," explains Eoin.

The Cork man, who left Ireland for London when he was 23, after graduating from UCC, decided to emigrate down under in 2010. As well as being married and having a child there, he owns a home in Bondi and works for an IT company there.However, with the current travel restrictions he is locked out of home down under.

"My company has been amazing, we have remote working practices anyway. My boss and my team have been really supportive. My boss said go for it. Jen, with her work, she had to make sure she could take personal leave. 

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I start at 6am UK time and finish at 3.30pm, come November I'm not looking forward to it - I'll be starting at 5am

When they booked their flights to England in July, they booked a return one for October 7, but that has since been cancelled.

"Two weeks ago New South Wales (NSW) reduced their flight intake and our flight got cancelled. We currently have no date for a flight back," he says.

Eoin explains that the current vaccination rate is at 80% first-time vaccine for the adult population in NSW. The government has promised when they reach double that the flight intake will increase.

The worry is that if they reach that goal at Christmas, the family will fly back and have to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, with Christmas Day being spent in quarantine.

"We've got a long tradition of an orphan Christmas - people who don't have their family around all get together. Your friends are your family as expats and particularly in this last year and a half it's never been truer," says Eoin.

But Christmas aside, the family just wants to get back to their adopted home.

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We want to go back so we can restart our lives, and Jen to get back to her job

Caroline McKenna

Caroline McKenna

 

Caroline McKenna: "There's been a rise in depression and anxiety, and there's been a few suicides in the community since Christmas"

caroline McKenna gets up every morning at 5.30am to watch the sun come up over Bondi Bay. It might sound idyllic from here, but Caroline says it makes for an "eerie" scene in a locked down Sydney.

"It's an eerie scene. Have you seen the movie City of Angels, well all of the expats have been gathering at sunrise and just staring at the sun, together but apart. It's become more popular than the bars," says the secondary school teacher.

"There are lads coming to sunrise who wouldn't be coming home from the bars until sunrise, you might see someone with tired eyes and you just smile," she adds.

After sunrise, she takes a morning dip in the rockpools on Bondi beach, before heading home for a full day of teaching on Zoom in her apartment - after her one permitted hour outside and within the confines of her 5km.

She is actively involved in the Irish community in and around Sydney, so much so she started a podcast last year called A County Down Under to connect people and specifically to talk about mental health, after a rise in expats saying they were feeling depressed and anxious, as well as a number of suicides.

With no podcast experience, the Instagram account already has more than 20,000 followers and people like Bressie have appeared on it.

"People are hitting big milestones and they're missing their family so that's an issue and we talk about alcohol and drug addictions. Because people don't have their family, there's a bit missing, there's a hole, you're living this high life abroad but not having your mammy when you need her makes an impact.

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But the biggest issue is not being able to get home and the loneliness. The big thing you rely on is community. We all live in small apartments over here and you're confined to these small spaces - there's real isolation and disconnection from your community

 

@acountydownunder on Instagram

But add to this the fact that expats are unable to get home, the issue becomes even more serious."Your comfort blanket was always: 'You're only one flight away'. There's been a rise in depression and anxiety, and there's been a few suicides in the community since Christmas," says the teacher.

Caroline herself tried to go home last year but was denied an exemption to fly four times by the Australian government. An exemption is where a citizen or permanent resident applies to leave Australia for compelling reasons or on compassionate grounds.

"Mine (my application) was for no reason other than that I was homesick. I know people whose parents were sick and they might not be able to get home. They can't all fly back to Ireland as they've a young family here and what if they can't get back in. We are all just trying to get through the day with this at the back of our minds," explains Caroline, who's originally from Co Down.

This current lockdown is the sixth such one in Australia, but it has been very testing for expats, says the teacher."When this lockdown came it hit the expats worse. We hoped that maybe this year will be better, but now we feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I know loads of people who are packing up after 15 years.

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We're in North Korea right now, not Australia

 
Aoife Tierney

Aoife Tierney and Fiancé Tom

Aoife Tierney: Missing her midwife mum as she is due her first baby in a locked down Melbourne 

aoife Tierney, originally from Dublin, is due her first baby on October 15, in Melbourne, southern Australia. Due to Australia's lockdown and closed borders, her mother, a retired midwife, will not be able to be with Aoife at this time.

Two of Aoife's sisters have also recently given birth, one is an hour away from her in Melbourne and one is in New York.

"My sister had a baby here last week and another sister had a baby seven weeks ago in New York. My mum went to America but wasn't allowed to go to Australia. She was going to help my sister as she already has another child."

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She was stopped at the airport, that made it very real for my mum. My mum would never make us come home and she would very much be like: 'Live your best life and do whatever makes you happy', but it's in situations like this where the realisation hits that 'my kids are very far away and my grandkids are very far away too'

Aoife, a school teacher, has been living in lockdown for 10 weeks now, and while she was considered a frontline worker in previous lockdowns this time with the Delta variant, the decision was made to close schools and take learning online.

"I hate lockdowns. I hate everything about them, but one blessing is I haven't had to commute to work. Online teaching is tedious but I can rest," says the Dubliner.

However, where she is in Melbourne means her options for outdoor exercise are very limited.

"We moved over two years ago to a place where we could get a nicer house and there is no lovely beach walk or anything like that and because I commute 45km to work, I don't know the community here yet.

"You look at people's Instagram back home and you see they've gone for a swim in Seapoint or Greystones, but it's not like that here where I am," she says.

She is only currently allowed outside for an hour a day and for the purposes of exercising and is limited to travelling no more than 5km.However, there are much bigger things on her mind, with her new baby due by elective section in a matter of weeks.

While her partner will be allowed to be with Aoife for delivery, there is a strict Covid-testing protocol in place at her hospital. It means not only is Aoife locked down but she will also have to self-isolate for a number of weeks pre-baby, as will her self-employed partner.

"You're not allowed in the birthing suite without a negative Covid test, I'll have to self isolate from the 37th week. Imagine you were to go over and you're 41 weeks?" says Aoife.

The birth aside, there is also the postpartum period ahead, something Aoife is mindful of, and in an ideal world would have loved if her mum could be with her at this time. Aoife, a school teacher, has been living in lockdown for 10 weeks now, and while she was considered a frontline worker in previous lockdowns this time with the Delta variant, the decision was made to close schools and take learning online.

"I hate lockdowns. I hate everything about them, but one blessing is I haven't had to commute to work. Online teaching is tedious but I can rest," says the Dubliner.
However, where she is in Melbourne means her options for outdoor exercise are very limited.

"We moved over two years ago to a place where we could get a nicer house and there is no lovely beach walk or anything like that and because I commute 45km to work, I don't know the community here yet.

"You look at people's Instagram back home and you see they've gone for a swim in Seapoint or Greystones, but it's not like that here where I am," she says.

She is only currently allowed outside for an hour a day and for the purposes of exercising and is limited to travelling no more than 5km. However, there are much bigger things on her mind, with her new baby due by elective section in a matter of weeks.

While her partner will be allowed to be with Aoife for delivery, there is a strict Covid-testing protocol in place at her hospital. It means not only is Aoife locked down but she will also have to self-isolate for a number of weeks pre-baby, as will her self-employed partner.

"You're not allowed in the birthing suite without a negative Covid test, I'll have to self isolate from the 37th week. Imagine you were to go over and you're 41 weeks?" says Aoife.

The birth aside, there is also the postpartum period ahead, something Aoife is mindful of, and in an ideal world would have loved if her mum could be with her at this time.

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Because I found out I was pregnant in February 2021, I knew the reality was my mum probably wouldn't be able to come - deep down you hoped that wasn't the case."I think missing mum now is real, because you just want her there to tell you everything is going to be OK

You don't want her there for her help, you want her for the maternal love. You just know you're not being judged and you're allowed to be a first-time mum," says Aoife.

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A picture of the sunset from East Point on April 15, 2012 in Darwin, Australia. Picture: Getty

Longing for home


irish support agencies in Australia have told the Irish Examiner of the increased mental health challenges being faced by expats who are not only living in isolation down under, but who are also increasingly lonely for home.

"In recent years, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of clients seeking our help for mental health issues whether that be anxiety/depression, psychoses, or addiction issues. This has clearly been exacerbated by the challenges of the global pandemic," a spokeswoman for the Irish Support Agency (ISA) in New South Wales told the Irish Examiner.

"There has been a huge increase over the course of the pandemic, in the need for mental health services and referrals in the community-at-large," a spokesman for its sister Irish agency in Queensland said.

HelpLink, which offers mental health counselling for people here and abroad has also seen an increase in "Irish Abroad" requests for help "with some people upset that they could not return home/had to return home".

In January of this year, the Department of Foreign Affairs launched a Samaritans freephone helpline for Irish diaspora in Australia, as well as Canada.

Any Irish person in Australia experiencing mental health challenges can contact HelpLink  (helplink.ie), the Samaritans freephone helpline for Irish diaspora (116 123), even on a mobile without credit or reach out to the various Irish support agencies ( irishsupportagency.org.au  for New South Wales,  iasaq.com.au for Queensland,  iasrb.org in Melbourne and claddagh.org.au in Perth).

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