A 3,700-mile sailing trip shows why the strict quarantine is falling flat

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Stuck in Tahiti with no available flights, Paul Stratfold ran out of time to return to Australia and renew his residency visa. The Briton decided his best option was to sail 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) across the South Pacific, a solo voyage that lasted almost a month.

As a professional sailor, the 41-year-old had never done anything on this scale before. Stratfold’s 50-foot yacht was hit by a storm for two days and he slept no more than 40 minutes straight to reduce the risk of collisions. “That was the only way to get home,” he said in an interview. On July 3, he reached Southport, Queensland.

Desperate trips like this one, along with stories of tragedies and breakups, become more common as the pandemic progresses, especially as governments continue with tough quarantines and border controls. Nearly two years after the crisis, tens of thousands of frustrated citizens from nations like Australia and New Zealand remain stranded overseas, unable to get flights back to their home countries and one of the few places for mandatory hotel quarantine.

Mandatory quarantines helped protect so-called Covid Zero nations from the worst of the pandemic by keeping the virus out. But as other parts of the world begin to evolve and reopen, these costly systems are becoming less and less durable to maintain and cracks are gradually showing up.

Besieged by a Delta variant outbreak after a single case bypassed its border curbs, Australia has cut its quarantine quota repeatedly, with fewer than 3,000 overseas arrivals allowed each week. That is true for a nation of 25 million people known for its widespread diaspora. New Zealand’s hotel quarantine system has been mocked as demand exceeds supply, an issue exacerbated by the freezing of room releases during the lockdown.

‘Wash out’

As one of the few places to avoid a Delta outbreak, Hong Kong still requires people from the US and UK to be quarantined in a hotel room for 21 days, even if they are fully vaccinated. A lack of affordable options has led to an insane rush for beds. Some, who cannot stand three weeks in isolation, fly over countries considered lower risk to shorten their quarantine period.

After completing his studies in London, David Deka took on this “washing-out” approach when Hong Kong abruptly suspended all passenger flights from the UK in July. He spent three weeks in Serbia, which still had flights to Hong Kong as it was classified as a lower risk. The only connection to Hong Kong was also cut while he was there.

“It was stressful,” said Deka. “I thought whatever I do, Hong Kong will do something to keep me from coming back.”

He eventually returned to Hong Kong, where he had to be quarantined in a hotel for another 14 days. Deka said he met dozens of people in Serbia who had traveled from India, which was on multiple blacklists due to its rampaging outbreak, to “wash out” before heading to countries like the US and Canada.

The effort is in stark contrast to many other parts of the world, where vaccinations tick higher and border restrictions are relaxed or have never actually been imposed.

Lockdowns of countries and domestic eradication of the virus should only be a stopgap until vaccination rates rise, according to immunologist Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand.

“The elimination has taken its course,” he said. “It destroys the fabric of society.”

Some people fight back because they are unable to return to dying relatives, attend to business, or just come home for Christmas.

Legal challenge

A pregnant New Zealander became one of the most famous challengers to the country’s quarantine model. Bergen Graham, 33, was living in his home country of El Salvador with her husband when she became pregnant in February. Her tourist visa had expired, so she went to Los Angeles and tried to get home.

Graham has applied for a place in New Zealand’s quarantine system six times, according to her lawyer, Frances Joychild. Everything failed.

The situation changed almost immediately when Joychild filed a lawsuit against the government claiming the quarantine system violated New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act, a law that states that every citizen has the right to enter the country.

“The government was on the phone the next day and wanted to reach an agreement,” Joychild said in an interview. “You offered her a place.” Graham and her husband landed in Auckland on September 16 and went into quarantine.

While Graham dropped her case as part of the settlement, she opened up a potential avenue for others. Joychild has been inundated with calls and emails from New Zealanders wanting to question the process in the same way. “A class action lawsuit is possible,” she said.

Grounded Kiwis, a network of more than 3,500 New Zealanders worldwide affected by the policy, is also considering legal action. “It’s causing too much suffering,” said spokesman Samuel Drew.

1% chance

The stage is set for quarantine tremors across Asia, the region with the most active border regimes that have resulted in fewer deaths but left countries in isolation. Resistance is growing as the systems struggle to keep the more transferable Delta variant away. The recent virus outbreak in China, a leading proponent of Covid Zero, was likely seeded by a returnees who tested positive after 21 days of quarantine.

New Zealand’s chief ombudsman, Peter Boshier, said last month he was considering revising the quarantine regime after a spate of complaints. In a video message to expatriates this month, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged the heartbreak many had endured.

Arrivals in New Zealand typically stay 14 days at one of approximately 30 facilities spread across the country. For those leaving New Zealand within 180 days, the quarantine costs NZ $ 3,100 ($ 2,200). The system’s booking website received 19,600 daily visitors in early August. Grounded kiwifruit said only 200 quarantine rooms are released each day, giving a 1% chance of success.

About 45,000 people from overseas want to return to Australia, the government says. They are increasingly helpless as international arrivals at the country’s airports are limited to just 2,286 per week, a number that has shrunk as Delta cases have increased. The weekly limit to Sydney was cut in half this month to 756 passengers.

Morrison says he wants to introduce home quarantine for returning Australians who are fully vaccinated. While a study is ongoing in the state of South Australia and another will begin shortly in New South Wales, a transition away from hotels will not occur until Australia’s vaccination rate exceeds 70% or even 80%, the Prime Minister said.

The hotel quarantine is becoming significantly less important. It served as Australia’s primary detector of infection last year before the Delta outbreak locked much of the country in lockdown. Today, the vast majority of new cases are in the community. Only 16 of more than 9,000 cases in New South Wales last week came from overseas.

For some, the solution is to avoid quarantine altogether. Eric Blackwell (30) and Tim Wright (28) are sailing back from Indonesia to New Zealand on a 47-foot yacht. If you test negative for Covid-19 on arrival, you do not have to go into quarantine after the six-week trip, as long as 14 days have passed since your last point of contact.

While the trip is above all an adventure for the two unemployed pilots, they are taking a couple with them who have been to Bali and were unable to secure quarantine slots.

“There are a lot of people who are struggling to get home,” Blackwell said in a video interview from her boat, the Kiwi Summers. “I wouldn’t even try to fly.”

Fellow sailor Stratfold, who is fully vaccinated, was not so lucky. After landing on land in Australia, he was unable to break free from quarantine and was forced to isolate himself at a nearby hotel for 14 days, which cost nearly A $ 3,000 (USD 2,200).

“It’s just ridiculous to go through all these hardships and costs,” he said. “How could someone have Covid after 26 days alone on a boat?”


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