The families of Australians stranded in the subcontinent are urging the Morrison government to establish a quarantine solution that would allow their loved ones to return home en masse when flights from India eventually resume.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, on Tuesday announced a pause on direct flights from India to Australia until at least 15 May – including government repatriation flights due to land at the Howard Springs quarantine facility outside of Darwin.
Some 9,000 Australians in India are bracing for a deterioration of the Covid outbreak that saw 350,000 new infections on Monday. Moves by countries including Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia to bar non-citizens from transiting through their airports have essentially closed off any option to leave India.
Morrison, asked about the possibility that vulnerable Australians in India could die during the health crisis, said: “That is the nature of a global pandemic – that is why we have been repatriating citizens.”
“I don’t see those Australians of Indian heritage as a problem we have to solve, not at all, and I am concerned that’s how some may have been seeing this,” he said. “These are Australians and Australian residents who need our help and we intend to ensure that we are able to restore, particularly the repatriation flights, and that those repatriation flights focus on the most vulnerable.”
Morrison did not directly answer whether he was considering setting up additional federal quarantine facilities, but he flagged that Australian cricketers currently in India would not be prioritised to return once flights resumed.
Deepa, who lives on Sydney’s north shore, is one of countless Indian Australians overwhelmed by the news coming out of her home country.
“Each day I read the news and I don’t stop crying,” Deepa, who did not want her surname published, told Guardian Australia.
“It’s so heartbreaking the way they have treated Australians, who went there with the government’s permission, who have been trying to get home since before this current wave. What sort of values system does our government have?”
In late February, after her husband Ashish’s father died, he flew to Chandigarh to be with his mother. Ashish planned to help her get his father’s affairs in order and adjust to life without him.
Last week, Ashish’s flight home via Singapore was cancelled when that country banned flights for non-citizens arriving from India. And as the $6,000 he spent on that flight ticket had not yet been refunded, his family was struggling to pay for any of the remaining routes home that had not yet been closed off.
“We don’t have the money to book another flight and risk a border change forcing it to be cancelled,” Deepa said.
Ashish is now buying supplies for his mother so she doesn’t have to go out and risk infection. Deepa believes that, given the rate of infection, it is inevitable he will contract Covid-19 at some point. “I hope and pray that if he does get it his symptoms are mild and he recovers,” she said.
Deepa has several younger relatives in Bangalore who have contracted Covid in the current wave and are now being treated for pneumonia. She is desperate for the government to set up a safe quarantine facility to allow for the repatriation of Australians on a mass scale.
While her husband has been in India, their landlord has given them an eviction notice for 10 May, and Deepa and her seven-year-old daughter, Aditi, have had to pack up their home without Ashish.
“They’ve stopped seeing us as citizens – there are so few options for Australians to return when the flights do resume. But if you’re a cricketer and can afford to charter a flight, do you deserve to be safe more than others? It’s nonsense,” Deepa said.
“They’re the government, they have quarantine facilities, they have responsibility to look at rural areas for new solutions. They have to make the system work.
“If they want to make sure everyone who comes into quarantine in Australia presents no Covid risk, then why do they even have a quarantine system?”
Also in Sydney, Anisa Patel is watching on in despair as the situation in India worsens.
She moved to Australia with her husband from Mumbai seven years ago and they run a packaged-meal business. All of their parents and extended family remain in India.
“We’re extremely worried for our parents,” she said. “It’s constantly at the back of my mind.”
Anisa believes that once the government allows flights to resume, it should expand the quarantine capacity and offer it to all Australians stuck in India.
She also thinks there should be quarantine capacity reserved so if Australians need to return to India to visit sick relatives in emergency situations they are able to.
“As the situation gets worse, many relatives of Indian Australians will get sick. Many will need to go back, it’s an important part of their life. They should be able to go and have a way to return that doesn’t pose a risk to the community,” she said, suggesting a regional quarantine option.