A temporary return to Australia due to COVID-19April 11, 2020
The last few months have been a rollercoaster, and we’ve just had to make another big decision that we thought we’d share.
TL;DR: we returned to Australia last night, hopeful to get back to Canada when we can. Currently in Sydney quarantine and doing fine.
UPDATE: please note that this isn’t at all a poor reflection on Canada. To the contrary, we have loved even the brief time we’ve had there, the wonderful hospitality and kindness shown by everyone, and the excellent public services there.
UPDATE 2: as 2020 crawled on, and it became clear we couldn’t return to Canada, we thought long and hard about where we wanted to live, because the little one needed to start school in 2021. So we decided to return to our adopted home in Wellington, New Zealand, through the critical worker visa and a government to government arrangement between Service Canada and MSD for mutual learning and collaboration on transformation social services in the era of COVID.
We moved to Ottawa, Canada at the end of February, for an incredible job opportunity with Service Canada which also presented a great life opportunity for the family. We enjoyed 2 “normal” weeks of settling in, with the first week dedicated to getting set up, and the second week spent establishing a work / school routine – me in the office, little A in school and T looking at work opportunities and running the household.
Then, almost overnight, everything went into COVID lock down. Businesses and schools closed. Community groups stopped meeting. Everyone people are being affected by this every day, so we have been very lucky to be largely fine and in good health, and we thought we could ride it out safely staying in Ottawa, even if we hadn’t quite had the opportunity to establish ourselves.
But then a few things happened which changed our minds – at least for now.
Firstly, with the schools shut down before the A had really had a chance to make friends (she only attended for 5 days before the school shut down), she was left feeling very isolated. The school is trying to stay connected with its students by providing a half hour video class each day, with a half hour activity in the afternoons, but it’s no way to help her to make new friends. A has only gotten to know the kids of one family in Ottawa, who are also in isolation but have been amazingly supportive (thanks Julie and family!), so we had to rely heavily on video playdates with cousins and friends in Australia, for which the timezone difference only allows a very narrow window of opportunity each day. With every passing day, the estimated school closures have gone from weeks, to months, to very likely the rest of the school year (with the new school year commencing in September). If she’d had just another week or two, she would have likely found a friend, so that was a pity. It’s also affected the availability of summer camps for kids, which we were relying on to help us with A through the 2 month summer holiday period (July & August).
Secondly, we checked our health cover and luckily the travel insurance we bought covered COVID conditions, but we were keen to get full public health cover. Usually for new arrivals there is a 3 month waiting period before this can be applied for. However, in response to the COVID threat the Ontario Government recently waived that waiting period for public health insurance, so we rushed to register. Unfortunately, the one service office that is able to process applications from non-Canandian citizens had closed by that stage due to COVID, with no re-opening being contemplated. We were informed that there is currently no alternative ability for non-citizens to apply online or over the phone.
Thirdly, the Australian Government has strongly encouraged all Australian citizens to return home, warning of the closing window for international travel. . We became concerned we wouldn’t have full consulate support if something went wrong overseas. A good travel agent friend of ours told us the industry is preparing for a minimum of 6 months of international travel restrictions, which raised the very real issue that if anything went wrong for us, then neither could we get home, nor family come to us. And, as we can now all appreciate, it’s probable that international travel disruptions and prohibitions will endure for much longer than 6 months.
Finally, we had a real scare. For context, we signed a lease for an apartment in a lovely part of central Ottawa, but we weren’t able to move in until early April, so we had to spend 5 weeks living in a hotel room. We did move into our new place just last Sunday and it was glorious to finally have a place, and for little A to finally have her own room, which she adored. Huge thanks to those who generously helped us make that move! The apartment is only 2 blocks away from A’s new school, which is incredibly convenient for us – it will particularly good during the worst of Ottawa’s winter. But little A, who is now a very active and adventurous 4 years old, managed to face plant off her scooter (trying to bunnyhop down a stair!) and she knocked out a front tooth, on only the second day in the new place! She is ok, but we were all very, very lucky that it was a clean accident with the tooth coming out whole and no other significant damage. But we struggled to get any non emergency medical support.
The Ottawa emergency dental service was directing us to a number that didn’t work. The phone health service was so busy that we were told we couldn’t even speak to a nurse for 24 hours. We could have called emergency services and gone to a hospital, which was comforting, but several Ottawa hospitals reported COVID outbreaks just that day, so we were nervous to do so. We ended up getting medical support from the dentist friend of a friend over text, but that was purely by chance. It was quite a wake up call as to the questions of what we would have done if it had been a really serious injury. We just don’t know the Ontario health system well enough, can’t get on the public system, and the pressure of escalating COVID cases clearly makes it all more complicated than usual.
If we’d had another month or two to establish ourselves, we think we might have been fine, and we know several ex-pats who are fine. But for us, with everything above, we felt too vulnerable to stay in Canada right now. If it was just Thomas and I it’d be a different matter.
So, we have left Ottawa and returned to Australia, with full intent to return to Canada when we can. As I write this, we are on day 2 of the 14 day mandatory isolation in Sydney. We were apprehensive about arriving in Sydney, knowing that we’d be put into mandatory quarantine, but the processing and screening of arrivals was done really well, professionally and with compassion. A special thank you to all the Sydney airport and Qatar Airways staff, immigration and medical officers, NSW Police, army soldiers and hotel staff who were all involved in the process. Each one acted with incredible professionalism and are a credit to their respective agencies. They’re also exposing themselves to the risk of COVID in order to help others. Amazing and brave people. A special thank you to Emma Rowan-Kelly who managed to find us these flights back amidst everything shutting down globally.
I will continue working remotely for Service Canada, on the redesign and implementation of a modern digital channel for government services. Every one of my team is working remotely now anyway, so this won’t be a significant issue apart from the timezone. I’ll essentially be a shift worker for this period Our families are all self isolating, to protect the grandparents and great-grandparents, so the Andrews family will be self-isolating in a location still to be confirmed. We will be traveling directly there once we are released from quarantine, but we’ll be contactable via email, fb, whatsapp, video, etc.
We are still committed to spending a few years in Canada, working, exploring and experiencing Canadian cultures, and will keep the place in Ottawa with the hope we can return there in the coming 6 months or so. We are very, very thankful for all the support we have had from work, colleagues, little A’s school, new friends there, as well as that of friends and family back in Australia.
Thank you all – and stay safe. This is a difficult time for everyone, and we all need to do our part and look after each other best we can.