I love to self-isolate.
Heck, I’m a freelance writer which means I’ve been voluntarily self-isolating for the better part of the past eight years. And even when I travel for work (I’m a travel writer) I usually can’t wait to get back to the rocking chair in my apartment.
I wish I was sitting in that sweet faded yellow corduroy monstrosity right now.
But like many travelers all over the world, my girlfriend and I got stranded abroad when the pandemic escalated. For us, that was a campervan in Tasmania—all in all, not the worst place to be thanks to the low population density, good healthcare, geographic isolation, and abundance of resources.
Still, we decided to make several attempts to leave Tasmania to stay at an (empty) friend’s house in mainland Australia instead of weathering the global shutdown in a literal van down by the river.
And before you ask, no, you don’t want to wait out a global pandemic in an old rented camper van. In winter. In Tasmania. It might sound like a plan, but it’s not like “heading to the hills” in the movies.
We quickly realized how vulnerable we’d be in a van after just a few days of depending on public toilets (a huge vector for disease), LPG refill stations, and the daily chore of finding drinkable water to fill the tank. Most rental camper vans have zero insulation (Tasmania gets cold in the winter) and we didn’t want to make our immune systems work any harder than they have to.
So we settled into an Airbnb to search for flights home, or at least out to somewhere more permanent. But after three failed attempts to fly out of Tasmania in as many days (all three of our flights were canceled with the promise of a “voucher at a future date” but no refund), we made our peace with the situation to hunker down in our rental to self-isolate for as long as it takes.
But then, in what feels like the new normal, everything changed again.
Tasmania instituted a new quarantine policy forcing all “non-essential travelers” (that’s us) to leave the state by midnight April 1 (just two days from now). That meant entering the general public again.
And while I appreciate the fact that Tasmania is trying to protect its residents, you don’t have to be a health expert to know that forcing hundreds of displaced travelers back onto roads, boats, trains, or flights is a really bad idea right now.
When Tasmania was the first state in Australia to implement its own additional internal quarantine measures for visitors to fight the spread of COVID-19, I applauded.
Social distancing is the best strategy to blunt the spread of this deadly pandemic. We arrived before the ban deadlines, but still adhered to the policy with self-isolation because it’s a good policy.
This one isn’t.
Thanks to this policy, we have to leave the relative safety and security of self-isolation to venture back out into public. And not just to find a new place to stay. We have to take a 10-hour ferry crossing on the Spirit of Tasmania to get out of the state.
That’s right. Thanks to dozens of canceled flights (again, we’ve already had three cancellations) this Tasmanian quarantine policy is forcing hundreds of people onto a boat. During a pandemic.
What’s worse, Airbnb even sent an email informing us of the new policy including news that hosts can longer provide accommodation to non-essential travelers (again, that’s us).
We can’t stay where we are. We can’t book another place to self-isolate. And we can’t fly home from here (there are no connecting or direct flights out of Tasmania).
I spent a while looking into the details of the new Tasmanian coronavirus policy and apparently there are a few handpicked places in Tasmania that have been offered “exemption to host non-essential travelers.” But they’re not ideal. I looked at a few rates for exemption stays and most options look way out of our backpacker budget:
There might be some cheaper options, but early arrivals (like us) “must arrange and pay for their own accommodation while they wait to return home,” according to the Communities Tasmania site. That could be thousands of dollars with no chance to move if this goes on for weeks or months.
But forget the price. Moving to another location still doesn’t solve the problem that we have to pack up and go outside again. I’m just not sure what we’re supposed to do because every option involves leaving the house and putting more people at risk.
Let me be super clear: I do not want to travel right now. Heck, I don’t even want to go outside to get groceries.
Every health expert on the planet is advising people to stay at home to keep the death toll from rising into the millions. Millions. I try to listen when very smart people give advice in their field—especially when it means the difference between millions of lives including my own.
Even most (sane) politicians are pleading with people to stay inside to help “flatten the curve,” so I just don’t understand this forced migration, especially now.
I’d love to flatten the curve. Stupid curve. I’ve hated steep parabolas my entire life. Ask my 9th-grade geometry teacher, she’ll back me up.
The crazy part is that while the Australian government struggles to keep many citizens from breaking the social distancing guidelines, I just want to sit inside, write all day, and watch some Gilmore Girls until this is all over. I want to be a good tourist.
Just let me watch Rory and Lorelai quip about Paul Anka. Please.
But thanks to policies like this, we have to venture back out and make things worse, not just for ourselves but for everyone else.
I’m sure some of you might think we have this coming. We’re travelers, after all. We went on this trip on purpose, so we should be prepared to deal with the consequences of our actions and just suck it up.
But that’s the thing. Even though I disagree with that thinking on every level, we were actually dealing with it.
My girlfriend and I have upended our plans almost every day for the past two weeks to comply with isolation and distancing criteria. We’ve spent hundreds of dollars buying non-refundable plane tickets to get out of Tasmania that went nowhere. We’ve lost hundreds more on future bookings that our travel insurance won’t refund because (fun fact), pandemics aren’t covered under most insurance policies.
We’ve had to deal with all the same stress, anxiety, and loss of income as the rest of you, and we’ve had to do it all in someone else’s rented home (or a van), with only what we can carry in our backpacks, thousands of miles from friends and family. It’s not awesome.
And on top of that, I’m watching money pour out of accounts for expensive housing and travel plans when both of us have lost our jobs. All my writing clients have either gone out of business or stopped accepting submissions, and it’s tough to teach dance lessons during a pandemic.
But as angry and frustrated as I am, it’s still not about us.
If there’s one thing this pandemic has made crystal clear, it’s that we are all in this together. Viruses don’t respect lines on a map or the color of your passport.
Health experts and journalists like Umair Haque have been screaming about how inequality affects us all—not just the poor. The quality of life in poverty-stricken places where people are forced to eat bats can bring the richest economies in human history to their knees in a matter of weeks. And losing the right to shelter in communities that aren’t your own puts everyone—even “essential travelers”—at risk.
People are dying right now, and the only way I can help is by staying put and doing nothing. That’s it.
Going back into the general public is literally the last thing I want to do right now. But thanks to knee-jerk policies that exclude fringe cases everyone is more at risk than before.
As I finish writing this, we’re just hours from catching a taxi (the only way to get to Devonport because there’s no reliable public transit) to board the Spirit of Tasmania for a 10-hour overnight crossing with hundreds of other people. That is if it actually sails tonight.
From there, we’re trying to get to Sydney (another 10-hour journey) to catch one of the last flights back to the US in early April. It’s a lot of dominoes lined up, but we’re just trying to get through each day.
We don’t want to be part of the problem. Honestly, we don’t. The last thing we want to do is cross borders and transit through crowded cities and airports. But thanks to early flight cancellations and gaps in policies like this, travelers, non-residents, and other “non-essentials” like us are being forced back into circulation at a time when the most important thing we can do is to stay at home.
And that’s going to cost people their lives.