A daughters mission to help Australians #StuckinPeru

A few hours ago, I received the call I’ve worked non-stop for seventeen days to get. My mum and Aunt had safely arrived on Australian soil. They are no longer #stuckinPeru.

My mum (right) and Aunty on their LONG transit back to Australia

I expected to feel such relief. I thought I’d be able to return to my strange new routine of homeschooling my daughters and over-thinking my weekly shopping trip.

Yet all I feel is a sense of obligation and duty to advocate for the 100 odd Australians who still remain in Peru. Fellow Australians who are desperate for information and assurance from the Australian government, that they‘ll be granted an affordable, safe route home to their families.

This article is for them, told through the lens of someone completely out of their depth, 15,000 km away, who has at a distance witnessed their struggle, desperation and a newfound sense of community and mateship they’ve found in the vacuum of information and certainty.

I’m writing my perspective of their story because I’ve seen what it means to them to feel heard and acknowledged. I’ve witnessed the impact news coverage made to their wellbeing and mental health.

For this reason, I’m so incredibly grateful to the many journalists who have covered the evolving story of Australians stuck in Peru, especially to Ben Doherty from the Guardian and Samantha Maiden who have continued to give a voice to those stranded, whilst also being a force of reassurance, advocacy and accurate information for the 353 Australians who were originally stuck in Peru from the 15th of March.

I feel it’s appropriate to address some misconceptions that have been unfairly shared across social media by the many keyboard warriors, bored or scared (or both) who’ve shown little empathy for their fellow Australians.

Myth: This is their fault. They got themselves into this mess.

This is an important one to clarify.

Last week, Scott Morrison stated in a press conference, that those who decided to travel AFTER travel warnings were issued (13th March) that;

“I don't think they can expect their fellow Australians to think that the Australian Government would have them high on the list of people we need to support”

It’s fair to say that Scott Morrison was probably correct to assume that the Australians who decided to travel after midday on 13th March, would struggle to find much sympathy back home.

But what about those already overseas? Up until the 13th of March, there were no obvious signs that Peru’s borders were likely to close OR any indication they’d have less than two days to leave the country.

Until the State of Emergency was declared, the most recent direct statement on Peru from the Australian Government came on the 8th of March. Smart Traveller advised those in Peru to monitor the media and follow the advice of local authorities. At no point was the Australian Government issuing ‘do not travel’ or ‘please exit’ Peru at this time, nor any other time until it was too late to leave.

On the 14th of March, the DAY AFTER SmartTraveller issued the blanket warning for Australians to reconsider travel, and the DAY BEFORE the countrywide lockdown was announced, if you’d checked the embassy’s official Twitter page for assurance, you’d have found a video interview of the Australian Ambassador, Diana Nelson, talking about the benefits and possibilities of the recent entry into force of the FTA between Peru and Australia. No warnings or even hints of what was to come.

It is really important to emphasize that there were no obvious signs or warnings of the border closure in Peru prior to it being announced.

In fact, the Australian embassy to Peru only formally updated their website and social media accounts the same day it came into effect, leaving those stranded absolutely no chance of getting out of the country in time.

To be fair, it is entirely possible that the Australian embassy staff genuinely did not know about the State of Emergency until after it was declared. It is plausible that the embassy staff and Australian ambassador learnt of the lockdown in the same way those in Peru at the time did — on social media.

It doesn’t appear that any other embassy publically warned their citizens via social media of the impending State of Emergency, and yet the responses from other countries have been notable different. Not just in the sheer quanity of updates, but in the quality of the information being provided to those requiring extradition.

The British Ambassador, for example, was significantly more proactive on her official social media account. On the 13th of March, she began to post updates on the closure of international flights, on the 15th of March they released their first of daily official updates for UK nationals in Peru. By the 26th of March (10 days post-lockdown) she was pictured on the tarmac waving off the first BA flight back to the UK. (Not to be petty, but the Australian Ambassador was not cited at the airport by anyone on the Chimu charter that I’ve spoken to).

The German nationals staying in Sacred Valley with my mum received DAILY calls from their embassy.

According to the Guardian, Germany has put on 70 charter flights so far to return 17,000 of the 50,000 German nationals stranded from Algeria, Argentina, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ecuador, the Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Morocco, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and Tunisia. Charters are being organised for a further 25 countries.

Takeaway: Australians #stuckinPeru had no official warning from the Australian Government or the Australian embassy in Peru about the impending lockdown until AFTER the lockdown was already in place.

Truth: Flights out of Peru (and most of South America) were fully booked the week prior to Peru’s border closure.

In the week leading up to the declaration of the State of Emergency, despite the lack of any official warnings, many Australians in Peru had already begun exploring the flight options to exit Peru for Australia.

For the few who speak Spanish and could understand the local news coverage and/or any of Australian with regular internet access, have relayed to me they had sensed a change to the global response and had started to look for a way back home, even though the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Peru were considerably lower than those in Australia at the time. What they soon discovered was the majority of commercial flights out of Peru were already fully booked and options out of South America the week prior to the 16th of March hard to come by.

Those in rural Peru, many without regular access to electricity, let alone a connection to the internet, were in every sense of the word, in the dark about COVID-19’s recent pandemic status. Australians in Peru has virtually no opportunity to leave, and many were entirely unaware of even the need to leave Peru.

On the 12th of March, my mum and Aunt were in Rio when they managed to log online and read the news and updates that the WHO had announced COVID-19 a global pandemic the day prior. Immediately they sought advice from their Australian-based travel company, who specialises in South American travel. They declared their intention to cut their trip short and head back to Australia on the next flight out, their travel agent explained they’d been unable to find suitable flights to Australia and assured them that it‘d be perfectly safe to continue on the final week of their tour. Their agent highlighted there were no indications from the Peruvian Government that travel to and from Peru would be impacted by COVID-19 in the short-term.

Myth: Regardless of official warnings, they should have known better not to leave Australia.

This is unfair, especially for those who left in February or before.

My mum and Aunty left for a five-week South American trip they’d planned and saved for years for. They left on the 19th of February, at a time where 98.6% of the COVID-19 infections were contained in mainland China.

Many, my family included, assumed COVID-19 would remain in mainland China and the shutdown of Wuhan and other provinces (which had occurred three weeks earlier), was likely to contain the virus. At that time we had SARS to compare it too, which peaked at 8,000 people infected — a far cry from the 779,775 currently infected today.

Truth: COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event.

Very few believed the Bill Gates 2015 warning of a pandemic of this scale, even less were adequately prepared for it. Governments and embassies around the world, all of whom have faced significant challenges prior to coronavirus, have never faced anything even remotely comparable to the scale and complexity of the challenges they’re facing in the global response to containing COVID-19.

If we can acknowledge that COVID-19 is an unprecedented event, we can accept that Australians who were abroad until very recently, would have never predicted being stranded in the way they are. I think it is fair and reasonable to assume that had they received reasonable warning of an imminent lockdown and had they been able to access commercial flights home during that time, the Australians stranded in Pery today would be safely isolated in Australia. Noone expected the borders to be shut as quickly as they were. The Australian Government and embassy sure didn’t, and if they did (they didn’t) a warning prior to the border closure might have been nice.

The Australians #stillstuckinPeru had limited flight options to leave prior to the border closure, they had less than 24 hours notice prior to the lockdown. Many remain in rural villages, some without regular access to power or the internet. None of the Australians stuck in Peru has had access to a functioning embassy, nor the freedom to travel to airports from rural areas without being arrested. All they’ve had is each other on WhatsApp and Facebook groups, the occasional Tweet from the embassy, and snippets of press conferences where Scott Morrison and Marise Payne who insist they are doing ‘everything they can to help them’ - yet 100 Australians still remain in Peru, and they need our help.

These people deserve more information and certainty about the options they have to come home. The next available commercial flight will be in May. If the Australian Government doesn't assist them with the paperwork they need to move to a central location and then leave the country on a specially chartered flight, many will face financial ruin if they’re not already facing it today. Some who are #stillstuckinPeru still have jobs, but this is less certain if they remain in Peru for much longer. Without income, some can’t pay rent and face eviction. Access to Newstart while overseas is usually prohibited, but they have limited assistance to apply for exceptional circumstances. Travel Insurance is void because of the pandemic status, but they still must pay for food and accommodation as they wait for our Government to help them, which at this stage remains uncertain.

Not all Australians stuck in Peru (and many other countries), have the means to afford $5000 for a safe flight home. The truth is, assistance has only been available for those who could pay for it.

You shouldn’t have to re-mortgage your house to secure a flight home.

Many Governments across the world have responded to the challenge of stranded citizens with pragmatism, empathy and speed. Those #stillstuckinPeru don’t expect a handout from the Australian government, but if you look at the comparison they’ve drafted below, Australia’s response is shameful.

I ask all Australians not stuck in Peru — in times of crisis and great uncertainty, what kind of nation do we want to be?

Where are our priorities?

What happened to never leave a mate behind?

To show your support for the Australians #stillstuckinPeru, I urge you to write or Tweet your MP’s and ask them what the Government is doing to help Australians stranded elsewhere. Share this article on social media, and help continue to raise awareness for those who deserve a safe exit home.

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