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Coming home to Australia in the time of COVID-19

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By Marie Vasquez

On Sunday morning of April 19, I just finished dropping off my mum’s medications at a hotel in Melbourne where her 14-day quarantine begins. We contacted the nurse to tell them that the medicines are at the reception.

There is a very strict no-visitor policy in the hotel. There are two police officers in the hallways of every room level. The hotel provides three meals a day and a phone to call receptionist.

View from Lily Gillespie's room
View from Lily Gillespie’s (Marie’s mother) room at the hotel where she is quarantined | Photo: Supplied
Lily Gillespie's quarantine room
Quarantine room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Melbourne.
Medicines for Marie's mum
Maintenance medicines Marie sent to her mother at the hotel.

The difficulty of getting mum home

I can say now that it was a difficult experience getting my mum back to Australia. Even though I am here in Melbourne, I know now that in a crisis like this, one’s persistence, patience and knowing who, how and what to do in times like this, matter a lot.

I got my family members in the Philippines searching for people and neighbours who have a printer to produce the necessary documents as there is no copier shop open. Our ancestral house doesn’t have any computer, WIFI, TV and our only means of communication is via FB’s messenger.

Contacting appropriate offices was key. My mother has a medical condition and she was running out of medicine. I had to email the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Tourism, Smart Traveller and the Philippine Embassy several times, to the point of even commenting on their Facebook page. I was also in contact with the travel agency here in Melbourne.

Then I was told that as part of the requirement, she reportedly needed to use an accredited transport service. Wow! Not only these accredited transportation services didn’t know about the special flight, they weren’t contacted by the Embassy or Department of Tourism. I had to explain to them, but they said they did not have a clearance to operate.

Finally, I got an answer on the night of 16 April that we could use a private car with driver and organise the barangay clearance. The following day, 17 April, we had another hurdle and this was about 6pm Philippine time and the day before the PAL flight.

The Australian Embassy issued an advisory that those passengers from Greater Luzon needed health certificates. Where will these passengers get the certificate as all offices were closed including shops? Curfew in our province is between 5pm and 5am. I didn’t give up and I rang my friends and my sister-in-law if she could text me the number of the barangay captain so they could assist us.

The next day, 18 April was the scheduled flight and my mum had to leave Batangas for NAIA and it would take her three hours of travel time.

At 7am, the barangay captain said that only the municipal health department can issue the certificate because the passenger needed to be cleared first by a doctor. We rushed to contact the doctor and process the paper as we only had two hours to do this. I told them my mum needed to be at the airport very early because of the series of checkpoints.

I was so anxious because the health certificate was needed in the airport to prove that mum did her 14-day quarantine when she arrived in Batangas and that on the day of her departure, she was well and healthy.

Municipal health certificate that was issued to Lily Gillespie
Municipal health certificate that was issued to Lily Gillespie
Lily Gillespie
Lily Gillespie when she arrived on Australian soil at Melbourne Airport after her repatriation flight

Doing my share 

I was very upset that the government units in the Philippines did not inform the passengers ahead of time of the required medical certificate.

I pitied those who do not have anyone to get things done for them—Australian tourists who are relying on local hotel staff for information or the elderly who are not computer savvy.

Since I am also busy at work as a nurse and I have to look after my family as well, I am now forced to be on Facebook (Australians in the Philippines) to assist those people wanting answers and to share my own experience. My purpose is to help everyone especially the elderly stranded like mum was who has health issues and maintenance medicine and those families with kids. 

What is important now is to look after the well-being of my mum since we cannot visit her physically. We keep in contact via calls, text or video calls. I will also continue to answer queries of Australians needing help to share my experience and to guide them in the best way I can.

Marie's greeting card for her mum
Marie’s greeting card for her mum

Tips on what to do for the sweeper flight

Now that my mother is here, I have to share what we did. People have different situations and circumstances but this might help some who are so eager to come back to Australia:

  1. Obtain a Health Certificate from the Health Department Unit  of the Provincial State’s Municipal Hall and a Mayor’s Letter for the quarantine pass;
  1. Secure a barangay clearance for check points with driver’s name, date of birth, car registration and model with the passenger’s name, date of birth and citizenship status. The clearance should also indicate the flight details (flight number, date and time);
  2. Australian Embassy Letter for pass to show check points which should have been emailed to each passenger;
  3. Passport copies
  4. Copy of driver’s identification card
  5. Make two copies of all the documents: one for the passenger and the other, for the driver to be presented at the checkpoints (going and coming back).
  6. Put all these in a clear plastic envelop so it’s easy to show at check points and have alcohol wipes to sanitise the envelop after handling.
  7. Wear mask and gloves at all times and keep hand sanitiser or alcohol at all times.

READ MORE: Three special flights from Manila arrive in Australia under difficult circumstances

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