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A policed border and tiny freedoms: travelling between states amid a global pandemic

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South Australian authorities say the state’s border restrictions have helped limit the spread of coronavirus. That may be, but Jessica Bassano found out the downsides are two-fold – it’s messy and lonely.

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In early March, I was reporting on coronavirus’s impact on South Australians. Adelaide’s first case of COVID-19 had been in February. The month that followed included a series of rapid-fire changes to the way we lived as coronavirus took hold of the nation.

At the time, I was sharing a house I loved in Adelaide’s northern suburbs with two women. One worked in hospitality and the other in manufacturing.

As industry after industry felt the weight of forced federal and state government restrictions designed to limit the spread of the pandemic, my housemates watched as their shifts were cut. They wrestled with how they’d pay their rent.

Coincidentally, our lease was up for renewal at the same time.

I phoned our real estate agent and asked for a rent reduction, a rent freeze, an option to pay month-to-month, anything. My housemates and I were hoping for a show of kindness in the face of potential joblessness, homelessness and ultimately the first recession in almost three decades.

Instead, we were told, in no uncertain terms, no considerations could be made. If we couldn’t pay the rent we’d need to move out.

We were gutted. It was the first home I’d made in my adopted state.

While my housemates decided to move in with their respective families, my own family was in Melbourne and I had no-one I could live with in South Australia indefinitely.

Within a matter of days, the Tasmanian and Northern Territory governments announced they would shut their borders.

South Australia followed on March 22.

Premier Steven Marshall said anyone entering South Australia, including returning residents, would be forced to self-isolate for 14 days and inform police of where they’d be staying. Road crossings and the airport would be monitored.

I was in a very privileged position: I still had a job and, while the window was closing, I could still potentially return to live with my family in Victoria.

However, I could not shift the gnawing in my gut which seemed to develop every time I, like millions of others across the globe, thought about being unable to hold my people while the world was in chaos.

After a stressed conversation with my editor, who performed some kind of magic, I was free to return to Melbourne for work.

On March 23 I booked a flight with Jetstar, which was due to leave three days later.

At 4.42am on the day I was due to fly out of Adelaide Jetstar cancelled my flight via email.

The airline was not answering its phones and there was only one direct flight between Adelaide and Melbourne with the airline.

Trains had temporarily stopped running and while buses were carrying two loads of passengers between South Australia and Victoria each day, the bus service could not say whether it had implemented any social distancing or hygiene practices.

When a spot became available on a Virgin flight, which was travelling between the states once every couple of days, I booked it and held my breath until I arrived in Melbourne.

There the usual mayhem which swarmed the highway connecting the airport to the city – The Tullamarine Freeway – was a hoon’s dream: eight lanes of sheer asphalt.

For the next two months, I lived with my family in Melbourne.

In May, I was asked to return to Adelaide for work.

Virgin was still running one direct flight between Adelaide and Melbourne every couple of days and Jetstar had continued its pattern of a flight a day.

It was a relatively inexpensive trip at between $60 and $120 one-way. But trying to book a seat was tricky, as the airlines were not filling their flights, in line with coronavirus social-distancing measures.

Melbourne Tullamarine Airport the second time round was even weirder than the first – it felt apocalyptic.

A few flight attendants loitered around the check-in area. The security screening zone, normally backed up with people, was deserted. The only sign of life in the otherwise dimly lit large food-hall were the neon lights from two coffee shops – a Subway and a chemist.

Before boarding the flight, passengers were asked to collect and fill out a South Australian Entrance Form, which asked where we’d be staying in South Australia and any other travel taken in the past 30 days.

Announcements were made asking people to socially distance.

I sat on a plane dotted with empty seats.

Passengers filled out SA entrance forms in Melbourne.

Touching down in Adelaide was like stepping into life again. The airport was busy and the police presence was particularly obvious.

Walking towards the exit, a person in full protective gear stopped me and took my temperature, looked at the thermometer and nodded me forward.

Travellers were advised to get into four queues, with three lines for people seeking exemptions from isolation and one line for everyone else.

I was advised by a police officer that those waiting in the self-isolation line would be processed faster than those in the other lines. The officer’s advice seemed correct.

The following day, InDaily reported SA had its first positive coronavirus case in 19 days – a British woman who had been granted a compassionate exemption to travel to the state.

Passengers had their temperature taken before moving forward.

An information sheet I was given at Adelaide Airport recommended I use a face mask when travelling from the airport to my residence as well as when in contact with the people I’d be staying with. But there were no face masks at the airport.

I asked the police officer reviewing my application what the rules were regarding using an Uber to get to my place of accommodation and sharing cutlery with my new housemate. He wasn’t entirely sure of the details.

“You’ve just got to do the best you can,” he said. “And read the form.”

He told me to go straight home: don’t stop for groceries, don’t pop into a friend’s house and don’t go into public areas.

He said police could check up on me – and if I was not where I said I was, I could be slapped with a $1000 on-the-spot fine.

It was the first of 14 days I’d be wiping down surfaces like a zealot, slurping in brief encounters with the outdoors, madly ordering groceries, clothes and birthday presents online, and – above all – avoiding face-to-face interactions like the plague. Or rather, coronavirus.

The first few days in isolation were fine. In fact, on a couple of occasions, I forgot I wasn’t allowed to leave the house and suggested to my housemate – from a roughly 1.5-meter distance – that I go get groceries. She swiftly laughed in my face.

At 8.30pm on a Friday night the police came and checked up on me.

They didn’t check my identification to see if I was in fact who I said I was but they did ask if I was feeling sick. I wasn’t.

They also didn’t ask about my mental health, check my living conditions or ask how many people I was living with. The whole encounter lasted under five minutes.

By day four, I started to have strong urges to leave my confinement (but didn’t), and for the next eight days every day felt longer than the last. The days began to merge into one.

Time was divided into sleep (poor) and work, bursts of exercise, using apps on my phone or simply running laps of the house. There were loads of washing. I developed an addiction for Twitter trends, TikTok dances and Instagram stories, and reached the end of the infinite scroll – but found no connection.

I considered sneaking out of the house at 3am to enjoy the vastness of the world. But the thought of further debt on top of my crippling HECS prevented me from leaving.

Running laps of the house is harder than it seems.

When I finally reached my first day of freedom, I was so excited to leave the house I woke up at 5.30am and ran to the beach in the dark.

It was a blessing that wouldn’t have been possible without my health.

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