Police, permits and swabs: the pains of crossing WA’s hard border

When I got the call in July 2018 that my dad had a golden staph infection that had eaten away at his heart and that I needed to fly from Melbourne to Perth immediately to say my goodbyes, every minute that passed was unbearable.

Waiting for the uber to take me home from the cinema where I had been about to see a movie; the drive to the airport; the four-and-a-half hour flight, the journey to the hospital from the airport at 11pm at night. “What if dad dies before I get there?” I kept thinking.

Against all odds my dad survived, thanks to his surgeon and the specialist nurses at Fiona Stanley hospital. But when I returned to Perth on Saturday it struck me that I had no idea, back then, how desperate the situation truly could have been.

Travel to Western Australia is now granted only in limited circumstances and with strict quarantine conditions, under the hard border rules designed to keep the state free of Covid-19, and it applies even to residents returning to the state.

If my father’s life had been in imminent danger like it was last time, I likely would not have arrived in time to have the family meeting with the surgeon to decide whether the surgery, likely to kill dad or leave him irreversibly changed, was worth it, or whether it was kinder to let him die.

I would not have arrived in time to be there to hold his hand as the nurses woke him up in intensive care after that surgery; to this day, my dad repeatedly says how much it meant to him to see me as he woke in confusion and excruciating pain, tubes emerging from all over his body draining fluid.

Quarantine for the lucky

This time around I thought I would not be able to return to see my dad, who has had two strokes since his surgery.

I applied for entry through WA’s ‘G2G Pass’, providing my documentation, but the first time I was told I could not quarantine at home and instead had to stay in a hotel, which I could not afford. As Victoria’s case numbers dropped and pressure built for states to accept more Australians returning from overseas, WA changed its policy from 5 October to allow some domestic travellers to quarantine at home, to free up hotel space for international arrivals. I applied again, providing photos of my parents’ home where I planned to quarantine, describing the separate section of the house with a second bathroom where I would stay. But my application was rejected on the grounds that I might share the kitchen with my parents, and that I might use the laundry.

view of a Perth airport sign and Virgin planes through the window
Passengers have their temperatures taken before they board the plane and a coronavirus test upon arrival in Perth. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Getting to WA seemed impossible. It also felt uncomfortable that people with an appropriately large house to quarantine in or who could afford hotel quarantine could get back more easily, no matter the circumstances that led them to travel.

My brother proposed a solution – he would stay at my parents’ house, and I could quarantine for two weeks alone at his apartment. Again I submitted the G2G application, and this time it was approved. I was so lucky to have somewhere in WA to stay. But had my circumstances been the same now as they were a couple of years ago, I would have struggled to accept the situation, and I felt for the thousands of people in desperate situations now.

Before I boarded the flight in Melbourne I had my temperature taken and had to show personal medical documents as well as the G2G travel pass before being ushered through to security.

Our flight waited 90 minutes on the tarmac in Perth after landing, as planes from Sydney and Brisbane needed to be processed first. The room accepting arrivals had to be disinfected. There were a lot of people, since the number of flights has been significantly cut. Eventually we were allowed to leave the plane and were met by a police officer who watched us as we lined up outside a shed-like building.

A police officer, a nurse and a swab

“Farking hell, this looks like a farking torture chamber,” a man said as he took in the tattered sheets draped from the roof that formed the walls of the makeshift holding shed.

An army officer stood before us at the front of the room. Next to him, a nurse in a head-to-toe blue plastic body suit held a temperature gun. We were sorted into three groups. Families with children sat in blue plastic chairs in the middle of the shed, cordoned off by red tape. Airline staff stood in a line down the left side of the room. The rest of us sat in the white plastic chairs on the right. All of the chairs were placed in rows, three by three, about 1 metre apart.

“I started to worry once they marched us in here,” another man commented, to no one in particular.

The families with children were called forward first, one row at a time, then the airline staff, and finally my section. We went through a door into a corridor, and a nurse took our temperature, reciting a list of symptoms and asking health questions.

fish eye view of Perth's city skyline
The Elizabeth Quay Bridge in Perth is lit red on September 30 as part of global action to highlight the plight of the live event industry in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Perth began holding major music events again in July. Photograph: Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Next, we lined up to be interviewed by a police officer. There were several booths, with a plastic divider separating travellers from the officers. I was given paperwork to sign and my details were written down. I then waited to be interviewed by a nurse, then I was directed to another line for testing. Then the swab, and then, about four hours after I had landed, I was directed outside through a door and told to go straight to quarantine by an army officer.

I wandered back into the airport and to the baggage collection area. At the very end of this section I saw bags unattended, all distanced one metre apart. Eventually, I found mine.

Is zero community transmission realistic?

Given the restrictions on who can enter WA, I wondered how many of the travellers around me were there because a loved one was dying, or because they were in strife. I wondered what it must be like for them to be met by all this.

Much of it is necessary. I have lived through a second lockdown in Victoria that has tested people mentally and financially, and I have interviewed doctors and nurses exhausted from working in the peak of the second wave. I’ve interviewed so many families who lost loved ones in aged care. I have no problem with undergoing testing and socially distancing.

But I have been living alone in Victoria for months in lockdown, wearing a mask to even go for a walk. There are less than 15 active cases per million people in the state, yet, even with active clusters under control, there are no signs state borders will reopen, especially not WA, which wants zero community transmission in the rest of the country. I’m increasingly realising this will never happen.

I have never felt so separate from Western Australians and the state where I was born, where even stepping off the plane and feeling the Perth sun and breathing the sea air used to feel like a welcome home. I took it for granted that I would always feel this way.

This time, I just feel displaced.