Entertainment While celebrities fly in, these Gold Coasters stranded overseas 'feel less Australian'

05:00  23 july  2021
05:00  23 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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On the day she was supposed to get married last year, Michelle Doherty tested positive for COVID-19.

"Initially it was like being hit in the face," Michelle says.

"I'd walk into the kitchen and be like, 'I need to sit down'."

But even after enduring Spain's lockdown, where Ms Doherty could only leave her home for one hour a day, the lowest blow came in February this year, when both of her grandparents on the Gold Coast died.

"Even with my family, my sisters, I was like 'Can you just keep me on the phone in the room with everybody?'"

"With the funeral, I was just sitting in my living room, can't even talk to anybody there … like I was watching TV."

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Ms Doherty is one of more than 30,000 Australians stranded overseas, unable to return due limited hotel quarantine spots and flights priced 10 times higher than their pre-pandemic rate.

But with celebrities, including now-deported commentator Katie Hopkins, being granted exemptions as the number of international arrivals permitted entry are cut back, some Aussies abroad are questioning what their citizenship actually means.

'My friends in Australia don't realise'

Ms Doherty has lived in Madrid since 2017 but, after postponing her wedding three times, is desperate to travel home.

"My friends in Australia don't realise, they think I can book a flight," she says.

"That's about $4,000 Australian for a one-way flight that in the past might have been $400, $500, $600.

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"People like [Katie Hopkins] can come into the country on an exemption for a reality TV show but it's so expensive, it's near impossible for me to go home for my grandparents' funeral."

But Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said this week that such exemptions are granted "from time to time".

"It happens reasonably regularly, that state governments approach the federal government on the basis that there is an economic benefit to some people coming in over the quarantine caps," Ms Andrews said.

She said 80 per cent of travellers to Australia in June were Australian permanent residents and their families, with the remainder considered critical workers.

But Tessa Daly, who moved from the Gold Coast to Vancouver in 2016, said the celebrity exemptions, along with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk's recent trip to Japan, "very much feels like a divide in society".

"It stinks," she says.

"There is such a divide between the middle class and the upper class."

No option to leave

Tessa Daly says Canada's policy to reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers in September is bittersweet.

"Even if my parents wanted to come here, they have to seek an exemption from the government and what's the excuse gonna be — I haven't seen my daughter in two years?" she says.

"Please imagine what it's like."

Bonnie Williams and her husband Oliver moved from Burleigh Heads to Orange County, California, five years ago.

"People are being denied the right to be with a dying loved one, it's inhumane, yet we can find a way for actors and sports people to travel safely," she says.

"It feels like a slap in the face."

When Australians overseas were warned in March 2020 to return before borders closed, Ms Williams says she was put in an impossible position.

"I know the sentiment from some people or politicians is like, 'Well, people have had time to come home, they were told come home, and if they didn't — well, too bad'," she says.

"It's not like we had the option to leave, we can't afford to do that and we have businesses to keep running."

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Hopes to return home

Ms Williams hopes to return home in December to introduce her family to her newborn son.

"My best friend had a baby, we've had relatives pass away, grandparents in the last stages of Alzheimer's — it's like life's pause button has been hit over here," she says.

"It will have been two years since we've seen the people that we love the most in the world."

Ms Daly said Australia's troubled vaccination program along with the media's reporting on rare instances of blood-clotting has been frustrating.

"We had a gutful long ago," she says.

"But it's only now that Australians are saying, 'Hang on a second, now we're going into lockdown and the rest of the world is opening up — what's going on?'"

Michelle Doherty's hopes of returning home are still on hold, as her fiancé waits up to 28 months for a visa approval.

"I'm in therapy and I really just try to distract myself and that's not always healthy," she says.

"It's kind of changed me from being the bubbly fun person I was before to all this, all the time, now [I] can't even have a conversation without crying."

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