In January this year, Maninder Mehta left his wife and kids in Sydney to travel to India to see his father who was gravely ill and in need of open-heart surgery.
He also wanted to provide support for his 70-year-old mother, who has no other family in India.
“Sadly, [my father] passed away after his surgery in February and this came as a shock to all of us, especially our mother,” Maninder told SBS News.
“Now my mother is in a most vulnerable position as she was completely dependent on my father, who was pretty active otherwise. [My family] wanted to take our mother along [back home to Australia] so we can grieve together as a whole family.”
But the closure of Australia’s international border has made Maninder’s wish difficult, even though his mother has a valid family sponsored visa.
He says his mother’s travel application has been denied nine times, despite assurances to the government the family will cover her medical and quarantine expenses. She’s also already had her first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
For now, Maninder has begrudgingly decided to stay in India with his mother, leaving his wife and kids in Sydney alone.
“Why do I have to choose between my vulnerable mother and my young kids?” he said.
Maninder’s brother Shail lives in Perth and was originally denied an exemption to travel on compassionate grounds while their father was critically ill. He was only granted a travel exemption after his father passed away.
Now in hotel quarantine in Australia, he worries for his mother and brother in India, where cases of coronavirus are rising.
“My mother has high blood pressure and is on diabetic medicine,” Shail said. “Our doctor has categorically told us that our mother is at risk of dying if her blood sugar drops and she often forgets to take the medicine because she is still grieving.”
The brothers had been hoping Australia’s vaccination rollout would soon open the country’s international border to cases like theirs.
But with the national program delayed following new advice surrounding the AstraZeneca shot, and as experts warn the reopening of international borders is dependent on strong vaccine uptake, the Mehta brothers are frustrated.
“This delay and mismanagement of supply and rollouts have further pushed us away from our family and kids back home,” Maninder said.
Shail said even though the number of new COVID-19 cases in Australia is low, the emotional impact of the border closures is anything but.
“You have the impact of COVID everywhere in our country in the form of families being devastated and businesses being devastated. Something has gone wrong here that we have put all our eggs in one basket with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.
‘Behind the eight ball’
The Mehtas are not alone.
Tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad are still waiting to return, and further delays to the vaccination program won’t speed up their trips home.
Other Australians are also waiting to travel overseas to see loved ones.
Epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws, a World Health Organization COVID-19 advisory panel member, said many Australian families have found themselves separated and in a tough position.
“We have not quite half of our population who have been born overseas, or have parents who were born overseas. For them not to [see family and friends] is very difficult,” she said.
Last week, the Pfizer shot was announced by the country’s vaccine experts as the preferred jab for adults under the age of 50. And as the government initially chose AstraZeneca as the backbone of Australia’s vaccine program, the new revelations surrounding blood clots have thrown it into disarray.
Professor McLaws said Australia is now “behind the eight ball” and it could be a year or so before international travel returns to normal.
“Australians are good uptakers of vaccines and 85 per cent [of willing Australians] gives us any sort of herd immunity,” she said.
“At 85 per cent, we’d need 200,000 injections of both AstraZeneca and Pfizer per day to get finished in six months – and that’s not a reality because we don’t have the supply to reach this yet. We’re potentially talking about 12 months until we have 85 per cent of the population vaccinated who want to be.
“You can’t open the borders when a proportion of the population still haven’t had the vaccination. You want to make sure that everybody is vaccinated so they aren’t placed at risk.”
Meanwhile, there are calls for an updated vaccine rollout plan to be made public in the wake of the slower-than-expected progress.
“That first [vaccine rollout] phase from August last year to March this year, the original target of four million vaccinated was clearly not met,” said Stephen Duckett, director of the Health and Aged Care Program at the Grattan Institute.
“It was a failure of logistics, a failure of getting the right model for the rollout and a failure of overhyping the vaccine program. There were failures of planning.”
A new rollout is being negotiated, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday refused to put a time on an updated program, saying targets are not practical given COVID-19 “writes its own rules”.
“You have to be able to respond quickly to when things change and we’ve had to deal with a lot of changes,” he said in a Facebook video.
“Rather than set targets that can get knocked about by every to and fro of international supply chains and other disruptions that can occur, we are just getting on with it.”
Dr Duckett said a lack of transparent targets could pose an issue for overall confidence.
“The virtue of no targets is that the government cannot be held to account for not achieving them,” he said.
“You can have no confidence that the government is planning the vaccine rollout if it hasn’t actually said what it’s trying to achieve by when.
“While we don’t have herd immunity, there is always a risk that a human system will fail, that hotel quarantine will fail, as we saw in Queensland a few weeks ago. This is why the vaccine is so important.”
Dr Duckett said the vaccine delay will also be front of mind for Australians hoping to return to a “vaccine normal”, including the reopening of international borders.
“Last year the debate was, ‘we have to do all this until we have a vaccine, because once we have a vaccine everything will return back to normal’, so the whole population is waiting with bated breath,” he said.
“There are significant issues associated with the closed border – there’s lack of international tourism, lack of international students and that has flow-on effects into the hospitality sector and other sectors like accommodation and so on.”
National COVID-19 Commissioner Jane Halton on Monday called for calm despite rising concern about the state of Australia’s rollout.
“The trick now is for people just to calm down a little bit and get back to basics,” she told the Nine Network. “We need to vaccinate the nation, we need to have the vaccines to do that, we’re going to get Pfizer at the end of this year and there will be 40 million doses in total of Pfizer.”
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says the initial phases of vaccinating quarantine, border, health, aged care and disability workers and residents remain on track to be completed mid-year.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan is set to travel to Europe on Wednesday to urge his German, Belgian and French counterparts to do what they can to increase vaccine production.
Additional reporting by AAP.