“I’m thinking of coming home,” my sister said to me on our daily WhatsApp call.
Ordinarily, I would have been elated. My only sister has been living in London for nearly a decade and while we talk often and she comes home almost every year, it never feels enough. It’s always good to see her.
But we don’t live in ordinary times and the thought of international travel right now is frightening.
The trek home to Melbourne would include a trip to Heathrow, at least two flights, a stopover, not to mention the two weeks hotel quarantine at the end. Our cousin flew from London to Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Near the end of his two weeks quarantine in Hong Kong, the airline called to confirm a case of COVID-19 in one of the crew members on his flight. He quarantined for another week after that, causing much stress and anxiety for everyone involved.
“Do you really want to travel right now?” I asked.
“No, not really,” she said. But the alternative wasn’t that peachy either.
In March this year, when the Department of Foreign Affairs called for all Australians to return home as soon as possible, my sister didn't feel the need to leave. She lives by herself, works in London and has both Australian and British citizenship. Her employer, a global tech company had already mandated working from home so she decided to ride out the pandemic in her trendy apartment with help from Amazon Prime and Animal Crossing.
As a close-knit migrant family (mum, dad and my sister left the clan in Hong Kong and migrated to Australia some 30 years ago, we have very little family here), my parents and I unanimously supported her decision. My mum sent over a care package of five face masks, the only parcel she has posted in the entire time my sister has been away. To keep her sprits high, we take an excessive number of photos of my 18-month-old daughter and upload these onto GooglePhotos. I make a big effort to call her everyday, sometimes even twice a day.
My mum sent over a care package of five face masks, the only parcel she has posted in the entire time my sister has been away.
But as the weeks turn into months, the situation in the UK remains uncertain. At the time of writing, the UK has more than 254,000 cases with more than 36,000 deaths. In comparison, Australia has 7000 cases with about 100 deaths. On the same day Australia recorded 14 new cases, the UK recorded 3287.
Last week, her work extended working from home to the end of the year. At first, I thought she meant the end of the financial year. But she meant 31 December.
Another six months of living alone and trapped in her tiny apartment.
If she came home now, after quarantine, she could move back to our family home and into her childhood bedroom which has remained largely untouched since she left home more than ten years ago. Our mum has refused to downsize, insisting that she needed the rooms should either or both of her daughters needed to return home, you know, like during a global pandemic.
I live only 15 minutes away from the family home. The best part of temporary homecoming, as my sister described it, would be the rare opportunity to spend a lot more time with her niece. The newborn she last saw in real life is a baby no more and no doubt the ‘toddler years’ will disappear too. She could be a much more present yi yi (aunt) while still keeping the job she loves with the company she works for.
It could be the silver lining to a global pandemic that has seen an estimated 22,000 Australians return home from overseas.
That day, in our hour-long conversation, we continued to talk about the cost of flights, the challenges of working London hours at home (our pragmatic dad thinks we are underestimating this) and her assessment of worst case scenario (if she got COVID, she was relatively young, no underlying health issue, very likely to recover).
As she spoke, I realised just how ignorant I had been at the beginning of the conversation.
As she spoke, I realised just how ignorant I had been at the beginning of the conversation. While international travel may seem unpalatable to me, another six months of iso, with family so far away was unpalatable to her. I could see why she was considering her options.
I don’t know if she will come home and I don’t envy the decision she will have to make. But as mum would say, my sister can come home whenever she wants, under any circumstances. And at all times and especially now, we must call her and remind her everyday that she can.
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