Expats share their experiences in zero-Covid tolerance countries in the Asia-Pacific region
By Kate Springer
As variants spell a new chapter for the pandemic, some countries have accepted COVID-19 as a fact of life and eased restrictions, while others have doubled down on a zero-COVID model with stringent lockdown and quarantine measures. In Asia-Pacific, it’s largely the latter, with lengthy and expensive quarantines remaining the norm, once-heaving airports now ghost towns, and airplane sightings a rare treat.
Emotions are running high in the region, especially for expatriates who haven’t seen family back home since the start of the pandemic. Five people living in ultra-cautious Asia-Pacific—Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, and Japan — share what it’s been like to be separated from friends and family for the better part of two years, while watching other parts of the world reopen.
In Australia, waiting for a new child meet the grandparents
Originally from England, James Macartney moved to Sydney, Australia, in 2012, with his now-wife Sam. Nearly a decade later, the pair became parents on December 31, 2020.
Their son, Hamish, has a shock of black hair and a heart-melting smile. But due to Australia’s strict travel policies, Macartney’s side of the family in England has yet to meet the eight-month-old. “Right now, we’re in lockdown [in Sydney], and we aren’t supposed to go out unless we’re exercising or getting groceries,” the 33-year-old says of the policy currently applied to the Australian state of New South Wales. “To leave the country, you have to apply — it’s possible for compassionate reasons or essential travel. But it’s really hard to get back home afterwards. Some Aussies have been stranded for ages and can’t get back.”
Since they can’t leave Australia and foreigners can’t visit, the couple have relied on FaceTime and WhatsApp to keep their family in England involved. “I try to capture Hamish on video a lot — anything new he’s doing — so they have that bond,” he says. “Time is precious when I see them in normal times — even more so [now] with Hamish, who is just growing so fast.”
Macartney says his mom could bear the distance Hamish was a newborn, since he was mostly sleeping and eating. “But now, he’s eight months old and becoming so much more expressive,” Macartney says. “He’s standing, interacting. I just hope more people in Australia start getting vaccinated so we can open up the borders again. I am holding onto that hope.”
Now that travel is picking up in other parts of the world, Macartney thinks about seeing his parents and siblings all the time. “It will be an emotional reunion — that’s for sure,” he says. “When all this is said and done, I plan to spend a lot more time with my family.”
Separated from a partner and family in Japan
Ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, sustainable hospitality and event advocate Martina Beszedesova relocated from Shanghai to Tokyo to take advantage of new job opportunities. “Little did we know, the pandemic was around the corner, and it just threw everything out of whack,” says the 36-year-old Slovakian.
Before the move, Beszedesova had already lived in Asia for 14 years and was accustomed to seeing her mom and brother in Slovakia at least once a year. As the pandemic swept through Asia, however, lockdowns swiftly followed. “In March 2020, the government announced the first state of emergency — and we are currently in our fourth state of emergency,” she says. “We’re calling, texting, but it’s just not the same. We’ve had some loss in our family, and I couldn’t be there to share the grief. That was tough.”
At first, she had her partner by her side in Tokyo. But that all changed when he traveled to Taiwan for a filming job. While there, his visa expired, so he got stranded abroad from September 2020 to July 2021, leaving her alone in Japan. “I went through the stages of grief,” she admits. “We made it work by having virtual date nights where we’d watch the same show on Netflix or eat Indian food together.”
Beszedesova also found some relief by spending time with two close friends in the mountains of Okutama and Nagano, and hanging out with her dog, Milo. She optimistically booked a flight home in September 2020, hoping to visit for the holidays last year, but had to reschedule multiple times when it became clear the situation back home was getting worse. “Slovakia went from being one of the safest places on earth in terms of COVID-19 to having the highest death rate at one point,” she says. “The situation has improved recently, so I am stubbornly hoping to go home this October.”
In the meantime, she’s grateful her partner returned about two months ago in what felt like a sweet, albeit surreal, reunion. “It was like he never left — like he had gone 10 minutes to the supermarket,” she says. “It’s very hard to explain. But it really felt like I had just woken up from a bad dream.”
Far from aging parents while in New Zealand
While video chatting with her mother and older brother recently, Tamsin Edensor suddenly felt a chasm split open in her heart. “There was a moment where my brother just put his hands on my mum’s shoulders, and it made me burst into tears. Because I know how those shoulders feel,” says the 45-year-old mother-of-two.
“I was so happy for them because they had just emerged from lockdown in the U.K.,” she says. “But I also felt so sad, wondering, When am I going to hug my mum? And my brother? I just have to push it back in my mind.”
Edensor, who moved with her husband Paul from England to New Zealand in 2002, says the last time she visited her family was for Christmas in 2019. Right after, her mom came to Christchurch in 2020. But in 2021, they scrapped the annual reunion because of travel restrictions and COVID-19 fears.
“Our borders are well and truly shut,” says the travel industry professional, who’s currently in the middle of a stay-at-home lockdown. “If someone said that in February 2020 that I wouldn’t see my mum again for two, maybe three, years, I wouldn’t have believed it. ”
On top of that, Edensor lost her job during the pandemic and also missed her grandfather’s funeral in Australia because of the rapidly changing travel policies. “I’ve got a young family. I can’t risk getting stuck in Australia for weeks on end,” she says. “It would have been a lovely way to say goodbye to my grandfather and celebrate his brilliant life. COVID robs you of that opportunity to be together.”
That heartbreak makes her worry about her parents in England, where outbreaks have been more severe. Usually, she says, her mother is very upbeat. But during the pandemic, Edensor can see her struggling. Her dad also grappled with being newly retired, while her older brother has recently separated from his wife. “You suddenly just feel quite far away,” she says.
Missing summer trips from Cambodia to the U.S.
As international school teachers, Jason Hershberger and his wife Christina, along with their 8-year-old son Miles, spend their lives on the go. They’ve lived in Spain, Bolivia, China, and Thailand, before moving to Cambodia two years ago — and spend their summers traveling in the U.S. to see family and friends.
In 2020, they didn’t make the trip because of the COVID outbreaks in the U.S. And while they’re now vaccinated, they couldn’t visit this past summer due to an extended, expensive quarantine required on return to Cambodia.
“My son recently told me, ‘Dad, I’m forgetting what the United States is like,’” Hershberger says. Miles has never lived in the U.S., but has fond memories of spending time with his grandparents, fishing, and going to summer camps.
“It has been scary to watch the situation in the U.S. from abroad,” says the 48-year-old Ohio native, who is currently in lockdown in Phnom Penh. “My wife’s mother had COVID twice and was in the hospital for over a month in early 2020.”
Hershberger also worries about his grandmother, who is 99. “I haven’t seen her in two years, and she has started exhibiting signs of dementia. That woman is one of the strongest, kindest, sweetest, fiercest — I don’t know any positive adjectives that you couldn’t use to describe her. If she passes away, I’ll go home. She was as much a mom to me as my [actual] mom.”
At the same time, Hershberger tries not to dwell on the negative. “I have been able to live abroad for 20 years successfully because I can let go of things that are out of my control,” he says. “I’m fairly good at compartmentalizing because I know I can’t do anything about it right now.”
Of course, he’s envious of those with more mobility at the moment. “It’s frustrating to see other people around the world traveling when we can’t leave Cambodia,” he says. “We can’t go home for Christmas this year, so we’re just praying that Cambodia will lift the quarantine next summer. Even if it doesn’t, I think we will have to go. We can’t go that long without seeing our parents.”
Homesickness takes a toll in Hong Kong
A freelance food and travel journalist, Vicki Williams has lived in Hong Kong on and off for the past 20 years.
She always looks forward to visiting her family in Millingandi on the southern coast of New South Wales for about 10 weeks every summer when it’s winter in Hong Kong. “It is normally a time of family and friends gatherings, laughter, vegetables harvested straight from the family garden, backyard barbecues, going to the beach, and generally recharging my batteries,” she says.
However, the last time she went home in March 2020 was far from relaxing. “It was the Black Summer of bushfires,” she says. “While we were the more lucky ones, mum and I still had to leave the family home on three occasions — once under police instruction because of the proximity of raging bush fires [which caused] red and black skies and [required] masks to protect us from the acrid air and smoke.”
Just as Williams was recovering from that incredibly stressful experience — when they were sleeping in shifts on high alert with emergency supplies in the car, ready to go — the government began talking about travel bans due to the pandemic. So she flew back to Hong Kong about two weeks before Australia closed its borders.
Since then, Williams hasn’t made any attempts to visit because Hong Kong and Australia have two of the most stringent travel policies in the world. “At first it was waiting, thinking, ‘Surely the situation will change,’” she says. “I hoped in 2020 that I would be back for Christmas that year.”
It soon became clear that the financial burden of two mandatory self-paid hotel quarantines, plus impossible-to-get flights, would be unmanageable. But it’s the uncertainty, she says, that is the hardest part. “I still have no idea when I will be able to travel to Australia,” she says. “It is like being in constant limbo, unable to make plans, and not knowing when that will be possible.”
Now it’s been 18 months since Williams has seen her family, and the distance has taken a toll. “For me, the homesickness comes in waves, and when it does hit, so do the big emotions, from tears to frustration,” she says.
Williams leans on her partner for support and makes an effort to do things that bring her joy and relaxation, like meditation, yoga, and long walks in nature. It helps her manage, but she still feels emotionally exhausted. “FaceTime is a great thing to have for catch-ups, but it is not even close to the feeling and connection that comes from spending day in, day out, with people whom you love dearly,” she says.
The experience has also made her reconsider living abroad if this is the reality. “Moving back to Australia is something that I had been thinking about even before COVID,” she says. “And it will be the place I move to next.”
Credit: Conde Nast Traveler