Christmas Island is no shrinking violet when it comes to damaging headlines – asylum seeker boat arrivals, boat tragedies, detention centre disturbances and the occasional unrest – but none so hurtful as ‘Virus Island’ that made the front page of The West Australian newspaper, an unwarranted moniker when we graciously received a number of Australians being repatriated home from Wuhan after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.
It was early days, even before the virus outbreak was confirmed as a pandemic. All we knew was that it was highly contagious, spreading quickly, making a lot of people very sick and killing a disturbing number who contracted the virus.
The Islanders find out about these pending arrivals on the morning news – the same time the rest of Australia does. Within seconds my phone rings with a regional radio station asking me for comment. Before I know it, it seems that every news outlet in Australia has my contact details and are asking for interviews for their radio programs and quotes for their articles, all culminating in a skype interview with The Project. TV stations charter a flight to get their crew on the ground for the arrival of the first repatriation flight. Reporters and photographers follow on our regular scheduled flights.
COVID-19 is already making its own headlines around the world. Hey – why not throw Christmas Island in for good measure!
As a long-term resident of Christmas Island, I justifiably had concerns, but the resources that appeared overnight to handle the arrival, management and medical needs for these folks gave me confidence that the Government was treating this scenario with the seriousness it warranted.
The first arrivals are tested – no COVID-19. Second arrivals are tested – no COVID-19. A third arrival is announced. All tested – no COVID-19. Our authorities alert us about a person in quarantine with the symptoms and extra testing is done – no COVID-19. The folks patiently pass their 14 days of quarantine by taking squillions of photos of red crabs that wander through their compounds, thank the islanders for their hospitality and return to their homes on the mainland. The news crews lament that they did not get to report, on the spot, about the first cases of the virus entering the country but the local hospitality businesses have appreciated the small boom.
The Federal authorities decide to use Darwin for further arrivals from known COVID-19 hotspots and they record the first cases in quarantine. The AUSMAT team decamp from the detention centre and Christmas Island is out of the spotlight as the story moves on.
As things progress, we watch as the international borders are closed, and the states start reluctantly closing their borders. Christmas & Cocos Keeling Islands are deemed vulnerable communities due to the status of our medical facilities, State of Emergency declared, and all non-essential travel is deferred. Islanders are desperately trying to get home as the virus starts to take hold on the mainland and somehow, our Indian Ocean Territories (IOTs) with their COVID-free status are now looking like the safest places to be on the planet.
Ironically – the ‘Big Island’ South West of us is now ‘Virus Island’.
We spend a few nervous weeks waiting to see how it will all play out – all the restrictions on the mainland are implemented on the islands. Stay home, report illness, do not go out in numbers, cafes & restaurants are closed. I have a tourism business that now has no customers for the foreseeable future, so I turn my attention to other things.
We find we are allowed a few small freedoms. We can go fishing, swimming, and snorkeling. We can go for walks in our National Park, exercise and mostly go about our day so long as we are observing the physical distancing rules. The blight of hoard shopping seems to bypass our communities.
But everyone is on edge – every flight brings the renewed possibility of the virus, people expressing frustration when others breach the rules and any strange faces raise suspicion.
Every day we are waking up thankful that we can let little bits of the new normal settle in. Our authorities gradually start to relax some of the restrictions, cafes & restaurants can re-open for takeaway. People can start travelling down to Perth for their medical treatments as WA miraculously gets a solid grasp on community transmission.
We watch with tempered elation as Premier Mark McGowan confidently releases his daily COVID-19 tally, and we note that new cases are being recorded only amongst returning international travelers already in hotel quarantine. There is a blip with the ‘Mutton Princess’ (Al Kuwati sheep carrier) and we wait to see how it will play out. Behind the scenes we have no doubt that a few heads were knocked together but Premier McGowan is out in front of the story, reassuring West Australians that the situation is under control and they were safe. ‘Be vigilant, follow the guidelines – we are all working towards a greater good’. He is impressive – a trait not demonstrated by many of our leaders nowadays.
Many Christmas & Cocos Islanders have connections to family in WA. 32 of our essential services on the islands are delivered by the West Australian Government. Our apprentices and university students’ study in Perth. The container ship with our much-needed supplies departs from Fremantle. With the cessation of any international flights connecting us to Asia, Perth is now our only contact with the outside world and will be for some time. By default, we are in the WA bubble.
After some pressure, our local authorities announce that whilst they need to extend the State of Emergency on the islands, they can lift the compulsory 14 day quarantine period for anyone arriving from WA, or who has been in WA for more than 14 days. This allows people returning after medical treatment in Perth to recuperate at home on the islands. It also makes it easier for the people in Perth tasked with delivering our much-needed support services on the islands to visit and fulfill their contract requirements.
We now wait with bated breath for the decision by the West Australian Govt to grant an exemption for the residents of the IOTs or returning West Australians from having to complete 14-day isolation in Perth. WA is free of community transmission, the IOTs are and have been COVID-19 free throughout the whole duration of the pandemic.
We are excited to join a little slice of the rest of the world again – and can’t wait to welcome West Australians to our safe islands.