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Returning home during COVID-19 lockdown

Madi in the UK

Madi, member from Victoria, is a traveller with food allergy. She shares her story of returning to Australia during COVID-19 lockdown.

Almost two months earlier than initially planned, on April 22nd, I embarked on QANTAS’ repatriation flight “Kookaburra” from Heathrow Airport, London. 

Prior to this, I had been living and working in the UK as an Occupational Therapist on a two year working visa, due to expire in June. I never thought I would choose to leave this amazing experience early, but then again, like the rest of the world, I never anticipated the events that would unfold as this novel virus spread across the globe. 

Around early to mid March, international flights into Australia became scarce. Even though I already had a one-way flight to Melbourne in June, I wondered if the best thing to do was go home while I still could. Little did I know that this flight would eventually be cancelled. 

Once the government introduced repatriation flights to help Aussies abroad get home, and with the situation becoming more unnerving and unpredictable, I made the difficult decision to pack up my life into two bags and journey home.

It certainly wasn’t a decision made overnight. I grappled with whether to stay or leave the UK for over a month as there never really seemed to be a right or wrong move. With external circumstances changing so rapidly, what seemed like the right decision one day became doubtful the next. 

Various questions came to mind in deciding whether or not to return home. What if I catch the virus close to departure date and have to forgo my flight due to quarantine rules? Am I safer staying in the UK where I work and live rather than run the risk of potentially getting stuck in a foreign country because I missed out on the last of the direct Qantas flights? 

But above all, my main concerns as someone who has lived with severe food allergies all my life was taking my first solo long haul flight in this strange new landscape of international travel, with the inevitable 14 day quarantine period following. The idea of playing roulette every mealtime while being alone in a hotel room for 2 weeks provoked intense anxiety. 

My mum contacted Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (A&AA) for advice and support. She was aware that being unable to relay my food requirements directly to the person preparing my meals and the thought of having a reaction while isolated was causing me to feel anxious. Maria from A&AA and others stepped in to advocate for me to be exempted from the usual hotel quarantine, and to be in control of my own food. 

I said goodbye to beloved friends over Zoom, and a select few in person who lived nearby, including my little sister, although of course only from a distance so there were only air hugs and kisses to mark our goodbyes. It was emotional to say the least, and feelings of frustration and sadness over the whole situation felt more intense without the soothing comfort of a big hug reinforcing that ‘everything will be ok’. 

At this stage I didn’t know where I would be quarantining. As always is the case when I travel, I prepared more than enough food for the flight and also for the first couple of days in the event that I may have to quarantine in a hotel. I made the most of the space I had by freezing several 100ml yoghurt tubes to keep my food cool – fortunately I was allowed to go over the liquids limit but I was still stopped by airport security and asked to provide proof of my allergy. If it weren’t for this I would have breezed through check-in, baggage drop and security in no more than 15 minutes. Nonetheless, it was surreal to see one of the busiest airports in the world like a ghost town, which according to a recent BBC article normally see’s about 600 flights a day.

Did I feel ready to take a long-haul flight alone? No, and the truth is, I have experienced more anxiety since starting to travel without my parents as I could no longer depend on them for my safety. Looking back at my travel experiences, I have naturally progressed from flying around Australia to travelling to European countries alone, every experience giving me more and more confidence each time. A long haul fight on my own felt like the next step and, although daunting to fly at one of the most unnerving times to travel, I realised that I may never feel fully comfortable with long haul or solo travel, as is the case for many people who do not have food allergies. 

Right before I embarked at Heathrow airport we had still not heard whether my exemption had been approved, and I remember saying to mum, “It’s ok I’m prepared to stay in a hotel if I have to” and made peace with this as the rest was seemingly out of my control.

For those reading this that may not understand what it’s like to live with food allergies, I ask you to think about the low level of anxiety that’s reverberating in our lives, in our world, because of COVID-19. Constantly having to remember to wash your hands before eating, putting on your favourite lip-gloss, or avoiding touching your eyes to prevent yourself getting sick. Well, this may offer some insight into living with a food allergy, and that underlying feeling of your internal nervous system constantly being on alert to protect you from putting something potentially life threatening into your body.

Fortunately, Mum’s text of good news came through when I arrived in Perth (a refuelling stop as we came directly from London to Australia) that the Department of Health had approved my exemption but the details of where / how I would quarantine were unknown. However, this gave me the reassurance that I would be looked after and my excitement to be home grew. 

After touching down in Melbourne I received the message from Mum in the family Facebook group that said “you are allowed to go back to our Beaumaris apartment” that was empty, followed by “we are here at the airport to hand over the keys”. The relief and gratitude I felt was indescribable.

I have finished quarantine, am feeling healthy, and although it wasn’t easy I know the experience could have been much harder and with a completely different. 

With this said I would like to thank the special people that made it possible for me to have the safest possible quarantine experience at home; the team and CEO, Maria Said, from Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia, Erica from the Department of Health, and last of all my, the biggest thank you, to my extraordinary mum, for getting in touch with Maria and Erica on my behalf in the first place, and being by my side every step of the way despite being on the other side of the world. 

I encourage anyone with an allergy who is about to fly, or thinking about returning, to Australia to reach out to A&AA. Their responsiveness and resources have had a huge impact on my sense of physical and mental wellbeing during quarantine. And that’s why you cannot put a price on your safety. 

Content created 26 May 2020


If you are having an allergic reaction follow advice on your ASCIA Action Plan.

If in doubt, give the Anapen® or EpiPen®.

Do not call us for emergency advice.

If you do not have an ASCIA Action Plan and/or an Anapen® or EpiPen® call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.