The pleasure and pain of being an expat locked into the lucky country 

Gary Nunn (left) with hs mum (right) on Sydney Harbour, during one of her previous visits to Australia. Photo: supplied.

Gary Nunn – one of Australia’s 1.2 million British expats – describes the mixed emotions of living in a virtually Covid-free country while watching the pandemic ravage his homeland.

Mum was excited.

She’d already given the required two years’ notice to get a three week annual leave stint approved from her job at a British NHS hospital. She was coming to see her son in Sydney. 

My sister was excited too – her first ever visit in the nine years I’ve lived here. I couldn’t wait to show her all the things I find so special about Sydney – so she could understand the things that keep me here, all this way away from her. Christmas 2021 was set to be truly special.

Everyone kept saying how glad they were to see the back of 2020. The calendar’s flip has never felt more arbitrary. We now know the disappointing news: it’s sadly unlikely to happen. 

Like many expats living in Australia, this feels somewhat crushing. Not just because by the time I finally see my family again, it’ll be two or possibly even three years since we’ve been together; our longest ever time apart. But also because it has robbed us of the most important feeling since this world began: optimism.

Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy said in January that international travel is unlikely until at least 2022.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly backed the call, saying international borders would be the last thing to change. That makes the arrival of these two women I love more than anyone else in the world a pipe dream, one I feel foolish for even indulging. 

Medical experts are managing our expectations after Qantas, perhaps unfairly, raised them by reopening international travel bookings for flights first from July, then from October.

Air transport analyst Neil Hansford last month said Qantas is dreaming: “I’d love to go to London tomorrow and see my daughter, but I don’t see myself going … until late 2022, more likely 2023,” he told the ABC.

For the 1.2 million Brits like me living here, there are conflicted feelings of both gratitude and sad frustration. 
In our homesick solidarity, I’ve perceived similar themes emerge. 
It’s for the exact reason that the Australian government has, largely, listened closely to such strict medical advice that we’re in this comparatively fortunate position. 

Many expats are understanding and supportive of border restrictions – but sadly frustrated nonetheless. 

Brits living in Australia have a unique and uncomfortable perspective: we’re sitting in one of the best countries in the world in terms of impact and response to Covid-19, while watching in horror at one which, before the rapid vaccine roll-out, emerged as the worst. Our families faced lockdown, infection or death. Most of us know at least one fellow expat whose family has faced all three while they’re stuck here, watching it unfold in staccato Skypes. 

Australia/UK comparison
Total deaths909125,926
Total cases29,1814,280,882
Total population25,709,87968,139,835
Source: Worldometer, 19/3/2021

Australia’s expat community has never been tighter. For the next year at least, we are each other’s family. I feel it. When we see each other, as we’ll surely never take for granted again, we squeeze each other that little bit tighter. A greeting and a quiet scream wrapped in a hug.
Whilst Australia benefits from a bipartisan national cabinet which listened to the science, the UK was brought to its knees by a Prime Minister who transformed a crisis into a catastrophe. Boris Johnson skipped initial crisis meetings, ignored scientists, shook hands with the infected and failed mass testing targets. Consequently, the UK was recently reporting record daily deaths.
There’s a paradoxical pleasure and pain of being an expat in Australia right now. The joy of living in a nation that has rightfully regained its claim to being the ‘lucky country’ is tinged. Partly because it wasn’t just luck that got us here. It was having a government that, despite being conservative, isn’t as deluded or deceitful as Boris’s Brexit cabinet – which includes members who claimed that “Britain has had enough of experts.”

There’s no smugness to indulge as you watch your loved ones suffer back home. Speaking to fellow Brits, I sense similar emotions. We feel lucky and unlucky; understanding and upset; grateful and worried. The push and pull has never been greater.
There’s a sort of survivor guilt in telling my family things are relatively ok here; that I feel both safe and insanely privileged. That Brisbane goes into three-day lockdown after a single infection, yet Britain was the last European country to do so, and now suffers dire consequences. 

Gary Nunn (left) is unsure when he will see his mum (right) again. Photo: supplied.

It feels tone-deaf to say these things, when mums like mine pine for children they already haven’t seen in years. “Are my sunny pictures a welcome distraction or annoying/gloating?” I ask my locked-down mum and sister in our group family WhatsApp chat. 
As I await their response, Scott Morrison suggests a potential more ambitious timeline for reopening Australia’s international borders, promising a “week by week” review of medical advice and vaccine rollout. If vaccines prevent transmission, Professor Murphy last month suggested borders could open sooner: “We just have to wait and see.”

Then mum’s response comes: keep sending those pics, please. They want to live vicariously through us lucky/unlucky expats. Like Qantas, they need to dream. They want to feel that essential feeling: optimism. 

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of The Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.