Empty planes have been flying into Australia from India and other countries devastated by an explosion in coronavirus cases.
But Australians desperately pleading to come home from these hotspots have still not been allowed to board the flights.
About 9000 Australians are stranded in India, their plight up in the air after the Morrison government clamped shut the borders to those returning travellers.
Some of these people were copping criticism for staying overseas or choosing to fly away from the relative safety of Australia.
Sympathy levels plummeted further when it was disclosed a man whose COVID-19 case sparked a snap lockdown in Perth last weekend had been at a wedding in India.
But those stuck overseas are in desperate situations, with many urgent and legitimate reasons to travel.
And they have tried and had tried to get back home.
“I didn’t expect to see a day I thought the country I chose to call my home would treat us like cash cows,” said Sydney woman Deepa, whose husband is stuck in India after the death of his father.
“They are happy to bring you in when things go fine. But when things go south, they’re telling us where we belong – which is not with them.”
On Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said her “heart goes out” to the thousands of Australians stuck in India.
“As soon as it’s possible for us to look at flights to bring them back to Australia, we will be doing all that we can to make that happen,” she told Sky News.
Boundless flights to share
Yet, it’s become clear there were solutions at hand.
Travel agents have told The New Daily they’ve offered to fly Australians home on flights operating regularly from COVID hotspots – but the government rejected help even before India’s latest virus wave.
In one email seen by TND, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told operators it was working only with Qantas.
The Indian government, meanwhile, has allowed private companies to charter flights as well as encouraging citizens to book on the national carrier Air India.
Abhishek Sonthalia runs Gaura Travel out of Melbourne.
The company has repatriated 12,000 Indians from Australia under an agreement with Singapore Airlines.
The plane cabins have sat empty during each leg out of Delhi.
Mr Sonthalia said he could have easily brought back stranded Australians on the return flights, with ticket prices of about $1000.
Nirav Kotak runs Travel Crafters out of Sydney. He lost his $2000 deposit to secure a charter flight to bring Australians home, when the federal government put a stop to it.
Mr Kotak said when he approached the government he was shuffled between departments.
“The charter was never approved for us. All those efforts have been in vain,” Mr Kotak said.
Mr Sonthalia said everyday Australians were being overlooked while the government had different rules about charter flights for American celebrities coming to shoot movies and athletes arriving for competitions.
Private charters brought in tennis stars for the Australian Open in Melbourne.
World champion surfers flew in for the Australian leg of the World Surf League tour, with the WSL reportedly chartering a Boeing for $US500,000 ($643,000).
“Why are we struggling to get these people back when movie stars, sports stars, they get exemptions? How can we be so heartless?” Mr Sonthalia said.
Travel agent Tori Keating, who works for NZ company xtravel, has managed to get hundreds of Australians back from South America on cargo flights.
They started by getting stranded South Americans on planes home.
Rather than leaving seats empty on the way back, Ms Keating’s company was able to bring people back to Australia and New Zealand.
“I think for South America, if we were able to put on one plane every two weeks we would get a huge amount of people home,” Ms Keating said.
“That’s just us working on our flights. I know we have a lot of people who are still managing to travel on commercial, but they’re paying an arm and a leg.”
She said stranded Australians and New Zealanders were coming up against misinformation and a lack of public empathy.
“The simple fact is, we are protective about what we have. And as much as we need to get everyone home, there’s so much xenophobia,” Ms Keating said.
Treated like ‘cash cows’
Deepa, a Sydney mum, did not want her surname published after she saw nasty comments on social media about those still stuck outside Australia.
Her husband went to Delhi in February.
His father died late in 2020 and Deepa’s husband needed to help his mother pack up the family home and move into aged care.
Deepa has been left with their seven-year-old daughter.
She’s scared her husband will be stuck in India for the long haul and lose his job, leaving her alone to take care of their daughter.
“I hope they realise what they’re doing to us,” Deepa said.
Prabhjot Singh is separated from his wife, Samantha, and 16-month-old son, who are at home in Brisbane.
The couple had to go back to India so Mr Singh could be eligible for a new visa after they wed in 2019. Samantha flew home and Mr Singh was due to follow. Then the pandemic hit.
So far, Mr Singh’s flight has been moved four times.
“I am watching [my son] grow in the camera. It’s really tough. But what can I do?” he said.
Mr Singh was meant to get on a flight home next week.
“I was working. I gave notice, thinking it was a reliable flight. I paid, I waited, and now it’s been cancelled,” he said.
“I asked them to take me back, but they wouldn’t because of COVID-19. I am here without a job and I don’t know what to do.”
In the past two weeks, he has lost four relatives to the virus.
“The worse thing is we can’t go to the funeral. We can’t help their immediate families. We are just sitting at home trying to stop the spread.”