Coronavirus: Government offers loans to help people get home

Emely Navarro Altamarino missed a repatriation flight to stay with her uncle who had COVID-19. Picture: Supplied
Emely Navarro Altamarino missed a repatriation flight to stay with her uncle who had COVID-19. Picture: Supplied

Depressed, fearful and increasingly desperate, Canberran Emely Navarro Altamirano doesnt see a realistic way home.

"It's like we've been forgotten," she says over the phone from Peru.

Ms Navarro Altamirano is one of the 23,000 Australians registered with DFAT who want to come home. That number is steadily growing. It's up almost 25 per cent from a fortnight ago. About 3500 of those are considered vulnerable.

She has been stuck in the small South American country for months - she arrived in March before the air travel shutdown - and getting back to Australia seems an impossible feat, even before you look at the price tag.

Australians are reporting that caps on incoming flights, caused by the strain on the hotel quarantine system, are making it almost impossible to get home. Only about 4000 can get back each week.

Those who are able to get flights report having their bookings cancelled at the last minute, particularly those with economy tickets. With numbers so limited airlines are prioritising first and business class passengers, and the cost of getting home is climbing above $10,000 a person.

Ms Navarro Altamirano said official messaging had been confusing and she had relied mostly on the internet and social media for information about how to get home

In some ways she is fortunate; a dual citizen with family to stay with, she isn't dealing with an impending expiring visa or homelessness like other Australians stuck overseas. She does have a mortgage in Australia and a life to return to though, and regrets leaving Canberra.

She is calling on the Australian government to do more to help people like her to get home.

"Please help us come back, all we want is a chance to go back to Australia, don't let us die here."

"I feel depressed, this is the lowest I have ever felt in my life. No matter how much it costs there is no way for me to get back," she said.

"What if I get sick here? What if I die?"

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has announced more government money will be spent on helping people overseas, with loans to cover accommodation and daily living expenses until they can return.

"Loans may also be available to help vulnerable Australians purchase tickets for commercial flights," she said.

There will be strict eligibility criteria and they will need to be repaid within six months of returning to Australia.

The move to announce loans comes after weeks of concerted campaigning from Australians overseas, desperate to return home.

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Early in the pandemic, Peru introduced some of the strictest lockdown rules, including completely banning international travel. Australians have managed to leave the country on repatriation flights, but Ms Navarro Altamirano said she didn't know of the first of the flights until it was too late.

"We started getting scared and contacted our insurance company but they didn't get back to us," she said.

"Then they just said to stay."

She was set to get on a repatriation flight in late June, but just days before take-off, Ms Navarro Altamirano's uncle, her godfather, was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Last week the country overtook Belgium as having the highest number of deaths per capita from the virus.

She said he had been incredibly sick with the disease, and while he had almost recovered, it had been an expensive process to get treatment and Ms Navarro Altamiro thought she couldn't leave him on what she believed could be his deathbed.

"He got really bad, he almost died," Ms Navarro Altamirano said.

"And I was like Should I go back or should I stay, and I talked to my cousin and we thought surely they would organise another flight and things would get better."

It's that decision that has left Ms Navarro Altamirano in her current predicament.

Dutch Airline KLM is set to run a repatriation flight from Peru to Amsterdam, but even if she was able to get on that flight, Ms Navarro Altamirano has no idea how she would get home to Australia from there, as there are no flights that would connect to a flight to Australia.

Even if it was possible to get on all the flights, Ms Navarro Altamirano estimated that it would cost $15,000 to get home, including $3000 to pay for hotel quarantine on return.

Labor has taken aim at the government over the offer of loans, saying the strict criteria mean Wednesday's announcement was a headline without real help.

Of the $5 million already allocated for loans for those stuck overseas, only $1.3 million has been paid out.

The opposition wants the government to put all options on the table to get Australians back, including more repatriation flights and using Commonwealth resources to increase quarantine capacity.

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This story Depressed, fearful and increasingly desperate, Emely feels she's been forgotten first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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