'I am desperate': thousands of Australians stuck abroad amid coronavirus plead for help to get home

Ben Doherty

Almost 300 Australians have landed in Sydney on a commercial repatriation flight from South America, but thousands of citizens and permanent residents still remain stranded across the world as airlines cease flying and more national borders lock down.

Many still stranded have been caught by desperate family circumstance, suddenly cancelled flights or closed borders and fear the window to return home is rapidly closing without definitive action from the Australian government to repatriate its citizens.

They have begged for the government to launch repatriation flights, as other countries have, to rescue them.

Trapped in India’s lockdown

Hundreds of Australians have been stranded in the world’s largest lockdown, imposed by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, on the country’s 1.3 billion people.

Vipul, an Australian permanent resident who was waiting on his citizenship ceremony, cannot return home to his wife and two-year-old son in Melbourne.

He had come to Navsari, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, to see his brother, who was critically ill with cancer. His return flight to Australia was cancelled and the imposition of a martially enforced lockdown of all of India has left him unable to find a way home.

Related: Australians trapped in India's coronavirus lockdown fear running out of food and water

“I am desperate to see my wife and son, who are alone in Australia in this pandemic situation,” he said. “Please help me out to fly to Melbourne as soon as possible.”

Internal travel in India is also heavily restricted. Modi, formerly the chief minister of Gujarat state, told the country’s population: “Forget what going out means.”

Vipul told the Guardian: “I would also have to go by road from Navsari in Gujarat to Mumbai to catch the flight. It is 400km by road to Mumbai from where I am now.”

Max Larkin, a student from Western Australia, said police in Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, were strictly and at times violently enforcing the lockdown. No one was allowed out, except for three hours in the morning when essential shops – food markets and pharmacies – were open between 7am and 10am.

“There are shortages in food by the end of the morning because it’s chaos,” Larkin said. “The policy of only three hours is mental because overcrowding happens and people fight over food. The chance of spreading disease is much higher.”

India has a relatively low number of Covid-19 cases, with 1,024 infections and 95 deaths. But most states have recorded cases and there are widespread concerns the true number of infections could be significantly higher because testing is not widespread.

“There is undeniable poverty and many people ... don’t have access to healthcare,” Larkin said. “The beds will fill up in no time; 1.3 billion people is hard to manage at the best of times. Our government can’t even manage 28 million. They are talking about using hydroxychloroquine, which is an anti-malarial drug with awful side effects.

“Another aspect that should be considered is the fact that a majority of Indians are daily wage-earners … if they aren’t allowed out, they will starve. I am not sure how long they will stay at home for a virus if faced with starvation. We are kind of scared of the chance of riots if people are forced to stay home without economic help from the government.”

Larkin stressed that he was safe and well, but dispirited watching other foreign nationals being repatriated by their governments while Australians remained stranded, facing an unknown future. Citizens of the Czech Republic, France, Germany and other European countries as well the US, Canada and Israel have been repatriated on government run-flights.

“I don’t know what to do, and it really comes down to uncertainty,” he said. “We need to know what’s going to happen and what we must do and the only way that can happen is if there is a genuine effort by the Australian government to act in the best interests of all its citizens, even the ones overseas.

“I know the government has a lot going on at the home front, but surely there is a branch in it somewhere that can get us home safely.”

Australia’s high commission in New Delhi has told citizens to stay indoors and avoid “any crowded place”.

“If your situation is or becomes life-threatening, or you have serious concerns for your welfare – for example, cannot find any accommodation whatsoever, or any food, or essential medications – please don’t hesitate to contact us,” consular officials have said.

While stressing there were no plans for “assisted departures” for Australian citizens, “the government has agreed to consider, on a case-by-case basis, supporting Australian airlines to operate non-scheduled services to less central locations to bring Australians home”.

Flight from Peru oversubscribed

Early Tuesday morning, Sydney time, 292 Australian citizens and permanent residents landed in Sydney from Peru on a commercial charter flight organised by the tour company Chimu Adventures with Australian government assistance.

The oversubscribed flight took off from Lima’s military airport on Monday morning, Australia time, also carrying passengers flown from Cusco. The flight flew to Santiago, Chile, where, after a stopover of several hours, passengers boarded another aircraft bound for Sydney.

All passengers were tested for Covid-19 before boarding – and found to be negative – and will be subject to two weeks’ mandatory quarantine in Sydney after they land.

Related: 'Come and get me': Australians stranded in Ecuador increasingly desperate to leave

However, many Australians still stuck in Peru could not afford the $5,000 being asked for an economy class seat on the flight or missed out on booking, while others are in remote parts of the locked-down country where internal movement is heavily restricted, putting airports out of reach. About 160 Australians remain in Peru.

Several New Zealand citizens who were on the flight manifest were taken off it because the Australian government would not allow NZ citizens to transit through Australia to get home.

An open letter written by Australian Gus Higgins – who remains in Peru – on behalf of the group has pleaded with the Australian government to launch government-sponsored repatriation flights.

Stranded on cruise ships

Cruise liners remain a significant challenge to countries worldwide. About 100 Australians are stranded onboard the coronavirus-stricken ship the Zaandam, which is off the coast of Panama and unsure where it will be allowed to dock. The number of people with flu-like symptoms onboard has risen by almost a third in two days from 139 to 179.

Holland America Line, which runs the Zaandam, confirmed there had been no further deaths onboard after four elderly passengers died this week. The causes of death have not been released.

The Zaandam and its sister ship the Rotterdam, which sailed to resupply the stricken liner, are preparing to pass through the Panama canal after the country reversed a decision to stop the vessels from crossing.

Hundreds of asymptomatic passengers were moved to the Rotterdam over the weekend. None have yet presented with flu-like symptoms.

It remains unclear whether the two boats would be allowed to dock in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after local authorities raised concerns about the health risks the crew and passengers posed to the population. The Fort Lauderdale mayor, Dean Trantalis, has called for US president Donald Trump to intervene and suggested the vessels should be redirected to nearby navy bases.

A total of 134 Australians are onboard the MV Ocean Atlantic, currently moored at Montevideo. A commercial charter was being organised to bring those passengers home, but when another Australian cruise ship, the MV Greg Mortimer, was refused entry to Montevideo’s port, the price for that charter flight almost doubled.

Those stranded aboard have pleaded for government intervention in an open letter to Scott Morrison: “Prime minister, we need you to act quickly as we do not know how long we will be allowed to stay moored at Montevideo and we don’t know what will happen to us after that.”