I did not move to Australia for Medicare, nor subsidised education, nor welfare stipends.
I moved here because I fell in love with Melbourne and because, for whatever reason, it provided a sense of place that always eluded me in my motherland, the United States.
I did not even know of Australia’s government benefits prior to visiting for the first time. But learning that the country’s approach towards welfare was akin to a ‘southern hemisphere Scandinavia’ made it even more favourable in my eyes. That said, I never thought I’d be in a situation where I’d have to take advantage of these benefits.
Sure, I appreciate the fact that I can visit an Australian doctor for far less than the $US200 per session that I used to pay in America. But receiving a financial allowance or rental assistance never really crossed my mind until a few weeks ago, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) put everything in a standstill.
I thought I was okay at first. I was able to work from home while other women were facing job insecurity, and businesses were closing their doors and furloughing employees – or worse. I still had money flowing in from US clients. I had savings to fall back on.
But as the coronavirus crisis endured, my sources of income slowly started to dry up. While I’m still technically employed, my work and hours have been significantly reduced and, with it, my already rocky sense of security in Australia.
I say rocky because even before the influx of COVID-19, I was drowning in uncertainty.
Despite having lived in Australia for five years, I am not (yet) a resident, meaning I cannot leave and re-enter the country as I please. I’m considered a liability to some employers and landlords. After $10,000-plus in visa applications and associated fees, I’m unsure whether my residency will even be accepted.
But those are all things I knowingly signed up for. Losing my income in a country I’ve called home for the past five years with no eligibility for financial assistance was not.
Currently, I am on a Bridging Visa as I await temporary residency. During this interim, I can work in Australia and I can access Medicare, but I am not entitled to Centrelink, nor am I entitled to the JobKeeper scheme.
I’m looking at months of financial insecurity ahead of me as we adapt to a socially-isolated Australia, and many more months of visa purgatory, deeming me ineligible for any sort of economic aid.
I’m praying to whatever god will listen that the government decides to include non-residents in their payment plans. But until then, I’ll be scared.
The logical solution, one might say, is to return home to my parents who I know would house me (rent free) and feed me and comfort me until this all ‘blows over’. And trust me, I’ve considered that.
But I also considered the fact that my Bridging Visa only allows for limited travel, which they only specify upon granting the special Travel Bridging Visa. They might give me a few months to return or they might cut me off at a few weeks. Regardless, the travel visa costs $140 every time I leave the country. And if it were to expire while I was in the US (which is a very high risk given flight cancellations and mandatory quarantine), my path to residency in Australia could become compromised.
Needless to say, I cancelled my trip to North America planned for May. It’s likely I would have been forced to anyway, but the journey didn’t feel worth the risk. So now I’m stuck. Not stuck in Australia – I choose to stay here – but stuck between a rock and a hard place given that choice. It’s a choice that at once feels right and wrong.
The truth is, I have roots here in Australia. I’ve held all sorts of jobs, paid taxes, volunteered my time to local organisations, paid rent for years. I recently got accepted for an apartment (my dream apartment, as I called it) and was met with the most permanence I’ve experienced in a long time. Yet, I fear what happens if I can’t pay my rent. I felt I’d finally reached a point of stability, yet now I’m sliding back down the mountain.
And I’m by no means the bleakest example of this situation. There are many foreigners in Australia with no work at all, no savings, no one to help if they can’t pay the bills.
No one is to blame for COVID-19. I’m sure we couldn’t have stopped it from reaching Australia no matter how hard we tried. I understand it’s difficult to give everyone the appropriate attention and remuneration in a period as chaotic as this.
But I believe that Australia has a responsibility to care for those in-country, no matter where they come from. It may not be easy, and it may not be instantaneous, but it needs to happen. Otherwise, many more will suffer in the wake of this coronavirus.