If the architect couple Marijke and Steven Smit and the pensioner Judy Smith were just a few years younger, their relatively painless return to Australia would almost be guaranteed.
Instead, an age limit imposed by Australian authorities on a Chinese vaccine taken by hundreds of millions of people in dozens of countries has left them effectively shut out again.
From 1 November, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration will recognize the Sinopharm jab approved by the World Health Organization – but only for people aged 18 to 60 years.
Mrs Smith and Mrs Smit (no relation) are 62, Mr Smit is 63 and all three are fully vaccinated with Sinopharm.
“For two minutes I was excited,” Mrs. Smith told 9News.com.au.
“For two minutes I thought, ‘I can come home and see these people and these babies.'”
But then she read it in small print.
The Sinopharm jab is approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization and individually in 68 countries around the world, according to McGill University in Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker.
New Zealand, the United States and – from next week – the UK are all acknowledging the urge to travel without imposing age limits, as are several European countries, although the EU has not done so itself.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get stuck in a country and basically have to deal with a very illogical argument that one cannot be considered vaccinated because one is over 60,” Ms. Smit told 9news.com.au.
“It’s just completely insane.”
The TGA did not respond to a series of questions from 9news.com.au about the decision-making process.
The problem appears to be with the Chinese trial, which the WHO says was “not designed and operated to demonstrate efficacy against serious illness in people with comorbidity, during pregnancy or in people aged 60 years and over”.
In recent months, some experts have expressed concern about outbreaks in countries such as the Seychelles and Bahrain, which were heavily immunized with either Sinopharm or Sinovac, also from China.
Once in Australia, it is unclear whether a person vaccinated with an unknown vaccine will even have the option of receiving two additional doses of AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer.
Mrs Smith is grateful to have spent the pandemic in the vibrant city of Colombo in Sri Lanka, where she inhales grilled chicken and biryani from the takeaway spot next door and looks out to sea while the morning and evening prayers ring around her.
It was not easy, she says, describing the city’s blockade as far stricter, but shorter than those in Sydney and Melbourne.
She is happily retired and does not want to move back to Australia forever, but it is almost three and a half years since she has been back to Sydney and her niece and nephew have children she has never met.
Not to mention the sister she has not seen in such a long time.
It’s not just that airlines are reportedly canceling the tickets of many unvaccinated airline passengers, or that she still has to endure paying for hotel quarantine.
The former finance worker knows she will not be able to catch up with a friend at a pub or restaurant until at least December 15, when the unvaccinated will have more liberties.
“What I really want to get through is the disappointment, the blanket is being pulled out from under us,” she said.
“We are in a worse situation than we were two weeks ago and the government is just not giving us any hope at all.”
Smits is facing an even more crucial crisis as they try to return to Tasmania before Mr. Smit’s visa – related employment contract in Shanghai expires in six weeks.
The architects say they have looked at pretty much every option, even contacted 10 different countries to try to get two more doses of an approved vaccine, and nothing is possible.
Mrs Smit, who has lived permanently since 1986 with three children and a grandchild born in Australia, said it would have been “expensive but possible to return to Australia six months ago”.
“Since Sydney has opened up, it has only 200 seats (for unvaccinated people in hotel quarantine). It is close to impossible to get tickets,” she said.
“I simply can not. I have looked, believe me, I have looked at tickets, and I just can not get anything for the next two, three, four months.
“It’s literally, and so, you know, currently planes have two or three seats for unvaccinated people.”
The architect said she had been urged to take a DFAT repatriation flight, but that would mean getting to Germany or Turkey first – currently a 13-hour plus flight in the wrong direction – and making it nearly impossible for her husband to comply with the long notice period of his work.
Sir. and Mrs Smit has the added complication of trying to get to Tasmania, which means they will probably have to apply for an exemption to get in and quarantine again on arrival.
The couple has spent time stranded in the Netherlands, Australia – they had to return to China to gain eight months’ salary and for Mr Smit to continue working – and now China, but are trying to remain optimistic in a difficult situation.
“I do not necessarily sound it at the moment, but we feel quite desperate about the whole situation and beautiful, yes, it’s incredibly stressful,” she said.