By Luke Voogt
Two Geelong men are among hundreds of Australians stranded in Peru by the COVID-19 pandemic as their families seek desperately to bring them home.
Highton’s Jacob Welsh, 24, was stranded in a hostel in Lima with Corio friend Connor Cooke, 23, his mother Nicola Welsh said.
“It would be good to have him home,” Nicola said.
“He sounds OK – bored – but that’s like the rest of the world.
“But I don’t want that to change and suddenly feel like I can’t help because I’ve left it too late.”
More than 400 Australians were in Peru when president Martín Vizcarra announced a border lockdown on March 15, according to an open letter to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, published on March 28 on behalf of those stranded.
Australians had just 27 hours to organise safe passage from Peru before its borders shut. The few charter flights available cost more than $5000.
The letter stated that most travellers who are now stranded had left Australia for South America when there were few COVID-19 cases and neither Smartraveller nor the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) were warning ‘do not travel’.
“When Jacob and Connor left on [March 1] the severity and implications of COVID-19 were not clear,” Ms Welsh said.
“Only over the last few weeks the world as we know it has changed and the enormity of what we’re all facing [has] become evident.”
Ms Welsh described Jacob as “very well-travelled” saying he had been to “far more remote communities”.
“He thinks there’s plenty of people worse off than him, so he thinks he’s not the priority.”
He and Connor were sleeping a lot and eating less due to a lack of activity, and walking once a day while abiding by Peru’s current curfews, Ms Welsh said.
She urged DFAT to provide more information to those stranded.
“[Jacob] has only just received his first email from the embassy yesterday,” she said.
“Infrequent tweets on social media saying ‘we’re working on it’ do not suffice as communication.”
But she acknowledged the efforts of Corio MP Richard Marles’ office in communicating with families and advocating for all locals currently overseas.
Below is the open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison from Aussies in Peru
We are writing on behalf of the 400+ Australians who have been stuck in Peru since the 16th of March 2020.
We are part of the Facebook group ‘Aussies in Peru,’ whose members are stranded overseas due to the lockdown and border closures due to COVID-19.
This letter is a direct response to the press conference you held yesterday, in which you stated “that Australians who have had an opportunity – and even more amazingly – those who continued to leave the Country, even after a ‘do not travel’ advice was given…to expect..[that] .the Australian Government would be having them high on the list of people we need to go and support.”
These comments were extremely distressing to all Australians stranded over here, and we feel the need to clarify our position to ensure that you and the Australian public understand the facts of what has occurred here in Peru.
On the 15th of March, the President of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, announced a 14 day lockdown.
Within 27 hours of this announcement, borders were closed and strict measures implemented that restricted freedom of movement, including land transportation.
Multiple countries across South America simultaneously closed their borders.
We had 27 hours in total to find suitable solutions for either safe passage or safe accommodation.
Other nations also enforced a joint lockdown, so even if a flight out of Peru was possible, it would not have ensured safe transit to Australia.
Many of us already had booked return tickets to Australia for that coming week, and those flights were cancelled in line with the border closure.
At this time, there had been only a relatively small number of cases of the COVID-19 virus in South America, and there was no concern regarding our travel. Furthermore both the SmartTraveller and DFAT advice channels did not change to ‘do not travel’ until after all of us were either in the country, or on the continent.
Therefore, we did not ignore Government advice, as stated by you.
Yesterday we learnt that the lockdown has now been extended until the 12th of April, 2020.
COST OF FLIGHT & LACK OF PERMITS LEAVES MANY STILL STRANDED.
As it stands, whilst we acknowledge the high volume of correspondence no doubt flowing through DFAT, we have received relatively no information of value from DFAT.
We have received only two emails with a reference to follow them DFAT on social media.
We were initially informed by DFAT that no assistance would be made to repatriate Australian citizens.
At this time, we set up a Facebook support group to provide support and up to date information to Australian citizens here who cannot leave.
Whilst there has been a private charter organised by Chimu Adventures, it is still not guaranteed and is most certainly out of reach for lower economic travellers, and those In remote locations.
One flight does not suffice for the repatriation of all citizens.
Advice from Chimu Adventures directly states they do not know when another flight might be available.
Without DFAT assistance, citizens who are regionally located and could afford the charter, are still unable to obtain the permits required to travel to Lima.
This effectively leaves over 150 Australians without a way of getting home and is being perceived here as discrimination on the basis of economic class and location.
The comments made during your press conference yesterday were especially distressing to us, as all of us were in the country, or in transit prior to the Smart Traveller advice update for caution and do not travel.
While we acknowledge that there are some Australians who have continued to travel to other countries, that certainly doesn’t apply to the citizens who were already on lock down here in Peru when DFAT advice
We understand that these comments may have been directed at them, and would appreciate clarification from both you and the media.
PREGNANT, ELDERLY AND MEDICALLY ILL AUSTRALIANS LEFT STRANDED.
The real situation here in Peru is this:
• One of us is 96 years old.
• One of us is 6 months old.
• One of us is pregnant in her 1st trimester, and fortunately is on the Chimu Charter.
• One of us is in hospital with a deteriorating medical condition (DFAT are in contact).
• One of us is living in an abandoned building with little food and an intellectual disability.
• One of us is in full hostel lockdown for up to three months, and we are providing him with additional.
supplies, such as food and medication. DFAT informed him that they don’t have the resources to assist.
• Two of us only have enough Bi Polar medication for another week.
• One of us has had a recent kidney transplant and needs medication to prevent organ rejection. There
has been no assistance from DFAT to facilitate the release of his medications from customs.
OUR REQUEST TO YOU, OUR PRIME MINISTER AND THE
Moving forward, we ask the Australian Government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to:
Please communicate with us.
Australian’s are suffering back home, but so are we. We matter. We are
We need your help. Infrequent “tweets” on social media saying “we’re working on it” do
not suffice as communication.
Please stop this rhetoric that we left Australia when we knew we shouldn’t.
The Coronavirus has spread and devastated the world at a quicker pace than anyone could have imagined.
At the time of lock-down in Peru (with the exclusion of Antarctica), South America was the least Coronavirus-affected continent in the world.
Many of us in Peru had been travelling for months. We all did make attempts to get out costing thousands of dollars when the borders were shutting around us.
The “Do not Travel” warning was announced two days after we were locked down and surrounded by the Peruvian military.
Please provide a safe passage for those of us in rural Peru to Lima or Cusco to be able to get to an airport.
It’s disheartening to receive messages regarding the Chimu flight when many of us are 20+ hours away from these airports, and unable to obtain travel permits.
DFAT continues to advise that this is our only option, yet has not facilitated travel permits with the Peruvian Government.
Therefore, this is NOT an option for the 91 of us in rural Peru due to the restricted travel.
Please provide a reasonable flight option for those who can’t afford over $5,000 to get home.
Please allow our national airline the honour of repatriation. We are not asking for a free ride home.
However, the only option provided is inaccessible to most of us who have already lost thousands in cancelled flights.
There are families of four here. That is over $20,000 to get home.
Please provide more information regarding Australian return quarantine requirements and mental health assistance, given we have already been in lock down for 11 days.
Those with children, health issues and mental health concerns are seriously concerned about further measures.
We seek clarification to understand the steps we need to take once home to ensure our safety and wellbeing and the Australian communities wellbeing.
OTHER COUNTRIES CONTINUE TO REPATRIATE THEIR CITIZENS – WHY HASN’T THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT?
We have watched other Governments act. We see foreigners leave each day through the repatriation efforts of their respective Governments.
Despite being told we are a “top priority,’’ honestly Honorable Prime Minister, we certainly do not feel so, and your comment yesterday emphasized that.
We request immediate repatriation that is accessible for all Australians stranded in Peru.
As the borders are now shut until after the 12th of April, and most commercial airlines now ceasing operations, we may be stranded here for many months.
Not only will this further impact the health and wellbeing of Australians in lockdown under military law, it will also strain the Peruvian medical system which is desperately needed for the local citizenship.
We ask you, our Prime Minister to ACT NOW!
Aussies in Peru.