It all happened so fast.
The rumours of a national lockdown started circulating over the weekend, and by that Monday afternoon Guatemala had announced it was closing its borders and suspending all public and commercial transport to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The sudden move on March 16, which came as the neighbouring countries of Belize, Honduras and El Salvador also closed their borders to foreigners, has caused anxiety for one Australian mum who is now separated from her children for the foreseeable future.
Silvia McIntosh, a legal secretary from Melbourne, is currently stranded in Guatemala City after arriving with her husband on March 13 to visit her birth parents for the first time in 20 years. McIntosh’s two small children are back home in Australia.
“I was born in Guatemala, but when I was 2 or 3 years old, I was adopted by a family in Australia,” McIntosh said. “Since I can remember, all I’ve wanted was to see my birth family again ... and I finally got that chance.” ―
But McIntosh’s plans fell into turmoil when the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei, announced the lockdown three days after her arrival. As of this Monday, police in Guatemala are reportedly arresting people at gunpoint for not complying with lockdown rules.
“When they announced the lockdown, we panicked. We received so many messages from our friends and family in Australia telling us to get back ASAP, but we had to keep telling them we had no way out,” she said.
“I’m a very anxious person at the best of times, but right now my anxiety levels are off the charts. I’m sure I’ll have many more grey hairs by the time I get home.”
McIntosh and her husband Adam, both 33, are trying to ease the stress the separation is causing their young children by sending pictures and video-calling when possible.
“Before [we came] to Guatemala, our two kids hadn’t spent more than one or two nights away from us. They’re with their grandparents and don’t understand why their mum and dad can’t come home,” she said.
“We really wanted to bring them with us to Guatemala, but we’re so glad we decided to keep them in Australia. I can’t wait to get back to them. I miss them like crazy, but I know they’re in good hands.”
McIntosh said the Australian consulate in Guatemala City has provided little assistance to help her and her husband return home. The Australian consulate “didn’t really know what we should do. [We were advised to] try to go to Mexico, but there are no guarantees we can enter.”
HuffPost Australia has obtained an email sent from the Australian consulate in Guatemala stating that no plans were being made to repatriate Australian citizens stranded in that country. The email encouraged those who wanted to return home to “seek to do so by commercial means”.
“If you cannot get out of the country due to border closures, we suggest you continue to enquire with local authorities about available departure options, however you may have to wait it out in that country until the border closures are lifted,” the email said.
However, the main international airport remains closed and all public and commercial transportation is prohibited, making efforts to leave riddled with uncertainty.
“We want so badly to leave but there are risks. The situation is changing so quickly, so while it might be possible to get a private car to Mexico, what if they close the border on the way there? And if we do get in, will we be subject to 14 days in quarantine?” McIntosh said.
“It’s like we are doomed if we do, and we’re doomed if we don’t.”
Georgia Lindsey, 29, also from Melbourne, said once she realised the severity of the situation in Guatemala, it was too late.
“It’s horrible to have options to leave taken away from you and to not know what might happen in this country,” she said.
“I don’t feel like it’s safe to cross the border to Mexico. There’s been talk that Mexico will shut down the airport soon, too, and then I could be stranded there instead.”
The English teacher said that Guatemala City has “turned into a ghost town” and that rumours were circulating that “it’s only a matter of time before more break-ins start” as more people lose their jobs. She added, “I’m really anxious and upset and just want to get home.”
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Mason Kasumovic, from Sydney, is currently in lockdown at the Doozy Lakehouse hostel at Lake Atitlan.
He said while the morale there has remained high until now, reports of hostels closing, false rumours about repatriation flights, misinformation spread on social media and a lack of transparency from the Australian consulate were fuelling anxiety amongst those left behind.
“I’m not sure how the embassy is tracking Australians, but it seems mass hysteria and confusion is running rampant and the government is refusing to give us a solid response,” he said.
If you are an Australian requiring urgent consulate assistance, contact +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas) or 1300 555 135 (from within Australia).
For non-urgent enquiries, email email@example.com.
Stephanie Capper is a British-Australian freelance journalist currently in Guatemala. The parameters of that country’s lockdown are constantly evolving and may change at any moment. This information is correct and accurate at the time of publication.