Since March, not a day has gone by when Nadeeka Thilakarathne hasn’t cried, praying her husband will return to Australia after leaving to visit his sick mother in Sri Lanka four months ago.
Seven months pregnant and jobless in the Melbourne suburb of Springvale, the international student is facing Melbourne’s second stage three COVID-19 lockdown alone. Like many migrants in Australia, she faces unique challenges during the coronavirus pandemic that have taken a toll on her financially, physically and emotionally.
“It’s destroyed everything we built here,” the 30-year-old told HuffPost Australia over the phone from her Melbourne home.
“As students, we hardly earn money and we pay for everything. However, we [somehow] settled. And now again we are at the beginning, and we have to start from the beginning.”
Visas And Financial Hardship
Thilakarathne came to Australia on a student visa with her husband in October 2018, and the couple have lived in a sharehouse with a Sri Lankan couple and another woman since then. Her husband worked as a cleaner at a pub until March, when he lost his job due to COVID-19 restrictions.
He left for Sri Lanka soon after, and weeks later, when Australia’s border restrictions tightened, Thilakarathne realised her husband wouldn’t be allowed to return. He’s neither an Australian citizen nor a permanent resident, which are the criteria to fly back to Australia.
“I applied a couple of times for extensions for travel restrictions for my husband to come here, but... I don’t know what the criteria is,” she said. “Because this is a humanitarian reason. I don’t have any support here. I’m a special-needs person.”
Not only did she lose her core source of emotional support, but her financial one too. Her studies at Melbourne Polytechnic have been paused because she can’t pay her fees. She now has till December to pay or her Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) will be cancelled.
“I had [savings] in March/April. My husband sent me the money from Sri Lanka,” she said. However, that helped for only a few weeks.
Australia has more than a million temporary visa holders who don’t have access to welfare payments, Medicare or the recent JobSeeker/JobKeeper schemes. The only Victorian government support Thilakarathne received was a one-off $1100 payment called the International Student Emergency Relief Fund.
Besides being pregnant and having high blood pressure, her mental health has suffered over the past few months.
“The ultimate thing is depression,” she said. “My husband’s always telling me don’t cry” because of the baby.
“I’ve got my counselling service from my university [on the phone], but at the moment I need my husband,” she said. “Everyone is worrying about me, but no one can give a solution to me. So it’s a headache for me to talk to everyone.”
According to Melbourne psychiatrist Jayashri Kulkarni, some ethnic communities view mental health differently or even attach a stigma to it.
“There’s a sense of double whammies of individuals, particularly from Asian cultures, experiencing feeling bad because of anxiety related to COVID-19 or depression related to COVID-19,” the director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre told HuffPost Australia. “But then having the double whammy of having to be quiet about it or not have any help and have to keep it under wraps.
“That’s something that some cultures really do frown upon. It’s seen as weak or it’s not validated.”
Kulkarni said this makes it worse because “the longer that things go on in the mental health wave without attention to symptoms, then the more likely it is that people experience serious or severe mental ill health and take longer to get better”.
As is the case for many international students in Australia, Thilakarathne’s family is back home overseas. Social isolation has been felt even harder during this lockdown when her support network isn’t easily accessible.
“I have friends only. I don’t have any relatives here,” she said. “But at the moment they can’t visit me, and they are also struggling with the jobs because they are students here.”
Thilakarathne doesn’t have a driver’s licence, so she relies on the family she lives with to take her to medical appointments or to buy groceries.
“My husband has a car, but I can’t drive it,” she said. “I have to wait until they [the family] are free. I have missed my medical appointments. I’m always late now. All the time I can’t go because they are busy.”
Living Arrangements And Family Structures
Many migrants reside in sharehouses or adopt traditional family structures in which several generations live together. Proper social distancing is not a luxury afforded to some of these communities.
Sri Lankan student Ransara (who requested his surname not be published) arrived in Australia in February to study business management and accounting.
The 20-year-old lives with two other international students in Dandenong, Melbourne and recently lost his job as a cleaner for the second time as the Victorian capital re-enters the stage three lockdown.
Ransara first became unemployed a few months ago when one of his housemates tested positive for COVID-19. With nowhere else to live, he quarantined for 14 days in the same home as his housemates, but he said “that’s why I first lost my job”.
“I was unable to get my job back,” he told HuffPost Australia. “They were scared to give it back to me because I had been in close contact with someone who had COVID-19.”
Like Thilakarathne, he has struggled financially, relying on food deliveries from the local Sri Lankan community. He said more government support would help.
“It’s unfair. In these situations for migrants and international students, there should be funds or rent incentives,” he said.
“The rent is too expensive, so [if they] halve the rent and give access to basic necessities, because we need food to survive, food is essential, so giving a half-price discount would help.”
Sri Lankan community leader Virosh Perera is based in Melbourne and has been speaking to Ransara on the phone for the past few months.
“It’s very hard for the migrants and international students now,” Perera told HuffPost Australia. “It is so tough and we’re trying to get food to the students.”
Psychiatrist Kulkarni said traditional family structures have added to the struggle for migrant communities.
“The care of the elderly or the connections with extended family is a feature of some cultures, and a lot of Asian cultures,” she said. “Therefore the disruption of that suddenly, in not being able to visit or draw strength from each other or even to be able to provide the necessary care for the elderly, is another feature of this isolation that has to be in place in order to contain the infectious disease.
“Grandchildren are often looked after by grandparents, and then all of a sudden that’s not possible, but it makes the whole issue really difficult when you’re trying to juggle work and home situations as well.”
Melbourne In Stage Three Lockdown
Last Thursday Melbourne was put under a fresh six-week lockdown.
“I know we are asking a lot of Victorians, but we simply have no choice but to acknowledge the reality that we face and to do what must be done, and that is to follow those rules, to only go out when you need to,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said in a press conference.
Australia’s Minister for Health Greg Hunt said 1,000 military personnel had been dispatched to help state officials curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Victoria reported 238 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and three deaths overnight.