When Novak Djokovic complained about Australian Open tennis players being placed in hard hotel quarantine after they were exposed to COVID-19, it was difficult to hear for some Australians stranded overseas.
“I would give anything to be sitting in a tiny hotel room with terrible food and no fresh air, if it meant I was home,” Brisbane woman Amy Webster told HuffPost Australia from the UK.
More than 70 Australian Open players and their entourage are confined to hotel rooms for 14 days after five passengers on three Tennis Australia charter flights from Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi and Doha, returned positive tests for coronavirus on arrival at the weekend.
Some of the world’s top tennis players including Yulia Putintseva, Bautista Agut and Alize Cornet, who stand to make thousands of dollars prize money, complained about confinement and the conditions, with Putintseva Tweeting now viral videos of mice visiting her room.
World number 13 Agut was quoted as saying: “It’s the same (as being in prison), but with Wifi. These people have no idea about tennis and about practice courts and it’s a complete disaster.”
Both Cornet and Agut have since apologised for their remarks.
World number one Djokovic, who is in Adelaide and not in hard quarantine, questioned Australia’s hotel quarantine system, suggesting players should be allowed to stay in rented accommodation, with tennis courts, before the Melbourne tournament starts on February 8. He reportedly wanted the quarantine stay shaved down to seven days.
The demands from Djokovic, who organised an exhibition event in the Balkans last year where multiple players including himself contracted the virus after being pictured partying and without masks, have left some of the reported 40,000 Australians stuck overseas upset and frustrated.
“Professional athletes, especially one on the level of Djokavic, should have a bit more PR awareness before complaining about such trivial things,” Webster said.
Webster and her fiancé moved to Edinburgh before the pandemic. In October, a sick relative back home and hardships in the UK meant the couple were forced to cancel the lease on their flat, sell their car and book flights home. They were bumped off their January 21 flight but with the next seats only available in May, Webster is homeless, jobless and “sick with stress” at the thought of what to do for the next five months.
“Right now we are hoping for a repatriation seat otherwise we have no idea what we will do,” she said.
The number of Australians allowed to return home has been limited to 4,000 per week since July last year. Earlier this month Prime Minister Scott Morrison slashed that number to just over 3,000 per week in a bid to contain the spread of the more infectious UK mutant strain of COVID-19.
With only a few airlines still willing to fly to Australia, many returning Australians say their flights are repeatedly cancelled or they are “bumped” off flights in favour of business or first-class passengers, sometimes within hours of departure. One Perth woman spent $50,000 getting her family home from Saudi Arabia.
Those who do make it home must self-isolate in designated hotels for two weeks at a cost of $3,000.
Many players arriving in Australia are allowed five hours of training per day in quarantine, however players on the affected flights aren’t allowed to leave their hotel rooms for two weeks.
“[It’s] an absolute disgrace that they announce they’re halving the caps for stranded Aussies then the next week 1,500 tennis players are allowed in the country to quarantine, with positive test results,” said Christina Mastroianni, who has been bumped from six flights attempting to get home.
“To see them and their entourage given preference over us is a huge smack in the face.”
Australian player Bernard Tomic and his girlfriend, ‘Love Island’ star Vanessa Sierra are among those in hard quarantine after flying from Doha. The pair faced backlash after Sierra complained that the food delivered to her room was cold and joked about having to wash her own hair.
“This is the worst part of quarantine,” Sierra said on her YouTube channel. “I don’t wash my own hair. I’ve never washed my own hair. It’s just not something that I do. I normally have hairdressers that do it twice a week for me.
“This is the situation that we’re dealing with. I can’t wait to get out of quarantine just so I can get my hair done.”
It’s comments like these that frustrate Amy Webster the most because it diminishes the devastation that people went through during the four-month Melbourne hard lockdown.
Australia has recorded more than 22,000 local COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, with the vast majority of those in Victoria (20,432 cases, 820 deaths).
More than 3,000 people in nine Melbourne tower blocks were left without food and medicine after being placed in snap confinement for two weeks in July last year, a decision which was later ruled a breach of human rights.
“It hurts more when people such as Tomic, or his girlfriend, complain. You’re Australian, support us,” she said.
“Make your demands, have your complaints about your circumstances, this is your profession and your livelihoods, but do so with empathy, humility and acknowledgement of audience.”
Sheridan Jobbins, who has spent $20,000 (and six months) getting home after working as a screenwriter in Switzerland for 10 years, argues the big ticket items like the Australian Open, film shoots and foreign students bring millions (if not billions) into the country and provide many jobs at a particularly hard time.
“The question of how to house elite athletes and film stars during a pandemic is a logistical problem, as is how to quarantine ordinary Australians,” she told HuffPost from hotel quarantine in Melbourne.
“The government isn’t yet rising to that challenge, and is enjoying the distraction of watching us all argue over whether or not Djokovic should have access to a tennis court.”
Webster, a self described Djokovic fan, said she “loves the Aus Open” but now shudders when she sees it appear in her social media feeds.
“It’s like a glowing reminder of what’s more important to our leaders,” she added.
“It makes me wish I could go back in time and work on my Ball Boy skills and maybe I’d be home by now.”