I moved countries four times during the pandemic with a baby – here's what I learnt

Why a travel journalist and his family moved halfway around the world – and back again

Ronan O'Connell's son, then aged 10 months, during the family's two-week quarantine in Australia. Photo: Ronan O'Connell
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We've sobbed in airports, narrowly avoided lockdowns, done three stints in hotel quarantine, completed mountains of paperwork, lost piles of money through cancelled bookings and watched our toddler get spooked by hazmat-suited staff. That’s the cost my family and I have paid to move countries four times since Covid-19 erupted.

Understandably, many people are not prepared to return to international travel. In their minds, the benefit of a holiday is greatly outweighed by the risk of contracting Covid-19. Not to mention the major hassles of pandemic travel, which I’ve faced while relocating from Australia to Ireland, back to Australia, back to Ireland, and now to Thailand, with my wife and young son.

Ronan O'Connell and his family on a flight to Ireland. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Many people have told us we’re brave, others rather ambiguously used the word "adventurous", and some have suggested we’re reckless. Realistically, all of those descriptors are accurate. I should emphasise I’m not a coronavirus-denier. My wife and I each have had three Covid-19 vaccination shots, take great precautions when we travel and are acutely aware of the risks we’ve taken in shifting homes repeatedly. Many times we’ve second-guessed those choices.

Our decision to move countries has been motivated by two factors. Firstly, a desire to keep afloat my profession as a travel journalist. Secondly, the far-flung nature of my extended family, who are scattered across three continents, and a wish not to be marooned from them for several years.

When coronavirus emerged early last year, we were living in my home town of Perth and were scheduled to go to Thailand and then on to my ancestral homeland of Ireland for a few months. On January 24, 2020, Wuhan shocked the world by going into the pandemic’s first city-wide lockdown. I immediately cancelled our trip to the Thai capital, which I knew received many tourists from Wuhan.

The O'Connells spent time in the west of Ireland. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Instead, we fast-tracked our trip to Ireland and, in mid-February 2020, did a voluntary two-night hotel quarantine stay in Kuala Lumpur en route. This cost me Dh5,000 ($1,361) in cancelled flights and hotels, and earned ridicule from friends in Perth, who couldn’t fathom my fear of coronavirus.

In Kuala Lumpur, coronavirus was being taken very seriously – masks everywhere and the streets hauntingly quiet – whereas in Europe it was a novelty. In Ireland and London, where I travelled for work in March 2020, I received strange looks for wearing a mask at all times.

By the end of that month, however, Ireland went into a strict lockdown and we spent nearly three months trapped in our home. The anxiety and claustrophobia was crippling. Meanwhile, back in Perth, Covid-19 barely existed owing to early border closures, with shops, restaurants and major events all operating.

So in mid-June 2020, we flew from Ireland back to Perth. Dublin airport was eerily empty and my son, then aged 10 months, was terrified by the airline staff wearing full-body protective suits, masks and visors. On arrival in Australia, we were led on to a bus and received a police escort to a hotel where we did 14 nights of quarantine.

Perth, the writer's home city, had less than 20 Covid-19 cases for a year starting June 2020. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

What followed was a laid-back 13 months in this gorgeous Australian city, which incredibly had less than 20 community cases of Covid-19 in that entire period. I played competitive sport each weekend, went to the cinema, attended crowded events and took my son to busy indoor play centres.

In May 2021, we had to cancel a planned move to Thailand because of the country’s first major Covid outbreak. By July 2021, there was no end in sight to Australia’s harsh travel restrictions, which banned its citizens from international travel, except in extraordinary circumstances. I had run out of travel stories to sell and, with Europe wide open for tourism, the choice was clear.

My occupation and my Irish citizenship secured us an ultra-rare exemption to leave Australia. I was required to sign a legal document stating I would not return to Australia within six months and that, should I get into trouble overseas, consular assistance would not be provided.

To earn this exemption, I had to spend an entire day collating, printing and checking all the requested evidence, including my Australian vaccination certificate. In late July 2021, we had a smooth passage to Dubai and on to Ireland where, surprisingly, our folders of documents were barely even checked by immigration staff.

From then until mid-December, we had a peaceful stay in the Irish countryside town where my mum grew up and I still have many relatives. Unfortunately, we rarely saw this family because my frequent work trips around Europe meant I was a potential carrier of the world’s new invisible foe. Fortunately, I’ve never contracted Covid-19. Nor have my wife or son, even after our fourth big move in December from Ireland to Bangkok.

This most recent leg of our pandemic sojourn was perhaps the most stressful and complicated. That was owing to the difficulty of securing entry rights to Thailand, problems with passport validity, the postponement of flights, the emergence of the Omicron variant and constant unnerving media speculation about changes to Thailand’s border rules.

The fourth and final move was to Bangkok. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

By the time we got on our flight from Dublin to Dubai this December, my wife and I were physically and emotionally drained. Then, because of a misunderstanding at Dubai airport, we found ourselves at the gate for the wrong Emirates flight to Bangkok. Two such flights were departing at almost exactly the same time, but from opposite ends of this massive airport.

“I’m sorry, but your flight departs in 20 minutes, and the gate is 15 minutes’ walk from here, you won’t make it,” said a sympathetic Emirates staff member as we tried to board the wrong flight. Instead of giving up, I sprinted with my son screaming in his pram, narrowly avoiding collisions with perplexed travellers. My wife followed, lugging two backpacks.

If we missed this flight, not only would we have lost a huge amount of money, but the Thailand entry permits that took so long to secure would have become invalid. This would not be a mishap, it would be a disaster. We would have to return to Ireland.

As it was, we got lucky owing to the misfortune of other passengers. A family who had done antigen tests for Covid-19 rather than the required PCR tests were not being allowed on the flight, which was delayed as a result, buying us time to sneak on board.

My wife and I were both in tears as we approached that gate, certain we’d missed the flight and landed ourselves in a disastrous situation. Onboard the plane, safe and sound, I felt nauseous. Rarely in my life had my nerves been so jangled.

After nearly two years of running the pandemic gauntlet, moving our family across the globe four times, a misunderstanding about a flight number was what had almost brought us unstuck. I don’t think we’ll hit the road again for quite a while.

Updated: January 02, 2022, 10:21 AM
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