30 March 2020

Former Canberra woman waits out Colombian lockdown after flights cancelled

| Ian Bushnell
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Zoe and Luis in Bogota

Zoe and Luis in Bogota on Zoe’s birthday, the same day they were told quarantine would start. Photos: Supplied.

A long-planned trip to Colombia has left former Canberra woman Zoe King and her partner stranded amid the South American country’s pre-emptive and strict coronavirus lockdown.

Zoe, who grew up in Cooma before moving to Canberra and then to Melbourne, is travelling with her Colombian partner, Luis Torres, whose family lives in the capital, Bogota, a city of 11 million people.

The couple arrived in Colombia on 6 March intending to stay until 28 April. The trip is a family reunion for Luis who has not been home for four years.

But two weeks after arriving the country went into lockdown on 20 March and it may be extended beyond its proposed 13 April end date.

Zoe says they had been travelling around Colombia but rushed back to Bogota from Santa Martha to stay with family and arrange flights when the coronavirus made its presence felt.

On return their airlines emailed them that their return flights had been cancelled, providing only a credit for future flights.

“By the time we heard that the Australian Government was urging all citizens to return home it was too late and our flights had been cancelled,” she says.

“We attempted to contact the Australian Embassy, only to be told to check the website then try again due to a high volume of callers. We have to wait until the airlines are back up and running or rebook with a new airline.”

That may be as late as June and unless they can find cheaper flights with other airlines they might be looking at $5000 each to fly back to Australia.

The couple are aware of other Australians stuck in South American countries such as Peru but with the country locked down they were unable to leave the country for Lima or Montevideo where charter flights were taking Australians home.

“We cannot make it to these locations due to domestic flights being grounded and no other means of transport again due to the quarantine,” she says.

Police outside apartment block

Police outside apartment blocks in Bogota.

Zoe says she feels safe for now staying with family but as Colombia is a developing country the situation could deteriorate quickly.

“I am talking complete lockdown,” she says. ”There are police everywhere. I hear their sirens almost every hour. I am allowed to go to the local grocery store or pharmacy but only on my own.

“My Spanish is not up to scratch so I prefer to stay in and let my partner go. You are not allowed to exercise outside, just strictly to the store and back.”

Basic supplies are available but the wait is long because only one customer is allowed in the small local grocery store at a time.

A family member can exercise a pet for a maximum 20 minutes, and all private vehicles are banned from the city’s roads. People who breach the rules face fines or arrest.

They are OK financially staying as they’re living with family but they are concerned about their home in Melbourne.

“If we are stuck here for months we still need to pay rent on a monthly basis,” she says.

Zoe works in aged care and Luis is a high-rise window cleaner so they should at least have work when they can return.

The other positive aspect is that the early move to lock down the country means the number of cases in Colombia has been contained at 702 with 10 deaths, as of Monday.

“That is incredible for a developing country,” she says. “If we all work in this together, it will be over as quick as it began. I think Australia should be doing a lot more.

“Nobody in my social group here has contracted the virus. However, my partner’s father is 76 and high risk, so we have been extremely careful.”

For now it is a waiting game, keeping a lookout for an earlier flight when the lockdown ends and the airlines are back in the air.

“We will wait and see at the end of the month and go from there, but we will keep an eye on the airlines. If something is near and on the cheaper side we will take the opportunity and leave,” Zoe says.

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