That’s where Anisha Balachandran – Cartherics’ past PhD student has been since January

22 September 2020

Finally, Anisha is back, well almost. She is currently in lockdown in Sydney. While there, she spoke with Cartherics Communication’s Advisor Leigh Dayton about her experience.

When and why did you go to India?

My dad passed away due to a cardiac arrest in January. That’s why my husband and I went to India. We wanted to be with my mother.

Where does your mother live? What is the community like?

My mother lives in Kollam in the state of Kerala in South India. It is a very close-knit community. Most of our relatives live nearby.

When did you realise that you were going to be ‘stuck’ in India? How did you feel about it?

My husband went back to Australia by the end of January, but I wanted to stay with my mom for a bit longer to take care of a few things. By the middle of March, the pandemic had started and India went into lockdown. They stopped all commercial airlines without any prior notice. My return flight was cancelled, and I got stuck there.

I joined a few Facebook and WhatsApp groups of ‘Australians stuck in India’, and to my surprise, there were more than 9000 people stuck in India alone. There were a few repatriation flights to Australia. I tried to get a ticket but with no luck as these tickets were sold out within minutes.

Adding to my despair, in July Australia introduced a cap on the number of people coming into the country and only 30 passengers were allowed per flight. Furthermore, Melbourne banned the arrival of international flights. I felt desperate, and my hope of getting back anytime soon faded.

What are your observations on how COVID-19 was and is being managed in India?

India went into lockdown quite early when COVID cases were just in double digits. I would say it helped them buy more time in terms of setting up hospitals and preparing for the worst.  But after easing the restrictions, the numbers skyrocketed. This was to be expected, considering the large population of India.  On the positive side, the mortality rate is comparatively low and many people are asymptomatic.

 Did the country’s approach to COVID change your thinking about health care, there and here?

I started thinking of how big a job these health care people are doing every day to keep others safe. Regardless of the country, health care workers around the world are doing their best and we should appreciate their efforts.

Along with them are the police and other security forces. One thing I have noticed after reaching Sydney Airport is how well organised they are. The whole hotel quarantine thing went quite smoothly, despite my initial scepticism.

Has the experience changed your professional goals? If yes, in what way? If no, why not?

My professional goals haven’t changed much as I always wanted to go down the industry path, the translational side of research. Moreover, the field of cancer immunotherapy is growing rapidly and many companies around the world are focussing on different types of immunotherapies. I am optimistic about getting into an industry job despite the economic downturn.

In my view, one thing we should learn from the pandemic is that there is a need for advanced medical research, and the government should provide more funding for this.

How difficult was it to get back to Australia? When did you begin organising the trip back to Melbourne? What did you have to do, logistically?

It was a real challenge to get a ticket. I tried for every flight to Australia. Finally, by the end of August I got an Air India ticket for September from Delhi to Sydney. I felt fortunate to have gotten one.

I knew it would be a long journey but my aim was to travel from India to Australia, regardless of the city. After securing my ‘golden’ ticket to Australia, I booked my domestic flight from my closest airport (Trivandrum) to Delhi. Also, I had to book a hotel for my stay in Delhi for one night and a half-day. Then after the mandatory hotel quarantine in Sydney for two weeks I have to book my flight to  Melbourne to get home finally.

How are you coping with hotel quarantine?

So far, I am coping quite well, I am happy with the accommodation and food. Only thing is I don’t have an openable window in the room, so no fresh air for 14 days.

How long did was the travel time from Kerala to Sydney?

It took me nearly two days to reach Sydney along with my stay in Delhi. The flight from Delhi to Sydney was 13 hours.

What’s next?

I am looking for an industry job. Hopefully, something will work out. Fingers crossed!