If architect couple Marijke and Steven Smit and retiree Judy Smith were just a couple of years younger, their relatively painless returns to Australia would be virtually assured.
Instead, an age limit imposed by Australian authorities on a Chinese vaccine taken by hundreds of millions of people in dozens of countries has left them effectively shut out once again.
As of November 1, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration recognises the World Health Organisation-approved Sinopharm jab — but only for people aged 18 to 60.
Ms Smith and Ms Smit (no relation) are 62, Mr Smit is 63 and all three are fully vaccinated with Sinopharm.
“For two minutes, I was excited,” Ms Smith told 9News.com.au.
“For two minutes, I thought, ‘I can get home and see these people and these babies.'”
But then she read the fine print.
The Sinopharm jab is approved for emergency use by the World Health Organisation and individually in 68 countries around the world, according to McGill University in Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker.
New Zealand, the US and — from next week — England, all recognise the jab for travel without imposing age limits, as do several European countries, although the European Union itself has not done so.
“It’s incredibly difficult being stuck in a country and basically having to deal with a very illogical argument that you can’t be considered vaccinated because you’re over 60,” Ms Smit told 9news.com.au.
“It’s just utterly insane.”
The Department of Health told 9News.com.au it would need more “data from studies and/or real-world evidence showing adequate vaccine effectiveness in age groups below 18 and over 60 years of age” to alter the restrictions.
“According to ATAGI advice, a person who is aged over 60 years and has received Sinopharm is not considered to have had a valid first dose,” a spokeswoman said, in an email.
“They would therefore not be considered fully vaccinated and would need to follow the public health orders of the relevant jurisdiction.”
The issue appears to be with the Chinese trial, which the WHO says was “not designed and powered to demonstrate efficacy against severe disease in persons with comorbidities, in pregnancy, or in persons aged 60 years and above”.
In recent months, some experts have expressed concerns about outbreaks in countries such as the Seychelles and Bahrain that were heavily immunised with either Sinopharm or Sinovac, also from China.
Once in Australia, it’s unclear whether someone vaccinated with an unrecognised vaccine would even have the option of getting another two doses of AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer.
Ms Smith is thankful to have spent the pandemic in the vibrant Sri Lankan city of Colombo, breathing in barbecue chicken and biryani from the takeaway place next door and looking out to the ocean as the morning and evening prayers ring out around her.
It wasn’t easy, she says, describing the city’s lockdown as far stricter but shorter than those in Sydney and Melbourne.
She is happily retired and not looking to move back to Australia for good but it’s been almost three and a half years since she’s been back to Sydney and her niece and nephew have children she’s never met.
Not to mention the sister she hasn’t seen in just as long.
It’s not just that airlines are reportedly cancelling many unvaccinated plane passengers’ tickets or that she would still have to endure and pay for hotel quarantine.
The former financial services worker knows she won’t be able to catch up with a friend at a pub or a restaurant until at least December 15, when the unvaccinated are granted more freedoms.
“What I really want to get across is the disappointment, the rug being pulled out from under us,” she said.
“We’re in a worse situation than we were two weeks ago and the government’s just not offering us any hope at all.”
The Smits are facing an even more crucial crunch as they try to get back to Tasmania before Mr Smit’s visa-linked work contract in Shanghai ends in six weeks.
The architects say they have looked at just about every option, even contacting 10 different countries to try to get another two doses of an approved vaccine, and nothing is feasible.
Ms Smit, a permanent resident since 1986 with three kids and a grandchild born in Australia, said returning to Australia six months ago would have been “expensive but doable”.
“Since Sydney has opened up it only has 200 places (for unvaccinated people in hotel quarantine). It’s close to impossible to get tickets,” she said.
“I simply cannot. I’ve looked, believe me, I’ve looked at tickets, and I just cannot get anything in the next two, three, four months.
“It’s literally and then, you know, at the moment, flights have two or three seats for unvaccinated people.”
The architect said she had been encouraged to take a DFAT repatriation flight but that would mean getting to Germany or Turkey first — currently a 13-hour-plus flight in the wrong direction — and make it almost impossible for her husband to comply with his work’s lengthy notice period.
Mr and Ms Smit have the added complication of trying to get to Tasmania, meaning they will likely have to apply for an exemption to enter and quarantine again on arrival.
The couple have spent time stranded in the Netherlands, Australia — they needed to get back to China to access eight months of salary and for Mr Smit to continue working — and now China but are trying to stay upbeat in a difficult situation.
“I don’t sound it necessarily at the moment but we’re feeling pretty desperate about the whole situation and pretty, yeah, it’s incredibly stressful,” she said.