Living, partying and travelling with COVID. Aussie expats shed light on their summer of freedom


A sweaty, heaving dance floor, crowds of strangers pressing up against each other fighting to get a drink at the bar – without masks.

This is the level of “normal” Sybella Stevens returned to in Berlin after holidaying in Portugal and Italy earlier this month.

The 35-year-old decided to stick out the pandemic in Germany where she has been living since 2014, despite fears of an uncertain separation from her family in Sydney when the pandemic struck.

“It was a really tough decision because everything was so scary and unpredictable. I was on the verge of coming back,” she said.

Now, having been fully vaccinated since July, she is among the Australian expats who are living what’s been dubbed the ‘hot vax summer’. 

She is having the kind of highly anticipated post-lockdown summer of freedom, filled with chance encounters, reconnections, restaurants and parties, that Australians on the east coast are dreaming of.

Sybella Stevens takes a selfie on a bridge overlooking the canal in Venice.
Ms Stevens endured seven months in lockdown but has been able to travel Europe over summer with a COVID pass. (

Supplied

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“Life is a lot more normal. In Lisbon, you just showed your COVID pass and it was all very relaxed. It was the same in Venice and Rome,” Ms Stevens said.

“It was very swift; everywhere you went they would just scan your QR code to validate it and then you would go through.”

European member states are allowing travellers to enter with a digital EU COVID Certificate, which serves as proof that a person has been vaccinated, recently received a negative COVID test, or is protected against the virus after being recently infected.

This was Ms Stevens’ ticket out after enduring a rough Berlin winter in a lockdown which stretched on for seven months with infections in the tens of thousands.

“Not only were you living a restricted life in an ugly city, where you couldn’t do the things you were there for, but you could also get COVID. There was a genuine fear,” Ms Stevens said.

“Going on a holiday was the best thing in the world. It recharged me after lockdown.

A chalkboard sign 'geimpft, genesen, getestet'.
Germany’s “3G rule” — translated as vaccinated, recovered, tested — outlines who can enter public venues.(

Pixabay: Gerd Altmann

)

An explosion of rapid testing

The 3Gs strategy – Geimpft, Genesen oder Getestet (vaccinated, recovered or tested) — is also the model Germany has relied on for bars and restaurants to reopen, and gigs and festivals to go ahead over summer.

While masks were still mandatory in most situations, testing had become equally prolific, with pop-up sites on street corners, shopfronts and at venue doors, Ms Stevens said.

Rapid antigen testing, which returns a result in under 30 minutes, has been enough for most venues to allow entry. 

The more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which take around 24 hours for a result, are required for travel.

Australia continues to rely primarily on the “gold standard” PCR tests, as rapid tests are considered less reliable and still subject to strict conditions hindering widespread use. 

“Rapid testing is one of the additional strategies we have to look at, particularly when we’re not having a COVID-zero viewpoint or even suppression to really low levels,” Peter Collignon, professor of microbiology at the Australian National University, said.

“Having said that, people need to realise that they’re not foolproof.”

A line of people outside a Berlin nightclub against a grafitti-covered wall.
Berlin’s nightclubs have been able to reopen over summer but mask mandates apply for the unvaccinated. (

Supplied: Jascha Mueller-Guthof

)

He added that rapid testing was useful while you’re waiting for people to get fully vaccinated, especially in enclosed spaces like bars and planes. 

“While they may miss some cases equally they pick up cases … That means at least those people are kept away from others.” 

Last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt said rapid antigen tests would “play a big part in Australia’s pathway out of lockdown”.

He said the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved 28 rapid tests and the next step will be to consider how they can be made easily accessible for workplaces and use at home.

Partying like it’s 1999

In early August, the German government teamed up with scientists from Berlin’s Charite hospital for the “Clubculture Reboot” pilot scheme to see whether PCR tests could also be used to fully revive Berlin’s iconic nightlife and keep clubbers safe.

Around 2,000 clubbers, who were not required to have been vaccinated, were let loose maskless across six venues over a weekend after returning a negative PCR test.

A week later they were tested again and no new infections were recorded as a result of the event.

Pamela Schobess, chairwoman of ClubCommission Berlin who carried out the trial, said in a statement that the method offered a real opportunity to open clubs “even if incidences and hospitalisations rise sharply in autumn”.

A dark crowded dance floor with laser lights streaming through the space.
Nightclubs have reopened in Berlin, despite Germany having a vaccination rate of around 62 per cent. (

Supplied: Jascha Muelller-Guthof

)

However, the rules around testing continue to shift as Chancellor Angela Merkel pushes to increase vaccination rates to provide “protection for everyone”.

Around 66 per cent of the German population has received one vaccine dose and 62 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Ms Stevens learned first-hand last week that there are new privileges for fully-vaccinated clubbers to get a more authentic experience.

“People who were unvaccinated could be there if they had a negative test, but they had to stay outside in a separate area.

“I was given a wristband to go inside and there was not one person wearing a mask,” she said.

Holidaying ‘like COVID never existed’

Jessica Wong faced a similar lockdown experience in London.

She said being crammed into small sharehouse apartments with “no proper light or gardens” for most of last year was “brutal”.

The 32-year-old had been back in Australia just before the borders closed but returned to London where she had been living for four years due to work.

“Maybe in retrospect, I think I should have stayed in Australia. Especially through last year,” she said.

Jessica Wong and her friends sit on a rooftop in Mykonos with the sun setting over the Mediterranean.
Ms Wong (far right) and her friends were able to travel to Mykonos with vaccine passes and negative PCR tests. (

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“There wasn’t one or two COVID cases here – there were thousands.

“So many people had been touched by death from COVID in some way that they were really grateful to have vaccines available.”

At the first chance she could, Ms Wong left London for a holiday in Greece.

While getting in and out of the UK was a “logistical nightmare,” she said once arriving in Mykonos “it was like COVID never existed”.

“I went to Mykonos the first week it dropped its rules and put music back on … When I was watching my friends and everyone at the parties it was like they had never heard music before. It was so nice to see,” she said.

A group of people stand on a dancefloor with their hands in the air
Britain celebrated its “Freedom Day” on July 19. (

AP: Alberto Pezzali

)

Britain has recorded one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world for its population size, but also has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates.

There have been no rules set for vaccine passports to attend pubs, bars and clubs, and the government has backflipped on plans to introduce them in the future.

Ms Wong says generally people respect mask wearing and testing in workplaces to protect those who can’t be vaccinated, but she is worried about the winter.

“It still feels like everything is temporary,” she said. 

Professor Collignon said Australia would be watching closely to see what happened in the US, Canada and Europe over winter.

He believes Australia is well placed going into summer and is optimistic vaccination rates will keep climbing.

“I think we’ll probably get higher vaccinations in Australia than the UK without the 50,000 deaths they had,” he said.

“I think we’ve been fortunate to not have had much spread of COVID.”

Living with COVID and catching it – twice

For Yasmin Bright, who was initially stuck in Colombia before living out most of the pandemic in a “tiny jungle town” in Mexico, her experience took a different turn.

The 38-year-old caught COVID-19 in Colombia despite being under a strict lockdown where she “didn’t see the night sky for three months”. 

When initial attempts to get a flight back to Australia caused too much stress she decided to stay and move to Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

“COVID ripped through there pretty early, but when everyone got it and recovered it was life as normal after that,” she said.

“There wasn’t really restrictions. There were no masks, there was indoor dining and yoga classes. Everything was just like normal.”

Vaccinations were only available for Sayulita residents, so when the tourist town was struck by Delta Ms Bright contracted COVID-19 again. 

This month she has been visiting friends in the US with her COVID-19 recovery status making her eligible to travel for up to 90 days. 

Yasmin Bright sits at a bus stop with the words Las Vegas written above it.
Ms Bright has been taking international flights out of Mexico by showing proof of recovering from COVID. (

Supplied

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“I’m able to board an international flight in Mexico,” she said.

“You can show a proof of recovery from COVID. And that’s like showing your proof of vaccination for travel.”

Despite her experiences, Ms Bright says she’s still uncertain about whether to come back to Australia. 

“I want to see my family and friends in Australia. But at the same time, I don’t want to fly into Australia and be locked down in the same situation that I was in 12 months ago,” she said.

“A lot of the world is open … you can fly to Europe, you fly to the US and South America. Australia just seems like it’s a little stuck in the past.”

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