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Worlds Apart: The Families Separated by the Global Pandemic

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

The Shock of Redundancy

“We were at the Space Museum when we got the news,” says Jane, six-year Hong Kong resident and mother-of-two. “It was terrible. My husband was walking round trying his best to entertain the kids and be all enthusiastic about planets, and I was just crying. I couldn’t do anything else.” Jane’s husband, Ben, an airline pilot, had lost his job.

While not a total surprise – it had been eight months since Ben had last landed a plane at Hong Kong International Airport – it was, nevertheless, a massive blow. After six years in the SAR, the family was settled and had no desire to go back home to Australia. Ava, their daughter, had just started at a new secondary school and the family had forked out a hefty debenture to secure her place.

Fortunately, Ben had foreseen possible layoffs and had been keeping an eye out for other opportunities. Within a couple of hours, he had a new job lined up. The downside: it was in Singapore and the salary wasn’t enough to support the whole family moving there.

“My instant reaction was ‘you’ve got to go’” says Jane. “He’s a pilot, and he loves to fly. The offer meant he could carry on doing what he loved. We decided that I would stay here with the kids and try to get a job. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been doing supply work since we arrived. Now it’s on me to find something permanent because if I don’t, we have to go home.”

The first thing Jane had to do was find a smaller apartment. “I absolutely adored our flat, but we had to downsize,” she says. “I found that hard, but we didn’t have a choice. We found a place in the same area, so that’s been good. The children can still see their friends – Daddy might not be here right now, but at least they have some sort of familiarity, some consistency.”

The children, Jane says, have coped well with the situation. “They’re both actually very matter of fact. Ben was often away before we moved here, so they’re used to having to FaceTime him. I think the kids are dealing with it better than I am. I’m a practical person, but Ben is a very hands-on dad – a real family guy. I miss him sending me a coffee emoji from the living room; I miss the little, everyday things like that.

“The worst thing for me is that we don’t know when he’s next coming home. In the past, we generally knew when he would be back. Now, with Covid as it is and with quarantine rules as they are, we don’t know when we’ll see him again.” Jane jokes that on the positive side, at least Ben is finally learning how to cook. “He’s sending me enthusiastic cooking photos at the moment, but give it a few months and I’m sure that will turn into photos of Maccas burgers,” she laughs.

It’s that laughter, along with a big dollop of pragmatism, that’s keeping both Jane and Ben going for now. “He doesn’t like being away from us,” Jane says, “but it’s completely out of our hands. When it comes to things like this, you’ve just got to roll with it because there’s absolutely nothing you can do.”

The Impact of Travel Restrictions

For Guilia, mother to nine-year-old Harry, ‘single-parenting’ has been the norm now for nearly a year. Originally from Italy, Guilia moved to Hong Kong with her Vietnamese-British husband, Kieran, in 2009. In 2016, Kieran started a new role in Vietnam. Initially, the position was fixed term so the family decided to maintain their base in Hong Kong. “Harry was about to start primary school,” explains Guilia. “We didn’t want to disrupt his education if we were going to be moving back three years later. As it turned out, Kieran’s position was reconfirmed in 2019, so we started thinking about moving the family over to Vietnam.”

Then the pandemic hit. For over three years, Kieran had commuted between the two countries, enjoying quality family time in Hong Kong every two weeks or so. In 2020 all that stopped.

“His last regular trip back was the first weekend of March 2020,” says Guilia. “After that, they cut the flights and introduced quarantine. Things became extremely complicated. Luckily, I had changed jobs a couple of years earlier and gone part time. If I hadn’t done that, things would have been a real mess. My work went online due to the pandemic, so at least I was at home while Harry’s school was closed. That made things a little easier, but even with a part-time workload, the days can be long.”

How has Harry adapted to life without regular visits from Daddy? “It’s difficult at times,” says Guilia. “I’m there all the time; I’m always the one telling him what to do. Daddy is the fun one; the parenting responsibility has shifted onto one side.”

After eight months of separation, the family decided they needed to see each other again. It had been far too long. “Kieran came to Hong Kong around the end of November,” says Guilia. “He spent two weeks in hotel quarantine, which was expensive, but Harry needed to see his daddy. He then spent 24 days with us before flying back and doing two weeks’ hotel quarantine in Vietnam. All that trouble for less than four weeks together.

“It was tough for him to leave again because we don’t know when we’ll next meet. Your relationships suffer when you’re apart. When he was here, it was difficult to go back to the same habits as before. Even the simple act of living together as a family – you’re just not used to it anymore. This pandemic has affected people on multiple levels – families are either together too much or they’re too far apart.”

How has the pandemic impacted the family’s plans for the future? “If I had known this was going to happen, I probably would have moved to Vietnam,” says Guilia. “I can’t go there right now – I wouldn’t get a visa – although it wouldn’t be right to move Harry in the middle of the academic year anyway. For now, like many families, we’re in limbo. I just try to focus on the positives. There are many other people in worse situations than us. Life goes on.”

When Covid Accelerates Life Decisions

Mum-of-two Heather says the Covid-19 pandemic actually accelerated her decision to move back to the UK. “I’d been wanting to come back for a while,” she says. “After 10 years of living in Hong Kong, I was fed up of the long-haul travel. It was lovely while it lasted, but I needed a change – I just wanted some quiet for a bit, and I wanted to see my family. I was also sick of the not-so-brilliant education that we were paying a fortune for. I needed to get away from the crazy expat life.”

Timing-wise, things worked out quite well for Heather. Her eldest daughter was planning to move to the UK after finishing school in the summer of 2020, which coincided with her youngest daughter starting her A Levels. The downside was that Heather’s husband, Mark, would need to stay in Hong Kong for work. Previously in aviation, Mark moved industries earlier this year after the pandemic took its toll.

“Mark agreed with work that he could spend periods of time working from the UK,” explains Heather. “The plan was we would live between the two countries, but then Covid got a bit more serious so that’s just not possible right now. He’s obviously missing us, and we’re missing him, but I wouldn’t change anything; I know this is the right decision for us.

“Hong Kong will always be special to me and my family. I think my time there was definitely the making of me as a woman. At some point I may move back, but Covid actually gave me the confidence, the push, to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’m enjoying being able to look after our parents. They supported us from afar for 10 years so it’s nice to be able to give back.

“If you’d said to me two or three years ago I’d have to be parted from Mark for a few months, I’d have said I couldn’t do it. But now I’ve learnt that I can. It’s actually a nice feeling to explore who I am. As much as I miss my husband, we’ve been together for 25 years – we’re strong. How lucky are we that we have someone who loves us? It doesn’t matter that he’s not next to me on the sofa every night right now. We will be together again one day, and how sweet will that be?!”

The Kids Who Can’t Get Home

It’s not just life partners who have been separated as a result of Covid. Many families have children studying abroad, which has created a whole raft of difficult situations. Quarantine rules, cancelled flights, new waves of infection, bans on residents returning from certain countries … the list goes on. Social media pages are awash with anxious parents trying to make tricky decisions about whether to book flights to see their kids and risk getting stuck or to try and bring their children back to Hong Kong and accept the impact that may have on their education. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and whatever choice anyone makes, there are plenty of potential pitfalls.

27-year Hong Kong resident Paula says one of the hardest things about not being able to see her girls is missing out on major life events. Paula’s daughters are both at university in Australia after moving there a few years back for their final two years of school.

“I was in the enviable position before Covid where I could go to Australia every couple of weekends to spend time with my daughters,” she begins. “They would also come back to Hong Kong every holiday. The maximum amount of time we went without seeing each other was probably three weeks. All that has changed now, of course. The last time I saw them in person was April/May last year. I couldn’t go to my youngest daughter’s high school graduation; I couldn’t be there for her 18th. My partner couldn’t be there for his son’s navy officer graduation. We see more and more milestone life events going by while we’re separated. It’s heart wrenching. These things are rights of passage for the parents just as much as they are for the children. Covid has stopped a lot of things, but it’s not stopped us all from getting any older.

“Luckily my partner’s family are in Australia, so the girls’ de facto grandparents were able to be there at my daughter’s graduation, which was wonderful. The kindness of others and the generosity of family and friends this last year has been amazing. The girls were even invited to spend Christmas with some ex-Hong Kong friends who have recently returned to Australia – that was a real highlight.”

Paula says the family has tried to keep their spirits up with regular Zoom calls. “Every Tuesday we have a family quiz,” she says. “It started out just us and the kids, and now it’s developed into grandparents and other family members joining in. It gives us the opportunity to stay in touch and talk to each other in an informal way – to find out how everyone’s doing.

“Being separated from each other has helped us all to crystalise what’s important to us in life. For us, that’s having more time with our family. Ultimately that will mean we’ll leave Hong Kong and move to Australia so that we can have more time with everyone before they’re 95! We love Hong Kong, but all this has conspired to make us think it’s time to call it a day and move on.”

Because the girls couldn’t come back to Hong Kong at Christmas – the quarantine each side and no guarantee of getting a flight back to Australia being particular stumbling blocks – Paula had to find accommodation for them in Queensland over the Australian summer.

“They’ve had to mature a lot in a short space of time,” she says. “We found them a place to share, and luckily they can both drive so that made moving around a lot easier, but they’ve had to take on the responsibility of running their own place. It’s been a good lesson for them living in the real world, where you don’t have a helper to wash your clothes or clean your room.

“They’ve done really well, actually. The food they’ve been cooking is healthy and nutritious, and they’ve also learnt a sense of value for money and how much everything costs. They’ve learnt what it is to be independent and to be out there on your own. I think it’s made both of them more resilient and given them extra confidence.

“We’ve had some wobbles along the way, and there have been times when they’ve been upset on the phone and just wanting to come home, but there have also been times when I’ve been really proud of how well they’ve done with things. We’ve all just had to make the best of a bad situation.”

*Some names have been changed


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