A mother’s last wish was to see her son before she died.
Melbourne-born Angelos Giotopoulos has been living and working in Greece for the past few years, earning his livelihood as a freelance photographer and filmmaker with regular contributions to well-known Greek newspapers Kathimerini and Vice Greece. His regular trips between Greece and Australia came to a halt when COVID-19 struck, and a difficult situation took a turn for the worst in March when he was told his mother’s days were numbered.
Knowing that cancer was taking its toll, Mr Giotopoulos did all he could to return to Australia to see his mother Mina Giotopoulos alive for the last time.
On 22 April, he entered the country, just a few kilometres away from where his mother was drawing her last breath at a palliative care unit in Monash Hospital. Despite being so close in proximity, he did not get to see her alive.
A son’s preparations
Mr Giotopoulos, knowing that time was of the essence, had applied for an exemption to see his mother in full protective gear according to the protocol before his departure from Greece.
He told Neos Kosmos that from his arrival on 22 April up until his mother’s death on 25 April he would constantly press the Determinations Team to get an update regarding the exemption he had applied for before his arrival, urging them to respond to his request as his mother’s time was running out.
No response was given to his first request before leaving Greece. Another request to see his mother following exemption protocols was sent on 23 April – this time from the palliative care unit of the Monash Medical Centre asking if Mr Giotopoulos could be allowed to visit his terminally ill mother on compassionate grounds. Once again, there was no response or action taken to indicate that requests were even being considered.
To add insult to injury, upon his mother’s death on 25 April, he finally got an email from the team offering their condolences and asking whether he could be taken off the exemption registrar. “Please let us know if we can withdraw your online application, which was initially made for you to return from Greece to visit your mother?” he was asked.
“What got under my skin is that when they want something from you they are very attentive, but when you need something they go off the radar!” Mr Giotopoulos said. Without wanting to generalise, the 44-year-old described his experience with the staff while in hotel quarantine as “shocking” and with a complete “lack of empathy” bearing in mind the distressing situation he was in.
“The following day as you can imagine, was a terrible day for me. You would expect that they would be onto it,” he said.
Trying to manage his distress following his mother’s death, he called up to tell them that he was not feeling well at all, hoping that there was a designated area where he could go and get some air. Responding in giggles the employee who answered his call just reinstated that he was in quarantine and of course he could not go outside.
“My situation aside, let’s talk about a human being in isolation that can’t deal with it anymore. A response like that to me is disgusting,” he said.
After speaking to different members of the staff, he told us that he was finally given permission to go outside, but not without being made to feel like he was the one to blame for reacting to the way they were dealing with him, even being accused by a doctor of “bullying” the staff, after expressing his frustrations, hardly considering the grief he must be going through, on his own.
“On an emotional and ethical standard, I was disgusted,” he said.
“I believe they are just trying to keep the system running and not really concerning themselves with what is important, the human side. The aspect of the soul and spirit. You can’t forget that someone is stuck in four walls with a window – and they feel like they are kept in a jail. In other places in the world they have a compulsory one hour outing for fresh air.”
Mr Giotopoulos said “it’s a sad state of affairs”, adding “there is common decency and then there are procedures.”
The only positive thing in this tragic story is that the funeral of his mother had to be postponed due to Holy Week, which meant that it could be arranged for the day after his release from quarantine, so at least he got to be there with his family.
“Now I’m here with my dad and we are holding each other up. It is a transition for all of us, and especially my father who will be on his own after 47 years with my mother by his side,” Mr Giotopoulos said.
“I don’t know yet when I will return to Greece,” Mr Giotopoulos said.
He adds, however, that after this experience, Australia is a place “he cannot call home anymore”.
“Greece,” he added, “is a mess obviously – but there is filotimo. There is essence there. Everything here has become quite sterile and I am still trying to figure things out.”
“I mean my mother… all she said she wanted was to see me and nothing else. That was what I wanted too. This is my own demon which I will have to deal with throughout my life because there is obviously this thorn which is still there.”
He remembers his mother.
“My mother was the epitome of what humanity should be, and it is funny that what happened was the total opposite of that,” he said.
“She was the example of how humanity should move on, if we are to do good to each other. To give, without waiting for something in return, out of kindness, and, if someone needed help, without thinking twice about it.”
Neos Kosmos has requested information from the COVID-19 Quarantine Department in Victoria about the handling of Mr Giotopoulos’ request for an exemption to see his dying mother, as well as their processes, in general, in prioritising urgent applications. Until the time of publication there has been no response.