The government yesterday announced it would step up its arrivals policy to mandate hotel quarantine or ‘managed self-isolation’ for all returning New Zealanders – people like Andrew Todd, who describes what it’s like to live in a Covid-19 quarantine zone.
Four weeks ago, I was living in Canada, earning a meagre but stable income as a freelance writer. Three weeks ago, I lost most of my contracts and, at my family’s insistence, booked a flight to return home to Christchurch. Then, on March 25, New Zealand went into lockdown. Panicked, I called Air New Zealand at midnight to move my plans forward to 8am that morning. After packing my life into two suitcases I headed to the airport in tears as I went home for the apocalypse.
Travelling during Covid-19 is terrifying. Airports are ghost towns, and you see very few people not wearing masks – if you see people at all. Passengers side-eye each other as potential vectors for disease. Entering New Zealand, we were shuttled through checkpoints a handful of people at a time before our temperatures were taken and we’re asked if we’ve experienced any Covid-19 symptoms.
I got sick at the start of March. My fever lasted a couple of days and my cough has persisted since. On arrival, I inform a biosecurity officer (as I hope anyone would) and I’m escorted to a holding area where my temperature is retaken and I’m asked a few questions. Then I’m taken to another room where I’m given the infamous Covid-19 swab test. It feels like they are directly tickling my brain, which they more or less are.
From there, I’m shuttled to a hotel near Auckland airport for “a wee reprieve” – two weeks, the typical outside edge of the virus’s incubation period.
Many hotels have been commandeered by the government to hold international arrivals in managed isolation in case symptoms begin to manifest. By contrast, the hotel I’m placed in is a low-level quarantine facility, occupied largely by arrivals already exhibiting symptoms indicative of Covid-19. Nurses are on call all day, every day. There’s a Ministry of Health office, a doctor, and a small police presence on site. Everyone wears PPE when interacting. Some guests are confirmed to have Covid-19.
As a self-employed freelancer, I rarely keep regular hours, but this quarantine experience has forced me to. Between nine and ten in the morning, nurses take our pulse, blood oxygen level and temperature, and do a general checkup. Lunch comes around midday, and dinner (and the next day’s breakfast) around six; we’re called to order tomorrow’s meals mid-afternoon. It sounds like someone disinfects the corridors daily as well. You can go to bed whenever you want, but you’d better be ready for your checkup the next morning.
This is the routine every day. It’s a framework around which I write, teleconference, watch Star Trek, and use the PlayStation that I, thank God, brought with me. For some that might feel restrictive. But for me, it’s a blessing.
Everyone always wants to know what the food’s like. Each day, the hotel restaurant serves three square meals in paper bags and biodegradable packaging. Breakfast consists of cereal, yoghurt, a baked good, fruit, and juice, while lunch and dinner come in carnivorous and vegetarian varieties. The options change daily; a new menu comes every week. I’ve had curries, burgers, salads, soups, stir-fries, roasts, a variety of pasta dishes, and on one occasion, half a Cajun-spiced chicken. If I’m being honest, it’s the most regular and balanced diet I’ve enjoyed in years.
Life in my temporary home is comfortable, but the staff are tough. The health workers and hotel employees put in hard hours at significant risk to themselves, and they do it with a smile every day (at least, it seems like they’re smiling behind their masks). When my asthma flares up, as it always does when I come back to New Zealand, I’m immediately supplied with a fresh inhaler. Help is always a phone call away, and questions are always answered – even for the purposes of this article.
A few days in, I’m relieved to learn that my test has come back negative. That’s not necessarily an all-clear, but it grants me a blue wristband, which means I can now go outside. I can stroll the grounds of the hotel during daylight hours, though I’m to keep my distance from other guests, and if I see anyone accompanied by a nurse I’m to stay away from them. For the first day or so, though, I remain in my room with a view of a warehouse trafficking toilet paper. So frightened have I become of the outside world that my usual health anxiety is heightened here. I wash my hands many times a day.
Leaving my room is an adventure. The hotel seems empty. Reception is deserted but for a cache of masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser. Outside, maybe a dozen people are scattered about, and apart from pre-existing couples, families, guests under supervision, and an omnipresent pair of police officers, nobody approaches anyone else. Every cough becomes cause for alarm and shame. Red-lettered signs stop explorers dead in their tracks if they approach the hotel’s second building: “HOT ZONE – DO NOT ENTER”.
You’re obviously going to feel lonely at times in quarantine, but I didn’t expect how much any human contact would become a highlight of my day. The nurses’ daily checkups are an opportunity to speak and laugh. With close contact forbidden, walks around the hotel carpark become exercises in people-watching. I ascribe personalities and backstories based on guests’ attire and body language, as they probably do to me. I’ve made eye contact with the girl across the hallway – twice. A quarantine facility is the perfect place to form fleeting, desperate crushes on people you barely even glimpse. It’s also the worst possible place to do that.
I’ve seen complaints about being stuck in these hotels. I’ve heard crying from nearby rooms. I get it. It sucks being cooped up away from home. But the reasoning behind these facilities is sound: most of our Covid-19 cases come from overseas, and the government isn’t taking chances on potential carriers. I’d rather be here than posing a risk, and my treatment has been exemplary, almost cushy. The only thing that feels prison-like is how I’m exercising: doing sit-ups and push-ups in my room or doing laps of the yard.
Reaching the end of my two weeks, my stay here is nearly over, at least theoretically. Getting out is down to the police and defence force arranging transport to Christchurch, and to the medical staff deeming me healthy enough to release. Since I still have a cough, I’m unsure when that’ll be; I need to be symptom-free for 48 hours. But when the time comes, I’ll be glad to get home, see my family, and break free from hotel internet. But I’ll be just as grateful for the care I’ve received, at great expense and effort, from our government.