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SocietyJune 24, 2020

Quarantine, Aussie style: A Kiwi’s letter from a Queensland hotel

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Think people in hotel isolation here have it tough? As Trevor McKewen, an Australian citizen living in Auckland, writes, the Australians take it to a whole other level.

It didn’t really feel like a choice when I boarded a plane to Australia from my home in Auckland. My brother is 56 and gravely ill. I need to see him, even if we are in a global pandemic.

What would you do?

When I left New Zealand there were no cases. Because of that I thought I’d be allowed to self-isolate with my mother. I thought I could care for her as we face a future that will be unrecognisable if the worst happens.

I arrived in Brisbane late on Friday night June 12, on a plane that was perhaps 40% full. I had successfully sought permission from Australian Home Affairs to enter the country. I was told to discuss that request with authorities at the airport once I landed.

I felt hopeful. It turned out my hope was misplaced. There was empathy for my situation but I was told there was no way I would be vacating the airport to be left to my own devices.

Instead I was directed with other passengers to a bus that ferried us to an inner-city Brisbane hotel. We were told to wear our masks the entire time and were greeted by a phalanx of police officers and earnest young people in military fatigues.

That was just the beginning.

I was given my hotel room swipe key but then told it would only work once. I could open my door to my 17th floor room and that was it. The room had neither a balcony nor any window that you could open.

Then came the rules.

  • You can’t leave your room. At all. The entire quarantine period.
  • If you do leave your room, your swipe card won’t work on the lifts, so understand you’re not going anywhere.
  • We will drop you a meal at your door three times a day. We will knock three times. Please wait 10 seconds and then open the door. Pick up your meal and take it inside. Leave your rubbish outside the room by 9pm each night and we will collect it.

There’s no chance for exercise. I’d heard in New Zealand you were allowed outside, under supervision for fresh air, maybe to run around the hotel grounds.

You exercise in your room, I was told.

What about getting fresh air? Can I interact with anyone?

Sorry sir, you can’t leave your room.

All of this was delivered with polite empathy but a firmness that made it clear there was to be no debate. This is how it is here.

I sat on the end of the bed that first night and wondered how the hell I was going to get through this.

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Just before I left New Zealand, I had watched a One News story where several people in isolation at an Auckland hotel had revealed they could regularly leave their rooms and mix in a smoking room. There was footage of them walking the street in front of the hotel, in a semi-supervised environment with oblivious pedestrians passing by.

There is simply no chance of that happening if you are quarantined in Australia.

It’s rough. I am 73 kilometres away from my brother and I cannot see him. I cannot support his daughter. I cannot hold my mother and tell her it will be OK.

After two days I was given permission to transfer to a quarantined hotel on the Gold Coast so I could be closer to my family.

The transfer was like a military exercise. I was met at my door by a policeman wearing a mask. He escorted me down the lift, out of the lobby to a bus waiting for me. The 20 metres from the lobby to the bus was – and still is – the only taste of fresh air I’ve had since arriving in Australia.

I was the only one on the entire bus – other than the driver of course.

Ninety minutes later the bus pulled into the driveway of a hotel in Surfers Paradise where the entire process was repeated. I had a police escort to my 12th floor room which had no balcony or windows that could be opened.

Same deal. You can’t leave the room.

I was now 10 kilometres – or six minutes’ drive – away from my brother, his daughter, my mother.

That was nine days ago. I’ve not seen a human face in that time. Nor have I had a breath of fresh air. I hate air conditioning systems at the best of times. The whole hotel here is a quarantine centre. It’s just us here in some strange half world.

I worry that other travellers from countries rife with the virus are in here. And, surely, air conditioning could be spreading the damn thing? I keep thinking I’d be safer at my mother’s place.

I consider myself a mentally resilient person but 11 days into my quarantine, I’m struggling. I wonder how people older and less healthy than me, in their rooms by themselves, are coping. Level four lockdown in New Zealand was a walk in the park compared to this.

Red Cross call me each day to check on my mental health. If I’m honest, it feels like a tick-boxing exercise.

I haven’t been tested for the virus since arriving in Australia. I wonder if I will have to do one when I’m due out this Saturday.

It’s abundantly clear that Australia has harsher restrictions for quarantining and the country is policing them far more diligently than New Zealand.

How do I feel about it all?

I have mixed feelings. And sometimes I’m not even sure if I can think straight anymore. One day I feel like I understand where they’re coming from. The next day I feel like this is wrong. I’m worried about the mental health of my family at home and over here.

I remind myself it’s not as if I’ve been sent off to war. I have Netflix on my laptop, free wifi and pay-TV and reasonable meals (even if I can do without the couscous that the food police seem so fond of including most nights). I can do some work via Zoom. I try to tell myself it’s not that bad.

I’ve already resigned myself to having to do another two weeks in quarantine in New Zealand when I get home. The stuff-ups have me worried that isolation there will soon be under the same harsh conditions as here. Can I cope with that? Today I read on Kiwi news sites that by the time I return, I could be paying for my own quarantine costs. One more thing to worry about.

As I write this, the state of Victoria is suffering a second wave. They’ve had double digit positives for five days straight. They were meant to be relaxing restrictions today. Instead they are heading back into lockdown. The AFL could be shut down because an Essendon player has turned a positive.

I don’t know what to think anymore. Other than that Covid-19 is a bastard that just won’t go away and it all feels like a bad dream.

And my brother is six minutes away from me and I can’t reach him.

Keep going!