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Two weeks of solitary confinement. No fresh air. An underground network of bartering and information. It sounds like a prison drama or a dystopian sci-fi movie, but it is the reality of Australians repatriating and going through mandated hotel quarantine.
It is also currently my reality, as I lurch into day nine of confinement at the Sheraton Grand hotel in Sydney. I traveled to the United States early last month to assist in a family emergency and returned last week, just as the Australian government put new caps on the numbers of travelers allowed into the country.
When I arrived in Sydney, I was met by the military, put on a bus and driven here, without knowing the location of my quarantine hotel until we arrived. I was escorted to my room by soldiers, and not given a key. If I go outside my room and let the door close behind me, I’ll be fined. I have only seen other humans twice, during my Day 2 and Day 7 Covid tests, when nurses came to my door to swab me. I get a daily phone call from those same nurses, to ask if I have symptoms and check on my mental health.
I am the third person in my family to go through Australian hotel quarantine — my sister moved back to Australia in February, and her partner followed in May — so I had an idea of what to expect. But nothing really prepares you for the feeling of being confined, or for the strange sense of alienation when a long international trip ends in the purgatory of a hotel room that could be anywhere in the world.
When my sister arrived, almost all the information she was able to glean about quarantine was through Facebook groups dedicated to the experience. The posts in these groups were full of stories about expired food, meals that were wholly inappropriate for young children, dirty rooms and maintenance issues — including flooded bathrooms — that could not be fixed because doing so would break the quarantine.
There are questions and discussions about whether this form of detention is legal, whether the lack of fresh air and exercise is a violation of human rights, and why the states are managing hotel quarantine when it is a federal responsibility under Australia’s Constitution.
But the pages are also used as an unofficial network, where people trade tips on how to rent exercise equipment, how to buy a microwave and other items, and where to donate excess packaged food at the end of quarantine. When my sister left quarantine, she gave the microwave she had bought, as well as puzzles and food, to a woman in a different hotel whom she had met through one of the Facebook groups.
Apart from cabin fever, some less-than-appealing meals and a profound inability to concentrate on anything (other than truly terrible movies), my experience has been fairly benign. I’m struck by the waste of it all — the waste of time and resources, my own and the government’s — given that I am fully vaccinated, have been tested constantly, and spent my time in America being extremely cautious. I wish I had been able to quarantine at home, which has proved effective in other countries and may soon be an option for vaccinated citizens returning to Australia. But, given the current outbreaks in Melbourne and Sydney, I understand the reluctance to move to a less controlled version of quarantine.
For now, I’m grateful to have found a way home. For the foreseeable future, quarantine seems to be just another unavoidable part of Australian life.
Have you gone through hotel quarantine in Australia? What was the experience like for you? Let us know at email@example.com.
Here are this week’s stories.