I’ve been a very bad girl. I have come home to Australia to be with my husband. I travelled by plane from New York to Sydney and now I must serve a 14-day sentence in COVID jail, AKA hotel quarantine. I am to be punished for not having been here earlier during coronavirus and must pay for my compulsory imprisonment. I am not permitted any fresh air. There are no windows that open. There’s no outdoor time permitted either, nor the basic privilege of a room key. I’m in solitary confinement for 14 days, forced to do two intensive COVID tests during my stay (or have the stay extended to 24 days if I refuse). The test comprises swabs of both upper nasal cavities and both the left and right sides of the back of my throat. Queue gag, then vomit. Tests in New York were one nasal swab — the end.
Meals are brought to my door and no visitors are allowed. I read through pages upon pages of information; laws I would be breaking if I refused testing, or had visitors to my room, or left the hotel before my time was up; as well as how much money and further imprisonment this would cost me. As I sit and watch the world go by outside my window, I am forced to think about how much control the government has abruptly gained over my life, during this crazy corona time.
I got off the plane in Sydney and was greeted by immigration officers with the social flair of sea cucumbers, then proceeded to collect my bags. The airport was reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie set. Passing through arrivals we were then ushered to seats spread at intervals along an abandoned baggage carousel terminal while we waited for the rest of the passengers to come through. As a team of weary travellers, we were taken outside (deep breaths –– we knew this would be some of the last fresh air for weeks) and told to get on a bus. Talk about stranger danger. Just get on, no questions asked and no idea where you’re going. That’s the beauty of total government control, you don’t have to think for yourself. Just go with the flow, mate. Keep in mind, I’m now paying for this two-week accommodation and it’s not cheap. Three thousand dollars covers food and accommodation as well as the COVID tests (if you have Medicare). You’d think if you were paying for a product you’d get to choose, right? Nope. That’s another perk of people deciding for you, no time wasted on hotel reviews. She’ll be right, just leave it with us.
So now I’m on the bus, with no clue where I’m going. Soldiers have taken my bags and loaded them in the luggage compartment below and I am trying to relax in my seat. It’s 27 degrees and we are all sweating; bus engine remains off. Finally, after about 30 minutes, we get some AC and the bus driver says in his thick German accent, “Going to Novotel, Darling Harbour”. Ok, I guess that’s my state penitentiary for two weeks. I WhatsApp as many people as I can to let them know my location, using up the last waves of free airport Wi-Fi before we take off for COVID prison.
I get checked in at reception and am accompanied by an army officer who drops me off at my cell. As I enter, I am greeted with a musty odour, unvacuumed carpet, dust on the bed-side tables and lamps, crumbs on the table and chairs and hair all over the bathroom and toilet seat. My room has not been cleaned since its previous inmate. It is worrying to think that this is the accommodation so strictly imposed on me during a pandemic. Wondering what my options are, I call reception to let them know the condition of my room. I was told it must have just slipped under the radar of the outsourced cleaning company and that there are lots of rooms, so this can happen. I am surprised by their response. Isn’t cleanliness next to godliness, in a COVID free Australia? Their next statement is also unexpected, “We can send up some cleaning supplies to you”. I ask to be moved. I am told they must file a police report and get approval to transfer me within the hotel. There is no recognition of the deep irony of the situation, just of their own administrative burden. In the meantime, I am left with no option but to squat over the grimy toilet seat, mind the hairs, and eat my lunch at the table sprinkled with crumby leftovers from a former quarantiner. Three hours later, I am escorted by two police officers to my new room. It is better, but evident that deep cleaning isn’t a priority for us jailbirds. I wipe down the toilet seat, just to be safe.
Notwithstanding any dilemmas, I feel deeply lucky to even be a prisoner in this country. Only citizens and residents can enter Australia. No one can leave unless you hold a passport or work visa to another country or for essential or military reasons. Exemptions are few and far between. A country built by convicts who sought to change their future for the better and build a strong, free nation has resorted to dobbing, confinement and unending lockdowns for anyone who steps out of line. Australia is now taking tips from its uptown neighbours in North Korea. No one in or out.
Hotel quarantine is really just solitary confinement with a smartphone. In actual prison, they at least get to walk the yard and have fresh air. Here, that’s very much frowned upon. Such a request is a faux pas almost on par with sneezing in public, during COVID. I ask a nurse one day for ten minutes of fresh air after suffering three days of migraines and am told it’s against policy. I ask them if they believe it is good for my health to be locked up without any fresh air, they say they can’t do anything about it. Am proudly conscious that Australians are not whingers and remind myself it’s not all bad: the meals have been decent and I can get deliveries. I’ve had people bring me metal cutlery (something I will never take for granted again) as wooden cutlery just doesn’t quite cut it, pun intended. I’ve had fruits and snacks brought too and most amazingly, my keyboard. Music will be my medicine during this time. I’ve had people visit me on the street and look up at their Rapunzel trapped in a tower. I’ve had FaceTime calls, Snapchats, and messages of support. I post updates on my Instagram stories with over 500 people tuning in daily and many messages of disbelief in response to my experience. I get a call to my room from a nurse each day who asks about whether I have any COVID symptoms. I do not.
During this time, it is impossible not to think that “control” seems to be the only virus that is really spreading and affecting everyone’s lives. The constant pressure to maintain little to no virus contraction has triggered major encroachments upon civil liberties of Australian citizens. The narrative is that we must all act as ordered, in order to contain this. There is no denying the virus is real and it’s here. There is no denying that the deaths are not to be trivialized. Sensible measures make sense. Sanitising and distancing — sure. However, intruding into millions of people’s lives and freedoms with seemingly limitless government control, an imposition with no foreseeable end date, surely cannot be the answer. I read articles which reveal alarming accounts: pregnant women being arrested for “incitement”, bizarre curfews, contained or closed churches but not closed shopping malls, basic liberties such as freedom of speech being stifled, rights of assembly thwarted – and I reflect upon a time when Australian citizens were free to live and express themselves. Are these concerning signs a mere passing phase to be endured – or the growing pains of totalitarianism, that I once learnt about, aghast, in modern history class? Or, to paraphrase from philosophy: If a freedom falls in a forest, and nobody says anything, did it make a sound?
I drink my Milo and I watch the world go by. Like a fish in a bowl, I’m swimming aimlessly and reminded that this jail time is quite a pointless activity. It’s not like I’ll have achieved anything through this, besides ruminating upon the endless government control and perhaps writing something thought-provokingly constructive about it. My mind keeps questioning, surely there is a better way?
No outdoor time bluntly reminds how much control “they” truly have. If you can stop someone from going outside, then you can really do anything. It breaks spirits. Surely, we can maintain health, humanity and democracy throughout this process. It’s quite the social experiment.
I’ll see you in the outside world soon. But I now consider, regretfully, that I still may not be free.
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