Quarantine, Australian style: a five-star prison that takes its toll

2:55 pm on 22 June 2020

By Emily McLean *

Opinion - Before we even disembarked the plane in Melbourne, the words "you're not entering a detention centre" were read out to us twice. It was then I realised this was a slick, rigid and effective operation to effectively stop Covid-19 from entering the country.

No caption

Two weeks of quarantine proved a lonely experience for Emily McLean. Photo: Supplied / Emily McLean

When I made it to my room - aka my 6x6m home for the next 14 days. I was excited by the big bath, the king bed, the amazing view and the good room service options. By the next morning though panic had set in a bit.

"How will I cope being alone for 14 days?", "Will I get anxious?" "Will I be able to entertain myself enough?" I took a Lorazepam (to ease anxiety) pretty soon after.

When I read our "hand book" the outdoor time allocated was 15 minutes a week. Yes, you read that correctly - 15 minutes per week. I quickly ran and requested my time outside and was lucky enough to get my 15 minutes the next day.

To do this, a security guard knocked on my door and took me on a one-on-one walk in the carpark, with the timer on his iPhone going. When I say walk, it was just a 150 metre space we could wander in.

Each day hotel staff knocked on our door and left a meal in a plastic container outside the door with plastic cutlery. I wasn't allowed real cutlery as I think they were worried we might hurt ourselves with it.

The food was mainly meat, rice, and veges so it wasn't overly bad, although when they served me chocolate cake for breakfast on my last day I couldn't work out if they'd run out of breakfast food or if it was a celebratory gesture.

We were allowed two care packages sent to our room too. This was a slick service - the person who was sending the package would let me know when it was ready, then I'd call the government hotline and they'd send a taxi to pick up the package right away. No alcohol was allowed though so I was left ordering four bottles of the cheapest wine on the room service menu costing $50 each.

By day five I was in a bit of a routine. Wake up, exercise, work (I started a new job which was my saving grace) and then bath and bed.

By day eight, I was pretty lonely. When I put my rubbish out in the corridor I would look at the security guards outside my door one of whom was there 24/7 and wonder if I should strike up a conversation with him. I didn't.

Worries about being vitamin D deficient

Each day a nurse would ring and ask if I had any symptoms. While I didn't I thought I'd be at least vitamin D deficient so I ended up getting enough vitamins and minerals to last me a lifetime. On day three and 12 they knocked on our door and offered us a Covid-19 test. I declined both times knowing how horrible the test was.

On day 11, I got 10 minutes outside with a security officer. It actually made me feel worse as I felt like freedom was so close but those last few days were just dragging.

After that I figured out that mind games needed to be employed for those last days. I turned the bedside clock away from me and I would break the day into two-hour blocks and fill each up.

After 14 days in a small room, with 25 minutes outside in total, they let me out around 7.30am on the Saturday. I felt extremely over stimulated in the real world again and wondered how prisoners coped being let out into the real world after 10 years in a cell.

All in all, Australia did an exceptional job of having a robust system to prevent incoming passengers from bringing Covid-19 into their country. It was a five-star prison.

I would never ever recommend anyone does this unless they have a compelling reason. You can do it, but it certainly takes its toll. Just make sure to bring your own exercise mat and bottle of gin ... or two.

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

*Emily McLean is a New Zealander who has lived in Australia for the last year. She returned to New Zealand just before the lockdown but needed to get back across the Tasman after accepting a job offer.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs