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Artillery Row

SantaClaustrophobia: Christmas in quarantine

However strict Australia’s quarantine measures may be, they appear to be a lot more effective than the UK’s laissez-faire approach

“Despair is forced upon me as a habit,” lamented John Keats. It was October 1820 and the young poet, not yet 25, was quarantined for 10 days in the Bay of Naples on board the ship Maria Crowther. Typhus raged ashore, so tantalisingly close, framed by the bulk of Vesuvius. No doubt he leant on the rails and considered the perfect sweep of his surroundings, yet though its description could fill a “quire of paper” he did not rouse himself to write it. “O what an account I could give,” he wrote to his girlfriend’s mother “if I could once again feel myself a citizen of the world”.

Two hundred years later, I find myself in that state derived from quaranta giorni – forty days to be exact – that gave us the word quarantine, and I perfectly understand that amorphous limbo Keats was feeling.

I would not have been able to escape without the help of my family

Instead of a southern Italian seascape, I have the entire City of Sydney unfolding and cascading from my high hotel window. My bird’s eye view soars over Hyde Park and St Mary’s Cathedral way up to the tumbled hills of the Eastern suburbs and the glinting harbour. Across the water is the bosky north shore where exactly two years ago we gathered for my daughter’s wedding. Such a world we took for granted then. Flights were booked across the globe in full expectation that they would depart, and they did. The freedom of the skies was an ordinary, if expensive, certainty.

All this changed on 18 March 2020 when Australia closed its borders to “everywhere in the world” and banned international travel indefinitely. Initially, like their neighbour New Zealand, they had focused on China and the first (few) known cases that emanated from there. Then the cruise ships debacle detonated, thousands of potentially infected passengers swarming off at Circular Quay, untested, spreading the novel coronavirus and creating the biggest single source of infections. Embarrassed, a blame game erupted between federal and state authorities, and perhaps as a consequence, strict controls became the norm. Indeed, cruise ships remain banned from their waters until 17 March 2021.

With almost 40,000 Australians stranded overseas, a vicious set of insurmountable circumstances started to clog and congeal the route home. The government set caps on the numbers of citizens and residents allowed back each week, currently set at 7000, and the airlines floundered as they tried to operate the routes. It has made getting a seat on a plane a practical nightmare. Cancellations – known in Aussie parlance as getting “bumped” – are incredibly frequent. Support pages such as the Facebook group “Australians Stranded Overseas – Covid 19” tell harrowing stories of young families who have left their jobs, sold possessions, given up leases, to be left in no-man’s land, often with no means of support. The simplest urge there is, especially in times of trouble, to go home, is being denied to thousands.

Repatriation flights operated by Qantas are eventually being rolled out, with detention held at the Howard Springs former refugee camp in Darwin. However, these options come with fairly dire warnings from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Apart from being able to afford both the flight and the quarantine, fliers have to accept that they may not be able to get out of Darwin straight after release, and then must pay to travel wherever interstate. Yet more uncertainty and more expense.

The contrast between Australia and the UK could not be greater

My original flight was booked last August, long before any of us had ever heard of Covid-19. Compared to a lot of passengers, I was relatively lucky in only being “bumped” by British Airways three times, but each time it happens, it throws something akin to an enormous, spinning spanner into every aspect of your other “works”. Our old normal way of planning and executing arrangements; jot event in diary, go ahead and do it, is tenuous. Inside, you secretly suspect it will never go ahead, but have to act as if it might. A fresh blow has rained down this week with Singapore and Hong Kong, two primary transit hubs, banning UK flights. Something that was exasperating and enormously difficult is rapidly becoming nigh on impossible.

Which is where I, thanks to the intervention of my family, was almost obscenely blessed. On 17 December I got a phone call. Could I be at Heathrow the next morning for a 10.55 Singapore Airlines plane? If so, they would book and pay for it immediately. Amazingly, I got out just before London went from Tier 3 into Tier 4 and all travel in and out was banned. Swiftly followed by the announcement of the new variant and fifty countries slamming shut their doors. If I hadn’t snuck through this chink in time, it could have been many months, or who knows how long, until such a trip was even imaginable again.

Eerily empty aircraft carried me here. I would estimate there were no more than thirty passengers on each leg. In olden times, you would long to nab a bank of seats to stretch out, this time it was inevitable with rows and rows unoccupied. On arrival, into a deserted Kingsford Smith airport, army personnel directed all movements and loaded us and our luggage onto buses. We drove through the night, not knowing where the destination would be, trying to guess from street names. Eventually, it swung right into the CBD and a long process of form filling and shuffling in distanced lines began. This was to be the last sight of fellow humans. One by one we were peeled away by an army escort, taken individually in the lift to a room, and then, basically, locked in.

“You might find it challenging” says both the government and the hotel advice. It is. There is a QR code with an exercise plan on it but my old phone can’t pick this up. The 5 star room is luxurious, but it is still effectively a prison. The windows do not open and the corridor is banned. The only time to open the door is to retrieve the food parcels; a sufficient interval must be left after the three knocks that announce delivery.

I read with great envy an account in The Guardian of a New Zealander’s experience. They are allowed out into a car park for a whole hour each day! They make Christmas decorations and get to choose food from a menu! To be fair, we were given a candy cane on Christmas Eve and the brown paper bags are replaced for a day with white ones bearing the motto “Merry Christmas.” It almost makes up for the irritating Responsible Drinking limit of 6 cans of beer or one bottle of wine a day. Most annoying when kind folks have dropped deliveries, only sanctimoniously, and it seems begrudgingly, handed over, per limit, after phone calls to the concierge. We’re locked up! It’s Christmas! Is it so bad to want a drink?

Has our incompetence simply stemmed from never taking this seriously enough?

Beyond these four walls the pandemic continues its biblical worldwide rampage. Cases break out here on the Northern Beaches, tracked in meticulous detail. It feels like another lifetime when back in Britain we could be specific enough to name a man from Hove, a scoutmaster, who became a carrier. Way over the 70,000 mark now we have long lost hold of individuals, who they were and what they did. Here, there are exact dates, times and locations for cafes, restaurants, playgrounds or post offices to cross-check contact and initiate isolation. The thoroughness is complemented by hours of press conferencing from all state premiers and health experts. The contrast with the UK could not be greater. It is tempting to conclude that a lot of our incompetence simply stemmed from never taking this seriously enough. These guys are dead serious, and their 28,296 cases have resulted in 908 deaths.

In New South Wales the other day there were seven new cases, treated with as much deference as can be imagined, and possibly leading to another citywide lockdown. Four of these are returned travellers in quarantine like myself. This system might be harsh, it might be – some could say – inhumane, but boy oh boy, it beats our lazy laissez-faire approach. Heathrow was swarming at 6am the morning I left last week and incoming passengers are still not being tested. It’s all so ironic when you think of the origins of (white) Australia and how roles appear to have been reversed.

Keats, when he left his quarantine, had only four months left to live. He wanted to do so in what he called “negative capability”. He meant by this, remaining in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reasons.” It feels like a good example to follow when uncertainty is the order of the day and of the future. I have another full week of quarantine to complete. I sign off, in uncertainty, as who knows what will happen next – staring out the window and taking in the sunlit view.

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