On Day Six of our quarantine hotel stay in Perth, my mother called from Ireland to ask how my wife, baby son and I were handling the situation.
y reply was upbeat: “It’s easy and actually quite fun”.
I spoke too soon. By Day 10, all three of us were struggling. I was feeling claustrophobic, my wife was anxious and our 10-month-old son Aidan had lost his spark.
“He’s not the same,” my wife said with a worried expression, as she stroked his hair in one of our adjoining rooms at the Westin Hotel Perth.
Aidan had gradually become crankier and less energetic since we departed Ireland last summer – where my wife and I have lived on and off for the past five years – for Western Australia, where I was born and raised by Irish parents.
He loves fresh air, but here there was none because we had no balcony, the windows didn’t open and we weren’t allowed outside the room during our quarantine.
Yet we were the lucky ones. Because not all hotel quarantines are created equal. The experience varies greatly depending on whether you have company, and on the hotel and room you happen to be assigned.
My 72-year-old mother, for example, followed us back to Perth and did her quarantine alone in a grimmer environment. Whereas we were in a five-star hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows that offered gorgeous views over Perth, she was in a cramped three-star room that looked out over an alleyway. Whereas we had each other to hug and kiss and laugh with, her only meaningful human contact came when we would visit that alley and shout up to her window.
“It wasn’t horrendous, I got through it, but I certainly never want to do it again,” was her appraisal.
Mum’s experience was rocky from the moment she touched down in Perth late last year. You see, Australian officials and Irish officials are very different in attitude and methodology. While we all received warm farewells from the staff at Dublin Airport, at Perth we encountered a wave of stern, interrogating Customs, Immigration and, finally, police officers.
Shattered from the 22-hour flight, and worn out by the stress of long-haul travel during a global catastrophe, I was flustered by the barrage of sharp queries directed at me as my son wailed from exhaustion. My mum copped it even worse. Officials at Perth Airport questioned why she, as an Irish-Australian dual citizen, hadn’t stayed put in her ancestral homeland.
We were all asked to fill out a variety of forms, including a declaration that we wouldn’t attempt to flee from quarantine. This third-degree treatment won’t surprise anyone who’s spent time in Australia, where there are more rules and stricter enforcement of laws than in Ireland.
During this pandemic, however, Australia’s regimented systems have been a godsend. Perth went an extraordinary 10 months without a single coronavirus infection outside of hotel quarantine, which has been mandatory for all residents returning to Australia since April last year. Late last month, the city of two million people had its first community-based case in nearly 300 days. That single infection saw the West Australian Government implement an immediate five-day lockdown.
To Australians, mandatory hotel quarantine is a no-brainer. Hundreds of cases of coronavirus have been identified in Perth’s hotel quarantine. All were contained within that tight system, except for the recent single infection of a quarantine security guard.
Knowing mandatory quarantine works makes it’s easier to accept. Well, it does for the first week or so that you’re locked in the hotel room, at least. That initial period in quarantine was pleasant. After being transported from Perth Airport in a bus under police escort, my wife and I were relieved as our hotel room banged shut for the first time. When, 48 hours later, none of us were feeling ill, we really began to embrace the experience. It felt like a holiday and we were thankful to be back in a city that almost existed outside of the pandemic, with busy bars, shops and restaurants, and giant crowds at live sporting events.
Our rooms were plush and huge, the kind which, to be honest, would normally be out of our price range. These connecting rooms would have cost us nearly €6,000 for our 14-day stay. Fortunately, we paid nothing. The WA Government at that point was footing the bill for all quarantine stays, although they now charge up to the equivalent of €1,600 per person. Everyone is tested for Covid at the beginning and end of their stays, too.
We received three free meals a day, the delivery of which became a highlight of our daily routine for more reasons than one. With little else to do, eating became more enjoyable than ever.
Nearly as valuable was the rare chance for a face-to-face interaction with a stranger, albeit one staring at us from behind a mask! Those thrice-daily, socially distanced chats with the food delivery staff were a welcome break to the monotony. I would rush to the door and chat as they stood down the hallway, wearing masks and standing several metres back. One guy asked me what I did for work. When I told him I was a travel journalist, he replied: ‘Well, isn’t that very unfortunate.’
The end couldn’t come soon enough. Early in the morning, on Day 14, I called reception to ask if we could leave our rooms. Not yet, I was told. We couldn’t step foot outside until the exact minute our plane touched down two weeks prior. I kid you not. That’s Australia for you.
At 7:06pm I poked my head out the door. Down the hall, I saw another quarantine guest doing the same. Then, as if a starter’s pistol had been fired, the stampede began. After being locked up for two weeks, suddenly there was a hall full of us jostling for a spot in the elevator. Quarantine was over.
Never again, please.