Australia Is Betting on Remote Quarantine. Here’s What I Learned on the Inside

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HOWARD SPRINGS, Australia — On Day 8 of my two-week stay at Australia’s only remote, dedicated facility for Covid quarantine, I called my 11-year-old daughter at home in Sydney to ask how her day at school had gone. All I heard was a long pause.

“Dad,” she said. “It’s Saturday.”

I looked out the window as if my confusion could be cleared by the brown all around me — the single-story metal lodging, the pathways, the bags of food that had just been dropped off by workers in face shields. It was not yet 5 p.m. and they were delivering dinner?

Such is life in a former mining camp near the northern tip of the country, in a place called Howard Springs — a temporary home for hundreds of domestic and international travelers being forced to wait around long enough to prove they’re Covid-free.

Quarantine has been a physical and temporal in-between ever since the first lazarettos were set up to fight the Black Death in medieval Europe. The practice, as Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley write in their fascinating new book “Until Proven Safe,” is both a medical tool and “an usually poetic metaphor for any number of moral, ethical and religious ills: It is a period of waiting to see if something hidden within you will be revealed.”

My experience exposed more than I expected, about human nature but also about the ways that the pandemic keeps pushing countries back into their own peculiar currents of national identity. In the United States, it’s individualism. In Australia, it’s the collectivist urge to protect the many by treating the few as a potential threat, sometimes at the expense of personal liberty.

Australia stands nearly alone in its bet on quarantine infrastructure as a long-term answer to the pandemic. Two more camps, each with a capacity of about 2,000 people, are being built outside Brisbane and Melbourne, and Sydney and Perth may not be far behind. The sites, called “centers for national resilience,” are an embodiment of the country’s commitment to Covid zero.

Officials maintain that these camps, which are mostly for travelers but can also be used to isolate the contagious, are necessary because hotel quarantine has repeatedly let Covid leak into the community. The current Delta surge that has led to lockdowns for half of the country began in June with an unvaccinated airport driver transporting people back and forth.

Howard Springs, which has yet to have a Covid outbreak traced to it since it opened last year, is the new model.

“If we quantify the risk of where we put people, I think Howard Springs is the lowest risk,” said Peter Collignon, a physician and public health expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Hotels are 99 percent effective, and for Australia, that’s the problem — they’re not 100 percent.”

That zero-tolerance attitude has kept Covid deaths far lower than in other countries, while dividing Australia. Most of the travelers I met in quarantine were from Sydney or Melbourne and were trying to get to Western Australia or Queensland, states that had shut their borders to anyone from a location with even a few dozen Covid cases. They would not let us enter and quarantine at our own cost, even when fully vaccinated.

So we had to go to the Northern Territory, the only place in Australia that would accept us. Howard Springs was what Malta had been to the British Empire — a place to let someone else deal with the problem.

And we were among the last ones in. A few days after we landed in Darwin, territory officials declared that we had exploited a “loophole” that would be closed. Howard Springs could no longer be used as an extended layover zone.

“The policy is popular,” said Paul Italiano, an energy executive, who was moving to Perth, the capital of Western Australia, with his family after a few years in Sydney. “When we get back, we’re probably going to want to build a wall too.”

After all, he said, it had worked: Western Australia’s seven-day average for Covid cases during most of the pandemic has been, well, zero.

I wondered if an American like me could warm up to the approach.

Most of us in D block — where I was placed and could talk to a few people at a safe distance from our rooms’ verandas — arrived feeling irritated. Michael Nayda, a marine engineer who lives in Sydney but had a job out of the port in Darwin, said he was frustrated with the people violating lockdown rules and keeping caseloads rising. I was upset about the hassle and cost. The extra flights plus the fees for Howard Springs (2,500 Australian dollars, or $1,825, for 14 days, including food) seemed to make little economic or scientific sense.

But at some point, I noticed an attitudinal shift. Maybe we’d been softened by the desserts — the sharp lemon meringue, the lush chocolate tart. One day, when the food delivery carts rumbled in, I peered down our row and noticed that we were all craning our necks, leaning out from our little balconies, like animals at a zoo.

“It’s a bit Pavlovian, isn’t it?” Mr. Nayda said. “The sound of the trolleys, the paper bags.”

He was right. But it was also a shared experience. Many of us fell into the same daily routine: up early, exercise outside, work or read, nap in the afternoon, return to the veranda for sunset. There was a simple natural rhythm around the most basic human needs — outdoor space and social interaction.

It was a step up, Mr. Nayda said, from the solitary confinement of hotel quarantine, which he’d endured earlier in the pandemic.

Ms. Twilley, co-author of “Until Proven Safe,” told me that Howard Springs resembled the old lazarettos.

“Historically, quarantine facilities all had to have incredible ventilation, and that inadvertently made quarantining a more pleasant experience,” she said.

The problem, however, is that even humane quarantine amounts to a forced retreat. The decisions made by governments about who poses a risk are rarely politics-free, and frequently go beyond medicine to fears shaped by emotions and biases.

Australia fused its earliest quarantine efforts in the 1800s and early 1900s to its racist “white Australia” policy. The first director-general of Australia’s Department of Health, John Cumpston, even directly stated that quarantine was meant to keep the continent free of both diseases and “certain races of aliens whose uncleanly customs and absolute lack of sanitary conscience form a standing menace to the health of any community.”

The “centers for national resilience” may echo that past — as part of Australia’s strict system of border control, often condemned for its use of indefinite offshore detention for asylum seekers.

“It sounds a bit unfair, but it’s going to be for people from countries like India, the Philippines — places where getting vaccines and public health will be more difficult to track,” Dr. Collignon said. “That’s who is going to be there.”

By the time I left on Friday, it wasn’t just my confusion over week and weekend that made me pause. Australia also seemed to have lost its sense of time and focus. It was letting the pandemic revive its most fundamental urge since British settlement: anxious isolation.

The state-versus-state squabbles felt colonial. The quarantine expansion hinted at a parochial fear of anyone not right next door. Last month, Australia slashed its slim allotment for international arrivals in half, to just 3,000 a week. There are nearly 40,000 Australians trying to get home.

Quarantine in Australia, I realized as I walked away from the camp, snapping a selfie for my daughter, is no longer simply a place. It has become a state of mind. Hopefully it won’t be permanent.

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