Surviving ‘Iso’: Notes From My 14-Day Quarantine in Melbourne
By Professor Nancy Devlin, Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health
I got stuck in New Zealand’s lockdown while visiting for my mum’s 90th birthday. After three months it was time to return to work in Melbourne – but first, as an incoming traveller, I had to complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
I was allocated to one of Melbourne’s casino-turned-quarantine hotels on the Southbank of the Yarra and, at the request of friends who would face the same quarantine in the coming weeks, I documented my experience by keeping a quarantine diary. Here’s what was involved and what I learned.
Getting to Melbourne
I’m told to arrive for check-in at Auckland Airport some five and a half hours before the flight. It’s good advice. Check-in involves a separate phone call to the Australian Government for every passenger, with each required to provide proof of residency or citizenship as a requirement for permission to fly there. And fair enough.
On arrival we’re met by people in full protective gear and my temperature is taken. Melbourne airport is completely boarded up inside. We join a physically-distanced queue for processing and form filling, and then another for assignment to quarantine accommodation. I board the bus, clutching a signed form that tells me I’m now officially a detainee of the Australian Government, and we set off complete with police escort.
In the hotel lobby, we’re rapidly processed by Department of Health officials, with more forms and information sheets. One by one, we’re escorted to our rooms by security guards. The door closes, and I look around at the four walls where I will spend the next 14 days. Welcome to the ‘iso palace’ – it’s like indoor glamping.
Food arrives everyday around 7am, 12 noon and 6pm. The doorbell rings and there is a paper bag outside the door. I quickly develop a pavlovian response to the doorbell. No matter how quickly I sprint to the door, I never catch who has delivered it. The food is mostly very good and nutritious, but comes accompanied with a lot of sugary snacks.
Examples of breakfast, lunch and dinner
On day seven, I pull out all the treats that have been delivered over the course of one week and line them up on the counter. It’s an impressive haul. Quarantine is doing its bit to reduce the risk of COVID-19 but the same can’t be said of diabetes type 2. If my fellow detainees are eating this stuff, they must be bouncing off the walls.
One week's stockpile
I try to get my 10 000 steps a day in. I start brisk walking from the door to the window and back. It takes hours, and is utterly tedious – I feel like those polar bears you see at the zoo exhibiting repetitive behaviours. I try ‘high intensity interval training’ instead, sprinting from the door to the window and back again in sets of ten. That sort of works, but the sprint toward that floor-to-ceiling window is freaking me out: I’m on the 19th floor and it’s a long way down. In the end, I rearrange the furniture and create the word’s smallest running track and shuffle around that each day.
The Melbourne cityscape as viewed through the hotel window
Thank goodness for work, which keeps me occupied. The wifi seems fine, apart from the need to log in half a dozen times a day. I do my first full day of Zoom calls with colleagues and it’s lovely to see their smiling faces and realise they’re just down the road. I’m totally engaged in it all, and the time flies.
One week later, and averaging a marathon nine hours of Zoom calls each day, I am thoroughly tired of it. I am sick of the room. I am mostly tired of myself, and especially looking at myself on Zoom, in the room. I have a bad resting Zoom face.
On day four, halfway through a zoom meeting, the doorbell rings. I run to the door (salivating) to find not food, but three nurses in full protective gear and a trolley. COVID-19 testing time! Five minutes later I’m back at my desk with a brave face for my colleagues, but really glad no-one told me in advance what the test was like.
On day ten I have my second test. I brace myself. Its a different team of nurses: the test is over in a flash – it’s not even uncomfortable! No-one asks about my experience of the test. It’s a shame because today’s nurse could teach that other lot a thing or two. Both tests come back negative and I feel relieved.
Detainees are allowed outside for 15 minutes (!) of exercise each week. My first trip outside is scheduled at 10pm. I’m wearing the requisite face mask and a security guard collects me from my iso palace. It feels odd leaving the room. Arms at sides: no touching the lift buttons. I’m taken through the lobby (which is strewn with rubbish and looking distinctly un-hotelish) to outside: it’s the driveway in front of reception, a square four metre by four metre area defined by two speed bumps. In the next square area, another detainee is on a supervised fag break and is desperately dragging on a cigarette. Two security guards watch as I stomp around the square as fast as I can for 15 minutes, huffing and puffing into my face mask. It’s ‘outdoors’ – but it’s not exactly the highlight of the week I’d built it up to be.
On the way back upstairs, the guard tells me that each detainee costs the state $6000 (please someone tell me this is fake news!). On the news, it’s reported the total cost to the state so far is over $18 million. I sit on my bed, think of the opportunity cost and feel guilty.
On day four I talk to my partner who’s had the audacity to have a lovely day doing normal things like meeting up with friends for beers, etc. and it makes me wildly, unreasonably jealous. I press my nose against the glass window and look out over Melbourne. Out there, just a few kilometres away, real life is happening.
By day seven I feel weirdly low – and there’s still a whole week to go. The food now feels like it’s on repeat, and all the novelty has gone. I give myself a good talking to and remind myself that much of the world is poverty stricken and that the worst thing happening to me is being stuck in a luxury hotel with meals provided three times a day.
My days are food, work, food, work, repeat.
On weekends, I impose some structure to prevent going off the rails altogether. I force myself to tackle a backlog of ‘life admin’, which takes five hours (but is yet more time in front of the laptop). Then I have some video calls with my partner, brother and sisters, and my daughter in London (lovely, but yet more time on the laptop).
By day 12 I have lost the will to exercise, and I just work, eat and collapse into bed. The day blurs into all the others. I remember that ‘iso’, in Latin, means ‘the same’. In my iso-palace, everything is the same, day after day.
On the final day I’m up early to pack and peak a little too early, resulting in hours of sitting and waiting.
I was surprised how difficult I found the second week. Even if you are well prepared and in good shape mentally, a two-week isolation like this can be tough. The Department of Health nurses were brilliant - they phoned every day to check, and to offer help and support. But my heart goes out to those with pre-existing mental health conditions or who are coping with family, health, work, financial or other issues while in quarantine – I cannot imagine how hard that would be.
Tips on surviving ‘iso’
- Stay in touch with family and friends
- Do whatever exercise you can
- A yoga mat is a necessity – after two weeks in the room, with no cleaning, you will not want to lie on that carpet!
- Take cutlery and a tea towel
- Keep it tidy when opening and eating food: whatever gets dropped on the floor stays there to mock you for two weeks
- Be kind to yourself – if you work online, you may not be quite as productive as usual