Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 August 2020

Surviving Australia's two-week quarantine with a ten-month-old baby

A journey across the world amid a pandemic, followed by a two-week hotel quarantine with a young child, presents plenty of challenges

Ronan O'Connell's ten-month-old son during the family's two-week quarantine in Australia. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
Ronan O'Connell's ten-month-old son during the family's two-week quarantine in Australia. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

He is screaming and thumping the window again. Even at just 10 months old, my son seems to be acutely aware of and irritated by his separation from the real world, from fresh air and open spaces. After 14 days locked in a Perth hotel room, his reaction is understandable.

My wife and I have tried to keep him relaxed during the unsettling experience of doing the two-week hotel quarantine required of all Australians returning home from overseas.

Now, however, he’s had enough. We must hope that today, all three of us test negative for Covid-19. That’s the only way we’ll be released from quarantine, ending the oddest 15 days of our lives.

Getting home

I had been dreading this ordeal since March 28 when, from my mother’s house in Ireland, I read that my home country Australia was implementing this mandatory quarantine.

Eight days earlier, Australia had closed its national borders to limit the spread of the coronavirus. We were meant to fly back to Perth in late April, but with Ireland’s coronavirus infections surging, we decided to bunker down until it was safer to complete the arduous 21-hour flight.

Writer Ronan O'Connell and his wife travelled from Ireland to Australi. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
Writer Ronan O'Connell and his wife travelled from Ireland to Australia. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

Eventually, in mid-June, we decided it was time to go home. But we had no idea just how taxing the next 15 days would be. Dublin Airport was pleasantly quiet and uncrowded, operating at less than 20 per cent of its usual capacity. There was, however, an obvious current of anxiety flowing through the passengers, many of whom would have been taking their first flight during the pandemic.

An anxious plane journey

Aboard the plane, my wife and I used dozens of antibacterial wipes to clean every millimetre of our seats. “It’s okay, the plane has just been fully disinfected,” a flight attendant told us, her voice muffled by a surgical mask and friendly gaze trapped behind plastic goggles. All on-board staff wore masks, goggles, gloves and a full-body protective suit.

Over and again, I looked at my boy sleeping in his bassinet and wondered if I had put his health at risk unnecessarily

This heavy-duty outfit was no doubt intended, in part to reassure passengers of their safety. And it did and it didn’t. The effort to protect themselves and their passengers was appreciated. At the same time, their strange appearance served as a regular reminder that what we were doing was dangerous. Over and again, I looked at my boy sleeping in his bassinet and wondered if I had put his health at risk unnecessarily.

While babies are widely believed to have a lower chance of contracting Covid-19, those who do get infected have a higher rate of severe illness than adults, according to the Mayo Clinic. We didn’t even have to leave Ireland, either. My wife and I are residents there and my mother would have let us stay with her as long as we wanted.

Driving our return to Australia had been my desire to enjoy the greater freedom on offer in Perth, where life was almost back to normal. I had placed us in this precarious situation.

Quarantine begins

By the time we landed in Perth, I was too exhausted to fret about anything but getting to our hotel. Prior to departing from Ireland, we had received only scant information about our quarantine from the Western Australian government.

The O'Connells stayed in the five-star Westin Hotel Perth. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
The O'Connells stayed in the five-star Westin Hotel Perth. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

It came as an enormous relief, then, when we arrived at the five-star Westin Hotel Perth to find we had connecting rooms, each of which was large and luxurious. That was especially important given it was illegal for us to leave our rooms, even to walk the corridors for exercise. Government-employed security guards were positioned on each floor of the hotel and the fine for stepping outside of your room is staggeringly high at Dh125,00AED.

As you can imagine, we stayed put. So did the more than 100 other people being quarantined in the same hotel at the same time. Western Australia has efficiently enforced this strict policy. That is not true of the state of Victoria, which is engulfed in scandal after it emerged that its current second wave of Covid-19 cases was due to failures in its hotel quarantine system.

In Victoria, about 30 per cent of people have left hotel quarantine without even being tested for Covid-19. There are also accusations of people leaving quarantine early and questionable behaviour by hotel security guards, including allowing them to mingle while they are supposed to be isolating.

The only scandalous thing that occurred at our hotel was the daily delivery to our rooms of consistently bland breakfasts and lunches. The dinners were not much better. But that’s a petty quibble considering that this plush accommodation and three meals a day were provided to us for free by the government. Given this generosity, and our sense that by quarantining we were helping to keep our state safe, resentment was never an issue.

Two weeks in

By the second week of our lockdown, however, my wife and I were stressed and dispirited. You can’t fully understand the value of fresh air and open space until they’re absent. I tried my best to work, writing several articles during quarantine. Still I felt lethargic, both physically and mentally. My wife admitted to feeling despondent and we both agonised over the health of our son.

We checked his temperature far more often that was necessary and over-reacted to his every cough and wail. In the second week of quarantine, our normally even-tempered child began to suffer strong mood swings. Instead of being greatly active – crawling, climbing, clutching at anything in sight – he became listless. He cried more in that week than he had in the previous month.

A testing time

By the time nurses arrived at our door to do our Covid-19 tests, on day 12, we were desperate. I craved the chance to watch my son playing in the oceanside park next to our Perth home, inhaling fresh air and returning to his lively self. On Day 14, the phone rang in my room. I composed myself and picked it up. “You all tested negative, so you’re free to go,” said the female concierge cheerily.

Not only were we finally free, but we were healthy. The gamble to take my family home, across the world amid a pandemic, had paid off.

Updated: July 13, 2020 02:05 PM

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