In normal circumstances, many of us would jump at the offer of being put up for free in a five-star hotel for two weeks, with all your meals provided.
But for some people, the experience of being locked in a hotel room for 14 days of coronavirus quarantine has been traumatic and “dehumanising”.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to force thousands into mandatory quarantine on their return to Australia, Perth man Chris Johnson is among those calling for a more compassionate system.
His wife, Denise, was still grieving when the couple flew back home to Western Australia from the UK on April 2 after attending a family funeral.
Instead of being able to come to terms with her grief in the familiar surrounds of their Perth home, Ms Johnson and her husband were diverted to two weeks of lockdown at a city hotel.
“Less than a week after my wife said goodbye to her mother, we are stuck in a hotel room with nothing but our thoughts,” Mr Johnson said.
“Trying to process anything of what happened was almost impossible, you’ve got no normality, no anchor.
“We describe it as if we were dropped in a hole and forgotten.”
While in quarantine, Ms Johnson sought advice from the Beyond Blue helpline but her anxiety continued to escalate as the walls started to close in.
The couple asked if someone could come and open their windows to let in some fresh air, but were told the windows were not designed to be opened for guests.
After a week, Mr Johnson finally managed to manoeuvre them open himself using a teaspoon.
“We felt like the room was making us unhealthy in every way over the duration and you only cope with it because stepping out of the door was a $1,000 fine,” Mr Johnson said.
“The hotel did its best, but we felt that everybody responsible for putting us in that room didn’t care.”
Mr Johnson said there should have been a welfare check to make sure vulnerable passengers were given the support they needed or, better still, allowed to isolate at home.
“I would like to think that in WA if we are taking our foot off the brake and opening up to allow 10-people gatherings, we should seriously consider allowing people to be trusted and treated like adults and self-isolate in their homes.” he said.
‘We were like their jailers’
While WA authorities said many people had positive experiences during hotel quarantine, Mr Johnson’s sentiments were shared by a security guard, one of about 1,000 employed at Perth hotels to ensure that passengers do not come out of their rooms.
The guard, who the ABC has chosen not to name to protect their employment, said they were disgusted by the lack of empathy shown to people in quarantine, many of whom were elderly.
“Our instructions were just to not engage in conversation with anybody, don’t tell them any information, don’t promise them anything,” the guard said.
“We were like their jailers.
“I was like oh my God, these people aren’t prisoners.
“They aren’t detainees from another country. They aren’t here illegally.
“They are our elderly people … why are you treating them like this?”
The guard claimed there was a doctor and nurse stationed at the hotel, but that they had no equipment to carry out medical checks in person.
Sailing into a storm
State and territory leaders agreed to forcibly quarantine returning overseas travellers on March 28 and since then the Department of Home Affairs said more than 37,700 people had arrived in Australia.
One of them, Victorian Julie Schulz, was among 950 passengers who sailed into the height of the COVID-19 storm on the Vasco Da Gama cruise ship.
The 63-year-old and her husband spent three days on the ship while it was docked at Fremantle, before they found themselves on a convoy of buses, under police escort, bound for the Crown Metropol hotel.
The ship had arrived at the peak of the public’s angst over coronavirus, as WA Premier Mark McGowan tried to avoid a similar disaster to the Ruby Princess in New South Wales.
Ms Schulz said she and some other passengers felt like they were being treated like criminals.
“My anxiety levels were incredibly high because you can’t talk to anybody, nobody would give you any information at all,” she said.
“We heard on the news that Virgin had stopped flying and I have quite a sick daughter and, of course, I wanted to get home to her.
“My heart rate went up and I just went ballistic, I thought I was going to have a stroke.
“My heart was pounding in my ears and in my head.”
Ms Schulz said she rang for help from a doctor stationed at the hotel.
“She said ‘I can’t come and see you, I can just talk to you’,” Ms Schulz said.
“She said ‘there’s just me here … and one nurse for 600 people’.”
Ms Schulz said the doctor subsequently arranged to increase the dose of medication she takes for her heart condition.
But she said the trauma of the time in quarantine had stayed with her and she was now on medication for anxiety as well.
“I have the most horrendous nightmares,” she said, after finally being allowed to return to her home in Shepperton.
Health authorities admit concerns with system
As hundreds more flew into Western Australia this week, the woman in charge of WA’s COVID-19 health response, incident controller Robyn Lawrence, acknowledged that there had been “mixed feedback” on the hotel quarantine system from those who had already been through it.
“I think in the early days, the cohort of people coming in had gone through a very stressful time,” Dr Lawrence said.
“And the processes were new to everybody … we’ve ironed out a lot of things and we’ve put a lot more information out to passengers now so that they know how to contact those resources and get the help that they may need.
“In addition, I would make it clear that we don’t know about the passengers coming in, we don’t know what their circumstances are.
“We get a name and a number and we do our best to then collect that information.
“We are now at the hotel collecting more information if people are willing to give it to us so we can try and be upfront and organise those things that passengers may need.”
Dr Lawrence acknowledged people were finding quarantine “pretty tough”, but that the team at the command centre had been working extremely hard to do the best by everyone.
“There’s many, many grateful people who say the Government, the leadership has done a great job in getting us home,” Dr Lawrence said.
“And equally there are people who have passed on their concerns, mostly in a way that says can you please make this better for people into the future, and we’ve taken that on board and tried to do the best we can.
“We apologise wholeheartedly if we let people down in that, but we did try and we will continue to try and learn from the feedback that we get.”
Exemptions from quarantine not made clear
That is why Chris Johnson said he was speaking out.
He was also frustrated by reports of hundreds being given exemptions to quarantine on medical and compassionate grounds.
Mr Johnson said he was not aware that exemption was an option when the couple flew back from the UK in early April.
“We were given a variety of pieces of paper but we were certainly never sat down, or as a group, and given any information as to what options we really had,” he said.
“Seeing that there are exemptions is upsetting.
“I feel like the narrative that we were given, that this was something that everybody had to do, was not really true.”
Mental health organisation Beyond Blue acknowledged hotel quarantine could be very challenging for people with pre-existing mental health conditions or difficult family circumstances.
“There’s a variety of ways that people respond to losing control of their situation and being caught up needing to stay in a hotel,” lead clinical advisor Grant Blashki said.
“The vast majority can manage, it might be a bit unpleasant, they might be a bit stressed about it.
“But for those people who have got mental health issues, particularly things like anxiety and panic attacks, it can be a really unpleasant experience.
“You know it’s a terrifying thing for them, particularly for people with panic attacks and anxiety, that notion of feeling trapped, which is such a core part of that sort of anxiety.”