Issue 42: Quarantine life in Australia's Hotel Q

With free internet, plenty of food and booze, and lattes delivered by the RAAF, our correspondent wonders if we'll find restrictions on civil liberties to be habit forming

Today’s briefing is by Terrence Moloney (TM), a lawyer living in Sydney, Australia. He can be found on Twitter @swagmanlawyer.

WHEN I RECENTLY RETURNED TO AUSTRALIA after a visit to Europe, the authorities promptly whisked me and my fellow travellers into quarantine at a posh Sydney hotel. Australia has one of the strictest quarantine regimes doing the rounds of international policy options: 14 days in a hotel room without a moment outdoors unless you have the good fortune to have a balcony. According to the letter I was given, a sort of “Welcome to Your Quarantine” package, were I to try doing a runner I could be fined $11,000 and sentenced to up to six months in the Big House. But my safety, the package assured me, was their “top priority.” Obviously this was untrue. The safety of the community, or the preservation of their healthcare system, was their top priority, but I was touched all the same. 

Doing a runner was not much of an option, it turned out. Healthcare workers, bewildered hotel staff, Air Force members and sheriffs crawled all over the hotel and I couldn’t leave my room without being observed by a very bored bouncer seated by the elevator. All of this surveillance and strong-arm tactics resulted from the fear that Australians, a nation of self-described larrikins, would breach the quarantine rules if left to their own devices at home. So rather than assume obedience and punish those who disobeyed, the government decided to assume disobedience and keep all travellers locked up.   

Unquestionably most of the West woke up in mid-March to the reality that our ostensibly democratic, liberal governments possessed shockingly draconian powers in order to prevent the spread of pestilence. Those few Australian voices that, sotto voce, raised concerns about the infringement of civil liberties typically conceded the importance of stemming the spread, and instead talked merely about proportionality. No one is shouting out from atop the barricades. Anti-lockdown protesters in the United States are widely derided and mocked. Our educated classes may have, since November 2016, taken a renewed interest in novels like 1984, but they don’t share its protagonist’s view that “hope lies in the proles.” It’s more “pestilence lies in the proles,” or, to judge by the Twitferno, “may it lie in the proles.”

NOT THAT AUSTRALIA’S MANDATORY QUARANTINE has been enforced with jackboots. Everyone at my Hotel Quarantine made strenuous efforts to be agreeable and friendly. There was even an element of farce. In the mornings the Air Force would sometimes deliver my flat whites on a tray like I was at a cocktail party. The Red Cross called me twice and chatted at length about my stay. I told him I didn’t think leaving a fridge full of booze in the rooms was such a swell idea and I think I heard him make a WTF face. Even the hallway bouncers looked sheepish whenever I’d open my door and catch them fiddling with their phones (what else could they do?). On my last day, five heavily kitted-out members of the New South Wales Sheriff’s department came to my door. I looked at them incredulously and asked “did you really need all five of ya’?” One asked a single question (“how was I getting home?”) and another solemnly wrote my answer down. The other three were in training I suppose. 

It was, nonetheless, by far the most interference to my personal autonomy and freedom I’ve experienced in my entire life. It’s also likely it’s the most oppressive regime out of the various government restrictions bouncing around the Western world. It’s the Platinum Package of COVID-19 Restrictions, as it were. By contrast, my family in Europe was told to remain in house quarantine after my daughter tested positive. Apart from twice daily texts asking them about their symptoms, no one checked up on them or whether I was keeping sufficiently distant when I dropped off the groceries. I mean, I tried.

What impact these particularly severe measures will have on people who experienced it once the pandemic threat recedes is unclear. It’s hard to find an example in our literature or collective memories where armed government agents compel you to remain in a room for two weeks for exercising a well-established right to freedom of movement, and they turn out to be, well, nice. Generally they wear dark leather jackets and snarl a great deal. It’s possible we’ll come out of this with a more relaxed attitude to mandatory restrictions on our liberties and the liberties of others. It creates a habit of obedience. 

Not that we appear to be terribly interested in our liberties. Listening to my fellow travellers on our bus to the hotel was a somewhat dispiriting experience: plenty of questions about internet access and food. Where were the difficult people a vibrant society needs to remain free? Of course, I didn’t say anything either, but at least I didn’t ask about the internet and food. They had to feed us, obviously, and it’d be a blessing not to have the internet for two weeks. I was a bit surprised that internet use wasn’t obligatory.

Success is difficult to argue with and the restrictions, including mandatory quarantine, at least look pretty successful at this point. And successful parties tend to take advantage of that success, so it’s not unreasonable to worry that governments will argue that the trade-off between well-being and liberty ought to bend to well-being in the future.

After two weeks in mandatory quarantine I don’t have tales of mean-spiritedness and woe to offer much counterweight to encroaching regulation and surveillance. Comfort and security are the things we desire most, and government, at least in Australia, has largely delivered in difficult circumstances. Perhaps the next time my liberty is restricted I’ll be now more inclined to comply. My safety, after all, is their top priority, right? (TM)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca