8-9 November: Hello from Howard Springs

Author: Mr A

Location: Howard Springs International Quarantine Facility, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

A number of my friends won’t be surprised to hear that on entering Australia yesterday I have been detained at the pleasure of the Australian government, whilst assessing my potential health hazard to a largely coronavirus free country . Oh yes, Catherine’s here as well, even she couldn’t bat her lovely eyes out of this one!

Flying over the Northern Territory on our descent into Darwin International Airport
All the processing – passport control, temperature checks, interviews, C19 test and provision of room passes all happened at the RAAF side of the airport
A mini-bus drives us to the facility at Howard Springs

For fourteen days we are locked up in a quarantine centre just outside Darwin in the Northern Territory, with the very best medical support on hand should the two tests we have had in the last 3 days prove to be wrong, and we actually have caught coronavirus from one of the 300 returning Australians on the Qantas flight, all of whom have had, like us, a pre-and post flight test. However, the breaking news is that one of our fellow passengers tested positive upon landing in Darwin, so clearly there’s room for this sneaky virus to make it through screening and into Australia. So super vigilance is required and we support the rigour of the process. We cross our fingers over the next few days I guess.

We have been given these wearable devices to monitor our temperature and heart beat which synchronises with an app on an iPad to a central team who are monitoring the output.

We do love a good gadget, as you know! This one is surprisingly comfortable

We should get an early alert if things go south. I envisage being given an electric shock from the arm band in the middle of the night and having a voice come through the iPad speaker “Alert, alert, your temperature has risen by one degree and we detect zero flatulence”, just as hazmat suited health warriors break my door down.

Let me back track though about the facility we are in. Originally a camp built to house workers for a Japanese mining company, it has been adapted to now provide a quarantine centre where at least 5,000 Australian citizens returning from overseas can be securely ring fenced from each other (each flight stays in groups) and separated from those domestic travellers coming inter-state, as they are also quarantined here.

Prisoner cell-block D – our home for the next two weeks all going well
The other side of that fence is where the medical staff and NT police hang out on their breaks, and stay while they are stationed here

It is staffed on the health side by an organisation I had never heard of, but should have, called Australian Medical Assistance Teams (Ausmat). They are drawn from state and territory health services across Australia, and have provided a rapid response capability to emergencies such as Samoa‘s measles outbreak last year, then that dramaticThai cave rescue (yes that was them!), and a host of other humanitarian efforts internationally. Now Australia needs them here in the Northern Territory to provide support as a number of these repatriation flights, like ours, are bringing in folk with the virus. It must be contained.

We had a long old day yesterday, with 16 hrs on the flight, then another four going though an admissions process , more tests etc. Finally getting to our room, we were wished a another “welcome home” from the well intentioned AUSMAT staff. Opening the doors to our little huts, it was hard to keep a smile on our face. A place less like home it would be hard to imagine..

A blue swan awaits us on the bed
A welcome pack on the desk containing hand sanitiser and snacks sits beside our medical iPad and monitoring hardware. In the corner the all important kettle, tea bags and paper cups.
A neat little bathroom with a very powerful shower

We spent what was left of the day unpacking and trying to get our internet working. In the latter matter, a day later the IT contractor running the set up here remains unsuccessful, so we have heard we might be packing and moving again tomorrow. Ah well it passes the time I guess, as long as our stay doesn’t reset at day one in our new accomodation!

It’s interesting watching events unfold here, a bit like we are in a low budget Australian dystopian movie. With police and wire fencing everywhere, hazmat outfits, and these drab, prefab huts. Last night we decided to try and sit on our balcony with our flasks of tea. The police across the “other side of the wire” were watching us intently enough to shout out “Masks on”- we pointed out we were drinking, and the reply was, “put it on between drinking”. There was not another soul about and we were at least 5 metres and two fences away from them. We are on a balcony by ourselves, but that’s what they have been told to enforce after the previous tomfoolery. There’s a YouTube video of a “rave” going on up here when residents were allowed a little more freedom. Learning from what happened in Victoria (a major outbreak that locked down the state for months was traced to a poorly enforced quarantine regime) everyone’s a little nervous, and we have to respect that. Over zealous maybe, but better be safe than COVIDed.

No crocodiles sighted yet – the police with their guns would soon see them off – just plenty of chirping geckos dashing around the lights outside our cabin, munching on insects

We just need to think about what awaits us on our release. Friends in Sydney already have been planning our social schedule for when we finally arrive back , making our mouths water and our throats dry. The food here is shall we say, adequate. We aren’t going to starve, far from it. The wastage must be enormous. Millions around the world would be grateful for three meals a day of anything. And there is no alcohol allowed at all.

The heat is a shock to our temperate climate adjusted bodies, but we have the luxury of air con, so no complaints there. And seperate rooms, as each unit is only big enough for a single bed, fridge, desk and bathroom. So Catherine gets a good night’s sleep with no “wild animal noises” as she puts it, disturbing her little needed beauty sleep. After so much time in close proximity we are enjoying some time to do our own thing. Well I am, Catherine must be missing me like crazy 🙂

We just think of the thousands of Australians who have not had the opportunity to come back. There are some horror stories out there. Friends of ours with two young boys and a flight booking for New Year’s Eve were told by their airline “the flight may or may not go”. They have given up their house rental, sold their car, and have only their suitcases. If the flight gets cancelled like many have 24 hrs before, what do they do? Others are stuck in far flung countries with overwhelmed medical systems. Its a horrible situation for so many Australians who just want to come home. Meanwhile our politicians squabble among themselves, and point fingers at each other, but other than this initiative by the Federal government, things are happening far too slowly to resolve the problem. These people have Australian passports. They are being denied access to the country that expects them to pay their taxes. Of course we need to protect Australia from importing cases, but we surely also owe a duty of care to those who remain abroad and are vulnerable there?

And so we are back in Australia. It was funny coming out of the room tonight onto the balcony for something, then literally a couple of minutes later going out again, and I couldn’t help but shout “Gee, who put the lights out!”. We had forgotten what the tropics is like. One minute its so bright you’re squinting across the deck to spot the croc, then bang, the curtains are dropped in a flash of an often intense sunset, Then it‘s pitch black. Not just darkish..its black. None of that oh so British fiddling around with evening twilight thing. Like everything else here, its distinctive, its dramatic, its Australia.

And so the sun sets on our second night in quarantine….

4 Replies to “8-9 November: Hello from Howard Springs”

  1. Fascinating insight Mark. Thank you. As you know I love my country but this leaves me feeling so desperately sad that we have nothing compared to Australia to combat the spread of COVID being imported by incoming travellers.

  2. Welcome back Mark & Catherine! What a rigmarole but obviously necessary as you say. Australian is indeed the place to be and you just need to hang onto that as what I feel is going to prove a testing time in the next fortnight! However I am sure your sense of humour will pull you through and at the very least keep us entertained! Best wishes from Jo and Scot

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