No booze, no sunbathing, lots of Vegemite: Welcome to quarantine at Howard Springs, NT

In Australia's northern quarantine camp, a disused construction workers' hostel outside Darwin, the rooms are basic and the food is, well, institutional. But the fresh air, eucalyptus trees, blue skies and wind on your skin are sources of joy.

Native green parrots chirrup as they swoop by. Geckos cling to the veranda ceiling. The blinding sun reminds you that you are home.

Reaching Australia is difficult during the coronavirus pandemic and, for many, can take months. People at the camp in Howard Springs feel lucky. Few complain about the rubbery pillows, uncomfortable beds, limited furnishings or soggy sandwiches in a centre that politicians call the "gold standard".

To endure 14 days of quarantine, I ordered treats from the local supermarket: a jar of Vegemite, the ultimate childhood comfort food for Australians, and a pack of Vita-Weats, the tooth-jarring crackers that Australians use to administer the black, salty breakfast spread. I acquired bitter Australian tea to make a strong, dark brew.

Getting here from Moscow took four days, including three in special pre-flight quarantine in a Frankfurt airport hotel to take a coronavirus test from the centre approved by Qantas, the Australian carrier.

The sprawling, fenced camp known as the Northern Territory Centre for National Resilience once housed 3500 construction workers in squat prefab units that Australians call "dongas". They have grey linoleum floors and walls, harsh fluorescent lighting, battered Venetian blinds and fire-engine-red furniture. The feeling is part trailer camp, part hospital, part prison.

Teams wearing personal protective gear and wheeling carts deliver food once a day about 5pm and leave it on the baking veranda step. (Although they might forget you.)

Nurses rap sharply on the door for random early-morning temperature checks or coronavirus tests. Police and soldiers patrol, occasionally shouting at people to put on masks. And there is a 39-page booklet of rules and procedures. All this, for the price of a good hotel room.

The rules are detailed: no alcohol, no care parcels, no restaurant deliveries, no balls, no sunbathing, no metal silverware, no scissors or sharp implements, no cooking in the kettle, no putting food waste into the hand basin (who does that, anyway?), no electrical appliances, no stepping off your balcony except for rubbish disposal and three allotted weekly laundry spots, no skateboards or inline skates, no swimming or playing in the drains when it rains, no noise after 9.30pm.

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Bags are searched and people can be fined if they don't wear masks outside. Supermarket orders are allowed.

To be fair, there have been some lapses, including an incident in October that local media called a "rave," when a couple of dozen people turned up the music and danced and partied, mostly without masks or social distancing.

There was a 33-year-old woman who packed her bags, walked to the fence, threw her luggage over, climbed the barrier and walked away, as stunned people filmed her on their cellphones. Police caught her 15 minutes later and she was fined nearly $4000.

Then there were two men pushing a third fellow around in a rubbish can, none of them with masks. They made similar headlines and received similar fines.

Based in Moscow, I missed my father's funeral last year. At the time, about 18,000 Australians were trying to get home. When my mother became seriously ill in March, I needed to fly home. But by then, 41,000 Australians wanted to do the same.

My flights were either cancelled or tickets were prohibitively expensive at $20,000 to $30,000. Facebook groups for stranded Australians told of chaos and panic; some had been trying to get home for more than a year but had seen successive flights cancelled because of a government limit of about 7000 returnees a week based on quarantine capacity, and new people registering on a government list to return.

By March 22, I had registered on the waiting list for flights with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is underwriting Qantas flights. I gave up trying to fly out from Moscow to my home city and settled for anywhere in Europe to anywhere in Australia. Three weeks later, a flight from Frankfurt to Darwin popped up.

After the three days' hotel quarantine in Frankfurt, I flew more than 16 hours to Darwin in a half-full Boeing 787 Dreamliner named Great Barrier Reef. I felt the usual thrill approaching the northern coast and dipping toward Australia.

We landed at a military airbase where just a few passengers at a time were allowed to disembark. It was two hours before I entered the small airport building, with its batteries of hand sanitiser and staff in protective gear. We had our temperatures taken and waited an hour in a bus before a hoarse staff member explained the rules.

She said there was to be no sunbathing because people kept misjudging Australia's harsh sun and getting badly burned. And if we did not wear our plastic door keys outside, the door would slam and lock us out in the sun, possibly for hours. The least number of people locked out in a day had been two. The largest number was more than 50.

The Darwin facility, which Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed as "the best-run quarantine facility for Covid anywhere in the world," has not had cases leak into the community, as has happened with hotel quarantine in other states.

When the Howard Springs camp began accepting repatriates last year, people were allowed to wander around and exercise for 20 minutes a day, and to swim in the camp's pool. But with a surge in coronavirus cases, the rules now bar people from leaving the veranda.

On arrival, I was given a baggage cart and directed to my donga. After I digested the rules, I read a welcome booklet with gems such as: "Tip: Instead of looking at this quarantine as 'prison,' try seeing it as a time to get to know yourself again, reflection, media detox and so on."

It included a daily mood tracker, origami "affirmation stars," a page to "write in your own time and activities you need to follow on a daily basis," a mental health questionnaire, a deep-breathing exercise and a learn-a-new-skill page.

In the dragging time warp of quarantine, jet lag was difficult to shake. Every morning, a government telehealth officer called, asking me to take my temperature and answer questions about symptoms. We had coronavirus tests on Day 1, Day 7 and Day 12.

My donga faced a vacant lot with bark chips and trees. People opposite on shady south-facing balconies sat out all day and did morning workouts with dancing and burpees. My north-facing balcony was blasted by the sun, and I had to cover the metal chair with a towel. But it was wonderful after sundown, when the block's yellow lights blinked on.

Someone would strum on a guitar nearby. Another person put up solar fairy lights. A couple tiptoed to put their baby down to sleep in the next room. Someone sat smoking on the veranda.

The alcohol ban applies only to Howard Springs residents. In Sydney hotels, quarantining guests can order care packages, restaurant deliveries and up to a bottle of wine each a day.

But I did not miss wine, getting through the slow, hot days. The fresh air and sunshine helped. So did the Vegemite.

It took me so long to get home that my mum is better now. But I'm looking forward to hugging her.

The Washington Post

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