‘It was 14 days before I finally laid eyes on my darling sister. She died three days later, at 23’
Mandatory isolation helps fight Covid-19, but it can also put people in trying circumstances
Sisters: Aoife Hogan with Sadhbh in Sydney in early 2020, on Sadhbh’s last trip
We asked you to tell us about life in mandatory Covid isolation, especially in quarantine hotels. Here are some more of your stories
“It was 14 days before I finally laid eyes on my darling sister. And just three days after that my world changed forever when she died, at 23”
The heavy hotel-room door closed behind us. Strapped to my chest, my baby happily shook his arms and legs, none the wiser that his universe had just considerably shrunk on our arrival at the Sydney quarantine hotel, our home for the next 14 days.
I rubbed his little head – as much to reassure me as him – and my thoughts turned to the family we had just left behind. It would be morning in Naas. The house would seem extra-quiet without us there. Our absence would make Sadhbh’s absence feel even greater today, the void even deeper. Sadhbh, my beautiful little sister.
Sydney had just been emerging from lockdown, some months earlier, when I got the call I hoped would never come. “Aoife, you need to get home as quick as you can.” Except it wasn’t that easy. The Australian borders were closed, and as a permanent resident I needed permission to travel.
I was refused at first, but on second attempt my partner, baby and I were all granted leave. We scrambled on to a flight four hours later, hoping we had remembered everything for our five-month-old baby. And hoping there had been a mistake, that somehow everything might be okay when we got there.
My partner, who had returned to Sydney before us, was able to drop off packages of toys. Afterwards, he stood on the road 10 floors below, and we waved at each other until our arms got sore. Months had passed since we last saw each other
We self-isolated on arrival in Ireland, so it was 14 days later before I finally laid eyes on my darling sister. And just three days after that my world changed forever when she died, at 23 years old.
She was an amazingly vibrant person with an inspirational zest for life. And despite being on the receiving end of a devastating diagnosis three and a half years earlier, she lived her short life to the fullest, radiating a sense of fun and warmth that drew people to her. Her loss is immeasurable and my grief for her feels insurmountable.
Now back in Sydney, I looked around the room that I wasn’t to leave for two weeks. I didn’t know how I was going to cope with solo-parenting my curious and busy baby with no help, no walks outside and no escape from my grief. I felt completely vulnerable. My perspective on life had shifted. I was having trouble making sense of anything.
Shortly before Sadhbh died I myself had come close to death, following a massive haemorrhage a week after childbirth. All my trust that things were going to be okay was gone. Life as I knew it felt upside-down, and being stuck in this hotel with no support just compounded those feelings.
The first few nights were rough. My little baby was teething, and we were both jet-lagged. It took a couple of days to find some sort of rhythm, and I did my best to think of inventive ways to entertain him within the confines of the room.
A nurse checked on us twice a day, to make sure we weren’t developing Covid-19 symptoms. And twice a day a bag of food was left at the door. The meals were generally repetitive, stodgy and of poor quality, with little fresh fruit and virtually no fresh vegetables.
A small positive was that the hotel had a garden; we were assigned one 20-minute outing a week. It wasn’t a lot, but in the context of hotel quarantine it was a luxury denied to most, and it gave me something to look forward to. My partner, who had returned to Sydney before us, was able to drop off packages of toys. Afterwards, he stood on the road 10 floors below, and we waved at each other until our arms got sore. Months had passed since we last saw each other, and in the interim our thriving baby had reached many new milestones.
Day 14 eventually arrived, and after three negative Covid-19 tests each, we were free to go.
The relief and joy of being reunited with my partner were immense, but the reality of having to navigate my grief so far away from my parents, sister and all the people who loved Sadhbh is still really challenging. Most people in my network here didn’t know my sister, so her death isn’t often acknowledged, which is really difficult when she’s such a big part of my life and always on my mind. At times it’s a very lonely place to be.
As I write this, Sydney has zero community cases of Covid-19. We are more or less free to go about our day-to-day life as normal, and most businesses are fully operational. Despite my frustrations at the border closures and my difficult hotel-quarantine experience under a cloud of grief, I cannot deny that Australia has handled the pandemic incredibly well. Its quarantine system has saved much needless loss of life. And that’s the most important thing.
“I had spent seven weeks on a cruise ship with no passengers on board. Hotel quarantine was a welcome reward after that”
Dunedin, New Zealand
I did my 14-day managed isolation in a hotel in Auckland. I arrived at the end of April, having spent the previous four months on a cruise ship. I was a deck officer who was meant to have spent three months aboard, but Covid – and the New Zealand government declining my re-entry to the country – meant I was stuck on the ship for an extra month. I had spent seven of the previous eight or nine weeks anchored off a rock in the Caribbean, with no passengers on board. Hotel quarantine was a welcome reward after that – although the food left a lot to be desired. Also, although we could go for a walk each day, if you slept in and missed your chance to book a slot, or booked one and then missed it, you had no alternative but to stay within the confines of the hotel – it only had a small car park that you could walk around for exercise.
“Having to spend two weeks in quarantine before work, and another two before going home, has dramatically altered my work-life balance”
I work offshore in Norway. I’ve been commuting from Ireland since 1996, travelling from Shannon or Dublin on nine or 10 trips a year. Since Covid restrictions began I have made five round trips to Norway.
My first quarantine period, back in April 2020, lasted 14 days, since when I have been in quarantine for a further three 10-day periods. Norway initially isolated nonresident travellers without testing them for coronavirus, as the thinking was that 14 days on your own would be sufficient to suppress the virus; quarantine back then was quite easy: meals were supplied, and you were allowed out for fresh air and walks – even with fellow travellers, as long as you socially distanced.
For me, two weeks in the Clarion Hotel Energy, a designated quarantine hotel in Stavanger, southwest of Oslo, was tedium. The hotel was nice enough, and you got three square meals a day in the (socially distanced) hotel restaurant, but the time away from family was awful.
Normally I work for two weeks in Norway followed by three or four weeks at home, so I am used to spending 140 days at work each year, with the other 225 days or so in Ireland. But having to spend two weeks in quarantine before work, and another two weeks in quarantine before going home, has dramatically altered my work-life balance.
Life now is either quarantine or work. Norway has been PCR-testing me twice per trip since the late summer, and quarantine has become stricter, too – we now have to eat all our meals in our rooms. Isolation is tough if you have a family. I could elaborate further, but work is calling...
“At midnight on day 14 I received a text to say I could remove the tracking bracelet”
I am a permanent resident of Hong Kong, which means I need to return at least once every three years to keep my status. As such, I ended up travelling to Hong Kong in June 2020. As soon as I got off the plane an overwhelming number of airport staff ushered me through immigration, where I was required to fill out an arrivals form with my intended address for my 14-day quarantine and to say that I understood the penalties for breaking it: a fine of 25,000 Hong Kong dollars – about €2,650 – and up to six months’ imprisonment.
Once I’d signed the form, a staff member attached a bracelet to my wrist, ensured that it was connected to my phone and then double-checked my phone number by calling me right then and there. Next they asked me to download the Stay Home Safe app, which connected to the bracelet to track where I was. I was also given a name tag with an identification number on it for the first of two Covid-19 tests I would be having during quarantine.
The other passengers and I were then taken to a bus depot, to be driven to a testing centre beside the airport. We were advised not to take any photographs of the centre, to keep our masks on the entire time and to make as little noise as possible.
They handed me my testing kit – thankfully, it was a saliva test – and showed me to a testing area. After that I had to stay in a waiting area, which was laid out like an exam hall, with socially distanced single-person desks, until my result came back, seven hours later– not enjoyable following nearly 20 hours of travelling. We were given a spam sandwich about halfway through our wait.
Thankfully, nobody on our flight tested positive, so after that we were free to go to our accommodation – although officials took a note of the licence plate of the car or taxi you left the centre in.
I was staying with family, who were able to section off the top floor of the house, which consisted of the bedroom and the bathroom that would be my home for the next two weeks. (A benefit of this was that I did not have to pay for my quarantine accommodation.) I was not to enter any other part of the house or to go outside.
I had been told that, once I got to my accommodation, I needed to walk around the perimeter of the space for 15 seconds, to activate the bracelet. If I removed the bracelet, or left my accommodation, the police would receive an alert, and I would be arrested, fined or both.
Quarantine was very challenging. The days did not go quickly, and spending that much time by yourself can be taxing, to say the least. Thankfully, I was able to have distanced, and masked, conversations every now and again with my family, but even this felt strange.
It is hard to motivate yourself to get out of bed and get dressed when you have little reason to do so. I found it hard to fill my days with things that would make me feel productive
It is hard to motivate yourself to get out of bed and get dressed when you have little reason to do so. I found it hard to fill my days with things that would make me feel productive, particularly when there was nobody to hold me accountable for anything. Limits to how much exercise I could do, apart from home workouts, left me feeling quite sluggish most days. The tracking device also made me feel trapped.
I was tested again on day 10, using a kit they gave me before I left the centre by the airport. I was told to have somebody bring it to my local testing centre, or a pick-up could be arranged for a small fee.
At midnight on day 14 I received a text message telling me that I could remove the bracelet and delete the app from my phone. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of relief when I was able to go outside and breathe fresh air.
It is my understanding that tourists are still not allowed into Hong Kong, and that returning residents must now complete a three-week hotel quarantine, with three Covid tests. To say I am grateful for my two-week quarantine in familiar territory would be putting it mildly.
But hotel quarantines do keep infection numbers low: we only need to look at Australia and New Zealand to see how true this is. So I would fully support the Government introducing the same system in Ireland.