At Sydney airport there was a flight going to China and many of the passengers were dressed in full personal protection gear. It was like finding myself on a science fiction movie set. There are illogical moments. You have to take off your mask for the immigration officer to check you against your passport photo, yet we are told the aerosol droplets hang in the air for ten minutes – there will be eight or so people passing through the bubble of air in front of the immigration desk in the next 10 minutes. On the plane, people have to take off their mask to eat and the plane is mask-less for half an hour. There are elements of a game being played.
MIQ is a surreal, comfortable prison experience run by the military with help from a security firm. The instruction: treat the world as if everyone’s got Covid becomes strictly applied. It produces a state of absolute alienation. It is senseless to chat to any of my fellow passengers on the bus or within the facility, yet we are referred to as ‘a cohort’. Protecting the community destroys community. But there is wifi, that’s the modern need – wifi. Then one is connected.
There was a good interview on a Sydney television channel with a woman who had Covid and was isolating at home. Here was someone with the virus, talking us through what happens – a rare event. She spoke of it as being like having a very bad flu. She had a headache and was breathless, was taking Panadol, lots of vitamin C and had needed one Ibuprofen. But she knew she’d come through because she was a fit person. She’s going to stay at home until she’s well because she doesn’t want to pass it on. And she’ll get vaccinated. The health department rang her several times a day to check up on her and had given her an oxygen meter and a thermometer so she could tell them if her O2 levels fell too low or her temperature got too high. It was reassuring and seemed a sensible use of resources.
In the UK and Germany they’re going to stop mass testing and treat Covid like any other illness. If you get sick go to the doctor. This is tied of course, to mass vaccination. New South Wales is heading toward a similar policy. It is an acceptance that there will always be some cases and the issue, the same as any other health issue, is one of treatment capacity. Travelling across borders may well require a negative test, proof of vaccination and even a short period of self isolation or restricted movement. I suspect it will become the norm, the problem being vaccinating the world, in order to prevent serious inequalities.
Meanwhile, MIQ is a place without the possibility of contact. I begin to wonder if I can tap a message on the air conditioning vent. Television and radio become an Orwellian arm of the propaganda machine. There are 2 metres stickers all over the floors, military and security at every corner. There are be kind posters and sanitising stations every 5 metres. Covid testing becomes a ritual rather like mass or confession. An extra intensity results when it is scheduled.
I wonder about the mass repatriation of people from Australia during July on Green Managed Flights, which required a clear Covid test within 72 hours of departure, transport from airport by private car and a requirement to self isolate once home. How many were repatriated? I do an OIA enquiry. 12,780. How many Covid cases resulted? None. Is this not pretty good evidence? No one talks about it. It was an improvised response to a crisis and involved a level of trust and personal responsibility, the epidemiologists probably tut tutting and hiding their eyes. But instead of that being a case study, there’s going to be a trial of a similar regime for business people. Surely the trial has already happened?
Meanwhile there are cruelties performed daily: people desperate to be with a dying parent prevented from doing so, people wanting to be at a birth or a marriage, people wanting to participate in life’s rituals, an essential part of mental and social health, are prevented from doing so… people having to spend days and nights on the computer constantly refreshing the page to try and find a spot in MIQ…bureaucrats judging suffering…vaccines administered in another country not recognised…some outfit making a buck out of being agents − $2000 per MIQ slot… The last case was an RH- negative woman with an RH+ foetus stuck in LA, visa running out, no insurance, with the possibility of running up a $100,000 medical bill, not allowed back. Be kind? The hypocrisy is remarkable. For God’s sake, say to her, here are the requirements, come up with a solution. Find a safe room, a sleep out, a caravan, a bach somewhere, someone to get you there and bring you food safely, here’s the testing regime required. Would she and her family find the solution? Of course they would. Bureaucrat’s time spent, five minutes. Cost to state, nothing.
The air conditioning continues to circulate, the staff wander the empty corridors with bags of food, signalling through a knock on the door. Welcome home is the password. And in many ways it is a great service provided by people who are putting themselves at risk. And I’m not being charged – I need to be grateful.
I get a negative test result and a blue wrist band which means I’m allowed out of my room. I ring security to book an exercise slot. Some Indian guys monitor the area, watching for trouble. People walk diligently around in a circle: don’t go past the cones, don’t touch the fence, most walk fast, one muscular couple pound the concrete. I stroll and look at the shrubbery and am immediately eyed with suspicion. I jog for a bit and am hauled over. No jogging allowed. I eye the fast walking couple. I won’t move any faster than them. No jogging. Can I walk backwards? The smokers and vapers are in a cage. They seem to be talking. That’s usual, smokers, being sinful people, still talk. I freak out a security guard by doing some meditation exercises. He stands near me, tense and irritated. You’re supposed to plod in a circle, not get in touch with the natural world. First thing in the morning a Maori man circulates slowly, softly chanting a karakia. I begin singing some waiata. That makes a change. Two business types arrive and discuss business. MIQ seems to be part of their lifestyle. They presumably use an agent to do their bookings. Once again there is a two tier society. While plodding in a circle, escape fantasies begin to occupy my mind. I study the fence for signs of weakness. And the other issue for the prisoner, How do you withdraw your labour while in prison? Hunger strike? Suicide?
Here, you are required to seriously assume that everyone, including yourself, has the virus and act accordingly. But then, if that is true, there is no need for any restrictions, for everyone has the virus. But that is not true, so the initial proposition is a lie. But the lie is put forward to make sure that if someone does have the virus it doesn’t get passed on, for if it does, everyone might have the virus. Present, future and subjunctive tenses are combined. Similarly, when the virus is present, there are sites of interest and anyone who has visited a site should self isolate and take a test. Citizens generally comply it seems. Yet citizens who have been in other countries, which, because they have cases of covid, similarly constitute a site of interest, are not allowed the same regime. If logic prevailed, MIQ would be reserved for non citizens (unless they have friends or colleagues who are willing to provide a safe isolation framework for them) and covid cases. The state would be saving itself a lot of money and saving its citizens a lot of stress. Do I believe in the lies and act accordingly? Or do I not believe in the lies yet comply? This is similar of course to all ideological regimes: the working class is revolutionary and therefore society should be structured accordingly… the peasants are the ones with wisdom…God is great…believe or not believe, but compliance is required. Novelists express this conundrum through the technique of magic realism.
This virus is remarkable the way it does an MRI scan on each society and finds tumours and normalities: for example, the Swede’s right to roam which meant they couldn’t do lockdowns; or the southern states’ aberrant belief in freedom from government decree; or the slightly anarchic Aussie migrant and larrikin society; or the crowded fanaticism of India, or the secrecy of Russia, or the eccentricity of the English… You’d have to come to the conclusion that we are, on the whole, a very compliant, petit bourgeois society.