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My quarantine experience

By Suheil Dahdal - posted Wednesday, 30 December 2020

In January I wrote a blog on the major catastrophic events humans will face in the future. Unknown to me, a new virus was already spreading havoc across the globe. By December millions would be dead and I would be in quarantine by order of the health authorities.

I wanted this documented in the hope that one day it will be just a distant memory, so I asked a photographer friend of mine to take some photos. She stood across the street and managed to snap a few photos before a security guard rushed to stop her.

In one of the photos, a large quarantine sign is dominating the foreground, you need to look hard to see the small figure of me in the distance waving from a balcony, so far away you can hardly make out my blue shorts. It's a surreal moment that warrants a reflection, not just on a personal level, but also on the implications of this on society.


My quarantine had started on a bad note when the first thing we heard as our plane hit the tarmac were stern instructions about the penalties of not fully complying with the health order. The language of the instruction gave me the feeling that I was under some punitive legal process, a process that I have no say in.

I couldn't shake off the feeling of guilt for coming from abroad and potentially bringing a deadly virus to the country. I felt as if I had done something wrong for wanting to come back home to see my family for Christmas.

Inside the terminal, we were greeted by a chorus of nurses, border police, and airport security, all masked, shielded, gloved, and suited, which was a little intimidating. Soon enough I found out why when the French woman standing in line in front of me whispered from behind her mask, "Thank god for Australia, in Paris so many cases, many of my friends too," immediately after her temperature was taken and I heard the nurse tell her to stand aside as she had a fever.

I instinctively readjusted my mask and tried my best not to breathe in any coronaviruses floating in the air, thankful that it was my turn soon. My temperature was taken and I was processed in the system, given a COVID test, and assigned a nurse who stayed with me through customs and onto the empty bus that took us to a quarantine complex.

I was put in a modern one-bedroom apartment with a balcony overlooking a landscaped courtyard. At the far end of the courtyard is a Sydney suburban street with people going on their daily life seemingly unaware of my existence. In the complex, the nurses and staff were extra kind, making my stay as comfortable as possible, and aside from the terrible frozen meals and missing my daily walks, the fourteen days went by so quickly.

To my surprise, I found myself experiencing a peaceful stay, so much so I began to worry that I was enjoying my solitude way too much. Don't get me wrong, even though I think Australia's strategy is better than say Sweden or the USA, I still struggle with the idea of forced quarantine and find it problematic – even if it was not traumatic for me personally, it is for many who find it unbearable.


Not being able to hug my children after a long absence felt so unnatural, especially when my quarantine complex was only ten minutes from my home in Leichardt. For some reason, the stories of internment camps of Italian, Japanese, German citizens during the second world war kept popping into my head. The idea of "being interned" versus "a voluntary quarantine" really bothered me. And before jumping to any conclusions, I will add here that in no way I'm comparing the two situations, I am simply reflecting on what I felt at the time and questioning if there is a better way. We should always question. Is there another way? Are there tweaks that can give people a sense of liberty, control over their destiny?

This leads me to another important question. Who decides what is good for the people? Is this a case of the sheep and the shepherd? An animal farm where the pig has the last say? Who are the decision makers? Is there a world governing body?

WHO had been dismal, terrible, and the antithesis of leadership. Should we put our lives in the hands of a national cabinet, a health minister, or even a state premier? Should a chief health officer decide on political and economic issues? What happens if the virus mutates under "selective pressure" after the vaccine is used on large scale? What is our long term strategy? I feel there isn't. What is problematic to me here is the sheer randomness of the process and that there are no society-driven safety checks and stops.

Behind the mask of our modern society, there is a very confused system that is not mature enough to deal with major catastrophic events.

We live under the pretense that we are a civilized society, scientifically advanced, with strong democratic systems of government and solid humanistic values. In truth, COVID had revealed that we are less prepared than we actually think.

I am a strong believer that we should all wear masks to protect society from COVID. Equally, I strongly believe that society should take off the masks of "over confidence" and start a process that can better prepare us for an uncertain future. This requires the courage to be honest with ourselves, accept our faults, and work not to just advance science, but also to build new political and social systems that can withstand future catastrophes better than the current systems.

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About the Author

Suheil Dahdal is associate professor in the Department of Mass Communications at the American University of Sharjah.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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