It’s clear there have been serious failures in Victoria’s hotel quarantine program and that infection control procedures must improve to protect the community. But what’s not been discussed enough is how quarantine needs to improve for the safety and welfare of the people being detained.
Rydges on Swanston Street.Credit:Justin McManus
I was in the USA when the pandemic hit. On return to Australia, I spent two weeks with my family detained at the now notorious Rydges on Swanston. While some things worked well, others fell short.
The rooms were unclean and on at least two occasions a staff member came to our room without a face mask. From our conversations with staff, it seemed that they changed constantly and moved between facilities, creating risks of infection spread. The information we were given at the Rydges said we would receive only a weekly fresh air break. Even this completely inadequate standard wasn’t complied with.
Our family was detained in rooms for 12 days straight before being allowed 15 minutes outdoors on the roof deck. Other people told me they weren’t allowed to leave their rooms for the entire period. These failures are particularly concerning for children and people with mental health concerns. Regular fresh air and exercise breaks can be safely managed and must be provided.
I made repeated requests for the policy on fresh air and exercise breaks and information on how the daily reviews of people’s detention, which are required by legislation, were being conducted. I was referred off to a freedom of information process which is likely to take months. This critical information should be readily available for people who are being detained.
The inconsistent approach to risk also made no sense to me. Apparently around 1 per cent of the people coming home to Victoria from overseas have COVID-19. They are detained in a hotel and given little or no fresh air or exercise breaks. But people in the Victorian community who actually test positive to COVID-19 are allowed to isolate at home and, until recently, could go into public areas for fresh air and exercise whenever they wanted.
To be clear, if someone in the community tests positive to COVID-19, they should not be detained in a hotel or other facility if it’s safe for them to isolate at home. We do need frequent phone and in-person compliance checks to ensure people don’t break the isolation rules and technological options could also be explored. But what’s clear is that allowing people with the virus to exercise in public areas whenever they wanted wasn’t the right approach.
So what should we do about quarantine?
Before flying home, I checked the data on COVID-19 deaths. Whereas around 400 people have died in Australia, more than 170,000 have died in the US. Australian governments, making good, swift and hard decisions, informed by evidence and helped by our geography, have saved many thousands of lives.
Quarantine, for all its flaws, has been an important part of this protection. Some form of quarantine program is not only justified from a human rights perspective, I believe it is required. Governments have human rights obligations to protect life and health. Quarantine is all about balancing individual rights not to be locked up unfairly with the community’s rights to have their life and health protected.
Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities helps to get this balance right. The charter requires governments to respect our human rights. But it also allows governments to restrict our rights if it’s genuinely necessary to achieve a proper purpose and the restriction is no wider than needed for that purpose.
Whether it’s about quarantine, masks or curfews, these human rights principles provide a compass to guide governments in making the right decisions to respond to this pandemic. They help all of us assess whether our governments are doing enough, getting it right or going too far. They ensure that even in dark times like these, we hold on to the values we all share, like fairness, compassion, dignity and respect.
A human rights approach to quarantine means detaining people for the shortest period and in the least restrictive conditions necessary to protect life and health. It means ensuring humane conditions and allowing exemptions to detain people at home where there are specific risks to individuals such as unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, people who have experienced trauma such as family violence or sexual assault and people with mental illness. The quarantine inquiry has heard evidence that someone committed suicide in hotel quarantine. This only confirms the importance of getting this right.
It also means not charging Australian citizens and permanent residents for their own detention. The Victorian government should not follow the approach of other states on this. Many citizens left the country before the pandemic and are returning in difficult circumstances after losing jobs or coming home to care for loved ones. We shouldn’t be charging them thousands of dollars on top of detaining them for two weeks.
We need to get quarantine right, not only to protect the community but also to protect the people being detained. Human rights provide the key to getting the balance right.
Hugh de Kretser is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre. He gave evidence to the quarantine inquiry on Thursday.
If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.
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