COVID-19 borders, politics and compassion

Photo: Pip Hinman

The pain that comes from not being able to see a relative in their last weeks or days is hard to describe.

While I knew my brother was going to die this year, I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be for him, his family and those of us living interstate, who could do nothing but Zoom from afar and be of no practical help whatsoever.

Of course, the pandemic necessitated new health measures and restrictions on movement. But they should be enforced sensitively, and with officials given the power to make decisions to triage people on compassionate grounds.

This is not how Queensland Heath enforced the Labor government’s border closure policy — at least for most of us.

Exemptions from quarantine, at seems, were granted for: Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, who was not required to quarantine before seeing her husband who was being treated for cancer; sacked Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Seibold, who was allowed to isolate at his home for “personal reasons”; singer Dannii Minogue, who was able to avoid hotel quarantine because of “crippling claustrophobia”; and the 400 football players and staff who were granted permission to skip hotel quarantine in the build-up to the AFL Grand Final.

That last exemption was granted on the basis that sport will generate millions of dollars for the state. Hollywood star Tom Hanks, Australian director Baz Luhrmann and the entire production crew on an upcoming Elvis biopic, currently being shot in Queensland, were told the same thing.

The media has highlighted several instances where compassion has not been shown to ordinary folk, but, judging from my own experience, those instances are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Queensland premier did announce a small shift in border policy, a day before the election — enough to increase her popularity. It underscores how state governments have used border closures in a political, rather than scientific, way.

I was advised to apply for exemption from quarantine on compassionate grounds, and told that a special department had been set up inside Queensland Health to assess whether people qualified for compassionate grounds.

I spoke to one official, explaining the situation. My brother did not have long to live and two weeks of quarantine would not allow me to see him before he died. He said there were no exemptions to quarantine and cited the rules back to me.

I asked to speak to someone else and, after a day of silence, a “team leader” rang me.

She explained she was a nurse and had ample understanding of my situation and cited her own situation (which was entirely different). She then said my only option was to go to Queensland and quarantine in a “special hotel”. I could then arrange for my brother’s doctor to conduct a “supervised visit” to my brother’s bedside at home.

I could not believe what I was being told. Which doctor do you know has the time to do that, I responded? Maybe a social worker could, she said in response.

My brother chose to be at home, in his palliative stage. Since the outbreak was first reported, the family has been following strict COVID-19 precautions, such as having showers when they come home from being out. Everyone knew of his precarious condition.

I explained all this to Queensland Health, to no avail.

Death and dying are not discussed enough, perhaps, and anyway everyone has a different response. But to not be allowed to be with my brother and his family because of politics, not science, was particularly painful.

There is no doubt that this has weighed particularly heavily on me. One of my earliest memories as a child was of my father’s funeral. My mother, brother and myself were a close knit team. She passed on too young, as well, but at least we were there.

No matter how different our paths have been, the bonds between siblings remain strong.

Memories do help, but death is final. And not being able to be there when it happens adds an extra dimension to grief.

Pandemics are serious, and we know this one is not going away any time soon. We are living with a pandemic, whether a vaccine is found or not.

People need to be treated with dignity and exemptions will need to be made — but they must be based on science and compassion, not politics and dollars.

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