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Voices from lockdown: Life inside the Thebarton Cluster quarantine

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Taken from home by police with 10 minutes notice. Stressed, isolated from work and family, cooped up in a small room for two weeks. Stephanie Richards talks to people caught up in an Adelaide virus emergency, and the grass-roots groups who help them survive.

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L* was at home cooking dinner for her family of six when she received a phone call from SA Health to say that her sister – a student at Thebarton Senior College – had tested positive for COVID-19.

The news panicked the Afghan refugee, who knew that the virus could be fatal but didn’t fully understand how it spread or what quarantine meant.

About an hour later, she says up to six police officers knocked on the door to tell the family, all of whom were identified as close contacts, that they had ten minutes to pack their belongings for a two-week quarantine stay a medi-hotel in the city.

“We were scared because we were wondering why five or six police were there? What have we done?,” L says of the ordeal, which took place on Sunday August 2 – days before authorities labelled her sister’s case as one of five linked to the “Thebarton Cluster” in Adelaide’s inner-west.

“I did not know what quarantine is – they just called and said we are coming to take you away, so I did not know what it was.

“I didn’t even have time to put the dinner in the fridge.”

The cluster had its genesis at the Walkers Arms Hotel in Walkerville, where a man aged in his 20s chose to self-isolate after returning from Victoria on Sunday, July 26.

Despite choosing to quarantine at the hotel to avoid infecting others at his house, the man did not follow SA Health guidelines on self-isolation and came in close contact with two other people – a cleaner at the hotel and a Thebarton Senior College student.

These young people are between four walls and completely hamstrung

The virus was subsequently spread to another two people linked to Thebarton Senior College – prompting SA Health to last Thursday close the school and force 1100 people into self-isolation.

L has been quarantining in an Ibis Hotel room on Grenfell Street with her brother, who has Down syndrome and is non-verbal, for 13 days now.

She says a couch, two beds, a television and a chair are the only furniture in the square, white-walled room, which overlooks a parking lot.

It isn’t the best environment to keep her brother entertained and occupied for two weeks, but the pair have managed to get by watching television, exercising and reading books.

“It’s not a house, but the room is a little bit small,” she tells InDaily on the phone via a Farsi interpreter.

“It’s not hard for me but it’s hard for my brother because he doesn’t understand the language and he wants to go outside.

“I try to make him happy, but the room is small so we can’t do anything.

“People in the parking lot look at us and think why are we in the room?

“Most of the time I just pull down the curtain and I don’t look outside.”

All up, there are 94 close contacts linked to the Thebarton cluster, who are currently quarantining at the Ibis and Pullman Hotels near Hindmarsh Square.

When SA Health called me I’m very worried and stressed because I thought how can I earn money?

Many are young refugees or migrants representing an estimated 12 different cultural or language groups – some of whom have recently fled war situations and have varying levels of English.

“These young people are between four walls and completely hamstrung not only with themselves being in quarantine but with their family self-isolating at home too,” says Multicultural Youth SA (MYSA) CEO Tamara Stewart-Jones, whose organisation is working with SA Health and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet to provide counselling, advocacy and deliveries to the young people in quarantine.

“A lot of them feel unhappy, sad and concerned.

“They might be the people who, when there is a problem, solve it for their family because they have the best English, so there’s a lot of anxiety around how are my family going?

“Others are the sole breadwinners or carers for their family, so they’re worried about how their families are coping without them, especially if they are at home in lockdown and might not have anyone outside the family to deliver food or check up on them.”

Thebarton Senior College Year 12 student Pham Nhat Hui Nguyen says he feels stressed about not being able to earn money from his casual kitchenhand job while he is in quarantine at the Ibis Hotel.

Nguyen is the main earner for his family of seven, who migrated to Adelaide from Vietnam about two years ago.

His family is currently self-isolating at home and do not have any other family or friends who can deliver food.

I just want to see my husband and my home

MYSA has stepped in to do the family’s shopping and deliver goods to their door, and to advocate for Nguyen to receive a government payment while he has been forced out of work.

“Before when SA Health called me I’m very worried and stressed because I thought how can I earn money, how can I pay the bill?,” Nguyen says.

“I need to pay the bill from the bank every week and at the end of the month I need to pay the bill from the car insurance and… the bill from my phone.

“I was very stressed and now when I got in contact with… MYSA they help me to buy the food for the family when they self-isolate and yesterday I got sent some food to the hotel.

“They helped me to find the best way for SA Health to support me.”

Nguyen says he is happy with his room and is keeping busy by studying and phoning his wife.

“I really miss her, my family, my mother, my sister,” he says.

Afghan woman A*, who is six-months pregnant and quarantining at the Ibis Hotel, is also missing her husband.

The Thebarton Senior College Year 12 student is worried about the health of her baby if she is tested positive for coronavirus, but she says deliveries of comfort food from MYSA has helped eased some of her concerns.

“I just want to see my husband and my home. I miss them a lot,” she says.

“I am very stressed. I’m not thinking about my schoolwork, I’m just thinking about my health, that’s all.”

Stewart-Jones says the State Government is determined to ensure South Australia does not see a repeat of the Melbourne Towers fiasco, where hundreds of migrant and refugee families living under strict, police-controlled lockdown in public housing towers reported feeling traumatised and at risk of self-harm.

It’s trying to make the situation go from traumatic to bearable

The “hard lockdown” impacted nine housing blocks and was imposed in an attempt to curtail the spread of a coronavirus cluster, but the Victorian Government was criticised for not adequately connecting the residents inside with mental health support, or providing them with nutritious food.

“I think that our response as a South Australian community is incredibly different than Melbourne,” Stewart-Jones says.

“Melbourne had a couple of sausage rolls every 48 hours (but) our clients have now got Falafel Australia on board delivering vegan and halal meals if they feel they want something more culturally-familiar than the food at the Ibis.

“We’re delivering sanitary items, we are talking to our clients at 3 o’clock at the morning.

“It’s trying to make the situation go from traumatic to bearable.”

Much of MYSA’s work over the past week has been self-funded through donations or past fundraising events.

The not-for-profit, which is currently responding to calls of assistance from the young people in quarantine 24/7, says the State Government has since stepped in to offer financial support.

“It all happened really, really quickly over the weekend,” Stewart-Jones says.

“Our income is $1.4 million a year, which is a pretty small not-for-profit compared to your Red Cross or Uniting Care Wesley or Anglicare, so we self-funded it out of our own fundraising money that we had from quiz nights and that sort of thing.

“We’ve got five senior social workers with social work and counselling qualifications just basically triaging the entire community who’s been caught up in this Thebarton Senior College cluster.

“But we’ve since had (SA chief public health officer Professor) Nicola Spurrier contact us and say, ‘here’s my mobile number – what are the issues you’re seeing, how can I support you in how you’re responding?’”

Stewart-Jones – one of InDaily’s 40 under 40 winners – says she has also received support from SA’s chief psychiatrist.

Meanwhile, L is looking forward to returning home tomorrow with her brother and the rest of her family.

She says her sister has recovered from coronavirus and returned home this week.

“I missed my family, it’s been hard,” she says.

“It will be nice to go outside again.”

*For cultural reasons both women requested that InDaily not use their real names.

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