By Andrew Humphries
Eighteen months after it arrived in Australia, COVID-19 continues to turn our world upside down.
In Victoria, lockdown has become a way of life and home schooling has turned our children’s learning into distance education.
Thousands of jobs have disappeared, businesses have gone broke and the mental health toll continues to climb alarmingly.
We are told there is a pathway out, once a certain percentage of the population has been vaccinated, so we literally roll up our sleeve and get on with that task.
For Uniting Church members, we know there has been a pivot towards online services and some forms of pastoral care and chaplaincy as support mechanisms.
One section of the community which may have been overlooked, though, is those in mandatory hotel quarantine around the country.
On August 26, for example, more than 1600 people were in hotel quarantine in Victoria.
At the same time, Queensland announced it was pausing its hotel quarantine program after accommodating more than 5000 people had pushed it to breaking point.
I was one of those people, as a trip to Townsville towards the end of August to deal with family illness meant I had to first undertake two weeks of quarantine in Cairns.
And let me tell you, quarantine rules are strict and it’s definitely no picnic.
Under no circumstances can you move any distance from your room, your meals are left outside and must be quickly brought in (mask essential), you are tested three times for
COVID-19 and there are almost daily phone calls from either Queensland Health or Queensland Police to check on your welfare.
And two weeks without access to fresh air (I missed out on a room with a balcony) is really not conducive to good health.
There is, though, plenty of time to think and to ponder, and I felt my mind wandering at times to questions of faith and worship or, more specifically, how to maintain a spiritual connection while forced into strict isolation for 14 days.
While Queensland’s Uniting Church Synod doesn’t have a chaplaincy program in place for hotel quarantine, it is hoped that might change at some point.
So I turned to Cairns Uniting Church chaplain Rev Shane Kammermann for a chat about how a spiritual focus can be maintained while in isolation.
Shane is a full-time chaplain to Cairns hospitals and, if there is one thing he has learnt in the role, it’s the importance of connection.
Whether you’re in hospital, hotel quarantine or somewhere else, that first step towards connection in an emotional and spiritual sense is vital.
And tied in with that is the art of communication and the importance of staying positive.
“Bleedingly obvious” you might say, but it’s amazing how quickly the mind can retreat when it’s faced with something out of its comfort zone.
As Shane says, though, it’s perfectly fine to feel vulnerable at times.
“The core issues of Christian fellowship, for me at least, are around knowing and being known and of having a connection that is deeper than just ‘g’day, how are you going, see you later’,” Shane says.
“What I often find myself reflecting on is that to know and be known requires a significant level of vulnerability that comes from being liberated from the incessant drive to justify your own existence or cover up the things that other people might think are not okay about you.
“We tend to try and live in a world where we give the impression that we are all okay and, in hospital chaplaincy for example, I’m in one of those places where often the wheels have fallen off for people and they aren’t OK and they are in a place where they have no option but to say ‘I’m not OK’.
“But within that crisis can come opportunity, so look for the opportunity, look for the unusual and the unexpected.
“This is something I often think about: ‘here is a crisis and I have to fix it’, but really I don’t.
My calling is to see what is happening here and ask the question, ‘Jesus, what are you doing here and what are you calling me to participate in, rather than just fix?’.”
And even in the solitude of something like hotel quarantine, opportunity exists when a positive attitude is maintained, Shane says.
“Yes, being in quarantine is a time of unusual solitude, something different from the norm, but again we can say, ‘OK, where is the opportunity here’,” he says.
“Communication is still open and, in most cases, we have an opportunity to face-time with people but, yes, some people may well feel disconnected, while others may talk to their family members or more significant connections more than they ever have in years.
“We may be living in a time where a physical connection among people has diminished, yet there remains an incredible longing for physical and human connection.”
And that connection, Shane says, while difficult can still be maintained in a setting like hotel quarantine, or ongoing lockdown, through the availability of online platforms.
“There is obviously an opportunity for phone contact or face-time connection,” he says.
“It’s about offering that connection point for people to talk, but also encouraging people to participate in other online activities.
“It’s not necessarily watching a church service, but there are specific Christian connection groups to engage with.
“It’s about recognising the things you enjoy that may or may not have been part of your normal life and looking at whether you can connect with people who enjoy the same sort of thing.”
As my chat with Shane came to an end, he left me with one more thing to ponder around positivity and, even in the isolation and solitude of hotel quarantine, the potential to see what might be opened up for us.
“What if we can all walk together (in a spiritual sense), because there will be days when I need someone to carry me, and I do wonder about the potential that exists around being part of a community in that sense,” he says.
“That potential might be something we start to realise and see and might well stun us in terms of the good things that can emerge from it, even in times of crisis, lockdown and hotel quarantine.”