masks on the bus
On our way to the managed isolation hotel in Rotorua

Now, before I share our experience with managed isolation in New Zealand, I want to add a small disclaimer. I was once a war refugee, I worked for the United Nations in various field missions for over a decade and lived in UN provided Containers with shared bathrooms and I slept in military tents. 

My husband is ex NZ navy and later, ex airforce, and who also worked in UN in field missions, so he too has had his fair share of authority and confined, isolated places. 

In other words we are not hard to please and we do not consider our 14 days in a three star hotel in Rotorua, in New Zealand, a hardship experience in any way. 

What is hard about managed isolation is the fact that you are confined, detained, without the ability to use your free will to just say “I have had enough and now I am leaving.” 

Which is what I think prompts people to attempt an escape.

The Key Philosophy for Managed Isolation

The first and pretty much the only advice (the rest is just information) I can give about our experience is, that if you are going through it or are about to go through it, to be stoic about it. 

And that means recognizing what we can change and what we can’t. And then accepting it. 

After all, 14 days is not a long time. 

I was recently talking to a friend and fellow field mission UN staffer who said “You can handle anything for one year!”

Well, with that in mind and completely voluntarily, my husband, our two children who are 10 and 4 years old and I headed on our way to New Zealand. 

How You are Assigned to a Particular Covid-19 Isolation Hotel

Managed isolation hotel sign

You can’t choose your location or your hotel. It will be announced on the plane (everyone on the plane will go to the same location) once you land and while you wait on board for the ground staff to come in in their full pandemic gear to disinfect the plane (which apparently is done in NZ for biosecurity reasons pandemic or no pandemic). 

If you are sensitive in any way, you are told to cover your nose, mouth and eyes. Although you are already wearing a mask, so it’s just your eyes then. 

Or if you are really, really sensitive, then tell the crew. Not sure what they do in that case, but as far as I can tell, there is little room for any individualized approach on any level. 

We were pretty disappointed to find out we were going to Rotorua, for no other reason but that after 36 hours of travel time and 27 of those on a plane, we really didn’t want to get on the bus for another 3 hours. 

But we did get on, because remember, no other choice. 

To help this situation, everyone at the (otherwise deserted) airport in Auckland was very pleasant and before you get on the bus, they let you take a heap of chocolate bars, chips and water for the road. 

deserted airport in Auckland
Auckland Airport

You also get one toilet stop on the way in a specially designed and heavily disinfected and guarded facility.

You arrive at the hotel and then you wait for hours (or what it feels like hours) on the bus to be checked in. Thankfully the kids fell asleep the moment we got on the bus. 

The managed isolation facility (i.e. hotel) is guarded by the military.

Everyone is pleasant and welcoming, which really helps. 

Everything is perfectly organized

But make no mistake, for the next 14 days, you are a prisoner in a light security facility. 

Days 1-4

I think those days in the quarantine are probably the hardest. 

First, you are thinking it is not possible that they put you in a room where you can’t open the windows and have to rely on air conditioning that neither you nor your children are accustomed to and it really feels like you can’t fully breathe.

And that they didn’t ensure at least some dining place or space for families and all these things that you think you will need (but by day 4 you completely adjust and stop even thinking about it) 

Everyone is jetlagged and absolutely exhausted, both physically and emotionally.   

Our kids are picky eaters. 

And you realize that, while the hotel staff are really nice and friendly, the whole thing is two degrees away from the failed prison experiment and you realize that it is best to just keep your mouth shut and get on with it the best you can, i.e. accept what you can’t change. 

After all, you voluntarily put yourself in that situation. 

As a family of four, we had two interconnecting rooms which was a blessing, because everyone could get some privacy. 

Outside Time  

On the bus, the cheerful bus driver told us that we were lucky that we got the hotel in Rotorua because we have a small parking lot which we can use whenever we like for exercise. Some of the managed isolation hotels, apparently, have no outside areas but a bus picks up people and takes them for escorted walks for an hour every two days. 

The parking area had guards at all times and was free for use from early am until 7pm.  It was mainly populated by fitness junkies and parents with small kids trying to keep them entertained, which was kind of painful to watch. 

At some point, as the weather got better, the area turned into an all-day playground for families with small kids. 

This is also where they had an area for smokers. As an ex smoker, I appreciated it that they cater to the addiction, but you probably want to quit before getting yourself into this situation. 

So we would go there for some time every day, to throw a ball with the kids. I tried walking in circles like some people did, but it did not make me vibrate happy… in fact it was more like a lesson for my son to “not end up in prison, or this is how you’ll be spending your recreational time.” 

Sometimes I felt like running, but the handout brochure said no running, because you are spitting out your possibly covid19 saliva…

Although some people had their skipping rope and skipped daily. Some walked around. I figured my muscles won’t atrophy because of 14 days of inactivity. 

Plus there was the jetlag. 

Food

The food was superb. The menu was wholesome and the variety was good. 

If you have any dietary restrictions you need to tell them once you are checked in and they said that they would try to cater to that. 

The desserts were divine and on day 4 we asked them to skip packing the desserts for us for two reasons:

  1. Our kids don’t really eat cakes
  2. My husband and I eat them and we either end up eating them or exercising considerable willpower and throwing them away, a waste in either case. 

Our kids are pretty picky, so sometimes we Ubered, mostly McDonald’s. 

We also ordered some essentials from Countdown, like milk and Weetbix, sliced bread and vegemite. Some noodles. Some potato chips. A few Dad’s Pies for my husband. 

We aren’t the most exemplary of parents in this regard, I know. 

There was coffee and a nice variety of Dilmah and Pickwick tea supplied by the hotel and a jug in the room which was great. 

Oh, and the beds in Ibis were really comfortable.

Quarantine Entertainment

Our kids were born in Kuwait and our son has spent his early childhood years there which means that the majority of that time he spent indoors. (due to extremely hot weather for most of the year)

We also survived a two month lockdown in March and April in Bosnia where we stayed in our apartment most of the time.

So we aren’t strangers to being inside.

In fact, as we were preparing for the quarantine, packing up board games, cards, books, movies, and marking down tv shows to binge on, my son said “We won’t have the time to do all that in 14 days!”

Kids. 

Our son is 10 and easy to entertain. If I didn’t make him, he’d be on his iPad, either playing Roblox with his friends back in Bosnia or watching some popular youtuber or discovering a new show on Netflix.

Our 4 year old daughter is great at make believe play all by herself and she is also not a stranger to some screen time.

All in all, we did a combination of playing together or everyone on their own with (quite a bit) of screen time in between. 

Surprisingly, I ended up doing a lot of writing while dreaming of doing the managed isolation all on my own.

A Pleasant Surprise

On day 3 or 4 a local community group sent personalized gifts for the kids which were a huge hit. I am not sure if they do this in every hotel. 

For a few days after, every time she would hear a knock on the door, my daughter would yell “more toys are coming”.

The Covid-19 PCR Test

I was really worried about this one, because I found it so uncomfortable and my 4 year old daughter tends to freak out a little. I explained to her what was going to happen, but I still expected the test to be a huge struggle. 

They test you on or around day 3 and day 12.  You can exercise free will here and refuse to take the test, but then, they tell you, your 14 days will become 28. 

At home they took a swab from the nose and from the mouth. In NZ they only do a nose swab (which is the more uncomfortable one).

The nurse was amazing, though, very cheerful and talkative. They showed my little one the present she will get after the test. She sat on my lap and didn’t even whimper. 

For the second test, she said: “I already know I am not going to cry.” 

My 10 year old son did well, too. 

Managed Isolation Routines 

It’s was handy to keep our masks by the door

Loud knocking three times a day: 

“Your breakfast is ready” 

“Your lunch is ready.” 

“Your dinner is ready”. 

Paper bags left in front of your room, which you bring in, eat and put out with your leftovers when done. 

You call for a vacuum cleaner to keep the room as clean as possible. They will drop off a change of sheets or towels whenever you need them. So there is some housekeeping you probably want to do every few days. No one will enter your room for obvious reasons.

Keeping clean and tidy

Daily, around 9am, two nurses and a military person come to measure your temperature. I assume the military person is there if force needs to be exerted for whatever reason. They use one of those forehead thermometers and it doesn’t take long.

They ask questions like do you have any headache, runny nose, do you feel tired. 

A bit hard to answer when you are fighting the jetlag in a stuffy room with recirculating air and bolted windows, and everything is considered a symptom. 

So you learn to let them check your temperature and as is  my experience in these types of situations, the less you say the better. 

This is what happens when you talk too much. You end up being pronounced ‘symptomatic’. As stated above, I don’t think there is much room for any individualized approach to anything.

We actually saw this lady from our window being released, so hopefully, she has recovered by now. 

But I completely believe her. 

More Entertainment in Managed Isolation

I kept thinking about that book “The Room” which always freaked me out. But like the characters in the book we developed our own ways to entertain ourselves. 

Watching the bus coming in with the new ‘guests’. 

And the old ones leaving. 

On day 7, while sitting at my nice desk and looking at some of the people getting on the bus to leave, I said to my husband “I am so glad we don’t have to go today.”

You can hide away from the world for a while in your room. You don’t have to be or do anything.  You don’t even have to go outside to that parking lot. 

There was time for long card games with my son

The moment you get out the real life begins again, and by day 7 I was used to this one already. 

Note: I adjust easily, this is probably not a typical result.

Productivity in Managed Isolation

Oh, yes, we ended up being pretty productive.

We sorted out all our admin and logistics that we were able to do remotely.  

Phones, home internet connections, arranged for carpeting in our house, researched gas and electricity companies. Found possible cars for me. 

I had a few phone calls with my new work colleagues. 

I wrote a lot. 

Talked to my family and friends back home a lot. 

My son had online classes with his teacher back home (we arranged this before we left, because we want to keep him involved in the Bosnian schooling system for as long as possible)

And spent a lot of time socializing as a family, which, in daily hustle and bustle, we forget to do in such a mindful way. 

What I Wish I Knew Before 

I deliberately did not join any “managed isolation in NZ groups” on Facebook before we came, because I did not want to be influenced by anyone’s experience (good or bad). 

Either way, I would have my own story. 

In retrospect, I wish I had brought my own headache pills. I don’t really know how I forgot that esp that I always get dehydrated and headachy on long plane rides. 

I had a terrible headache on the first morning and asked for a headache pill which caused a small panic and several phone calls from a head nurse because I was symptomatic. 

‘I am not symptomatic, I just have a headache,” I said, but to no avail. 

We all got put on a 48 hour watch where they make you stay in your room or make you wear a full PPE gear if you want to go out (which consist of gloves, mask, visor, and a paper coat)

But we were jetlagged and exhausted enough to just sleep the time off anyway. Those first days are still a blur. 

I would also bring some sturdy plastic plates for the kids, esp for my four year old, because it is hard for the kids to eat from the paper boxes. 

We ordered some from Countdown so we easily solved that. 

But I wouldn’t really do anything else differently. 

Whatever you do, whatever you bring or don’t bring with you, you will probably adapt, find an alternative and be just fine. 

Conclusion

A lot of time for cuddles and doing nothing at all

First, I was going to write one of those “what I learned during the quarantine” types of posts, but I didn’t really learn anything but reconfirmed what I already knew. 

  • You can handle anything for 14 days (well, almost anything)
  • It is best to just go with the flow and not over-prepare.  (we brought some things, but we did not waste our luggage allowance on quarantine knick-knacks) 
  • Do not spend your entire time trying to actively keep yourself or your kids entertained. It is a good opportunity for some reflection and quiet time when you do nothing at all, but lie around in bed and talk.
  • It is not such a disaster for the kids to be a little bit inconvenienced. Honestly, I feel sorry for parents whose kids are always engaged in activities. Some uncomfortableness and boredom is good for them. They usually get past it and find something to do. 

They learn to cope better and to push through when the times are hard. 

  • And as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, to accept the things that you cannot change. 

It is the hardest thing to do for most of us. 

And, finally, to keep an eye on the prize. For me it was getting out after 14 days and stepping into the world as it was (well, mostly) before March 2020. 

And that is still worth it. 

managed isolation completion certificate
You even get a neat little certificate on your release

18 Comments

  1. hi
    loved reading your article, it was such a genuine heartfelt read. thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for your honesty here! I haven’t heard of or read a comprehensive account of this kind of restrictive stay yet. You’re right, we will adapt.

  3. Here’s one kiwi who’s very grateful for people going through quarantine – we’ve done a great job handling covid here, and a large part of it is people like you willingly helping by sticking to the rules. Good to hear that it was n’t a difficult experience for you.

  4. I love that you all had a nice view out of the window during the quarantine. I am sure that helped, and also just being able to spend more quality time together. -Reading, playing card games, and coloring. Those are some of the best times!

  5. Omg when I flew I didn’t need to isolate. This is such a bizarre scenario to have to go through. So strange you don’t know the hotel until you’re set to arrive, but at least you can be productive while you’re stuck there.

  6. I really liked the comprehended post and at least you had a good time. xoxo.

  7. Thanks for sharing your isolation experience. It is so detailed and we can pictured what is going on. I agree, what we can do now is to adapt.

  8. Appreciate you sharing here almost in details of everything you have been through, a lot of life lessons here as well. We will survive in spite it all!

  9. This is the most toughest time possibly and staying in managed isolation. Must be really tough and the experience you shared is something we all must know. Take care

  10. While being stuck inside isn’t fun, it looks like they did an amazing job at trying to keep everyone happy. The hotel seems nice and it was sweet that they sent up surprises for the family.

  11. Wow managed isolation sounds not that great but it really seems the they did their best to make everyone comfortable. I found it really great that you all were able to be productive in there! And really happy that it went smoothly for you and your family!

  12. This quarantine can either make or break you because as human we are social beings, but it’s great that you highlighted the various ways in which your managed this unique time in our history.

  13. It was great to read how you and your family managed to stay positive and entertained during isolation

  14. Hey Stella,

    I loved every word of this blog post. This blog post must be one of the most personal and comprehensive reflections of managed isolation I have ever read so far. It is very interesting to see how NZ is handling international arrivals.

    As dark as it sounds, I chuckled at how the lesson learnt is never committing a crime that lands yourself in prison. Should have added that into the summary at the end too just for the laughs (but perhaps, that would defeat the purpose of a punchline too)!

    On a side note, I didn’t realize you had to go through quarantine in a hotel, and not at home. I must have been too naive to think that. It is indeed a small space, and I’m glad that’s behind you now.

    A whole new life in NZ awaits!!!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much, Ming! It means a lot. Yes, we are out now and working on settling here for now! Busy and exciting times!

  15. I have loved reading your point of view on the isolation you’ve had to go through, and it is always interesting to me. As I was reading this, I thought about the prison lesson as well, because that is exactly how it would be. Disturbing, isn’t it? Which of course, made me wonder what would happen if you were not allowed to actually leave. My mind wanders to strange places, but I could see that being a movie or something. I am glad that you had a productive time though.

    1. Author

      Absolutely agree! I bet someone will be making a movie out of this! And so cool you could see my point on the prison experiment!

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