Detained in the same hotel from where Victoria’s second wave escaped, Covid-positive refugees describe conditions that breach the recommendations of the quarantine inquiry and feel like ‘torture’. By Elle Marsh.
‘This is a torture hotel’: Inside the Park Hotel outbreak
Ahmad Zahir Azizi has had a continuous headache since 2015. His doctor tells him this is caused by the stress and trauma of years in immigration detention. But early in October the headache and accompanying symptoms felt different.
“I was feeling very cold,” says the 35-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. “I have headache, chest pain. I’m feeling like I can’t walk.”
Inside the Park Hotel, an alternative place of detention (APOD) on the edge of Melbourne’s central business district, Azizi asked to see a nurse. The nurse told him there was no need for him to be tested for Covid-19 or to isolate.
Over the following days his health deteriorated. On October 17, Azizi woke up lying on the shower floor. He had passed out and was unsure how long he’d been unconscious. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”
A friend called an ambulance. About noon the paramedics arrived and recommended he be tested for Covid-19. Serco guards transferred Azizi to a room on level one of the hotel to quarantine. Two days later his test came back positive.
Over the next few days a cluster of Covid-19 cases inside the hotel continued to grow. The people here are largely refugees but will not be given asylum because they arrived by boat. Many have underlying health conditions and were transferred to Australia under the now repealed medevac legislation. They are held as prisoners.
“Everyone is tired, mentally and physically. We are very scared,” a detainee told The Saturday Paper as the cases ticked up. “I really want to open a window, but I can’t... We are not safe in this place.”
By the end of October, almost half of the 46 detainees, many of whom were unvaccinated and immunocompromised, had tested positive for the virus.
“I was really worried,” Azizi says. “Park Hotel is not safe. Park Hotel is dangerous.”
Last year, the Park Hotel was known as Rydges. Early in 2020, as part of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program, Rydges was found to be responsible for an outbreak that sparked Victoria’s second wave.
This outbreak plunged Melbourne into its longest lockdown, spreading throughout the community, including into multiple aged-care facilities, which led to hundreds of deaths.
A six-month inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine program found that “around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Victoria since late May 2020 were attributable to the outbreak at Rydges”.
The inquiry report was scathing. It found “insufficient regard was paid to infection prevention and control standards across the entire program and, particularly, to that location”.
The inquiry found evidence of poor cleaning practices at Rydges, poor use of personal protective equipment and a lack of training for staff who worked at the facility.
“There were consistent themes in the evidence and information provided to the Inquiry about concerns regarding matters including: access to fresh air; access to good quality food; the state of cleanliness of the facility,” the report said.
The inquiry thoroughly documented the problems with quarantining Covid-19 patients in hotel rooms that don’t have access to natural ventilation. None of the rooms at the hotel have opening windows.
Shortly into Victoria’s second wave, Rydges was removed from the Victorian hotel quarantine program and put on the market. The Pelligra development group acquired the hotel for a reduced market price of roughly $35 million. The stated plan was to “give the property a full refurb and a fresh start as Crowne Plaza Melbourne Carlton”.
But in December, the same week the final report of the inquiry documenting the risks associated with Rydges was released, 60 asylum seekers were forcibly moved into the hotel under heavy police guard. Protesters set up camp across the road. Chalk messages calling for the men to be released lined the pavement in front of the building. Overhead, the old Rydges sign was concealed by sheets of black plastic.
After such a damning report, why was this hotel once again being used to detain Covid-19 patients? And did the federal government take heed of the Victorian inquiry’s raft of evidence and recommendations in this context?
According to the Park Hotel detainees, basic things such as fresh food, fresh air, clean clothes and medication weren’t made available to them while they were in isolation with Covid-19. One detainee says he saw bins in the hotel corridors overflowing with medical waste. Another says he waited for more than six hours to receive a dose of Panadol.
Azizi says he didn’t see a doctor for two weeks. The Saturday Paper spoke to two men in the hotel who called ambulances that they say never came to treat them.
“The hotel is a Covid crime scene that should be closed,” says refugee advocate Ian Rintoul. “Two years ago they were transferred from Nauru and PNG for medical treatment, but instead they have been subjected to medical neglect and exposed to Covid.”
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and the Australian Border Force (ABF) did not respond to questions from The Saturday Paper regarding the outbreak. Border force pointed to a statement that said, “standard departmental protocols are being followed in relation to a positive diagnosis including contact tracing, quarantining, testing and cleaning”.
The Saturday Paper has been notified that the Victorian Health minister’s office contacted the Home Affairs minister’s office raising concerns about the outbreak and protocols. They raised concerns regarding Covid-safe plans, the appropriate use of personal protective equipment and what measures and plans they had in place to further mitigate transmission. They didn’t hear back either.
Several experts in infection control and public health say there is good reason for concern, suggesting the same mistakes that happened at Rydges last year could have been repeated in the recent outbreak.
“No hotel in Australia is really designed as a quarantine facility,” says Geoff Hanmer, adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Adelaide.
When asked why the ABF might have used the former quarantine hotel to detain Covid-19 positive detainees, he suggested “inertia and a certain amount of stupidity might be an explanation”.
“At the Park Hotel, in particular, it’s mechanically ventilated, but it’s quite an old hotel. And so exactly what standard it complies with is a little bit uncertain,” he said.
“Once Covid breaks out in any facility, the prudent thing is to remove people from the facility and take them to air-gapped accommodation. And unless it was your plan to actually infect these people, then that’s what you’d do. I cannot see any excuse for the government not being more active in protecting the refugees who are housed in the Park Hotel. I think they have a duty of care to those people, and they’ve let them down.”
After reviewing responses from authorities regarding the treatment of a coronavirus-positive detainee in the Park Hotel, epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said he was convinced detainees were not safe from Covid-19 in the hotel.
“We know how to handle the situation when you get sick, infected people in a quarantine hotel,” Esterman says. “But these procedures simply weren’t followed in the case of the detainees, and the real question is, Why weren’t they?”
Since the outbreak, Azizi, along with three other men, have been released from the Park Hotel on six-month bridging visas. For three weeks the government has provided Azizi with accommodation in Melbourne’s west. After that, he’s on his own.
Azizi had been detained by Australian immigration for more than eight years and is still coming to terms with the fact he’s free. “I can’t believe it, really,” he says. “I can’t believe it.”
While he is incredibly happy to be released, it’s bittersweet. “I’m sad for my friends who are still in Park Hotel, who are still in MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation], who are still in BITA [Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation].”
Roughly 81 refugees and asylum seekers who have been moved from offshore detention for medical treatment remain in detention facilities across Australia.
“They are not criminal, they are family,” Azizi says. “Please, enough is enough; let them out.”
In Carlton’s Park Hotel, about 40 refugees remain in hotel rooms. Some are still recovering from Covid-19 and others are terrified of catching it. But Covid-19 is only one of many health risks these men face.
“Why do they keep me here?” asks one of the detainees from his hotel room. “We are all mentally ill, we are all physically ill every single day. This is a killer hotel. This is a torture hotel.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 27, 2021 as "‘This is a torture hotel’: Inside the Park Hotel outbreak".
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