For me, that meant going from planning vacations and parties to escorting my apartment through health workers who were trained in hazardous materials and quarantined driving for two weeks in isolation. For everyone else, this meant a rapid reassessment of how to respond to a global crisis, both personally and socially – and a new understanding of the rigor of coronavirus control measures.
Life in quarantine – with regimented meals, temperature controls and PPE personnel – looks like a strange mix of being at school, camp and prison. My establishment at Lei Yue Mun Park is normally a green holiday resort on the east of Hong Kong Island. Today, a hundred temporary individual houses have been built in neat rows on an outdoor sports field, surrounded by high yellow barriers, sheltering anyone whose health service decides that they should be isolated after being in contact with a person whose screening test is positive. coronavirus.
Since March, that number has increased. Until recently, Hong Kong – which has been fighting the spread of the virus since January – seemed to be in control, with fewer than 10 new cases registered each day. It seemed that the city’s rapid public health measures had worked, that infection rates remained low and that people wearing masks and hand sanitizers could relax a bit.
But relaxing is not the way to control the contagion. Almost as soon as the revelers started to pack bars, restaurants and hiking trails again, the whispered rumors started to get louder – infected Hong Kongers fleeing Europe and the United States, asymptomatic spreaders, sickness colleague’s throat, friend’s dry cough. Soon, the rumors were confirmed by the figures: the infections went from 95 cases on March 1 to 317 on March 22. A dreaded “second wave” of the epidemic seemed to be rippling through the city.
I ended up being exposed to lust after two friends tested positive. I had no major symptoms, which meant I couldn’t get tested myself. But the health service thought I was at enough risk to be taken for proper isolation and monitoring, while my mildly symptomatic friends were taken to hospital for testing and treatment, and whoever had had more contact in short with them isolated himself at home.
Not that everything about the quarantine process went well. After I was told to pack for a long stay, I ended up self-isolating for a week, with no information on how or when I would be picked up. While friends in quarantine sent videos of their travels, rooms and meals, my daily calls to authorities were answered the same – there was a list, I was on this one, but there had had a lot of positive cases recently, and there was no way of knowing how long i should wait, sorry.
And self-isolation was made more complicated by my roommate, who risked the infection just by staying in our apartment – not only did I isolate myself from my friends and colleagues, I had to stay away from her as much as possible . We ended up leaving our rooms to pick up food deliveries, portions of face masks and rubber gloves on the way to the bathroom and disinfecting everything we touched.
So when the health service minibus arrived outside my building to take me two Fridays ago, it was a relief to open the door for a worker carrying hazardous materials. He stuck a thermometer in my ear in front of my wide-eyed neighbors and caught the eye of passers-by as we walked on the road. The minibus already had two passengers on board and picked up another one on the way to camp, which looked like a surprisingly lax approach to social distancing guidelines.
After such a long period of waiting and uncertainty, and late-night driving across Hong Kong, entering the camp itself was more like opening a movie than real life. We passed through security checkpoints occupied by more personnel wearing PPE, underwent another temperature check, and then were taken from the bus to a waiting room for our welcome quarantine briefing. In Cantonese and English, we were told that we would eat three meals a day, which we could choose from a menu; that we had to take our temperature at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m .; that we could send a phone number if we had questions or requests, and call another number if we had health problems or symptoms of coronavirus. Oh, and that we would all stay at the camp for two weeks – which meant that I wouldn’t be out of isolation until midnight on my birthday. It was an unexpected development; but given everything else, that kind of thing didn’t seem to matter anymore.
The camp had nothing to do with what I expected. Videos of other installations transmitted between WhatsApp groups showed bare rooms in unused buildings without fixtures, leaking toilets and screened windows. But when we were led through the barriers to the rows of identical little huts and given the keys to our temporary one-room houses, it was like our first night in a comfortable college dorm. The new furniture in the room still had its Ikea labels, and everything smelled of disinfectant. A welcome pack containing noodles, shampoo, shower gel and toothpaste was placed on a desk next to a kettle and a hairdryer. Almost as soon as I unpacked, a WhatsApp message asked me to choose the week’s food options from the huge menu – a mix of Asian and Western dishes, with vegetarian options, for free. And a sign on the back of the door even described the occupants as “campers.”
Another surprise was the freedom to wander outside between the rows of shacks – while wearing a mask, of course – to get some fresh air and exercise, rather than spending two weeks locked in one single piece. Detainees can even speak to each other, although there are signs around the camp telling us to “avoid rallies” to “prevent the spread of the new coronavirus”. This is good advice (which we probably could all have used a few weeks ago).
Other camp residents who have been exposed to the coronavirus include bar staff, a flight attendant and a retired couple living in one of the double bedrooms opposite mine. There is a capacity of about 130 people, and about half of the rooms were occupied at my last count, although there are arrivals and departures most of the time.
After more than a week in quarantine, things have settled into a surprisingly normal routine. Meals are transported on trolleys and trolleys, and placed on trays outside our doors. (They’re usually made from rice, noodles, or pasta, with some sort of meat or vegetable sauce, and occasional surprises like dumplings – pretty bland, but mostly edible.) outdoors are allowed, so friends and colleagues have sent snacks, drinks, and an internet booster to consolidate the shaky wifi. I used to work at home for three months before – so doing the same thing from a quarantine camp didn’t make much difference. The apartments in Hong Kong are small enough that living in one room is not a problem, and although temperature checks and calls from the camp doctor can be boring, they are all for my health’s sake – and all the others.
Friends in the United States and the United Kingdom have found this confusing. If they thought they were HIV positive, they would be unlikely to get tested and told to isolate themselves at home unless they really need to go to the hospital . By comparison, staying in a public facility because you * might * have * a * chance * of getting the virus seems like an overabundance of caution. But it does reflect the seriousness of the Hong Kong government over the crackdown on imported cases from overseas and the decline in local complacency. Anyone who tests positive is hospitalized, even if they have no symptoms and is not a high-risk case – and they stay in hospital until they return two negative tests. Quarantine measures go even further – now anyone arriving in Hong Kong from abroad must isolate themselves at home or in a hotel for two weeks, monitored by a tracking bracelet.
And the top-down efforts were accompanied by Hong Kong residents who changed their own behavior – wearing a face mask, hand sanitizing, working and learning at home, and various methods of social distancing are a hallmark. normal life here since January. Now, the increase in infections from a few weeks ago seems to be decreasing again. While Hong Kong’s response may seem brutal to strangers, and at times confusing and impenetrable to the people caught in it, something clearly works. This combination of decisive government action and broader social pressure could serve as a model for other countries facing a post-foreclosure future – but, as the rest of the world joins the Hong Kong reality of recent months, it is unclear how many of these changes will become our new standard.
Despite the longest and most unusual quarantine experience of my friends, I feel very fortunate – I have not been tested positive, I am not in hospital, camp conditions are good and I have received countless messages of support from family, friends and colleagues. The watchword for the global response to coronaviruses is isolation; but I didn’t feel isolated at all, and it seems that the Hong Kong people have gained collective strength by experiencing it all together. So I could spend my birthday alone; but thanks to the power of mass video calls, I’m not going to spend it alone. And being able to leave quarantine and go home at the end will be everyone’s best gift.