If you asked me a month ago what I thought I would do on my 30th birthday, limited to the government quarantine The center in Hong Kong is not near the top of the list.
But coronavirus The pandemic has thwarted many plans – and even in cities that have become accustomed to upheaval, the recent sudden change in response to the surge in the Covid-19 case has been shocking.
For me, that means going from the planning holidays and parties, to be escorted from my apartment by a health care worker who matches Jasmat and is delivered to the quarantine facility for two weeks of isolation. For everyone, it means a rapid reassessment of how to respond to the global crisis, both on a personal and social level – and a new understanding of how rigorous the steps to combat coronavirus might have to be.
The holiday camp turned into a quarantine camp
Living in quarantine – with regular food, temperature checks, and staff wearing PPE – feels like a strange mixture being at school, at the camp, and in prison. My facility, at Lei Yue Mun Park, is usually a shady vacation village on the east side of Hong Kong Island. Now, about 100 temporary rooms for one room have been built in neat rows on an outdoor sports field, surrounded by a high yellow barrier, which accommodates anyone who according to the health department’s decision needs to be isolated after making contact with someone who has tested positive coronavirus.
Since March, that number has jumped. Until recently, Hong Kong – which has been fighting the spread of the virus since January – appears to have been under control, with fewer than 10 new cases being recorded every day. It seems like rapid urban health measures have succeeded, infection rates remain low, and populations that wear masks, hand sanitizers can relax a little.
But relaxing is not a way to control transmission. Almost as soon as people started packing up bars, restaurants and footpaths again, whispering rumors began to grow louder – infected Hong Kong residents who had fled Europe and the United States, asymptomatic spreaders, colleague sore throats, a dry cough friend. Soon, the rumor was borne out by the number: infection increased from 95 cases on March 1, to 317 on March 22. The “feared second wave” of the plague seemed to be raging in the city.
I finally became exposed after two friends tested positive. I don’t have any major symptoms, which means I can’t be tested alone. But the health department thinks I risk enough to be taken away for proper isolation and monitoring, while my only symptomatic friends are taken to the hospital to undergo tests and treatment, and anyone who has made shorter contact with them is isolated on their own in home .
Not that everything about the quarantine process goes smoothly. After being told to pack my bag for a long stay, I ended up secluded for a week, with no information about how or when I would be picked up. While quarantined friends send videos of their trips, rooms and food, my daily calls to the authorities get the same answer – there is a list, I am in it, but there have been many positive cases recently, and there is no way of knowing how long do I have to wait, sorry.
And self-isolation is complicated by my roommate, who risks being infected just by living in our apartment – not only am I isolated from my friends and colleagues, I have to stay away from him as much as I can. We finally just emerged from our bedroom to pick up food delivery, put on face masks and rubber gloves on our way to and from the bathroom, and clean up everything we touched.
So when the health department minibus arrived outside my apartment block to take me away two Fridays ago, it was a relief to open the door for a worker dressed in hazmat. He put the thermometer in my ear in front of my wide-eyed neighbor, and caught the attention of passersby as we walked down the street. The minibus already had two passengers inside, and took the other one on the way to the camp, which felt like a very loose approach to guiding social distance.
After a long wait and uncertainty, and a late-night trip through Hong Kong, entering the camp itself felt more like the opening of a film than real life. We passed the security checkpoint manned by more staff wearing PPE, carried out temperature checks again, then were escorted out of the bus to the waiting room to receive our quarantine briefing. In Cantonese and English, we were told that we would get three meals a day, which we could choose from the menu; that we need to measure temperatures at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.; that we can send a message to one phone number if we have questions or requests, and call another number if we have health problems, or develop coronavirus symptoms. Oh, and we will all remain in camp for two weeks – which means I will only emerge from isolation at midnight on my birthday. That was an unexpected development; but considering everything, that kind of thing doesn’t feel important anymore.
The campsite was not what I expected. Videos from other facilities passed between WhatsApp groups show empty rooms in unused apartment blocks, leaky toilets, and barred windows. But when we were led through the barrier to rows of identical small huts, and given keys to the temporary home of one of our rooms, it felt like the first night in a comfortable university dormitory. The new furniture in the room still has the Ikea label, and everything smells of disinfectant. A welcome package containing noodles, shampoo, shower gel and toothpaste sat on the table next to the kettle and hair dryer. Almost as soon as I unpacked, the WhatsApp message asked me to choose this week’s food choices from a large menu – a mix of Asian and Western dishes, with vegetarian options, free. And a sign behind the door even referred to its occupants as “camper.”
Another surprise is the freedom to walk outside in a row of shacks – while wearing masks, of course – to get fresh air and exercise, rather than spending two weeks in a box in one room. Prisoners can even talk to each other, even though there are signs around the camp telling us to “avoid meeting” to “prevent the spread of the new corona virus”. That’s a good suggestion (that we all probably used it a few weeks ago).
Other camp residents exposed to coronavirus include bar staff, flight attendants, and retired couples who live in one of the double-sized rooms across the mine. There is capacity for around 130 people, and about half of the rooms are occupied at my last count, even though there are arrivals and departures almost every day.
After more than one week of quarantine, many things have become a surprising routine. Food was carried around on trolls and buggies, and stored in trays outside our door. (Usually rice, noodles or pasta, with some kind of meat or vegetable sauce, and occasional surprises like cakes – very soft, but mostly edible.) Care packages from outside are allowed, so friends and colleagues have sent snacks, drinks and internet boosters to sustaining shaky wifi. Before now, I’ve been working from home for three months – so doing the same thing from quarantine camps hasn’t made much difference. Hong Kong apartments are quite small so living in one room doesn’t feel like a problem, and although temperature checks and calls from camp doctors can be distracting, everything is for the good of my health – and everyone else’s.
Friends in the US and UK have found all this confusion. If they think they are positive, they are unlikely to be tested, and will be asked to stay away unless they really need to go to the hospital. In comparison, being placed in a government facility because you * might * have * a chance * to catch the virus looks like excessive vigilance. But this is evidence of how serious the Hong Kong government is about suppressing cases imported from abroad, and pushing back to local complacency. Anyone who tests positive will be hospitalized, even if they have no symptoms and are not a high risk case – and they remain in the hospital until they return two negative tests. The quarantine action goes even further – now, anyone who arrives in Hong Kong from abroad must be secluded at home or in a hotel for two weeks, monitored by a tracking bracelet.
And top-down efforts have been offset by Hong Kong residents changing their own behavior – wearing masks, hand sanitation, working and learning from home, and various methods of social distance have been normal features of life here since January. Now, an increase in infections from a few weeks ago seems to be falling again. While Hong Kong’s response may feel overwhelming to outsiders, and is sometimes confusing and impenetrable to those trapped inside, something is clearly working. This combination of decisive government action and broader social pressure can be a model for other countries facing a post-key future – but, when the whole world joins the reality of Hong Kong in recent months, it is difficult to know how much this change will be normal just us.
Despite having the longest and most unusual quarantine experience from my friends, I feel very fortunate – I have not tested positive, I am not in the hospital, the camp conditions are good, and I receive endless messages of support from family, friends and colleagues. The said part of the coronavirus global response is isolation; but I don’t feel isolated at all, and it seems like the people of Hong Kong have gained collective strength from experiencing all this together. So, I might spend my birthday alone; but thanks to the power of mass video calls, I won’t spend it alone. And being able to leave quarantine and go home will eventually be the best gift of all.
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