Hong Kong is no stranger to pandemics: SARS hit us hard in 2003, and the H1N1 swine flu was another challenge in 2009. When the news of a novel coronavirus (now known as COVID-19)— originating from just across the border in mainland China—broke, we were prepared, and as waves of new cases hit Hong Kong it has only strengthened our resolve to stay clean, stay safe, and stay home.
Staying home has become easier, whether we’re conducting self-imposed “social distancing” or government-monitored home quarantine, what with the quick growth of home delivery services, family or partners to keep us company, and a plethora of hobbies to pick up and activities to do.
But what about those among us who, for both their own safety and others’, have been sent to the government quarantine camps? What’s life like for them in the two weeks they have to spend inside? And what about those who have tested positive and are receiving in-patient treatment? We talked to five Hongkongers who’ve lived to tell the tale, and asked them to share their experience and advice with us.
“I was in close contact with someone who tested positive, and I immediately called the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) hotline. I was running a fever. Two doctors in full hazmat gear came to my flat to question my boyfriend and I regarding my whereabouts from the last two weeks, and to conduct a preliminary symptom check. Then we were sent to the hospital via ambulance.
“We were in triage for two hours, and at midnight we were taken to separate isolation wards for a lung scan, and then the nasal swab. Despite the doctors telling us it wouldn’t take long and that we didn’t need to pack a bag, we waited for our results for six hours. My boyfriend tested negative, and he got to go home, but I unfortunately tested positive and was moved into a yet another isolation ward, with doctors measuring my air intake and blood pressure. The next day, I moved into an isolated room with three other women, where I am right now.”
“A friend of mine who I attended a party with unfortunately caught the virus, and so did eight others at the same party. She experienced a loss of taste and smell, and asked me to go for a test with her at a clinic. We waited a day or two for results: hers came back positive so even though I was in the clear, I was sent to the camp for monitoring.”
“I was returning to Hong Kong from Switzerland, where I was studying, with a layover in Frankfurt. I was taken aside for a test upon arrival, while my girlfriend who had arrived at the same time on a different flight went through immigration. They asked me to stay at the airport for 24 hours in order to clear my results, but I refused.
“For some reason, my girlfriend didn’t get pulled aside, and took her test at immigration. She tested positive. We went from the airport to a hotel for our mandatory two-week quarantine, and a week later my girlfriend was taken to the hospital. The CHP called me the next day and picked me up in a van with a couple others to go to the camp.”
“We recently had a new housemate move in, and she’d gone to Europe to visit family. When she came back, she got a call from her family letting her know that her grandma had been admitted to hospital for coronavirus. Though our housemate was asymptomatic, she also tested positive. She had actually been taken away in the dead of night because she didn’t want to alarm us, and we only got a call from her the next day.
“I found out while I was at work, and Fionan was at home in quarantine after returning from Indonesia. We tested negative at a clinic near our home, but I was taken to Queen Mary Hospital after the nurse called the CHP. Fionan had to pack for both of us after I was taken straight from the hospital to Fo Tan, and when he arrived the staff arranged for us to share a room.”
“We were quite nervous about how staying in for two weeks would affect our mental health, but we wanted to remain positive since we had each other’s company.”
“I’d been at the hotel for almost two weeks, and the windows didn’t open there, so I was grateful for a bit of fresh air. I was hoping they’d have laundry facilities, since I’d been living out of my suitcase for a while, but no dice! I could see that the camp was relatively empty when I got there, but a couple days into my stay I watched the rooms start filling up.”
“I was annoyed after waiting three days to be picked up by the CHP. They’d called me on a Friday to let me know that I’d be sent to the camp, but the same night they told me to just stay home and wait. It was the longest three days of my life.”
“After I was diagnosed, I was just an exhausted, nauseated mess. Moving from ward to ward being poked and prodded wasn’t fun, and the medication had me sick to my stomach. For the first two weeks I was hopeful that I could make a quick recovery, but by the third week I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be there for a while as I watched my roommates and patients in other wards get discharged.”
“In the second isolation ward, I had a doctor explain my treatment to me. I could choose to not take any medication, and try to beat it on my own, or I could enrol in an experimental medication program where my progress and reactions would be tracked for medical research. The doctor was very informative and, since I was told that I could fast-track recovery with medication, I chose to take it.
“Everyone’s on different medication, assigned randomly. You spend the first two weeks on pills: four pills (I had Kaletra and Ribavirin) twice a day for the first six days, and every other day you got a shot of Interferon to the stomach, which made us all cold and shakey, and also caused a high fever. When I moved to the room I'm now in, I was given a set of pyjamas and towels.”
“We were given some snacks and water, as well as a hand towel. I asked for a phone charger and a change of clothes when I got there, since Fionan hadn’t arrived yet and my phone was about to die and I’d been in transit for a while. I also requested cleaning supplies, since the room was filthy. When Fionan arrived, they set up a cot too since my room only had the one bed.”
“I got the basic welcome kit, but I was most thankful for the slippers. You can’t walk around your room barefoot—it’s that dirty. I just wish the towel was bigger, since I didn’t have any with me; I’ve been drying myself off with a towel I found in my suitcase that my girlfriend left behind, or with dirty clothes. I had alcohol wipes with me so I could clean the room.”
“I actually didn’t get a towel! Thankfully, I’d brought my own. I brought heaps of cleaning wipes since I'd known from research that the rooms were dirty, and my friend who was also at the camp was given bleach.”
Sally, Tim, and Remy and Fionan all agreed on one thing: The rooms at the camp are awful. As the camp utilises an unfinished public housing estate, the rooms are unfurnished and sparse. The floor is concrete, and everything is dusty. If you’re lucky, you get a one-bedroom apartment, which gives you a little bit more space to move around in, but most of the rooms in the camp are studio-style, with just a small separate kitchen and bathroom.
The kitchens only come equipped with a kettle and some eating utensils, and a hairdryer in the bathroom. The camp provides you with a fan and heater as well, if needed. The bed was described to us as “a couple of wooden planks wrapped in a mattress cover over a metal frame”. No duvet, no mattress.
“We’d play ‘Pass the Pig’ to decide who got the hard bed and who got the far comfier cot. You had to really ignore the pain to fall and stay asleep on the wooden planks.”
“I was really confused when I didn’t see a mattress, and even asked for one from the staff. I don’t think they understood what I was asking for though, and soon I realised I wasn’t getting one.”
Like Tim mentioned before, he appreciated the fresh air after a stint in the hotel room. However, fresh air was limited.
“There were bars on the windows and those bars were locked. There was enough room to slide your hand through to open the window, but that was it, and the air wouldn’t circulate properly through the room. That’s how I knew more people had moved into camp, since I’d stand by the window all the time.”
It's not all bad though, as Sally, Remy, and Fionan all mentioned that the shower had great water pressure and was adequately spacious.
While the others have a view of dreary industrial Fo Tan or the other rooms of the camp, Sofia has a sea-view room at the hospital, and her bed is luckily beside the window. Her and her three roommates share the “en-suite” bathroom.
“The only complaint I have is the light that’s directly above my bed. You have to ask the nurses to leave it off at night when you’re trying to sleep, but they turn it back on when they come in the morning. It’s really affecting me.”
“I didn’t have anything when I settled into the hospital, except for the clothes on my back, my wallet, and keys. I asked my boyfriend to pack me a bag along with my laptop, and every five days he and my friends bring me new books and fresh clothes. Queen Mary is actually one of the hospitals that don’t allow outside food, so I haven’t had any comforting snacks or food aside from the hospital meals.”
“All I have with me is my luggage that I’ve been living out of, and my mates and family in Hong Kong are self-quarantining, so aside from my laptop and the food that the staff here bring me, I’ve got nothing. I wish I had my Xbox with me, or something other than my laptop. I’d definitely recommend people bring more clothes, towels, and their own toiletries since the camp doesn’t provide any, as well as books and games.”
“I had lots of time before getting picked up to research and pack, so I was pretty well-prepared. I brought tons of clothes, packed snacks and my coffee press, and even brought my own duvet and pillow since I’d heard the beds were awful. To keep myself occupied, I brought workout gear, my Kindle and laptop, books, and even a picture frame. Now that I’m out I wish I’d brought a little plant, as well as some booze, though that’s not technically allowed in the centre.”
“We were beyond prepared for two weeks of isolation! Aside from clothes and toiletries, we had board games, snacks, yoga mats, and even an ukulele. We wish we had better pillows and maybe some floor cushions or something, since the room was pretty uncomfortable.”
There you have it folks: Bring your own towels, toiletries (those travel-sized toiletries and skincare samples that we all hoard will finally come in handy here), and lots of entertainment sources! Towels and soft furnishings to make surfaces comfy to sit and sleep on are a must too.
Another thing that everyone agreed on: Food quality is sadly low at the camp (and in hospital). When you arrive in Fo Tan, you’re given a weekly menu to fill out for your daily meals, consisting of three to four options per meal. According to Tim and Sally, the meals were made up of a carb base (white rice or pasta), steamed mixed vegetables, and some form of “mystery meat.” Meals are left on a chair outside after the staff rings the blaring doorbell several times. Breakfast is served at around 8 am or 9 am, lunch around noon to 1 pm, and dinner arrives between 6 pm and 7 pm.
“I’m vegetarian, but resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to eat meat if I wanted a little variety in my meals. The vegetarian options weren’t great. Staying at the quarantine camp was a massive affirmation in my decision to become (and stay!) vegetarian.”
“I’m a cup noodle connoisseur now! In addition to my meals, I’ve tried all 20 flavours of cup noodles the centre has to offer. The meals here are better than hospital meals, though they’re usually cold by the time they leave it outside. The braised pork belly meal I got was one of the better ones.”
“Remy’s vegetarian, so she chose the veggie options, but it took two days to process her meal choices. The meals were repetitive, and the worst by far was definitely option A, which was mystery meat. Don’t choose option A! I've had some decent spag bol and lemon chicken, while Remy had pretty much the same meals everyday. She hated the congee. We spiced up the rice with our miso soup packets.”
Sofia, stuck in a hospital where outside food isn’t allowed, isn’t quite so lucky. She has food allergies, so the hospital dietician was on hand to help coordinate her meals. Her least favourite?
“Definitely the sad, bland congee I get for breakfast sometimes. The meals got old after the first week, and after my second day I lost my smell and taste, but the textures didn't make up for it. I‘m also dealing with appetite loss from the medication. The first thing I want to eat when I get out of here is pasta and pizza.”
There’s only so much phone scrolling, movie watching, exercising, and book reading one can do while in isolation. You might set up a schedule for some semblance of routine, but it seems that quickly goes out the window!
“We made a schedule with good intentions centred around our meals. We’d have breakfast then have some productive time during the day, with Remy doing her lesson plans. Remy created chores for us to do since the room got dusty so quickly: We’d disinfect all surfaces and sweep the floors. After dinner, we’d have some fun. We started The Sopranos, so boredom wasn’t an issue, but it was the confinement that got to us. All we wanted to do was go for a walk! We reckon being at the camp alone would definitely be far worse.”
Tim also mentioned wanting to go for walks, if only just supervised walks up and down the hallway outside:
“No one’s visited me, and I can barely get in touch with my girlfriend who’s also in quarantine. My sleeping schedule is all messed up: I usually go to bed at 6 am to 11 am, with naps during the day, and I get woken up by the meals arriving. Seriously, they don’t have to ring the doorbell so many times. You start focussing on necessities: sleep, shower, eat. I’ve gotten more productive though! Getting through more of my daily tasks, and I have a conference call every other day with my clients and colleagues.”
“My original plan was to set my days around the meal schedule. I was initially happy I’d have time to catch up with friends and family, work out, and get work done, and I managed to stay upbeat for most of it. But after nine days in solitude I was just miserable, and would just lay there playing ‘Words With Friends’ and watching Meg Ryan rom-coms from the 1990s.” (Speaking of Meg Ryan, she recommends You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally to cure the quarantine blues.)
Sofia’s schedule is similar, with her time centred around meals and medication:
“I’ve been in here for 16 days and one of my roommates has been here for 21 days. Our day starts at 6.30 am, when the nurse comes to swab our saliva and nose, and take our blood pressure and temperature. You can’t eat or drink before the swab, so breakfast comes after. The doctor comes to check on us, then I start to check my emails and work from my bed from around 9am onwards. Lunch comes at noon, then dinner and my second round of daily meds at around 5 pm.”
It’s no secret that Hong Kong's healthcare sector is understaffed and overworked. In the face of a pandemic, even the most experienced of healthcare professionals can get frazzled. Our interviewees all have different opinions on their experience.
Sofia has nothing but compliments for the CHP and Queen Mary Hospital staff that have helped through her quarantine and treatment process:
“I was pleasantly surprised, and really quite impressed. Everyone was very nice, from the people who came to pick me up to the hospital staff. Since I’m in the hospital, I’m checked on regularly by the doctors and nurses, or as regularly as they can since it’s a large hospital and they’ve got more than just coronavirus patients to deal with.
“The rooms and wards are disinfected three times a day. I feel lucky that I’m in Hong Kong, which is highly prepared in the face of a pandemic, and my treatment is free. I’m originally from Italy, where the pandemic is at its worst, and I know I’m getting great care here. As lovely as the people are though, I hope I get my two consecutively negative swabs so I can be discharged soon.”
While Sofia gets regularly checked up on, and has enough socialising with her roommates and the staff, it seems that the camp is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
Remy and Fionan were also complimentary of the staff:
“We’re very happy with how caring and supportive the staff were during transit, and at the centre. I was on the phone with them multiple times before I got to camp, and I was losing my mind, but they were nothing but patient with me. They let Fionan share my room with me so I'd be comfortable!
“You communicate with the staff at the camp via WhatsApp. You can tell they’re doing their best; they’re very hardworking, but efficiency wasn’t the best. We were given thermometers to record our temperatures at 8 am and 4 pm, then they call to check afterwards and you report to them. Visits from the staff are intermittent and random.”
Sally and Tim, however, didn’t have the best experience.
“The staff didn’t speak the best English, and you could tell there was a lack of communication between staff as the information they give you is repetitive. First of all, they got my last name wrong, so I had to fill in my meal order three days in a row! There was a day where I didn’t get anything till dinner, and the next day they gave me two of everything!
“The doctor came for my first and second day to take my temperature, then I was given one to do it myself. There were so many phone calls where the staff were just businesslike: there’s no warmth, everything was straightforward, I was never once asked how I was doing. I felt like a lab rat. I went seven days without seeing another human, and when I did, none of them really speak to you.”
“You can’t complain much since you know the staff are all stressed, but some efficiency would be appreciated. I ask for water almost a day in advance now since there was a day when I asked for water at 11 am, and it didn’t get to me until after dinner. I get phone calls at 10 am for a symptom check, and they sometimes come to my room to check my temperature.”
“I’m making friends with other people in quarantine by waving at them from my window. I have a view of the other flats from my room, so I just stand there and I’ll catch them just standing there staring out the window too. I think we’re all just waiting to get out.”
“My roommates and I did nurse nominations one night when we were bored, just to pass the time. Categories like “Which nurse does the best nasal swabs?” There was also one night before I came to this room when I didn’t have a toilet: just a chair with a hole in it. That was strange.”
“When our spit tests came back negative, we were allowed to go home. We left with a ‘goodie bag’ full of the most random assorted goods you could think of, and the most hilarious of all, a thank-you postcard from Carrie Lam!”
“After about four days in quarantine, a couple of us paid a mutual friend to bring care packages. There were three in total, and my two other friends cracked their packages open, but I just sat there waiting. The mutual friend had sent us proof of delivery, so I knew my package was received by the staff. They kept telling me they would check for me but I never got it. I was so bummed! The next day the staff admitted they lost it, but I reckon they might’ve accidentally given my fancy goodies to someone else. It’s all good: my parents brought another care package a couple days later.
“There was a kind staff member too: shout out to Crystal! She found out I didn’t get my package so she went to get me an iced coffee and a jar of nice coffee I could brew. She was very lovely. Another thing about the camp is that there is a lot of single-use plastic, since I suppose the staff have to chuck or burn everything we use out of fear of contamination. Your meal would arrive in a plastic box, placed in a plastic bag, then wrapped in another plastic bag. It was mental.”
“You need to prepare for the bad mental health days, and bring lots of comfort food. Definitely ask for cleaning supplies for the room.”
“To everyone who’s lucky enough to not be in hospital or the camp: stay at home! It's the best safety measure for everyone.”
“Take turns running virtual pub quizzes with your mates! We had eight people running quizzes on a variety of topics so that we could stay motivated while learning something new.”