As of writing, there are 1,004 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Hong Kong. The government has been extra careful in dealing with the contagion, with travel restrictions imposed in February and safety precautions implemented around the city.
There are also assiduous contact tracing processes in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. For example, people identified as close contacts of confirmed cases are isolated at one of four quarantine facilities in the city.
Desmond*, 50, was quarantined in one of these facilities after one of his friends tested positive for COVID-19. They had attended a dinner party together a few days earlier. On March 22, the government sent him to the Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan, Hong Kong, where he stayed for eight days.
VICE spoke with Desmond about what isolation was like, how he kept himself busy under quarantine, and how the experience has changed his perspective on the pandemic.
VICE: Hi Desmond! What was the quarantine facility like? What did it look like?
Desmond: It is a new estate that will eventually become government housing for low-income families. It’s a big complex. It’s nearly finished but not really, so there were elements like unpolished concrete floors. You can tell that the government set it up very quickly because it was very basic. There was a bed and a table in my room, which was about 150 square feet. I was lucky because I also had a fan and a water heater. Some of my friends who were staying in other facilities did not have these.
What was it like living there?
It helped me appreciate what I have. My room at the facility was a studio but I learned that it was built for an entire family of three to four people. Relative to them, I am in a more privileged position because I live in a comfortable apartment. It gave me a new perspective.
Construction of the rooms was rushed to accommodate people in quarantine so it felt very makeshift. It was not comfortable.
My bed was just a really thin mattress over a wooden board. I didn’t have a good night’s sleep at all while I was there.
But it is what it is. The government is doing their best in trying to flatten the curve. So I just accepted the situation and made use of my time there. Not that I would want to ever repeat that experience again.
It was unfortunate that we couldn’t go out. Now, I’m appreciating the freedom to walk around a bit.
How did isolation affect you mentally and emotionally?
Introverts tend to thrive in an environment like this. Extroverts, not at all. I’m a bit of both. I can be an extrovert but I can be an introvert as well. So, isolation wasn’t that hard for me. I think it is important to accept the situation. It’s very much a mental game. It’s a waiting game.
What did you do while you were isolated in your room?
I saw it as a detox period. I have only had one drink in the last three weeks, which is amazing. I would wake up, do my meditation and yoga, and have Zoom conversations with friends who were either back from overseas or under home isolation in Hong Kong. We scheduled a daily yoga session. I forgot to bring my yoga mat with me, so I had a makeshift yoga mat using a blanket, a towel, and a plastic bag.
I also read the news on the internet. It’s all doom and gloom at the moment. When you’re in isolation, news can be overwhelming. Every other story is related to the virus. So, you have to try to remove yourself a little bit, while still being aware.
How was the food?
You get overfed in there. The food was okay, but it’s the same stuff every day. I practised intermittent fasting so I got my flat stomach back (laughs). That’s another thing you can do in there.
Did you have any other unexpected gains from the isolation experience?
Another thing I realised is that I don’t need so much stuff. When I went back home, I threw away a lot of shit. In isolation, I probably only wore two or three clothing items.
Now that I’m back, I realise that I have a lot of stuff I don’t need. I’ve been reassessing what I need and don’t need in my life.
What was the hardest part about staying in the facility and being quarantined?
During the quarantine, I kept checking if I had the symptoms. Do I have a sore throat? Was that a dry cough? Have I lost my sense of smell or taste? Is this a fever? It plays with your mind a little bit.
I was most anxious on the last two days. Before being discharged, you have to give a sputum sample, which is essentially your phlegm in the morning. They will call you if you’re positive, but won’t contact you if you’re negative. That was the most anxious time for me and it would have been better if they had just informed me if my results were positive or negative. So on the last day, I was just thinking: Are they going to take me away or are they coming to discharge me? In the end, I got my discharge papers and that was it.
Has your perspective on the coronavirus changed since you were quarantined?
Absolutely. Before, I was a bit relaxed. I sometimes didn’t wear a mask when I went out. Now, I’m fully aware. Wearing a mask is sometimes an act of camaraderie. It may or may not protect you, but I think it’s important to show community support.
While I was in there, the number of cases were increasing. There was more than double the number of cases when I came out. It was a wake up call for how contagious this virus can be, and I realised that this was getting out of hand.
There was a lot of self-reflection in those eight days. I started questioning why we organised a dinner party during the coronavirus outbreak. Like, what were we even thinking?
How has your life changed now that you’re out of isolation?
I’m more vigilant now and am trying my best not to socialise. I’m a very social person and like to go out. I’m rarely home by myself on Saturday nights, but last Saturday I was. Instead, I had a Zoom party with my friends over the weekend. It has actually brought me closer to more people, because suddenly we have a common purpose. Now, we’re reaching out to more people just to have a laugh together.
We’re resilient as a human race and coming out of isolation, I’m certainly very aware of my own place in this world.
Lastly, what do you hope people can learn from your experience?
Quarantine is not a holiday. Within my group of friends, nobody wants to repeat that experience. We have all been kind of tainted by the experience and are more appreciative of what we have.
I do encourage people to prepare for the possibility of self-isolation. Eventually, this virus could become widespread in Hong Kong.
Be vigilant. Don’t just think about yourself, but think about your community. You don’t want to pass it to people who might interact with vulnerable groups like the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. You may think that you’re invincible, but this virus affects people in different ways.
*Name has been changed for protection.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.