Last week after getting off a flight in Hong Kong and being sent into a 3-day hotel quarantine, I was naked, alone and afraid. Admittedly, only naked when I needed a shower, but alone and afraid much of the other time.
After disembarking the plane, I notice the authorities have worked out all the detours I might make before showing up at the hotel. Shops. Bars. Walks in the park. I'm channelled out of the airport and straight into a taxi with locked doors.
In the early days of quarantine, more than a few tourists had stopped for ‘a few drinks’ with friends, a.k.a. the opposite of social distancing, before checking in to a quarantine hotel after midnight. They say the rules exist because of the zero covid policy. Actually there’s lots of covid, but they still want to say that zero is a good number to shoot for.
So, we arrive at the hotel, and my special taxi sits in front for 5 minutes. Its 1am. A pair of tired looking guys put on white bunny suits and spray disinfectant everywhere. They open the hotel door for me and I walk in.
“Quarantine order?” a woman at reception demands. She is behind a glass wall sitting at the check-in desk.
I pass the document through the slot under the glass. She gestures ‘No’ and points at the glass wall. I see the outline of an A4 paper and instructions that one should hold the quarantine order up against it the outline. I push the already slightly crumpled but very important document against the glass. She holds up a light to it and scans with a handheld reader through the glass.
This would be a great place for people with bad breath.
“Follow the gray arrows,” she says, “the elevator will be prepared for you.”
‘Prepared for me?’ What does that mean? I think to myself, and walk following the gray arrows taped to the floor. When I arrive at the elevator, the doors open without me pushing the button. Very Westworld.
I walk through a very dimly lit empty hotel hallway. Electronic air cleaners are placed next to each door and illuminate the space around with an eerie bluish glow. I find my door number and open it. First good news of the day. The room is amazing. Lots of space. Modern decor. Even a sofa and a table.
I take a shower and after getting dressed, I open the curtains and look out at a panoramic view of the Ocean Park amusement park, with roller coasters and aquariums and other attractions. For the next 3 days, I will watch happy families taking their children out for a day of fun, from behind my locked window.
It's late, I take a shower and go to sleep and decide to think about how I will spend the next 3 days tomorrow morning.
In my slumber, a doorbell rings. I look at my iPhone, it’s 7:30am. I open the door but there’s no one outside. Even the hallway is empty. On the floor, there’s a full paper bag. Breakfast! I remember choosing my breakfast order when I reserved the hotel. Food is good.
While eating, I recall making all the other food choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One night, I can’t remember which, they even have lamb chops. I’m now optimistic to wait 5 hours for what I’ve chosen next.
I realize in quarantine there is no way to spend money. The sum total of the day’s options, will be meal choice A, B or C.
The idea of ‘money’ is just a story we invented, right? It is literally not real. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens, it's just an imaginary concept. A digit in a computer database. But what money does give us, is options.
Here is just the dull sameness every day. There are no options in how to use virtual digits. Everyone is equal in confronting quarantine. The only currency is day count and covid status.
A line of rapid test cartridges are arranged on top of the refrigerator. Each morning, I put the cotton bud up my nose, take a dab quickly, nobody is looking, and wait for the result.
Take a picture. Type my passport number, my quarantine order number, telephone number, scroll through the long list of stern warnings of punishments against cheaters, and hit approve.
This must be done before 9:30am. The first day I did it at 7pm. I had received a long SMS test message in Chinese ten minutes earlier. I don’t read Chinese, but the large and bold red letters obviously contained some type of warning. I clicked the link at the bottom, and found an upload page for the 9:30am test result I just told you about.
Everything in the daily schedule is rigid. Breakfast is delivered at 7:30am. Lunch at 12:30, Dinner 6:30pm.
The worst one for me is the garbage collection. That's at 9:30pm. There’s a stern warning about not placing garbage outside the door before 9:15pm. One night I forget, and I have 2 days of boxed food containers in front of my door attracting any vermin that might be in the 3rd floor hallway.
Looking out into the hallway, I ponder escape. What prevents me is that walking into any building in Hong Kong requires displaying the “Leave Home Safe” App’s color coded QR code. I looked at mine. My code is Red. The worst color. Even if I escaped down the hallway and out the employee exit without anyone seeing me, I wouldn’t make it far.
After two days I’m just getting into a prison-like routine of the doorbell ringing at 7:30, 12:30 and 6:30pm for mealtimes. I’m relaxing on my sofa reading ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’, about a man trapped in a hotel in Moscow in 1917, when the doorbell rings.
I check the time. It's 3pm. What’s going on? Did I do something wrong? Were they there to take me from my nice hotel to the hellish government quarantine camp where people live in shipping containers out by the coast?
I open the door and see 3 medical workers in full blue jumpsuits, with masks and face shields. What really catches my attention is the robot. It's on wheels and making a lot of noise. It has a large rectangular box for a body, and its face is sort of a hose sticking out the front.
The robot appears to want to come into my room. I back up.
The robot doesn’t move. I move forward.
When I get close, the three blue jumpsuit people back up. The woman in the front points at the robot’s mouth and says something. With the masks and all the racket from the robot, I can’t make out what she’s saying.
I study the robot. The mouth looks an awful lot like a vacuum cleaner hose.
Wait a sec. It is a vacuum cleaner. Vacuuming the air in the hallway, and cleaning it of me.
Following the pointing from the medical people, I stand in front of the robot vacuum, take off my mask, tilt my head back, and subject myself to a full nasal cavity search.
After the PCR sample is taken, the woman takes off her gloves one by one, and then oddly, GIVES THEM TO ME. And then she leaves with the robot and heads toward the next door. Maybe the other two people behind her are just security to stop anyone making a run for it or bothering the robot.
Being given used gloves from a medical worker is confusing. Oh. These are my unwanted bodily fluids being returned to me. I’m that unwanted. I’ve heard it said that wearing a plastic name bracelet in a medical institution is one of the most ego killing situation one can find oneself in, but this is pretty close.
Tomorrow, I will move up to Amber Code. And I will be set free. I will show them.
The next day the QR code on the ‘Leave Home Safe’ App switches from Red to Yellow. Or Amber, that sounds nicer.
Blue is the best color. Amber means I am not allowed to go into restaurants or attend social events. But I can now leave the quarantine hotel.
The telephone rings.
“Would you like to come downstairs to check out?” a kind voice asks.
“Of course. Yes! I am coming now,” I say, repeating myself just to be extra clear.
Downstairs I see the owner of the kind voice behind the checkout desk, “Did you have a nice stay?” she asks. I can sense she’s smiling behind her face mask.
“The food was great,” I reply happily. This was the first person who talked to me in the last 3 days. The others had been in medical PPE and only uttered monosyllabic commands.
“How did you like our hotel?” she asks, still smiling behind the mask.
Does she think this is a normal hotel, and wants to see their hospitality so I come back soon?
“Its.. FINE,” I say, to be honest I’m feeling slightly bitter, but I suppose she must encounter a lot of very happy people on departure.
I sign papers promising to do an infinite number of covid tests over the next 4 days and also to turn myself in if I start feeling feverish, and then depart.
The light outside is a lot brighter than I remembered it to be. I had been behind tinted windows for 3 days, 4 days including the flight. I pull my two suitcases toward the nearby train station walking in the opposite direction to the stream of people entering the amusement park I had been seen below my hotel window. When the families see me coming from the quarantine hotel, they move to the other side of the walkway.
Most hotels are not accepting people with ‘Amber Code’ so I aim downmarket, and find a hotel where the counter staff are prepared to overlook minor details. The hallway smells of paint thinner. Opening the door, the room also smells of paint thinner, and the window to the dark back alley doesn’t open to allow the paint thinner smell out. Maybe I should have just stayed a prisoner at the luxury quarantine for 7 days. But at least I am FREE. I go outside and pickup takeout and eat at the park.
To point myself toward a more positive direction, I try to get in touch with people I know in the city to make plans. I send WhatsApp hellos and say, “I arrived 3 days ago, let's meet up!” People say they need to check their calendars. Some simply don’t reply. I remember being in their position. I’ll need to keep a low profile until I’ve been here longer.
At last! Tomorrow I will be upgraded to ‘Blue Code’ which allows me to enter restaurants and shops. I will put the daily testing and day count behind me, and reenter the world. Each day forward I have health, friends and freedom will be a good one.