A day in the life of quarantine

October 11, 2021 08:54
Image: Hong Kong Government

The words from Hymn No. 275 spin round one’s head: “The prisoner leaps to lose his chains.” You shall find out what they mean when you are in quarantine.

What sort of civilised society compels its citizens, innocent of any criminal offence, to serve a sentence of enforced isolation in conditions of durance vile for 21 days?

Someone diagnosed to be infected with a contagious or dangerously infectious disease needs to be isolated in appropriate hospital accommodation both in their own and the interests of others. But this?

On Day 1 you wake to a lowering realisation that your hotel room is the alpha and omega of your existence for the next three weeks.

Putting on the slippers you have presciently brought along, you avoid stepping barefoot onto a carpet that has launched a thousand verrucas on your way to the bathroom.

Ah, the bathroom, with its heavy green marble vanitory top and a plastic seat sitting drunkenly askew across the toilet bowl, is reminiscent of Guangzhou in the 1980s.

The wash-hand basin plug has liberated itself from the pull push mechanism so that you either take it out or have to wash in the same water for the next three weeks.

Your disconsolate face stares back at you from the partly oxidised mirror that belongs on Cruella de Ville’s dressing table.

The search for a hot shower is time-sensitive, it is going to be a series of tests during night and day to discover when the water temperature rises beyond tepid.

Next is the attempt to dry yourself on a towel worn diaphanously thin from overuse and no towel rail on which to dry it afterwards.

And so to the first high point of the day, breakfast. Nobody seems to have told the F&B department that for the first meal of the day, you should eat like a king.

Delivered to a stool outside your room, allegedly at 8am, it can be as much as half an hour ahead. This is important because the polystyrene containers do not retain heat for that long, if at all.

Carrying your precious plastic bag to the 30” diameter mock marquetry dining table you open it discover a bun (containing nothing), a hard-boiled egg and three strips of empty cheung fun. A most sumptuous fare!

You are given no plates, cups with or without saucers, cutlery or glasses, just toddler-size plastic spoon and fork – and paper cups.

Obviously, it is the budget-airline-economy-class strategy that is being adopted here. Or is the management scared in case one of their guests feels like attacking the staff in desperation? On that they might be correct.

And so you open your laptop to log on to the hotel’s wifi, except that the signal is so weak that the internet eludes you.

A bored receptionist on the telephone explains that this is because there are 300 guests in the hotel, all trying to get online and the router does not support this amount of traffic.

Remonstrating that this is contrary to what was advertised will avail you nothing more than promises to try to reset the router.

Eventually, offered a SIM card, you have to remove the SIM card from your phone, log on and then hotspot across to your iPad and thence to the laptop. This means that every time you need to make a call, you have to reverse the process.

The business of getting a sustainable internet connection exhausts both a number of hours of Day 1 and most of your patience. This is probably the most wearing of the in-activities.

You mark the passage of each day as you transition from one thrill to another, taking your temperature morning and evening and recording it in a ledger provided for the purpose.

Another milestone moment is removing all your garbage before 2.0 pm. As this will include no less than 63 polystyrene boxes and 63 plastic bags, it is as well not to ponder on the contribution you will make to the world’s plastic waste.

On to the next high spot, lunch, delivered perilously close to breakfast and without any knock on the door or ring of the bell. This means frequently opening the door which invariably evokes a scream of “Shut that door”. Not, as you might have thought from Larry Grayson but an ill-defined, PE clad virago that reminded me of the KGB concierge on the floors of Russian hotels.

But wait, is this the lunch for a prince? Only if it was intended for him before he was kissed by a princess.

A slithery grey mess occupies one compartment, accompanied by a few sparse strips of boiled cabbage over a pin-cushion of rice, the whole delicately decorated by three buttons of corn and a wedge of carrot, if you are so fortunate.

Idle curiosity prompts you to consult the menu, a foolish enterprise since whatever it is that is served bears no necessary relationship to the description.

As you sit down on the less uncomfortable of the two chairs to work at the desk and draw the chair close, your hand strikes an errant piece of metal which, on examination proved to be part of the seat falling out.

The windows are sealed against fresh air, of course, so you have to offer up a fervent prayer that none of your fellow guests is spreading Covid-19 in any of its variations by aerosol.

Then to the apogee of culinary delight, Oh frabjous joy! Dinner. It is your first sighting of the lesser flavoured processed sausage, allegedly composed of chicken but unrecognisable as any animal meat known to mankind. Spread drunkenly across the base of the polystyrene box, they mesmerise so that the by now inevitable boiled cabbage strips and single kernel of corn are barely noticed. Aha! You spot a pea.

Not only are these poly-packed offerings unappetising, they constitute a fast-track diet regime because consuming them would offend every sensory faculty.

Just to provide some temporary divertissement, a menu is provided which details each meal on each day for a week at a time. The entertainment is to see whether what comes could, by some stretch of the imagination, answer the description, more often than not, it doesn’t.

Periodically, the Hazmat accoutred officials of a department of health outsourced company come to do a PCR test. Upon opening the door, most of the space is occupied by an enormous snaking 10cm diameter tube, its gaping maw only inches from your face. One wonders if it is intended to hoover you up? Does it suck or blow? Then follows the nose and throat invasion, after which the functionary peels off her rubber gloves and drops them in your rubbish bin.

As Dr Lai Wai Man, Chief Infection Control Officer of the Hospital Authority explained, symptoms of the Delta variant – which is the most feared – typically appear within four to five days of exposure. So how can 21 days of quarantine be justified for people who have received double vaccination, tested positive for antibodies, undergone PCR tests before being incarcerated and then every three days thereafter?

If the plan is to destroy Hong Kong as an international business centre, it is little less than brilliant. If not, it is dumb.

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King's Counsel