A tale of three quarantines

I was reluctant to post this at all for fear of being called out as the ultimate Covidiot. Who travels during a pandemic? Well, I’ve decided that I’m willing to accept that title in the name of journalism. This is the story of how I ended up in quarantine in three different countries – Hong Kong, the U.K., and Switzerland – over the past year, and the differences I observed in each of them.

Because I have such extensive experience in the area, I also added at the end a list of my top tips for coping with quarantine in each context.

Hong Kong

So, how did I end up there?

I wrapped things up at work to move to Lugano in February, and made a quick trip back to London to gather the remainder of my stuff and pack up our flat in early March. This was to be followed by a quick stop in Glasgow to see my Grandad and reunite with my mum, after which we’d enjoy a family ski trip in Andermatt (I know, we are the worst).

Our new friend COVID-19 had other plans. Midway through our stay in Glasgow, things really (and in hindsight predictably) began to escalate. Cases were rising rapidly in the U.K., Hong Kong put in place mandatory two week quarantine for inbound travellers, and Switzerland went into lockdown, closing its borders to non-residents.

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2021 looks much the same so far

I found myself in a rather odd position. Returning to Switzerland was out of the question – I was still on a tourist visa and not yet a ‘resident’ so couldn’t have entered. Staying in the U.K., having already finished my London lease, was equally not the best path. The most logical option was to return to Hong Kong with my mum – I had been intending to visit that summer anyways, and figured a bit of time at home would be nice. We managed to swing two extortionately overpriced two-stopover flights and we were on our way.

The quarantine

Saw some fantastic outfits at Hong Kong airport

Arriving at Hong Kong airport, we filled out various forms and were tagged with wristbands which were connected to an app tracking our movements. We got the beta version of these wristbands – ours looked like festival wristbands and worked by scanning a QR code. The technology has been progressively updated since, and now they more resemble Apple Watches than festival wristbands. We were instructed to take our temperatures daily and record the figure on a sheet of paper. As far as I’m aware, temperatures are now recorded on the government quarantine app. Talk about optimising user experience!

At the time, you merely collected your luggage and took your chosen transport to your quarantine residence. The process is now much more complex, involving testing at Asia World Expo, a stay in a specific quarantine hotel to await results depending on time of arrival, and taking designated quarantine buses to quarantine hotels.

Didn’t seem so bad from my perspective

We initially thought that we’d be quarantining at home, but were subsequently transferred to a government quarantine facility. This was certainly an interesting experience! We were transported in a minibus that was empty but for us and the hazmat-suited driver and given a briefing on camp rules before being taken to our room. For two weeks we hardly saw anyone out of full PPE, our trash went into red toxic waste bags, and our temperatures were taken twice daily. Oddly enough, throughout the period we didn’t get tested at all, I assume because of a lack of tests available at the time – now, if you go into Hong Kong quarantine, it’s a 3-week sentence, during which you’ll be tested three times if you include the pre-flight test.

We lucked out and were sent to the Heritage Lodge, in normal times a three-star hotel, in Lai Chi Kok. Beautiful place, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to be stuck inside it for 2 weeks. In any case, as Hong Kong quarantine camps go, this is the Ritz. The hot water works, they provide a kettle, the floor is not concrete, we had a TV with cable channels, the WiFi was good, and most importantly, we had a fridge.

The fridge was such a blessed addition because quarantine camp food is famously inedible. I’m not here to complain – at least they offer vegetarian options. They also gave us about 3kg of apples and oranges every day; so many that I ended up having to bring some home, lest they go to waste. I appreciated that gesture, definitely an immune system booster. We essentially had a concierge service over WhatsApp, you texted ‘Quarantine’ to get extra masks, bottles of water, fruit, or whatever else. It was really very civilised.

We were lucky to be there when we were, as at the time you were still allowed to receive deliveries from the outside world (this is no longer allowed – and halfway through they stopped allowing wine, which my mum perceived as a violation of her human rights). This meant that we got a microwave and toaster sent in from home, as well as a steady supply of Marks and Spencer ready meals, tinned food, cappuccino sachets, and salad leaves. We cancelled the camp meals altogether. I got very good at making meals from scratch in the microwave using tinned tomatoes, beans, bulghur wheat and sweet potatoes. One night, we assembled a caprese salad! Like I said, we are the worst! See a photo dump below.

Newly funemployed, I spent a lot of time playing Sims throughout this period. It was a nice bonding experience for my mum and I, doing mat workouts together and her telling me to stop wasting time playing Sims. The time passed super quickly – it all feels like a bit of a blur now. It’s scary to think that it’s almost been a year since. We had a health assessment (no test though) on the final day of our stay, then were given the all clear to leave at midnight in an Uber.

Bye Heritage Lodge, I’ll visit when this is all over

As I’ve mentioned throughout, things have become much stricter since we returned on the second day of quarantine in March. The quarantine period is now three weeks, three tests, no deliveries allowed, no home quarantine allowed, and flights from the U.K. are halted altogether. I recognise how incredibly lucky we were to be placed in the Heritage Lodge rather than an unfinished public housing apartment with concrete flooring and no hot water, and I appreciate the efforts of all involved to make it a relatively pleasant experience (given the circumstances) and prevent the virus from running riot in Hong Kong.

The U.K.

How did I end up here?

A rare aesthetic in 2020

Totally willingly is the response to that question. We knew, returning to the U.K. for Christmas, that we would be in quarantine for the period of our stay. I couldn’t complain about that while staying at Tom’s family house with a generous garden – it hardly felt like quarantine at all. You are allowed to leave the country at any point during your quarantine, hence why we didn’t stay the full ten days. Things have gone pretty wild since, but at the time, travelling back didn’t feel like such a bad idea (arrival was before the new strain announcement and before Christmas was ‘cancelled’).

We tested in advance of flying just in case, but I’m aware that this isn’t a failsafe measure, and that pointing this out makes me sound like Kim Kardashian, so I’ll shut up.

The Quarantine

This isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as my piece on Hong Kong. What particularly contributed to this not feeling like quarantine at all was the complete lack of enforcement. As we headed through Heathrow immigration and baggage collection, we kept expecting to be stopped and to give details and be briefed on protocol, which never happened.

We didn’t receive a single call, message or visit throughout our stay. It was a very interesting contrast to my Hong Kong experience. Most people I know had a similar experience with the U.K.* quarantine. Of course I still observed it, but you can understand why people don’t take it particularly seriously when you experience the government’s apparent lack of care and read about the likes of Rita Ora. The fine for breaking U.K. quarantine is £10,000 – they could make a fortune by enforcing it.

*sources inform me that it’s better enforced in Scotland

How could you complain with access to this?

Now, time for a quick and possibly controversial rant: to me, the U.K. quarantine was put in place too late and exists mainly to distract from the government’s abject failure to control the virus in general. Only now (9/1/21) have they put in place a testing on arrival scheme. I totally respect Hong Kong’s one as they are striving to eradicate the virus altogether, but in the U.K., coming from most places, you’re more likely to contract Covid within than without their borders. This is particularly true since we all became aware of the new English strain of super covid. Had they put it in place in early March I would’ve thought differently, but at this point it’s so endemic to the country that it seems completely pointless to quarantine people coming from places with fewer cases… and if you’re going to do it, at least do it properly? Without enforcement, it can’t even serve the purpose of discouraging non-essential travel…

Although Switzerland is hardly the country to go to for Covid handling tips, their quarantine system makes a lot more sense, only applied to countries with 60 more cases per 100000 population than they have domestically (and now to people coming from super covid U.K., which is also justified).

Switzerland

How did I end up here?

You’d almost think there was a pandemic going on

This time a bit less expectedly. Tom and I arrived in the U.K. a day before the British government decided to tell everyone about the new extra-transmissible strain of Covid that they’d known about since September (like I said, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time). Thereafter, pretty much every country closed its borders to plague island and halted flights. For a time, we weren’t sure we’d be able to get back at all in 2020, but the Swiss government resumed flights for residents only on Christmas Eve and our flight to Zurich on the 26th went ahead as planned.

Unfortunately we were unable to fly back into Milan, where we flew out from, and Tom’s car remains parked at Milan Linate. Now that we’ve completed our quarantine, we will have to wait a further few days before we’re allowed to enter Italy to collect it. A fun money and time consuming exercise, but I understand that we did take this risk by travelling at all.

The Quarantine

Switzerland has an interesting system in place whereby you must self-register for quarantine within two days of returning home. As in the U.K., you’re even allowed to take public transport back home, which is insanity when compared to the Hong Kong. At the time of writing, we just got out of quarantine, and we weren’t checked up on at all throughout the period. We were contacted to partake in voluntary testing, which we did, partly to get some fresh air. We were negative, but understandably had to continue to quarantine until our ten day spell was completed.

The idea of letting people leave their flat during quarantine and walking 1.8km to get tested is wild coming from uber-strict Hong Kong. The testing process itself was… interesting. There was no separate covid-testing entrance at the medical facility, and as we stood in the entrance hall, all manner of people entered and exited. Our temperatures on arrival read 32ºc, by which measure we’d be dead, something I observed to the temperature-taker, at which she just laughed and waved us forward. We were escorted into a garage and sat by an open bin filled with others’ covid tests to get the customary q-tips shoved up our noses by a very friendly ambulance worker. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but felt almost illegal and fairly ill-advised.

As a frequent reader may be aware, this quarantine being unexpected meant that we had very little fresh food in the house upon return, which was distressing for a gatherer such as myself. We mercifully managed to get a delivery slot for four days in – until then I was entertained by the task of thinking up novel meals consisting of tinned goods. Being only ten days, the quarantine went pretty quickly, and we had all the home comforts, so it really felt like being in a normal lockdown, albeit without outdoor exercise or the ability to take the bins out.

General tips for home quarantine:

  • Long-life foods are your friend. UHT milk, root vegetables, tinned foods, etc. A recipe for tinned-food shakshuka and some store cupboard tips can be found here.
  • If you’re in Switzerland, get a delivery slot ASAP – it’s super difficult to find one within a week…
  • Exercise videos! This time round I’ve stuck to power yoga to help heal my hip and build my upper body strength, entirely using videos made by my favourite yoga teacher from London, Mariel Witmond. Mariel has a YouTube channel full of excellent videos, including a 14 day challenge which would be perfect for the quarantined. She also runs a platform called Kuula TV. She’s such a bright spark of energy, and I’d recommend her videos to people of all levels!
  • Board games are the best! We stare at screens so much in our day-to-day lives, it’s a lovely release to just play a good old-fashioned game of Scrabble in the evening. I also bought Tom Catan for Christmas and I’m just about starting to understand it. If you’re alone you can try playing over FaceTime, the coordination of which is entertaining in itself.
  • Video games are also pretty great, though I exclusively play Sims. It’s a total waste of time but if you can’t be out living your own life why not simulate someone else’s?
  • Pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read, practice that language you’ve been meaning to practice. You’ll be bored anyways.
  • TV is wonderful. Some of my favourite TV shows from the past year (all on Netflix, Prime doesn’t work in Switzerland and I’m too stingy to purchase on Apple TV): Dark, Fargo (all seasons), Giri / Haji, AHS 1984 (and every season except Apocalypse, which was whack), Sex Education, The Haunting of Bly Manor and Hill House, The Ripper, The Queen’s Gambit, Tiger King (everyone’s quarantine favourite), and You. Probably missing tons but there’s a start. We’ve also been watching a lot of problematic 90s / 2000s comedies (so bad – Shallow Hal, There’s Something About Mary, and Knocked Up).
  • Frequently bother your friends and extended family on FaceTime!
  • Cook some interesting recipes, have themed dinner nights, use the kitchen appliances that are gathering dust in your cupboard.
  • Spring clean! There’s no better time, you have nowhere else to go! It’s a great chance to go through your wardrobe and donate the things you no longer use (or dispose of them if no one else would feasibly want to use them either), and do the household tasks you tend to put off. It’s very satisfying.
  • Write annoying blog posts!

Hong Kong Quarantine Camp Tips:

  • Above all, try to be sent to the heritage lodge.
  • Bring as much stuff with you as you can. I’m not entirely sure what’s allowed now, but…
    • Suggested items: your favourite mug and bowl, some cutlery (they only provide plastic stuff), your favourite pillow, a spare blanket, some bedding, a yoga mat, a microwave (if possible… I know this is a little rogue), a chopping board and workable knife, your laptop and chargers, skincare products (I broke out so badly), surface cleaning wipes (the room will not be cleaned for the period of your stay, and quite honestly ours wasn’t all that clean to begin with), books, comfy clothes, slippers.
    • The camp will provide: shower gel, soap, toothbrushes, tissues, masks, bedding, a lot of apples and oranges, borderline palatable food, and most other essentials.
    • Food:
      • If you can bring a microwave: tinned food, raw sweet potatoes to microwave ‘bake’, grains to cook in the microwave, eggs to scramble in the microwave.
      • If you will have a fridge: UHT milk, cheese, butter, your favourite veg.
      • If not / bring anyways: oats / cereals, cappuccino sachets, tea bags, dry snacks, sealed precooked grains, long-life bread, pot noodles, and condiments (e.g. soy sauce, chilli sauce, salt & pepper) to add flavour to camp meals.
      • Booze, if it’s still allowed…
    • If you are by some stroke of luck in the heritage lodge and have a TV, a HDMI cable will be useful.
    • Not knowing which camp we were going to and having seen pictures of some of the worse ones, my mum even packed a lamp to soften the harsh lighting. We are the worst. She actually forgot it when we left. I remain extremely curious to see if the bonus lamp is still in the room.
  • Most of the tips for home quarantine apply in Quarantine Camp also, with the exception of cooking and cleaning.

Some concluding comments

I’d like to reiterate that I recognise my own culpability in getting into these quarantine situations, and that I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to experience them in comfort, and to have been able to travel at all. I’m not looking to come across like the above infamous Parasite meme (it is a great film to watch in quarantine though).

It has nonetheless been interesting to experience these different countries’ respective Covid containment measures and how they are enforced. As you have likely surmised, the extremity (if that is the correct term) of the measures in Hong Kong vastly eclipses those in both the U.K. and Switzerland and this appears to be working. Switzerland and Hong Kong have similar population sizes, yet one has seen 452,000 covid cases and 7,082 deaths, and the other has seen 8,888 cases and 148 deaths. From a utilitarian perspective, I am quite happy to endure two weeks of boredom if it means that others can live relatively normal covid-free lives. I mean, look at the NYE celebrations in Wuhan…

Unfortunately, most Western states are probably in too deep at this point for quarantine to make a significant difference to the covid situation (though the case of a new strain is different). I guess the message is that severe measures, taken early, can be lifesaving. Now that I have solved all the public health crises of the 21st century, I shall get back to revising and thinking about my next meal. Please don’t hate me for being a covidiot.

Happy new year!

-Alice

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