(All photos courtesy of Chen Jing.)
My 14 days behind a yellow line were not as unbearable as I had imagined. But if possible, I hope that it will remain as an exception rather than a new normal that everyone has to go through…
A line of thick yellow duct tape is stuck on the floor at the door of the hotel room, with six Chinese words in red: Please do not step beyond this yellow line.
This yellow line separates us — we who are under quarantine after entering China — from the outside world. For the past 14 days, all of my activities have been restricted to this 10-metre-square space within this yellow line. My few daily interactions with the outside world are with the fully-suited food delivery people and the virus control personnel.
“You are under quarantine, not on holiday. You will have to keep your wants under control. Those who smoke or drink alcohol, you can take these 14 days to kick those habits. We’ve had successful cases.”
I say interaction — in fact my door is open for barely a minute, and not even at the same time as my “neighbours”, in case of cross infection. At 7:30am, 11am, and 5pm each day, hotel staff in full personal protection equipment (PPE) deliver meals to my door. The meals are nutritionally balanced; lunch and dinner include two meat dishes and two vegetable dishes, with a bowl of soup and a serving of fruit. The only thing is, since there are no facilities in the room to heat up the food, it has to be either eaten immediately or eaten cold.
The hotel does not allow takeaway food delivery from outside, and online purchases of other daily necessities has to be approved by the concierge. When we checked in, virus control personnel reminded us: “You are under quarantine, not on holiday. You will have to keep your wants under control. Those who smoke or drink alcohol, you can take these 14 days to kick those habits. We’ve had successful cases.”
... the soundproof glass works amazingly well: not even the noise of traffic on the overpass outside or the sound of the pouring rain can penetrate.
At 8:30am and 1pm, virus control personnel knock on the door to take our temperature. Apart from a bit more bustle when the doors open a few times a day, most of the time the corridors are silent. This quarantine hotel on the outskirts of town was completed two years ago, and the soundproof glass works amazingly well: not even the noise of traffic on the overpass outside or the sound of the pouring rain can penetrate.
When I first checked in, it rained every day in Shanghai; a few days later, the sun came out blazing. But whether it is fine or rainy, humid or hot, I cannot feel any of it. Never in my life have I felt more cut off from the world.
The strange thing is, over the two weeks of isolation, I have not “found peace in solitude”, as my friends teased. All I have to do is switch on my mobile phone or the TV, to feel that the world is going through unprecedented changes, and my emotions flow along. Yesterday, China and the US shut down each other’s consulates; today, a Singapore man is involved in a case of spying; tomorrow, a rebound in a new wave of coronavirus cases. Time and again, developments defy expectations. Even an academic, who has seen it all, sighed over the phone: “It’s crazy times. We cannot imagine what will happen next.”
The day before my quarantine ended, I went through some unnecessary panic. My post-quarantine hotel contacted me and asked if I had the Shanghai QR code (a colour-based code that indicates the user’s health status and tracks their movement) installed on my phone. If not, I had to apply for it immediately or be denied check-in. I frantically downloaded the app but the system was down and I could not complete my application. I asked if I could use my negative nuclei acid test results and proof of quarantine as evidence of my health status, but the hotel receptionist remained unmoved. “We have to see the QR code,” she said.
I had no choice but to cancel my booking and search for a new residence. But when I asked if the QR code was needed, all the hotels gave me the same reply. I even dug up the information of a bed and breakfast I stayed in when I came to Shanghai two years ago, thinking that they would not require the QR code. Surprisingly, the boss gave me an even colder response, “Due to the pandemic, we cannot accommodate foreigners. The residents committee would check.”
After a long while, I finally found a hotel that would accommodate me based on my test results and proof of quarantine. I would not be left on the streets after all. I looked at the clock; it was already 7pm. Alas, I had missed my mealtime and was left to eat my dinner cold. I ate it warm every day!
This unexpected episode reminded me that life will not go back to normal even after the quarantine. The world will not return to what it was even when a vaccine becomes available. The receptionists at quarantine hotels may get used to wearing PPE to work every day and not saying a word more to hotel guests. Residents may come to terms with scanning QR codes and reporting their movement every day, trading privacy for mobility. Are employees of multinational corporations also prepared to be on standby, changing jobs and moving elsewhere whenever needed?
Will things get worse? Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus — known for founding the Grameen Bank that grants poor people small loans on easy terms — thinks that the pre-pandemic world was already a “ticking time bomb” threatening to explode into unrest if left unchecked. The pandemic has instead given us the opportunity to change our ways and find solutions to inequality, climate change, and artificial intelligence. Yet, based on current circumstances, it seems that the world does not have the luxury of time to pause and reflect.
On the day my quarantine ends, I step over the yellow line, exit my hotel room, and finally breathe again. At long last, I hear the sounds of nature and feel the sweltering heat on my face. A young lady beside me complains, “I can’t believe it’s so hot outside! I haven’t applied sunscreen yet!”