My Double Quarantine
EXCERPTS AND DOODLES FROM MY JOURNAL
Originally Published in THE PAPER (CHINA) February 15, 2020
By: Dolce Wang
1st Quarantine In Shanghai
The last few years I have been transitioning my life from Los Angeles to Shanghai, finally selling the last of my belongings this past New Year’s Holiday, and ready to jump into my upcoming Asia projects. The news about the coronavirus did not seem terribly alarming in the US at the time, aside from reporting a “mysterious illness in Wuhan.” Over 500 miles from Shanghai, the situation seemed far away enough.
Bad timing it turns out. I arrived early January.... the first day seemed like any other day in Shanghai. Almost overnight, panic blew up over WeChat that this new SARS-like virus was spreading quickly even outside of Wuhan. Within days, there was a public announcement that there was a national crisis and that everyone should self-quarantine at home. Wuhan went on lockdown just before the Lunar Holiday.
It all happened so quickly it almost didn’t register at first. Facemasks were completely gone (or worse, resold at a higher bidding price), as well as grocery stores being emptied out, leaving only canned goods from Wuhan on the deserted shelves. Fear and chaos quickly ensued especially in the Hubei Province, with very little information at the time about the virus itself aside from the fact it can be spread during incubation, layered on top of a very depressing Chinese New Year. It was a careful balance between trying to stay informed, watching the numbers of reported people infected rise exponentially, while trying to remain calm at the same time.
Being in the midst of high alert, the situation in Shanghai itself seemed better relatively speaking. There is always a max exodus each year before the Lunar Holiday, so it was less likely for people to enter into the city, plus the local Shanghainese culture is already fairly diligent. Staying home all day didn’t feel all that bad either (at first). My roommate and I played a lot of games, watched plenty of movies and shows, and tried to be creative with the food we had laying around, including homemade pizza.
As the second week came around though, I was getting rather restless. I had to control myself from checking too much news, otherwise I would get too sad or fearful of the mass hysteria that seemed to be prevalent. The US closed the door to foreigners who had traveled to China – if I decided to go back, I wondered if I would have trouble entering my own country due to my race, especially upon hearing numerous cases from relatives or other Asian friends.
All my foreigner friends in Shanghai seemed to be leaving one by one. I happened to have already booked a ticket to visit relatives in Taiwan for Chinese New Year as well, towards the end of my second week in Shanghai. (Who knew those entire two weeks would be spent quarantined in this time of crisis?) Although everyone was warning me how risky it would be to be exposed at the airport, I devised a detailed plan to ensure I would not catch anything…
Traveling to Taiwan
I was covered head to toe. I looked ridiculous (like I was in an episode of Criminal Minds), but because my aunts requested it and I love them so much, I couldn’t risk anything.
I was prepared with my last remaining filtered 3M N95 facemask, goggles, gloves, shoe covers, hat for my hair, external clothing that I would take off as soon as I landed and put in a trash bag, and plenty of disinfectant wipes for myself as well as all my luggage and belongings!
It was an interesting contrast between the two airports – in Shanghai, it seemed business as usual. There were two custodial ladies who were chit-chatting in a big open area past the check-in counter… one of them was casually spraying who-knows-what (disinfectant?) in the air where nobody was standing. In Taipei, on the other hand, there was a team ready as soon as we deplaned to help disinfect everyone, measure temperatures, and conduct 1-on-1 interviews. There was even disinfecting carpet for shoes!
I was quite impressed with how organized things were in Taiwan – lots of very cleverly designed infographics with clear messages of virus prevention, everyone wearing facemasks even in theaters, disinfectant dispensers in nearly all public areas, an APP that could track where facemasks could be located… There is also an overall understanding of social responsibility to keep in line with precautionary measures albeit somewhat inconvenient. The result has allowed daily lives and businesses to continue running as smoothly as possible, with some slight pivots.
I felt so lucky to have made it – many flights had already been cancelled, and later I learned that the doors finally closed to foreigners who had travelled to China, as well as issuing tracking devices.
Most of all, I felt so grateful to be amongst people again. Free at last!!
2nd Quarantine In Taiwan
I had scheduled a health exam after just after my arrival to Taiwan, not realizing that the nurse would request to check my passport. After a few seconds, she nervously looked up as she realized I had just come from China… then she literally ran away.
Her supervisor returned, telling me politely but sternly that it was government mandated that I stay at home for 14 days, and I could not see the doctor until the end of the quarantine period. I tried to explain that I had already self-quarantined for 2 weeks, plus all my extended efforts to stay uncontaminated during the journey, but she would not hear of it. I walked away sullenly, my hopes of freedom dashed, as I saw them wipe down all the seats, doors, windows – everything – behind me.
The unfortunate thing about a virus that can spread quickly even without symptom is that it really compounds the paranoia in people. I felt like Casper the Friendly Ghost – people seemed to be afraid of me even though I was just trying to go about my daily business (and also was 99.99999999% sure I wasn’t a risk). Still, I wanted to be respectful and therefore hyper-vigilant, so I sighed and headed towards the apartment.
Normally in Taiwan, I would stay in my aunt’s studio where there is a fully furnished side apartment. However, there are many staff and students who come in and out, so she prepared for me to stay in an empty apartment on an upper floor of a high rise. Although I felt sad to be sent to an empty room, I understood as she said “all the students are family.”
They prepared some things for me – a thermometer to measure my daily temperature, a tiny foldable bed (smaller than my body), a small fridge, hot water kettle, plenty of facemasks and disinfectant, and a few other thoughtful items. Most importantly they brought me a guitar and instant coffee. However, there was no WIFI, no washing machine, and really not much else.
I initially thought I could be very productive, or at least contemplative during this time alone, but this was not your cozy home where you can just binge-watch shows and eat snacks on the couch. This was an additional 2-week sentence to a barren room – cumulatively nearly a month of quarantine – which made it incredibly hard to focus and only aggravated the disappointment of being confined yet again.
I walked in circles. I practiced Taichi (what little I know). I cursed the mosquitos for attacking me day and night. I danced in silence. I measured my temperature every day (all normal). And I played a LOT of Beatles on the guitar. I thought about Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” – perhaps I would turn into a beetle myself. And then, I would lean my head against the wall.
Then there was the earthquake. Although I had experienced many earthquakes from living in Los Angeles, never from a high rise, and certainly never during a mandatory quarantine. The entire apartment swayed, rocking me and the mosquitos, as I threw my hands in the air realizing there was not even a proper table to hide under. (I guess at least there was nothing falling off shelves either.) My heart pounding, I ran under the doorframe waiting for the earthquake to be over.
Later, I texted my friends in Taipei whether they felt the earthquake or not. Many just said that was normal, while others didn’t even feel it. Time to admit my mind was in a fragile state.
Towards the end of the quarantine period, my toe started to feel numb… most likely from a bad sleeping position on the tiny bed. As I vividly recalled the frightened nurse who ran away from me, I decided to hold off on going to see a doctor and try some home remedies first, like stretching, pressure points, and soaking my feet. Since I didn’t have any bucket, the only basin-like options were the sink …or the toilet. So I chose the sink. I climbed onto the counter with a stool and tried not to fall into the trash opening or activate the stove. At least I wasn’t up there during the earthquake.
Although it wasn’t easy to stay cooped up for a month, it definitely gave me a better perspective on social responsibility, with Taiwanese locals doing a great job with keeping the situation contained. I’m also grateful for many friends and family that kept tabs on me and also brought me food. All in all, it was worth it, and my heart goes out to those who are still in quarantine mode!