A week in Hong Kong’s Community Isolation Facility
My exchange semester in Hong Kong is finishing soon; and quite as it started, in a quarantine hotel room of which I could not leave, I was now in a Community Isolation Facility which I could not leave. I believe someone tried to flee earlier, which would account for the shouts.
My Thursday night turned into somewhat of a nightmare when two little lines appeared on the Covid test required to enter the club for Ladies’ Night (excellent deal, by the way – from 10p.m. until 1a.m., every single drink is free for “ladies”). Two little lines I would not have noticed, in fact, had my friend not said “Dude, you’re positive” as I was about to show the bouncer my freshly made test. Hence, I diligently returned to the campus residence.
My roommate packed a bag of clothes, toiletries, and books, as well as some food, and left it in front of my door. To this day, we still wonder if she has performed a criminal act in doing so
Guiltily, I went up to the guard in my residence hall and (from afar) showed her the test, the sentence “I have Covid” in Google translate lighting my phone. It was not needed. Once the test was shown, she gestured for me to stay put until someone escorted me to the first floor, the “Covid floor”. I would not see my room again for the next seven days.
The next day, I was told to contact the fire department, which would pick me up and take me to the Isolation Facility as my hall was not suitable for self-quarantine. My roommate packed a bag of clothes, toiletries, and books, as well as some food, and left it in front of my door. To this day, we still wonder if she has performed a criminal act in doing so.
A white minibus picked me up at 10p.m. With my suitcase in hand, I stepped in what appeared to be a vintage post-dystopia vehicle, where a driver in a full surgeon suit very kindly told me we were going to Pennybay. It was me, the driver and my suitcase, a protective film separating us.
Pennybay’s Community Isolation Facility is situated on Lantau Island, emphasizing the impression of separation between normal life and life-with-Covid
We drove past Disneyland.
Pennybay’s Community Isolation Facility is situated on Lantau Island, emphasizing the impression of separation between normal life and life-with-Covid. It is composed of lines and lines of two floors of containers, not unlike the prefabricated buildings high schools build when they don’t have any more space, supposed to stay one year and end up where most of the classes take place. Once we entered the facility, we continued driving around the containers for a long time, stopping by various posts where people in surgeon suits would point at yet another turn.
I had had many ups and downs since receiving my positive test result. My first reaction was sheer disbelief. I then proceeded to panic and call my parents with a sinking feeling in the MTR that my exchange semester had taken a dramatic turn. When I was safely tucked into an isolation room that first night, I felt quite reassured; and when I was forced to ask to be picked up to leave said room for a facility whose name resembled one of a children’s movie’s prison, my mood took a hit. In the bus, I was rather amused. I remember barely containing a smile as I realised, I had Covid, in Hong Kong, and was on my way to some Isolation Facility everyone wanted to avoid. When I got out of that bus, I was severely depressed.
The man who brought me to my container was very nice and very worried. His face and kind words indicated that many a foreigner had burst into tears at this stage in their journey. He repeated that I would only be staying here seven days; that everything was alright; that it wasn’t long, and wasn’t a bad situation to be in. I smiled up until I saw the room.
It wasn’t a bad room. The walls were blue-ish, with a flower painted, much like a hospital room. There were two beds, presumably if two people were to quarantine together (in a moment of panic, I wondered if someone else would come and quarantine with me). At the end was a small bathroom with a toilet, sink, and tiny shower. Displayed on the bed were pot noodles, instant coffee, a biscuit, a thermometer and two Covid tests for Day 6 and Day 7, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a brush, a duvet, pillow and sheets. There was the smallest table I have ever seen with a TV on top, and a kettle next to it. There was no Wi-Fi. Papers concerning the organisation of Pennybay Facility were also present.
I slept very well that first night. And as this would not happen again for the next week, I cannot even account for my state of exhaustion
It really wasn’t that bad; but as the realisation that this semi-hospital, semi-prison room was one of which I could not get out, with kilometres of boxes next to me all looking identical, and the wondrous idea that I myself was in one of those boxes, dawned on me, I felt quite afraid. The man was still at the window, where there was a tray in front where people dropped food and supplies every day. He looked worried again as he placed a bracelet with a QR code around my wrist and said that I had to keep that until they cut it off the last day. I smiled weakly, thanked him, and he left.
I slept very well that first night. And as this would not happen again for the next week, I cannot even account for my state of exhaustion.
Every day, I would summon up my courage and say, today, you eat the rice!
At seven, twelve and five thirty, food would arrive in a plastic box. Though the variety of choice seemed, on paper, quite advanced – I was very impressed when I logged into the Pennybay website and was allowed to choose between vegetarian, halal, “soft” food (for those without teeth, presumably) – it was inedible. The sauce was gooey, transformed into some kind of paste if left on its own for more than five minutes, and contained the worst ingredients anyone had ever thought to combine. Every day, I would summon up my courage and say, today, you eat the rice! But as the rice was unsalted and uncooked, and often mixed with cabbage, I was quickly discouraged. Two oranges were distributed daily, with bottles of water: I fed myself on that, as well as separate ingredients which we were allowed to order on the website (crackers, two biscuits, pot noodles) which would arrive in a lap of time between thirty minutes and four hours. The first day, I felt very hungry, and it made me rather mean (although to no one but myself, seeing as I was alone). After that, I no longer felt hungry but became very tired very quickly.
Isolation in comfortable circumstances is painless and yet extraordinarily alienating
I woke up around seven that week, at the sound of a woman yelling “Josan!” (“Hello!” in Cantonese) whilst placing breakfast on the tray, after restless nights. Indeed, trolleys were continuously pushed on the floors just outside the rooms, and as my window had a little crack in it, and my lack of activity made me all in all a light sleeper, I could only fall asleep between 2 and 5a.m. when they would stop the trolleys completely (after a few days, you learn to recognise the routine of the place). I would often try to sleep some more, but abandoned quite soon, and tried to work instead (I had data on my phone, some luck!). I worked very slowly. I had thought before that it would be the perfect occasion to revise for the coming exams, and finish all the presentations and essays that were due; instead, I could rarely work without taking a break every thirty minutes, and felt quite unmotivated to write. I liked to call people – rather, people liked to call me, with pity, at the sound of their voice – but after the first two days, I didn’t feel like talking very much anymore. I mostly dozed and stared at the ceiling.
Sitting around doing nothing all day, eating little, and listening to trolleys rolling around is very depressing. It is also peaceful. You become a baby of some sorts; people feed you, take relative care of you, you have no agency, no ambition, no sense of existence via dialogue or anything really happening in your life. Isolation in comfortable circumstances is painless and yet extraordinarily alienating. You curl up in a ball, have moments of strange euphoria and others of big dark emptiness. And you tire of speaking to yourself, and to anyone else.
My two tests had come back negative; I was allowed to leave, bringing a sheet of paper posted outside my room and some signed documents. As I walked toward the exit, passing rows and rows of containers and seeing more and more people join my route, I felt extremely relieved. After checking our papers, we were invited onto a bus that took thirty minutes to arrive at the MTR.
It felt bizarre to reunite with civilisation by stepping onto the train. I still felt very much like an outsider, with my suitcase and backpack, and had the satisfaction of somehow knowing something all the others around me did not. A return to the bitter, cynical reality. Indeed, it was as if I had never left.
I had a dream in the CIF. It was a society in which every child was programmed by his parents, and every human that was born was to be put in a box around eleven to accomplish his destiny. A couple were choosing their child in the midst of breaking up. The man never met his offspring, having left the woman whilst pregnant, but when he tried to put him in a box to become a runner, he realised the woman had, out of spite, programmed the child with no legs. The last image I remember was of this kid, called The Bolt, floating out to sea.