Life under quarantine: No hazmat suits but aunties and plenty of zombies
CNA Lifestyle’s Khoo Bee Khim was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and was given a quarantine order. Here’s how she kept boredom at bay. Thank you, Kingdom.
What happens when you’re given a 14-day quarantine order? Do people in hazmat suits, full masks and goggles a la Naomi Campbell show up? Do they snap on a double layer of latex gloves before grabbing you by the armpits and escorting you into a pathogen-proof vehicle to send you home?
I’m happy to report that’s all Hollywood. Mine – which just ended on Mar 19 – was a bit more mundane. Except for the fact it all began with a knock on my door at about 10.45pm. Yes, that’s “pm”.
A petite auntie sent by the Ministry of Health (MOH) appeared at my apartment. She was dressed like she was going to ask me out for qigong class. I couldn’t tell from behind her mask if she was smiling but she possessed a no-nonsense air that was similar to my mum’s when she wanted me to clean my room.
Middle-aged Marie Kondo was accompanied by two burly Certis officers in uniforms, boots, masks and latex gloves (but not double layered). “How are you feeling?” the auntie enquired politely, peering at me over her gold-rimmed glasses, as if appraising me for my worthiness of a free digital thermometer and masks.
NO LONGER MERE SUSPICIONS
So how did I get myself into this situation? My partner and I were in the same bouldering gym as Case 142 on Mar 5, a Thursday, but we didn’t know about it. That Sunday, a friend informed us that a boulderer was suspected to be linked to the SAFRA Jurong cluster.
“Nah, can’t be. People are more socially responsible than that,” I muttered. I might have since misplaced my faith in humanity.
It was no longer mere suspicions when I received a phone call from MOH that very Sunday afternoon. “An officer will be visiting you at your home in 24 hours or so to serve you the home quarantine papers,” said the voice in a tone usually used to calm infants. “In the meantime, don’t leave your apartment, okay?”
Wait, what? The quarantine has begun?
I felt a knot in my gut. There were just me, my partner and a dozen houseplants at home. Even if we switched to a plant-based diet pronto, the contents of our apartment weren't enough to feed us for a day. Was it time to have a panic attack?
Up until that point, I'd joined in chastising Singaporeans' irrational hoard-buying before the COVID-19 situation was elevated to pandemic status. But I'd peered into the heart of darkness and, well, I'm ashamed to say I wanted to scream: “We don't have enough instant noodles!!!”
"What are you fretting about?" said my partner, jolting me out of my self-induced panic. "There's FairPrice Online and GrabFood what." He calmly opened his laptop and fired up the search engine.
So, starvation averted. But no amount of online searching helped to quell the unsettling thought we both had: Could we have caught the virus? Every time I sneezed, coughed or had a scratchy feeling in the throat, I got paranoid. Is this it? Do I need a ventilator soon?
And because we didn't want to alarm ourselves, we were constantly justifying our throat-clearing with, “Not really coughing. Just choked on saliva, that's all”.
DON'T LEVEL UP
The 14-day quarantine period commenced from Mar 5, the day of potential contact with the infected person, and not Mar 9 when MOH visited me. That meant I only had to spend 10 days indoors.
Being served a quarantine order means you'll become very familiar with your temperature. Other than not leaving the confines of my apartment, I had to take my temperature three times a day. This level of monitoring advances to hourly if I recorded 37.5 degrees Celsius and above.
Then, there's the Boss level, or hitting 38 degrees Celsius and above. In video-game speak, that means battling the game's ultimate antagonist. Outside of the RPG world, I should be calling an MOH number for the ambulance to get me if I got that hot. This was no game and you don't want to level up.
Staff from MOH would also be randomly calling me on WhatsApp Video three times a day to record my temperature and see that I hadn’t sneaked out of my apartment. That meant keeping my handphone by my side at all times. Break the quarantine order and it’d either cost me up to S$10,000, up to six months in jail, or both.
The next morning, I woke up to see a missed call at 1.30am on my handphone – and it was an MOH number. Yikes. My partner phoned back and was told that there would be another visit; this time, to serve him his quarantine order.
While draining our coffee and joking they'd be electronically tagging us for missing the call, there was a knock on the door. Like a glitch in the Matrix, it was a little auntie again! But this was a different one (I stared really hard to ascertain that) and she was here with just one Certis officer.
As Auntie No 2 carried out her routine, I couldn't help but wonder: Is there a contingent of aunties going around the island to serve people their quarantine documents? And what does this auntie taskforce do during non-COVID-19 times?
Those frivolous questions would have to wait as the pair seemed to be on a tight schedule. I soon found out why. "We have about 200 cases per shift on average," said the officer. “We work 12-hour shifts but sometimes, it can be up to 15 hours if the cases take longer,” chimed Auntie No 2.
With that, the duo gathered the signed papers, said their well wishes and good-byes, and walked off into the lift lobby that seemed so close, yet so far away for me.
LOTS OF ZOMBIES
And now, the big question: How did I spend my time while being quarantined? Like many Singaporeans, in front of the television. I caught the latest season of the South-Korean drama Kingdom and rewatched the first season until I felt as stiff as the zombies. But since I couldn't physically fight the coronavirus, watching people hack up the flesh-chomping undead with swords was a somewhat cathartic metaphor.
On the whole, being quarantined wasn't too much of a deviation from my usual routine as working from home wasn’t new to me. The only times I felt restless were the weekend and after-work hours. No eating out, no hanging out and most certainly, no bouldering.
Speaking of exercise, I did have a brief dalliance with Tabata workouts, a form of high-intensity interval training. But somewhere between the first and second set of burpees, I decided that high-calorie snacking was more of my thing. I'd just let my jiggly bits grow.
My partner was more committed to the spirit of climbing though. "Since we're stuck at home, wanna take a picture like this?" he asked eagerly, showing me the Instagram post below. "Quite funny, right?"I pretended I didn't hear him and continued snacking. At least I wasn't strangling him with the climbing rope.
BACK TO LIFE
As surely as the Kingdom zombies coming back to life in the cold Dongnae weather, I'll be dragging myself – along with a few extra kilos – back to the bouldering gym again after the quarantine ends.
Although I was initially upset about being quarantined despite not doing anything to jeopardise the community's health, I was heartened by the show of kindness. We received offers of help for grocery runs as well as gifts of fruits, flowers and baked treats. Online, encouragement from friends and colleagues fed our spirits and assured us that we weren't alone in this. And when obstacles came up, such as a too-rigid security guard who wouldn't allow delivery personnel to come up to my floor, the building's cleaner stepped in to assist.
I may have started the quarantine feeling dismayed but I ended it with a full heart and a very full belly.
The day before Mar 19, I received a call from MOH – and it wasn't the usual one-way WhatsApp Video where I couldn't see the caller's face. "Your temperature looks fine and you don't have any symptoms. You can open your door and walk out after 12pm tomorrow," said the staff.
The sweetest words I'd heard in 10 days.