The first thing I noticed about my quarantine room was the view. The hotel on Hong Kong Island had upgraded me to a room with a view of Victoria Harbor – the city’s vast blue harbor, one of the busiest in the world, lined with skyscrapers and dotted with soaring black cargo ships and kites.
I arrived by taxi after waiting the night in a detention center near the airport. The previous 24 hours had been a glimpse of the regimented authority that had enabled the territory government to contain the pandemic so effectively, despite its dense population.
The airport, once a shopping haven, had been transformed into a medical facility and bureaucratic maze in which passengers were moved between curtained cabins to spit into test tubes and plexiglass windows to download tracing apps . Transferred to the center, we waited to find out if we would be allowed to go to our hotels or be sent to a quarantine camp.
In comparison to the detention center, my 350 square foot hotel room, overlooking the water on the Hong Kong mainland, was a palace. This was enhanced by the relief of being spared by a government controlled camp. A bouquet of pale pink roses sat in the middle of a desk. The door closed behind me and I thought of the taxi’s wide open window – it would be the last time I had felt fresh air on my face in weeks.
In a city famous for its luxury hotels, hotels have become prisons. Even the Mandarin Oriental – the original Hong Kong hotel – isn’t immune. For £ 65,000 a guest can spend their mandatory government quarantine in the Mandarin’s ‘entertainment suite’, complete with a virtual reality wall of games and an eight-person dining area. It is full until the end of March. A lower quarantine at Mandarin costs up to £ 10,000; at other hotels, packages start at around £ 400.
The list of approved hotels reveals one truth about quarantine: no amount of money makes it tolerable. An executive suite that you can’t leave is just a beautiful cell. Bigger space to walk around helps sure, but there’s no room you won’t hate after weeks of solitary confinement. A window that opens would be a real luxury, but I’m not sure such a package is for sale. “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle,” is a phrase familiar to China. No one is sadder or richer than in quarantine in a luxury hotel on Hong Kong Island.
Since last summer, Hong Kong had imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine for all travelers at its borders. Arrivals, even those with a permanent home in the city, had to stay in their hotel room and pass three negative Covid tests (one before flight, one on arrival and one on the 12th day after arrival) to be allowed to enter the territory. Travelers are tagged with a wristband containing GPS tracking microchips and must consent through a legal contract to remain in place for the duration of the quarantine. Leaving our hotel rooms is punishable by six months in prison.
The measures, combined with other restrictions on restaurants and bars, have been very successful. Since a peak in July, infections are down two-thirds and down. There are now around 50 infections reported every day in a city of around one million fewer people than in London, where infections now average around 12,000 a day.
On the seventh day, the solitude had become a heavy blanket. He swaddled me, keeping me in bed until noon. For fun, I kept the blinds closed against the bustling port, sometimes an irritating reminder of life outside of this room. With all the weather in the world, my daily routines had started to feel empty. My mandolin – an ambitious plan for a quarantine hobby – remained intact but visible, hostile in a corner.
To celebrate the halfway point, I ordered a glass of wine, ending another ambitious dry quarantine plan. The second drink was an act of self-sabotage. I gave myself a YouTube fitness workout vacation that I used to fill 45 minutes a day. I ordered pizza from Deliveroo. For company, I looked at the back of the hotel doorman who delivered it as he retreated into the hallway. I hadn’t seen his face. I opened my laptop and put Room, a film about a woman trapped in a room, then Castaway, a film about a man stranded on an island. The roses were withered and were turning brown. I texted a colleague a reference to a poem by Sylvia Plath: “Bright tulips eat my oxygen.”
I had timed my arrived in Hong Kong to come out of quarantine two days before Christmas. It was insane given the impressive legislative weight of the Hong Kong government. The same powers that had enabled Hong Kong to fight the virus so effectively – and which were simultaneously being deployed to stamp out political uprisings – were easily equipped to imprison me indefinitely.
On the eve of my last day in quarantine, Hong Kong announced that it would extend the quarantine measure from 14 days for all arrivals from outside of China to 21 days, to try to stop the spread of the new, more infectious strain, first identified in Britain. a week after my flight left Heathrow. Everyone on my flight had fallen on the verge of falling, just 24 hours from freedom, but now guilty by our association in London.
I spent a lot of my time in the unexpected third week of quarantine trying to make people back to the UK understand. People I knew who had quarantined themselves at their home in London assumed that I too could sneak around. “I’m still in this room!” I wrote to friends who, it seemed to me, had lived a lifetime of human interaction during my confinement. A friend who had been in isolation in Britain told me, without joking: “But going to the gym doesn’t matter, does it?”
The difference in attitude between east and west towards the coronavirus had never seemed more striking. While hundreds of travelers have sat in hotels in Hong Kong, Britain has yet to impose testing restrictions on inbound travelers – pre-departure testing requirements will not take effect until next week . It has become clear to me that the price for successful handling of the coronavirus is high, including the legal powers needed to lock people in rooms unilaterally. For better or for worse, like the British, this is a price we find it hard to understand.
When I was finally released quarantine, after three weeks alone in a room, the smells and sounds of Hong Kong were sensory overload. I stepped into the city streets for the first time and hit a concrete wall.
The next day, trying to find accommodation, I was taken by a real estate agent to see an apartment next to my quarantine hotel. I looked at the same view of Victoria Harbor – and I did not rent this room.
Tabby Kinder is FT’s financial correspondent in Asia
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