Hong Kong Style Traveler Lockdown
A First-Hand Account of Overseas Flying and Compulsory Quarantine in Hong Kong During Covid-19
In April, I returned to my Hong Kong home from Maryland via Los Angeles knowingly facing an unknown wait for Covid-19 testing upon arrival and compulsory 14-day home quarantine.
Despite being one of the most densely populated regions in the world, Hong Kong has suppressed the spread of the virus far more effectively than regions where fewer people live with hundreds of times more space. As of today, Hong Kong has recorded only 1108 cases, most of them imported, and 4 deaths due to Covid-19 since its first case recorded on January 23, 2020.
In Hong Kong, 7.4 million people live in 427 square miles (in Arizona, 7.3 million people live in more than 100,000 square miles) and apartment sizes average below 500 square feet — social distancing is rarely possible and lock-down rarely reasonable. Even with these practical matters and sharing a border with mainland China where the first epicenter occurred, Hong Kong has minimized community spread.
This tour of cultural vigilance, bureaucracy, and surveillance convinced me that Hong Kong was a safe place to be during the pandemic.
“The Government will ensure the persons under compulsory quarantine stay at the premises by spot checks, telephone calls and via monitoring of the status of electronic device, etc.” — The Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection
Even my travel pillow wore protective gear
The domestic and overseas flights presented two different worlds. On the afternoon flight, AA163 from Washington, DC to Los Angeles on April 7th 2020, no one recorded my temperature. I wore a surgical mask, clear glasses, and a disposable raincoat, but few others wore any protective gear, and none was distributed to passengers. With the flight 10% full you could social distance through the entire flight. The in-flight beverage was 1-Liter of Dasani bottled water. A flight attendant came around with a basket of wrapped snacks and let you pick one out with your unwrapped hand.
Hong Kongers dominated the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, as only Hong Kong ID holders were allowed entry into Hong Kong. Hats and masks were on, hoods were up, full-face visors and rubber gloves for some, as described by other travelers improvising barrier methods to prevent infection. Each passenger took exactly two individually-wrapped surgical masks from the pile surveilled by a security guard before unveiling their foreheads for the infrared thermometer gun.
My neighbor, a woman in her mid-60s with an androgynous bowl haircut and burgundy jacket, vigorously wiped the surfaces of her seat with a Clorox disinfecting wipe. I looked at her silently communicating companionship in impending uncertainty. ‘What.’ she responded.
But when I unwrapped a tiny alcohol-soaked sterilizing wipe to clean the seat reclining button, armrests, latches, table, and the touch screen, she said ‘I’ll give you a bigger one.’
I accepted with ‘Do Jie’, a formal way to say thank you in Cantonese usually reserved for gifts, significant favors, and wholehearted compliments — unusual for someone sharing a cleaning product. There was a drought of paper and disinfecting products that hit the US during those months, and there was no shortage of gratitude for those willing to share.
Having cleaned her own nest and mine, my neighbor prayed. She prayed as the plane prepared to take off, several times during the 15-hour flight, and once more when we descended towards Hong Kong’s airport. Like many passengers on this 70–80% full flight, she did not get up once for 15 hours.
Perfectly timed arrival and processing
I arrived in Hong Kong on April 9th, the second day when all passengers were tested for the Covid-19 virus before being released into their quarantine quarters. My airport procedures lasted only 4 hours. Two weeks earlier, my relative waited 30 hours for his test amidst half-baked infrastructure. Had I arrived a week later, I would have waited 7–8 hours for my test results before leaving the airport, as described by Laurel Chor in The Guardian.
In the airport, the health administration processed each passenger efficiently along their assembly line. We progressed one-by-one through stations, each manned by task-specific experts, for: health declaration, downloading the app to the phone that communicates with the location tracking wristband, getting this wristband, confirming your phone number with an official, activating the tracker, counseling, immigration, baggage claim, getting bussed to the sample-collection site — a converted Expo center, giving the sample, then getting bussed back to the airport.
In the testing center, poncho and glove-clad workers at the first station exchanged your luggage for a ticket before you waited in the only line with designated distance markers, the only place I line I saw all day that enforced physical separation. Through a hole in a plexiglass barricade, health workers collected your identification and health declaration forms in a cardboard box that they pulled back with a string. They then shuttled to you a double-bagged specimen collection cup, a numbered ticket, and instructions.
We waited in a theater of chairs spaced two meters apart to watch an instructional video for mining your deep throat saliva. It played on loop, alternating between Cantonese and English versions with subtitles.
You lined up when your cohort was called by ticket number, proceeded to the testing area of rows of booths made of office cubicle walls. Posters in the booth repeated the video’s instructions to make a KRRRUUUA sound, hold the saliva in your mouth, open the specimen cup for a second to deposit your sample without touching the opening. After returning the double-bagged specimen cup to the staff, I left but arrivals from the UK were required to stay.
If I tested negative for Sars-Cov-2, I would receive no news but would still finish my 14-day quarantine. If I tested positive, the authorities would call me within three days of the test and hospitalize me.
I took a taxi all the way home and recorded the license plate number on the form given to me at the airport.
The Centre for Health Protection issued a 32-page booklet of guidelines and attractive infographics for how to behave during quarantine, to care for your health, hygiene, and your home. Take meals in your own room. Eat facing a wall if you do not have your own room. Exercise regularly. Flush the toilet with the lid closed every time. Clean. Everything. Often.
My housemate and I had agreed upon a protocol for my arrival. She left me a box with plastic bags, disinfecting wipes, alcohol spray, and ‘entry clothes’ to change into in the stairwell of our 3-story building. I disposed of my outer-garments — a disposable raincoat and face mask — into a waste bag, sprayed alcohol on my luggage and wiped it down, and changed into the entry clothes. I entered my apartment and went straight to the shower. I immediately laundered my travel and entry clothes.
Finally, there was no choice but to embrace home quarantine fully. To surrender my 24/7 location to the health authorities, I pressed a button on the app that said “I am home now” and it gave me one minute to walk around my house — the bedroom, common area, kitchen, and bathroom. I sprinted to the roof to make sure I could go there. One minute to walk around one’s house — that’s the typical size of apartments in HK.
During quarantine, I was not permitted to remove the wristband or leave my home. I recorded my temperature twice a day in the government-issued booklet and noted any symptoms I experienced. Violating these rules would cost a 25,000 HKD (3225 USD) fine and 6 months imprisonment. At three random times, someone from the health authority called me. At random times, the tracking app on my phone buzzed and I was to press ‘verify’ on the app within 15 seconds and then scan the QR code on my wrist tracker. This happened 7 times on the first day then dwindled to 2–3 times per day. I know I missed some of these alerts to no consequence that I am aware of.
I received no phone call about my test results which meant I tested negative. I regularly checked the government’s database for flights and vessels of people who tested positive and my flight was never listed.
On Day 5, I resumed using the kitchen but continued to eat in my room through Day 14. Prior to that, my housemate cooked meals and I crept out to take my portion after she safely holed up in her room.
I continued to receive phone calls from unknown numbers asking if my health was normal and if I still wore my bracelet. One time I received a WhatsApp message asking me to send them a picture of my bracelet. I did not respond right away and received a call within an hour. Calls always came from women who spoke like a pediatrician coaxing a child. “Hello, how are you feeling today? Good? Ok good. Any coughing? No? Fever? No? Throat tickles? No? Good. Are you still wearing your bracelet? You are? Good job, thank you. Are you measuring your temperature? It’s normal? Good job, keep doing that, thank you.”
“The Government will ensure the persons under compulsory quarantine stay at the premises by spot checks, telephone calls and via monitoring of the status of electronic device, etc.” says their website. They followed through on Day 9.
I answered a call from a blocked number. “Hi, we are from the Government Centre for Health Protection” said the tenor voice in Cantonese. “We are conducting spot checks. We are already at the door to your building. Please come down wearing a mask and bring your HK ID card with you. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Wearing a mask, I unlatched the door to the outside world to meet two officers from the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), a man and a woman in their 30s or 40s wearing matching uniforms and face masks. They first showed me their badges with their names, photos, and the same government CHP logos. Two more officers stood by the corner of the building — four officers in total.
The man spoke, the woman held a clipboard with a photocopy of my health declaration form from the airport with my handwriting on it. They verified my information and ID, politely asked me to reveal my face for two seconds, then asked, “you’re wearing your bracelet?” I held up my arm and nodded. “Are you measuring your temperature?” I said yes. “Ok thank you, Ms. Siu. Please let us know if your health changes at all.”
“Thank you” I said, and asked, “May I ask the reason for this sudden check-in?”
The man by the corner said, “It is our responsibility to go around checking to make sure that people doing their mandatory home quarantine are in their homes” he said. Sure, that’s obvious. I just added “Ok, well good thing I wasn’t taking a shower or something this time.”
“Oh,” he said wide-eyed, “sorry, ah!”
I assured them that I had not, actually, been in the shower.
“Ok ok,” they said. In semi-unison they said a three-word phrase means “sorry to bother you”, thanked me, and went away.
Unplugging from Quarantine
Release from quarantine meant unceremoniously disconnecting their surveillance machinery from my body. On Day 13, I received another phone call from the CHP with similar questions as before “Hello Ms. Siu? How is your health? Everything normal? Ok, good” followed by instructions for my release. “Tomorrow is your last day. After midnight, you can cut off the wristband, throw it away, and uninstall the app.”
Venturing into the Hong Kong I had not seen in over two months, I found fully-functioning public transport, stations with bottles of hand sanitizer chained to built-in structures, open restaurants and shops with temperature checks at the door and denying entry to anyone not wearing a face mask. Restaurants maintain raised dividers between tables and new infographics instructing patrons not to remove their masks until their food arrived.
The people out and about in ‘less-crowded’ Hong Kong outnumber the foot traffic in most US cities in non-pandemic times. Maintaining at least six feet or two meters of separation between another person in public has rarely been possible. Even when the government limited gatherings to four people in mid-March, the exceptions of public transport, grocery stores, and workplaces were unavoidable.
Hong Kong’s health bureaucracy has effectively stemmed the spread of infection from imported cases into the local community. As Zeynep Tufekci describes in The Atlantic, however, Hong Kong’s people are the “secret sauce” of the region’s response. They reacted quickly in January to news of the unusually severe and contagious pneumonia caused by the then nameless virus by donning masks and increasing disinfection of their hands and their homes while the government conveyed mixed messages. Schools closed in January followed by public facilities like libraries, museums, gyms, and swimming pools. In March, the government restricted sizes of gatherings, allowed only Hong Kong ID holders to enter Hong Kong, and soon quarantined all travelers long after Hong Kongers had already changed their culture. My trip and quarantine highlight the combination of collective competence and official infrastructure that has sustained Hong Kong’s livelihood during this devastating pandemic.
If you are traveling to Hong Kong soon, you can find official answers to Frequently Asked Questions on the government’s website. Only Hong Kong residents may enter Hong Kong right now.