I felt hundreds of eyes staring as my heart pounded, blood rushed to my face and sweat dripped down the back of my neck.
I had just stepped off the plane at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, and this wasn’t what I’d expected. For weeks I’d been covering the coronavirus outbreak for Bloomberg News in Hong Kong — tracking the case counts, the travel restrictions and all the rest.
My trip to South Korea on Saturday was meant to be uneventful: I’d visit my parents and stock up on supplies of hand sanitizer and other basics that were tough to find in Hong Kong.
That was the plan, at least, until the quarantine officer — decked out in head-to-toe protective gear — pointed the temperature gun at my forehead. The next 24 hours would give me a newfound appreciation for the extraordinary efforts underway to contain the virus and the emotional toll felt by those who’ve been marked as its next potential victims.
The officer struck a worried tone as she read out my temperature: 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
“We need you to sit back here and check your temperature again in 10 minutes,” she said. “Maybe it’s because you’re wearing a coat, so take it off.”
The second reading: 37.5 degrees Celsius. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to meet with a doctor,” she said.
My fellow passengers watched as I was escorted around the corner to a temporary doctor’s office. I had been called out as potentially contaminated, a threat to public health. A group of tourists gawked as they passed by, speeding away only after they saw the quarantine sign.
The doctor interviewed me and a few others one by one, before telling us that we’d all be held in a nearby facility until our test results came back.
I called my mom, trying to sound calm: “I don’t want you to freak out, but I’m not going to be able to come home tonight,” I said. “The doctor told me it’s probably nothing, but they have to be absolutely sure.”
I could hear her struggling to keep her composure, but we agreed it was for the best. My dad has cancer and the last thing I wanted was to give him the virus. I promised mom I’d be fine and hung up.
That’s when I met Irma, who had traveled to Seoul from Hong Kong for a holiday. Her mom was on the other side of the office partition. They didn’t speak much English or Korean, so I helped them convince one of the officers to allow Irma’s mom to take her daughter’s luggage. He eventually agreed.
“I did something good today,” I said to myself. “So maybe something good will happen to me in return.”
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We waited four hours before being escorted to an ambulance, which took us to a temporary quarantine facility inside the airport. It was nice having Irma next to me. I knew nothing about her, but her presence made me feel less alone.
As a doctor checked us into our rooms, he explained what would happen over the next few hours (mostly temperature checks and sample collections). The most important rule: “Do not come out until we say you can.”
“Bye Irma,” I said. “Hopefully we don’t have it.”
She smiled. I wondered if I’d ever see her again.
After about 30 minutes, dinner arrived in a plastic container. It was a pleasant surprise: rice with fried egg, bulgogi, stir-fried kimchi, quail eggs with soy sauce, pickled vegetables, deep fried shrimp and chicken, a beef patty and potato salad.
Several hours later a doctor took my temperature, collected a cough sample and scraped mucus from inside my nose. He had kind eyes, which was all I could see through his full body suit.
Exhausted, I fell asleep. I dreamed of taking my temperature — over and over and over again.
When I awoke three hours later, I relieved bouts of anxiety by watching puppy videos on my phone, writing, taking cold showers and constantly checking my temperature, which had fallen back into a normal range between 36.6 and 37.2 degrees Celsius. The quarantine had made me obsessed with decimals.
When my test results finally arrived — no trace of the coronavirus — I had to fight back tears of relief. I left the facility with several others, including Irma. We each had a certificate from the Ministry of Health and Welfare declaring us virus free.
We were the lucky ones. The outbreak has infected more than 71,000 people globally and killed 1,775, almost all of them in China. Millions of people in cities like Wuhan have been on lockdown in their homes or government facilities for weeks.
While some health experts are hopeful the pace of new cases may soon peak, the risk of a worsening epidemic can’t be ruled out. Many of those who get infected don’t show symptoms.
Before my quarantine, I didn’t fully appreciate how quickly and completely people can be stigmatized at a time like this.
Now I know that behind the virus case numbers we all check every morning is a person like me who probably feels scared, isolated and in need of a little compassion.
— With assistance by Marc Daniel Davies
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