The last time I was in the United States was in January; the first known local case of Covid-19 had just been detected in Seattle and the virus was beginning to spread across the West Coast. The World Health Organization hadn’t yet declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
By October 2020, the States passed a bleak milestone of recording more than 210,000 coronavirus-related deaths — the most in any country in the world.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where almost any healthcare provider can test and return results to patients in a few hours, finding a hospital or clinic with a similarly speedy turnaround in New York — let alone in the U.S. as a whole — was trickier. Public hospitals in Hong Kong can test patients for $22.50; testing in private hospitals is more expensive ($300 but include detailed lab reports). Without health insurance, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the “gold standard of Covid-19 testing” and most popular among travelers — could cost up to $300 in the States.
After days of research — digging around on Google, calling clinics and relying on friends and family for information, I found a hospital that was familiar with the Hong Kong government’s requirements. I scheduled a virtual consultation with a doctor who gave me the green light to book a PCR test. This doctor would, later on, sign and stamp the documents for my flight home.
72 hours before flying
When I arrived for my test appointment at a Manhattan hospital, I was told to follow signs leading to a makeshift “testing center”. A nurse was there, anticipating my arrival, and explained how the procedure would pan out. She reassured me that I would get my results in 24-48 hours. Then, without much warning, she stuck a long cotton swab up my right nostril, wriggled it around for seven seconds and stored the sample in a plastic container.
I was in and out of the hospital in less than five minutes. Because I bought travel insurance from Atlas America ahead of time, I didn’t need to pay a cent. Twelve hours later, I received a report indicating that I had tested negative for SARS-COV-2.
Day of the flight
Terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy airport was always a buzzing transit hub where businesspeople, students and tourists congregated in preparation for long-haul journeys across the world. On the day of my flight home on August 31, the terminal was deserted.
Since the pandemic started, Cathay Pacific has significantly reduced their flight count from the US to Hong Kong. I was scheduled to fly on the only direct flight to Hong Kong that day. Unlike most people I knew, who flew into Hong Kong and were transferred to the city’s Asia World-Expo Centre for mandatory testing, passengers on my flight would make our way to Hong Kong International Airport’s Terminal 2 — a terminal that, before the pandemic, exclusively operated Asia-bound flights.
Members of Hong Kong’s Department of Health guided us through various stations where we would fill out forms, receive a wristband with a tracking device in it and conduct a self-test.
Since our flight arrived in the afternoon, we could wait for our test results in a government-subsidized hotel. Those arriving in the morning would have to wait for results at the airport — sometimes taking up to eight hours.
Boarding and flight experience
There were eight airport staff standing by the security checkpoint — although there were only two travelers passing through. Before Covid-19 caused disruption to travel, security screenings at JFK would typically take 20-30 minutes — this time, the whole process lasted less than three.
An eerie silence filled the halls leading to the boarding gates. I passed by duty-free shops clad with shutters. Only one or two coffee shops and bookstores were open. The sound of my footsteps echoed against the steel walls.
A member of the crew took our temperatures as we boarded the aircraft. I counted 13 passengers total, meaning that the Airbus 350-1000 was just at 3% capacity. With so few people on board, those of us in Economy class each had a row to ourselves. Just before takeoff, the captain announced that everyone would have to fill out a digital health declaration form.
On board, all flight attendants wore masks and protective glasses and kept a safe distance from passengers. Bathrooms were cleaned every hour, and bottles of water distributed just as frequently. All passengers were given the same two hot meals, plus there were the usual snacks — including my favorite, Cup Noodles — upon request.
Landing in Hong Kong
When we touched down in Hong Kong, I felt the same sense of relief and excitement as I always do when I come home, despite knowing that the next 14 days would bring about so much uncertainty.
At the airport, signs guided travelers from high-risk countries to a testing site at Terminal 2. Along the way, airport security staff checked health declaration forms, ensuring that all details like local ID card numbers, phone numbers and hotel quarantine addresses were properly filled out. Each passenger was given a personalized QR code to pass through each station efficiently.
A member of the Department of Health called my phone number to check if it was working — she told me it was so authorities could contact me during quarantine. Another staff member tagged me with a secure wristband with a tracker, the tracker would then connect to an app called “Stay At Home,” which I was asked to download on my phone.
Each person on my flight was given a self-test kit and instructed to go to a private booth to spit into a plastic container. We were given leaflets outlining step-by-step directions, from how to properly extract “deep throat saliva” (by making a “kuuragh” sound) to how to thoroughly sanitize and secure sample containers. After all passengers completed their tests, we picked up our checked luggage and were taken to a government-subsidized hotel for one night.
The hotel was clean, and we were given both dinner and breakfast for free. At 10 a.m. the next morning, I received a call from the Department of Health saying that I had tested negative for coronavirus and could make my own way to the hotel I booked for the remaining time of quarantine.
To my surprise, there were taxis lined up outside the quarantine hotel. Drivers didn’t seem to mind that we could potentially carry the virus. I took a taxi across the harbor to my hotel in Causeway Bay. Rolling down the car windows, I savored the final few moments “outside” — feeling the Hong Kong humidity and sunshine on my skin.
At the hotel
My room at the Park Lane Hotel was 340 square feet and included all the usual amenities of a room at a four-star hotel — a flat-screen TV, a large desk, reading chair, a mini fridge (which was empty), water bottles, a bath and shower.
There was just enough space on either side of my bed to stretch out and exercise. I had a view of Victoria Park, the green lungs of the busy commercial district below me. Like many of the high-rise buildings around Hong Kong, my windows were locked for safety reasons.
Certain rules were nonnegotiable. For the duration of my quarantine, no one was allowed in or out of my room. Family and friends could drop off items, but they would have to leave them at reception for hotel staff to bring up. Everything from food and water to fresh sheets and towels were left outside my door — I was not allowed to have any interaction with anyone.
As part of the hotel package, I was sent breakfast and coffee every morning but otherwise, my meals were ordered via Deliveroo or dropped off at reception by family and friends.
For the first few days, as I was adjusting to jet lag, I spent early mornings watching the sunrise and seeing people slowly trickle into the park. There was a dance troupe rehearsing the same routine every morning, a group of older men practicing tai chi at the rear end of the park. Most schools were still closed, so children spent hours playing on the lawn in the afternoons.
No place like home
Hong Kong was beginning to bounce back after the government imposed strict lockdown measures in response to a third wave of infections. Being confined and seeing the city from one perspective allowed me to take in moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. I felt lucky to be in the position I was in.
Throughout the two weeks, I made a conscious effort to stick to a routine — to move my body, stimulate my mind and stay in touch with the outside world through conversations with friends and family. I was sent coloring books and puzzles to keep me occupied during my down time. I listened to podcasts and slowly made my way through a few books.
But to say that the entire quarantine experience was as romantic as the quiet moments would minimize just how much the pandemic is a mental fight as it is physical. There were times when I felt like I lost control — not being able to prepare a meal for myself, for instance, or manage the portions of my food without being wasteful.
As per strict government regulations, all my food was sent to me in single-use plastic and as the days went by, I felt increasingly paranoid about how much waste I was producing. Every afternoon, I would receive a “wellness call” from the hotel manager, and while the check-in was much appreciated, even he couldn’t help me with my concerns for the environment.
Journaling was a cathartic and mindful way to blow off steam, as was talking to friends for hours and keeping up with writing and other creative projects. Two days before my release, I was sent another self-test kit and tested negative. I received a text from the Department of Health on my last day and, at 11:59 p.m., I was allowed out of my room. I saw a familiar face at the check-out counter — a woman who had been on my flight from New York what seemed like centuries ago.
Despite the whirlwind process, I’m grateful that the Hong Kong government is taking extra precautions to keep residents safe. Even as we edge towards the precipice of a potential “fourth wave” of infections in Hong Kong, I feel that I’m in one of the safest places in the world.
Karina Tsui is an independent journalist covering politics and arts in Hong Kong. She was previously a reporter at Monocle.