Coronavirus Quarantine in Korea
I was woken up by the sound of a disembodied female voice speaking in heavily Korean-accented but clear English:
”This is an announcement of government support team. Your meal will be served shortly. Please do not open your door except at the allotted time”
I’d only been asleep for a few hours, had fallen asleep in my clothes with the light on in an unfamiliar hotel room, and was woken from the middle of a dream. Needless to say it took me a while to work out what the hell was going on, as the same message continued playing in a stream of a dozen different languages before repeating again. It went on for a good 5 minutes, by which time I’d realised it was being piped through a speaker in the ceiling near the door.
Such pre-recorded messages were piped in through that speaker in multiple languages in a fixed daily pattern, mostly just before and after the three daily meal times to provide general information about waste disposal and so on.
The most dystopian went like this:
“This is an announcement of government support team. In this temporary living facility, cases have been reported continuously. Do not come out of your room to prevent the transmission of covid-19. Especially be careful not to close the door when you get your meal and leave your garbage bag in front of your door”
Another warned that leaving the room would result in immediate arrest and deportation.
This was the room I’d checked into late the evening before:
…and the view I woke up to that morning:
To be fair, if you’re going to be stuck in one room for 14 days that’s a decent room to be stuck in, and it wasn’t a bad view to be stuck with either. The large building with the angular roof is a casino (illegal for locals to gamble in, hence it being right next to the airport). Those in rooms on the other side of the hotel had views out over Incheon International Airport, probably not as nice but they said it was cool watching the planes coming and going (although far fewer than usual of course).
And this was the breakfast I found when I investigated outside my door after the announcement finished on that first morning:
Nothing fancy, but a decent enough breakfast. The meals were served thus:
The orange biohazard bag outside my neighbour’s door across the hall is how you throw out your trash while in quarantine. Upon arrival you’re given a stash, one per day:
So life in quarantine followed a highly regimented pattern. Breakfast at 8am, lunch at midday, dinner at 6pm, with the piped messages before and after each meal. You drop the trash out when taking your meal in, and apart from meals you’re forbidden to open the door except when the staff knock. They do a scheduled round after the evening meal, starting from 7pm, to take everyone’s temperature and verbally check you’re okay and ask if you have any symptoms. These aren’t hotel staff, but medical professionals in full hazmat gear. All very polite and friendly, but still it feels very much like you’re in some dystopian sci-fi movie. I suppose in many ways 2020 basically is a dystopian sci-fi movie.
The most surreal part was arrival at the airport. Coming into the immigration hall you first hand in your coronavirus form at a desk, based on which you get sent to different procedure lines e.g. foreigners with residency get to do quarantine at home, so are processed differently. But if like me you’re entering on a tourist stamp, you get sent to the government quarantine line. They take a local contact number & address, and he checked the number on the spot so make sure you have a friend ready to take a call at your approximate arrival time. Then you have to download the quarantine self-assessment app on your phone or tablet to report your symptom status every day while in quarantine.
The app for home quarantine is different and actually monitors that you don’t leave your house, also requiring you to check in at regular intervals so you can’t just leave your phone at home and go off for a weekend somewhere – I was actually given the wrong app initially, so my friend got a confused call from the local government office the next day and had to explain I was in government quarantine and not staying with her.
After that there was another desk to provide some more details, and then finally the passport control line. When they stamp you in they give you a lanyard to wear, which signals the staff on the other side that you’re going to quarantine. They grab you when you come through and take you to fenced off waiting areas for quarantinees to wait for buses (all very well distanced), and a short time later we boarded our bus which then sat there for well over an hour (presumably to wait for another load of passengers, but in the end no more joined us). It was quite late and we were initially told we’d be going to a hotel near the Everland theme park way over on the southeast side of the greater Seoul conurbation (Incheon Airport is on an island on the west side of it all), but after that long wait they ended up just driving us to the Grand Hyatt near the airport. And that was a good stroke of luck – the price you pay is fixed at 100 USD per night regardless of the hotel, so the Hyatt is a score (it would actually cost more than that just to book it for a regular stay in normal circumstances). The Everland hotel looked ok too though to be fair.
Once at the hotel you line up again to get tested, and again to pay and be checked in. I think the extra staff at the airport were all military, while the staff at the hotel were from the CDC (Center for Disease Control)
The test wasn’t exactly painful, but it’s pretty unpleasant – the swab goes in through your nose and scrapes the very top of the back of your throat. You’ve probably never had anything do that before, and it feels totally gross. But it was okay, and the result is delivered to your room the following evening.
If positive, you get hospitalised (which you don’t have to pay for) until your case is resolved. If negative, you get to stay in your deluxe prison cell for another 13 days.
If you develop a fever or other symptoms during your stay, you get another covid test and if positive you get hospitalised. Thankfully I didn’t have to have a second test – the one on arrival was more than enough!
The whole arrival process is quite time consuming, but very well organised and it’s actually really impressive that Korea set all that up in order to keep its borders open without importing uncontrollable numbers of covid cases. Most countries have either closed their borders to foreigners, or have just totally lost control of the virus situation (no coincidence). It was a relief to finally get to the room, but it wasn’t horrendous or anything – although I have to say, if you do it after a 12-hour red-eye from a completely different time zone it will be a seriously trippy experience.
Anyway once you’re in and the novelty & confusion of the first day are behind you, you have a lot of time to fill in between meals. You have a TV and wifi, one guy said he spent the entire time bingeing Netflix (probably a common strategy), another said he was working on a book so used it as writing time. Personally I treated it as a 14-day harmonica woodshed, I probably averaged 3 or 4 hours of harmonica practice per day. Hopefully my neighbours didn’t hate it…
Looking across at the other wing of the hotel (built at a slight angle, so you could see into a small portion of the rooms near the windows) I saw one room with a family in it and two young kids literally bouncing off the walls, lots of people sitting in the window playing on their phones, and most bizarrely one guy who kept standing in his window butt-naked which was an unwelcome surprise on several occasions.
And that’s life in quarantine. The strict regime makes it feel like a luxury prison, and insects landing on the window was as exciting as it got, but as long as you take something with you to pass the time (or are happy just bingeing the internet) it isn’t all that bad – especially if you get lucky with your hotel like I did.
On the last day you get escorted out early in the morning (7am in our case, so you’re out of the way before breakfast) and loaded onto shuttle buses to a nearby metro station, and then you’re finally free.
If you’re wondering about the food, no it isn’t fantastic. But it’s not too bad on the whole, each meal bag has a tray with a main dish and a few sides, plus an assortment of fresh fruit, canned drinks, water, and snacks like chocolate bars, cereal, or instant soup or noodles. You have a kettle in the room so you can make those later, and make tea & coffee.
On that note, a warning to fellow caffeine addicts: take a coffee supply in with you. They did provide a few sachets of coffee in the room, and canned coffee was sometimes provided with breakfast (not every day though), but I was very glad I took some with me. At one point I was rationing out what I had left to make sure I didn’t end up having to do caffeine cold turkey for the last few days, but the canned coffee supply was good for those days as it turned out which saved the day. Seriously, worrying about running out of coffee was the most stressful thing about quarantine! (actually, you could probably order a box in from Amazon – deliveries are allowed but not for fresh food)
Anyway, this was all they provided to start with so taking your own is a good idea:
Here are a few of the meals I was served:
I guess they get the meals in from a catering company then microwave them on site prior to serving. Sometimes the food was only lukewarm, sometimes piping hot – I was at the end room on the top floor so I think my meal was dropped off either first or last, hence the hit & miss temperature. There were a couple of main dishes I thought were pretty bad, but most of it was fine. The worst thing was the lack of variety, and after 14 days I was extremely bored of rice.
If you have veggie or religious dietary requirements you can specify this on arrival and they cater to your needs, though I doubt this extends as far as being able to ask for pescetarian or keto.
Here’s a few more window pics to finish up with, watching the tide roll in & out and dreaming of fresh air:
For some thoughts & pics of Seoul after I left quarantine see here
If you have any questions about the quarantine system in Korea give me a shout below and I’ll do my best to answer.
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