It only started to feel real when my American roommate’s parents asked her to return to the US. But even then, in Birmingham where we were, we thought the NHS superior and weren’t even that worried.
Her name is Kyler (a pseudonym used to protect her identity), a dear friend of mine, who is currently a COVID-19 positive patient in clinical mandated quarantine. She is a third-year arts student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), majoring in philosophy and was in Birmingham for an overseas exchange when the global pandemic started.
She first started feeling sick back in the UK, three days after attending a Lewis Capaldi concert on 12th March 2020. It was held at Wembley Stadium, with 12,000 people in attendance. “To be honest, I felt a bit embarrassed when I had to share the fact that I got sick after attending a concert during contact tracing. I knew I should have taken this pandemic seriously from the start, and stayed home instead of attending a concert.”
Kyler was on a road trip in Bath, wanting to savour her last few days in the UK as European borders started closing in response to the pandemic. On the same day, NTU made a recall announcement in the morning for all of their students overseas to return home on the first flight out. By nightfall, Kyler started to experience fever symptoms.
Friends around her were in denial of her symptoms… refusing to believe that Kyler could possibly have COVID-19
The next three days would be confusing and terrifying as other coronavirus symptoms started to appear, leaving Kyler to prepare herself for the worst. Friends around her were in denial of her symptoms, their fears slowly setting in, taking over the rational side of their minds, refusing to believe that Kyler could possibly have COVID-19.
“I knew something was amiss when I felt warm in the deep freeze of the UK without my home heater turned on. I was hugging a bag of frozen Brussel sprouts, an ice pack on my head, and my window thrown wide open. I was hot and then cold, and at one point, felt completely normal. When other symptoms started to appear, I was confused yet hopeful that it was just a nasty case of the flu.”
“My dorm was on the third floor of the building, and I had to climb the stairs to pick up a friend who was visiting. The single act of walking 103 steps; climbing those three flights of stairs up and down, caused me to pass out for an hour on my sofa. I have never felt that level of exhaustion and breathlessness before. I saw white before I passed out.”
Determined to get back home, she took as much paracetamol as she possibly could to ensure that she had no fever come the day of the flight
Kyler successfully brought her flight forward to 21st March. On top of feeling breathless, she is also showing symptoms of dry cough, phlegm, body aches, sneezing, and a blocked nose.
At this juncture, Kyler was assigned a recall case manager. She asked what a person should do if they had symptoms of COVID-19. Her case manager didn’t know either. After frustrating back and forths with her case manager on the determining factors that might prevent one from being allowed to fly, Kyler finally got on a call with the Singapore Embassy. She was told that the determining factor that would prevent one from flying would be their body temperature. If someone had a fever, they would not be allowed to fly.
In times like this, you do what you have to do to get home. As the pandemic unfolded, Pharmacists in the UK were forced to sell thermometers for a higher price due to a shortage, with prices going for as high as ₤100 (~S$176.39). Paracetamol alongside basic essentials like bread was completely wiped off the shelves.
A friend somehow managed to procure a pure variant of paracetamol and Lemsip—an over the counter drug that was supposed to help with cold and flu symptoms. Determined to get back home, she took as much paracetamol as she possibly could to ensure that she had no fever come the day of the flight.
“There was no way for me to check my temperature before my friend and I made our way to Heathrow Airport, but I’m confident that I did not have a fever on the flight home. What surprised me the most was the lack of thermal checks before I left the UK. The reality of COVID-19 hit me again when I saw fellow passengers in the plane donning full hazmat suits. SIA gave each passenger two facemasks, which I wore dutifully throughout my flight.”
Kyler reached Singapore in the evening. Before she was let into the terminal, airport staff separated those whose final destination was Singapore and those in transit. That was when Kyler had her temperature taken for the first time. She walked past the travelators that lined the arrival gates and had her temperature retaken before going down the escalators to the counters of Singapore customs.
Before she scanned her passport, she asked for a nasal swab and without further questioning, was swiftly brought to an isolated area to have her swab taken. Before her, stood a group of 15 to 20 people waiting to get tested as well. After the test was administered, she continued to immigration, as she did not show any physical symptoms of COVID-19 at the point of testing. Kyler was told that she would be notified of her test results in 12 hours. Before she left immigration, she was served with a Stay Home Notice, of which she acknowledged.
She then proceeded to take a cab home from Changi Airport Terminal two.
More than 12 hours later, at 9.19 pm, she received a call from Raffles Medical Group, and was told that she tested positive for COVID-19.
“I felt happy when I found out I tested positive. If I hadn’t, I would have gone stir-crazy trying to find out what I was suffering from. I already experienced the fear of having COVID-19 when I was in the UK, so at that point, I was just relieved to be able to put a name to what was wrong with me.”
At 11.45 pm, she received the first of many contact tracing calls from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics were dressed in full hazmat suits. “After I found out I tested positive, it was a mad rush for me to text everybody I was in close contact with in the past two weeks. I urged all of them to get tested, and they all did, but one. My friend in Australia did not manage to get a test, but so far she’s not showing symptoms, so I’m not too worried. This was interesting to me because it just showed the difference in governmental oversight with regards to COVID-19.”
“I was brought directly to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) and straight into the hospital ward. From what I know, when you first tested positive, you’ll be quarantined alone.”
It felt like all these calls were made to make me second-guess my memory or to check if I was lying
After the introduction to her ward, she had an x-ray taken and her blood drawn. A few hours passed. It was 9 am, and with no sleep, she now had to deal with contact tracing and welfare calls from all types of governmental agencies—Ministry of Health, Immigration And Checkpoints Authority, NTU, and TTHS.
“There would be someone calling me every 45 minutes. You would think there would be better communication across different arms of the different institutions, but no. I think I received almost five calls from the different departments at NTU.”
“To minimize contact, my doctor, nurse, and pharmacist communicated with me through the phone in the room. My mobile and the phone in the room would just take turns to ring.”
By 3 pm, she had enough. “It felt like all these calls were made to make me second-guess my memory or to check if I was lying.”
“Let me try to paint a picture of the room I was in. It had double doors, one in front of another, that could only open one at a time. There was also a food box where my meals were delivered. The room was very sterile. Anyone that came into my room wore a hazmat suit.”
“What would happen was that once those attending to me were done with whatever they had to do, they would open the first door, shut it, remove their hazmat suits and trash them in a hazardous waste bag. Only then would they open the second door and leave. Anything that came into contact with me or the air in my room would only leave the room in that hazardous waste bag.”
“Even as an introvert, I felt so lonely in those four days. I felt like a prisoner. Everyone I interacted with had to wear a full hazmat suit. All conversations were through a screen, and I struggled to feel connected.”
As of writing this piece, there is no cure for COVID-19. “I was given a choice if I wanted to take the medicine given to me. I was asked this every time a nurse came round to give me my cough syrup. That would be the only medication I took throughout my stay.”
“On the day I left the ward, I had to fill out a discharge form. After that, the paper was double-bagged so the person handling that document would not have to worry about me touching that piece of paper before. That’s how serious the government is treating this whole situation.”
After being deemed clinically stable, Kyler was discharged from the hospital and was shifted to a quarantine facility on 29th March 2020. Along with eight other patients, she was chauffeured to D’Resort, where she is currently residing.
At D’Resort, two patients are confined to a room, and as of this interview, she already had two roommates come and go. “Nasal swabs are done every four days. And only when you test negative, will you be discharged. The food here very much tastes like camp food—somewhat like a poorly seasoned caifan.”
When asked about her time at the quarantine facility, Kyler wanted me to emphasise that just because she’s in a ‘resort’, doesn’t mean she’s living the resort life. Confined to four walls, non-existent wifi, and a stranger for a roommate, it just feels like a different form of prison, as compared to the hospital ward.
There is no privacy, and she could hear her roommates’ every move even when they were in the toilet. When she was allocated a room on the first floor, there was a whole other saga of whether she was allowed out onto her balcony. The guards patrolling the grounds would yell at her for fear of transmission. All she wanted was fresh air after being holed up in an air-locked ward with recycled air. All she wanted was to feel the sun on her skin, feel human, and be seen as more than a carrier of this virus which she did not ask to contract.
“You have stir-crazy patients stuck here with strangers for God knows how long. The least you could do was afford us that one small metre of personal space.”
Her only contact with the outside world was when she received deliveries at the permitted delivery times. If she were to order food on Grab, and the driver missed her delivery window, she would have to wait several hours until the next delivery window for better-tasting food.
“You don’t feel like a human anymore; you feel like a dog with rabies.”
Left to her own devices, there isn’t much to do when quarantined. Other than entertaining herself, Kyler is called three times a day to report her temperature, while NTU makes welfare calls to her every other day. When asked if she had any active symptoms while we spoke, she replied, “I have a lung infection in my bottom left lung. And I’m currently not taking any medication for it.” As her friend, I’m worried.
Other things we spoke about were the lack of humanity and support in quarantine. Her second roommate was an elderly Mandarin-speaking auntie. Kyler talked about how this elderly lady could not communicate to those who could not speak Mandarin, and the auntie for the most part also could not understand why she was still in quarantine despite no longer showing visible symptoms. Thankfully this auntie recently tested negative for the virus and has been released.
Getting yelled at by the caterers was a whole different emotional rollercoaster. “You don’t feel like a human anymore; you feel like a dog with rabies.” It was as if she was reduced to nothing but her virus.
This was why she was especially outraged when she saw Singaporeans rush to queue for bubble tea before the circuit breaker measures took effect.
“Here I am being isolated to make sure that transmission won’t take place, yet there are Singaporeans still stuck in their bubble and not taking things seriously. Someone could be completely asymptomatic and be walking on the streets ignorantly, possibly transmitting COVID to someone of a weaker immunity system.”
I hope Kyler’s story will show you how physically and mentally debilitating it is when you test positive for COVID-19. Given the lack of cure and full understanding of transmission right now, we must do our part in staying home, staying responsible and hope that our efforts will flatten the curve to aid our return to normalcy.
“You should live your life every day as if you need to provide that information for contact tracing.” Stay accountable, everyone and please, stay home.
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