Coming home infected

My experience and thoughts having brought COVID-19 home.

Quarantine in Singapore comes with a sea view and room service

Bloomberg, 28 March 2020

Indeed, I try hard to not sound like a complete show-off every time I respond to concerns from friends back in Germany about how I am coping with the infection. As one of many imported coronavirus cases in Singapore, I am touched and thankful to be back home. From the emergency ambulance service sent for a slight fever to my recuperation stay at the D’ Resort in Pasir Ris, I have received five star service and treatment, which stands in stark contrast to the grimness elsewhere in the world.

It was day three of my mandatory Stay Home Notice (SHN) when I felt my temperature rising. Thinking that my body was probably not used to the heat in Singapore anymore, I was taken aback when my temperature read 37.8 degrees Celsius. Having spent the last months in Germany and the UK, where the coronavirus remained a non-thing for so long, I had some difficulty reconciling my symptoms with that of the virus infection. If not for the paranoia I had caused my mum, I might have put off arranging to be tested. A couple of mental tussles and engaged hotlines later, I dialled 995. I had barely packed a book, a sweater and my NRIC in the bag when the medics in protective gear arrived at my doorsteps, and wheeled me off in a wheelchair. “Could well be an interesting experience to check out our testing facilities, even if I did not actually have the virus,” I thought to myself.

Rows of chairs lined up for testing

I arrived at the National Centre for Infectious and Communicable diseases (NCID) and was ushered to take seat in what looked like an examination hall. There was a bottle of water, a pen and a form on each table. The form had an impressive two pages full of locations for cluster tracing. Thankfully, I could skip that hassle and simply declare having returned from the UK.

Over the next few hours, I read my book while the medical personnel came up to me a couple of times to check in on my health status and arrange for my chest x-ray to be done. The interactions were practical and efficient but not cold. I was even brought a blanket when I complained of the cold. Despite the late night and visibly long line of people waiting to be tested, the team at NCID remained largely jovial in their interactions amongst themselves and with patients. I recall having my nose swab done by a lady who made sure to pre-empt me of the discomfort it might cause. She also made sure to hand me tissue paper because “some people cry or sneeze” from the swab. Sure enough, the nose swab remains, hands-down, the nastiest bit of my entire experience (getting tested and beyond). But the empathy made all the difference.

Me waiting to be tested

I left NCID at almost 3am in the morning and was pleasantly surprised that a regular taxi stopped to pick me up. I had imagined the need to walk away from the facility to get any ride home.

When I finally got out of bed after a solid ten hour sleep, my brother told me that the family was getting a little worried at the amount I’ve slept. Still feeling beaten up, I was about to head back into a nap when I noticed a few missed calls – uh, oh.

I returned the calls and the caller immediately identified me by my full name and the news that I had been tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. An ambulance would arrive in the next hour to send me to the hospital. Having my fate sealed, I exited my room and shared the news with my family. Somehow, I felt the need to apologise for having the infection, probably because other than possibly having also infected them, I know they would be made to serve a 14 day quarantine order. It was, thankfully, a lot less dramatic since my mum had already spent the last twelve hours going through this possibility in her mind.

I was picked up in about an hour’s time and warded at NCID with a ward mate, a student who had also just returned from the UK (ha!).  By this time, my fever had fully subsided and I had almost no symptoms anymore. The kind hospital staff helped me settle in pretty quickly, and even bought me a dental kit when I realised I forgotten my toothbrush behind.

NCID building with 330 beds

As I updated my friends and relatives in Singapore and overseas of my latest developments, I received my fair share of calls from the Ministry of Health and the hospital as they initiated their contact tracing work and epidemiological investigations. Friendly nurses aside, these investigators spoke reassuringly and I was thankful not to feel incriminated for having the virus and possibly spreading it. I only felt better for the taxi driver who had picked me up after knowing that he will receive $100 a day from the government for the quarantine order I have placed upon him. Similarly, I can now joke about having given my self-employed parents a two-weeks paid holiday.

Other than making up for lost income, I believe receiving some monetary compensation from being served a quarantine order helps the recipient feel less resentful towards the person who caused them the quarantine. Just imagine the toxic blame game circulating amidst an already surmounting pressure of social distancing! Feeling guilty for having implicated just one innocent taxi driver, I find it hard to excuse people who flout their Stay-Home notices and Quarantine Orders. They must genuinely be quite distanced from the possibility of having an infection and passing it on!

I was warded for six days at NCID before being transferred to D’ Resort at Pasir Ris. At NCID, I had 24/7 access to the nurses and a daily check-in by the doctor providing me with updates on my health status. Outside of my three meals a day, I could have milo and biscuits delivered any time I wanted. I also had wifi access, skyping my overseas friends in on the amazing healthcare I have been given. Knowing that in countries like Spain or Italy where the critically ill are left to die along the corridors of overcrowded hospitals, I felt over-privileged to be receiving this level of care for mild flu symptoms.

Facebook call with my friends in Berlin and showing off my world-class public hospital ward

It was evident that the hospitals in Singapore still have the capacity to provide (more than enough) for each patient. Busy as the staff were, I never once felt the threat of an under-resourced facility. Full protective gear was worn by every person who entered my ward and gloves were discarded from one patient contact to another as a hygiene protocol. We are, indeed, upholding the highest healthcare standards in Singapore. But my heart also aches, knowing that many other countries face a shortage of supplies like masks and gloves, amidst shortages of healthcare professionals and facilities.

One double bed for each person at D’ Resort

It was a relief on many fronts to have been moved to D’ Resort after six days at NCID – a sign that I was on the road to recovery and did not require the same level of medical attention. It also meant that my bed is now freed up for a new patient. I could also finally exit the sterility of a hospital ward. In fact, had been in such a sterile environment that I did not even notice the loss of my sense of smell!

Realising that I had lost my sense of smell was quite a bummer for me just as I was celebrating my move to a more relaxed environment. The room at D’ Resort is bigger than the hospital ward and has a balcony for some fresh air. I was also transferred together with ward mate and did not have to get used to living with another person in a confined space.

Snacks sent by a friend

Being at a resort also meant that I could arrange for any number of private deliveries I needed, even for food! And I treated myself to a welcome meal with ramen delivery off Grabfood the minute I arrived at the resort. A miscalculation of staff availability resulted in me waiting three hours for my delivered Grabfood to reach my room, forcing me to give up on straying from the stipulated three meals provided. I then modified my strategy and created a stockpile of snacks and cup noodles through a friend’s delivery. This proved useful as I no longer had access to biscuits and hot milo the way I did in the hospital.

The grounds where barbeques usually take place

Over the next few days, I would fall into a habit of sleeping in until lunch was served, jump on my laptop to write and read my book in the day. In the evenings, I would tune in to our local television programmes on Channel 5 as a convenient source of entertainment. The flurry of messages from friends have tapered down once they knew I was far from dying but the daily check-ins with my family remained a constant. It is day nine of my hospitalisation and their quarantine order and they remain asymptomatic. Fingers are kept crossed on a status quo for the remaining five days.

My view of wild wild wet from the balcony

I wonder about my friends’ impression of my country every time I share my experience as a patient. We have definitely made a name for ourselves throughout this pandemic, starting off as the country outside China with the most number of coronavirus infections. Now, apart from being lauded for effectively containing the spread of the virus, we are known as the crazy rich nation that quarantines citizens in five-star hotels. Countries all over the world are being tested in these critical times but I am proud that Singapore seems to be excelling very much ahead of the curve.  

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