By Yan Zhao

South Korean entrepreneur Lee Jung-soo was prepared for a two-week quarantine in a tiny Hong Kong hotel as a price to pay to start her new life, but its sudden extension by seven days filled her with anxiety.

Hong Kong increased its mandatory coronavirus quarantine period to three weeks in December, making it one of the longest in the world, just as Lee was about to board a flight to the Chinese city.

Christine Tobias (C) posing at her hotel window as she holds her cuddly toy ‘Mr Carrot’ during her three-weeks of mandatory quarantine inside a hotel room in Hong Kong, after she returned to bury her father. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

When airline staff told her of the change and that she would not be allowed to embark until she had a confirmed three-week booking, Lee scrambled to secure a new hotel.

“I panicked,” she said. 

Hong Kong has some of the world’s most cramped apartments and its hotel rooms are also notoriously small. Windows tend not to open in hotels and few have balconies in a city of densely packed skyscrapers.

But Lee, who is looking to build a vegan nutrition business, was determined to maintain a positive attitude throughout her confinement.

“I wouldn’t recommend watching the news all day. That’s just not a good headspace to be in, constantly updating yourself about the latest (outbreak), you’ll just drive yourself up the wall,” Lee told AFP via video chat during her quarantine.

“I would say, just chill out, treat it as a staycation, enjoy yourself.”

Playing the guitar and regular exercise were important outlets, as was social media. Over the course of her 21 days, Lee made 70 posts on Instagram, including documenting every breakfast. 

The videos included monologues about her dinners, singing harmonies and playing guitar, all of them featuring Teddy, her stuffed companion.

In the final quarantine video, Lee used nail clippers to remove a tracking device that ensured she remained inside the room.

“It’s off, freedom!” she beamed.

Pricey packages

Hong Kong was one of the first places to be struck by the coronavirus after it emerged in central China.

The city has recorded more than 10,000 cases with some 170 deaths by imposing effective but economically punishing social distancing measures.

Quarantine for arrivals was imposed early, with people allowed to self-isolate at home. But the virus kept slipping into the community.

Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Since late last year, quarantine must be done at designated hotels, one of the few sources of income for an industry reeling from the pandemic.

The three-week rule was imposed after more contagious variants of the coronavirus were detected in Britain and South Africa.

Quarantine does not come cheap, and the requirement has prevented many, especially the city’s largely Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers, from visiting home.

Travellers to Hong Kong are generally either those who can afford the quarantine, or those have no choice.

File photo: Mart van de Ven

Xavier Tran, a 33-year-old actuary, was in France when the extended isolation period was announced.

He thought about delaying his return but needed to get back for work.

He paid around HK$12,000 (US$1,548) for a 248-square-foot hotel room while also renting a shared flat in a city with eye-watering property prices.

“I feel lucky to be able to travel during the pandemic, but it is also difficult and it requires a lot of effort,” he told AFP.

He’s been doing yoga to while away the time and dreams of fresh air.

“The first thing I’d like to do is go hiking,” he said. “The second thing is to cut my hair.”

Father’s funeral

Mourning has been a constant companion for Christine Tobias during her quarantine — she travelled to Hong Kong to bury her father.

The 45-year-old clerk lives in Germany and was desperate to get back over the Christmas break because her father was ailing.

“My dad was not doing well and I didn’t see the quarantine ending anytime soon so I booked my air tickets in around November,” she told AFP.

A British Airways plane in the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Chris Sutton, via Flickr.

But the rules — and flights — kept changing.

To return, she had to rebook a flight, scrap a hotel booking and make a new, three-week one. The latter alone set her back HK$17,000.

By the time her quarantine is over, she will only have two more weeks of leave before needing to return to Germany.

Her family has delayed her father’s funeral, an event she is determined to attend.

“Everything is ready,” she said. “They are just waiting for me.”

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