By Pam Chai
It started with an acerbic opinion piece by journalist Stephen Vines in late February, describing his stay at Penny’s Bay quarantine centre as hellish and likening his room 173-02 to a prison cell.
Mr Vines criticised the hastily constructed modular units and mocked the palm tree motifs in some of the rooms. To round off his narrative he made a suitably sinister mention of the all-seeing CCTV and the loudspeakers “poised” to bark orders at inmates.
I was offended by his article. As a member of the Hong Kong Civil Aid Services, I have regularly taken on quarantine camp duties at Penny’s Bay, and before that at Chung Yeung Estate. I agree the quarantine camp can be improved, which is why every few weeks there are new directives from officers above, as they are continually tweaking operations in hopes of improving the experience of the occupants.
So given my experience, I would like to offer another view of Penny’s Bay Quarantine Camp. Yes, the whole camp was built at breakneck speed as at the beginning of the pandemic: we were all terrified by the daily infection numbers, watching the catastrophe unfolding in Italy, the United States, Brazil, etc. Most people in Hong Kong live in cramped surroundings so it is imperative to have temporary accommodation to contain the spread of the virus.
I, like many other Hongkongers, applaud the government for quickly cutting through the usual bureaucracy to build the 3,000-plus units at Penny’s Bay. I am sure if the government had spent extra money to upgrade the design and the fittings of the units then there would have been new headlines complaining of unnecessary public spending.
Mr Vines also described the room as tiny, despite en-suite rooms being the same size as most 3/4-star hotels; similar in size to some of the micro flats which have sold for a few million Hong Kong dollars. It is only tiny if compared to a fancy expat apartment.
I’ve never once heard the loudspeakers used to bark orders at the occupants. In fact, to deal with individuals who are hell-bent on exercising their individual rights to leave their room, my fellow CAS members and I must don suffocating PPE in the sweltering heat for regular walkabouts to remind our guests of the danger of socialising and the virulent nature of Covid.
I do concede that meals are not the most appetising but then mass catering is rarely inspiring. This is further complicated by the different dietary requirements: Halal, Muslim, Hindu, vegetarian (Chinese/Western). Since the number of occupants fluctuates so wildly, there can be an increase in the space of 48 hours from a few hundred occupants to over two thousand. Of course, the recent cases of food poisoning and poor hygiene by the caterer cannot be excused under any circumstances. But then again I have had friends suffer from dodgy oysters from five-star hotel buffets, so it is a hazard at even the most prestigious establishments.
Residents can call the camp hotline and order pot noodles, snacks, drinks, extra clothes (even underwear), bedding, personal toiletries, lip balm, sweets, cleaning material, clothes pegs, mop and buckets, data cards; the list goes on. I have on occasions manned the hotlines and we are at pains to treat all callers with courtesy and understanding, not least because we know that one bad experience will result in yet another social media lynching by a dissatisfied customer.
It is a shame that bad news gets all the attention, yet the gentle, appreciative residents are often the ones who shun publicity and instead just thank us quietly on the phone.
I would like to correct Mr Vines’ s assumption that we deliberately hold up the food delivered from outside by an hour so that it can match the tepid temperature of the camp-catered food. With a constant stream of family members delivering items for their detained loved ones, does he think we have the time or the means to deliberately log and delay such deliveries? The delay is simply due to the fact that we cannot keep up with the drop-offs.
Also, the tiresome process of photographing, logging, and authorising the deliveries is a precaution as occupants are all too quick to threaten us with exposure and complaints when their items are not delivered as they intended, even if it was a tub of melted ice cream which had slipped in without approval. The container was disposed of to minimise the mess but still the occupant lodged a complaint. So yes, sometimes the multi-steps of form filling and recording are a result of vocal, dissatisfied and unreasonable camp occupants.
Running a camp for 2,300 occupants is challenging, especially with staff who are predominantly part-timers with no previous experience nor training. We do our best with very short notice and guidance.
It is because Hong Kong has stuck rigidly with isolation and segregation that we have maintained relatively low infection rates, even with the arrival of the mutated virus which is now quickly dominating parts of England. Back to Mr Vines’s reference to prisoners being allowed out for fresh air, I am pretty sure prisons do not allow inmates infected with contagious viruses to venture out and mingle.
Covid is uncharted territory for everyone; there is no playbook for any government to follow so it is not surprising that mistakes are made. With hindsight, certain decisions such as the recent mass quarantine order were overcautious, but I think many of us would prefer being over-protected than run the risk of the fifth wave.
Every day we see horrific news scenes from India, and rising numbers of newly infected in previously lauded countries like Taiwan and Singapore.
This past year has shown us that we should be cautious and take all precautions with this virus. If the price is a few weeks of free spartan stay in your own room, then so be it.
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