By Evan Binkley
Evan Binkley, an artist and a 16 -year resident of Hong Kong from the US, contracted Covid-19 through his job as an art teacher. He was taken by helicopter from his home in Cheung Chau to hospital. He was then transferred to the North Lantau Infection Control Centre Hospital, where he spent another 19 days in a room with up to five other people who contracted the virus from the Ursus Gym outbreak.
He brought with him some sketch paper, a few markers and watercolour paint, with the idea that he may need to teach art classes for the school online. They ended up being his saviour: art was the one thing he could do to keep himself sane while waiting day in and day out and watching eight different roommates arrive and depart.
The “View from a box” exhibition is open until June 13 at Sense 99, Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong.
I spent 21 days locked up with mild to no symptoms. The first week was spent worrying how the virus would affect me or agonising over whether I had given it to someone else. The rest of the time, I spent thinking that every day would be the day I would be allowed home. The nature of this situation meant that for all 21 days I was in my drawing state of mind.
Fortunately, despite all the other things I failed to bring with me, I remembered to bring a couple of brushes, a palette, a few tubes of paint, some markers and some paper. And during my mental roller-coaster, I created 163 images at last count.
Few, especially at the beginning, were meant as an explicit statement or documentation of anything in particular. They were stream of consciousness expressions intended to soothe my soul.
As time went on, themes became more apparent. I did some work that more specifically documented the characteristics and imagery of the circumstances. The “magic box” through which we received all of our food, test kits, clothes and parcels from the outside seemed to me, and my roommates a very poignant symbol of our surreal predicament.
Our day begins at 7:30 am when a jolly but dystopian electronic melody plays over a loudspeaker. A nurse’s schoolteacher voice tells everyone, first in Cantonese and then in English, to get up and check our vital signs before breakfast, at the little station that has bluetooth-powered blood pressure recording, an oximeter and an thermometer. My roommates and I have now learned not to delay this procedure or we risk hearing the same message again. If we still fail that, we end up getting a personal call from the haggard-sounding personal intercom. Talking on the intercom is a kind of punishment for all involved because no matter how much enunciation either side attempts, no one really knows what the other person is saying.
The view from the large window at the self-serve vital signs station is almost like a mirror. It overlooks a building that I can only guess looks exactly like the building I’m in, except much lonelier because no one is in it. It’s almost like a warning that if you don’t pass your “I’m no longer contagious” test, you will be the only person left in a big sterile room. The North Lantau Infection Control Centre was purpose-built for this pandemic and judging by the modular construction appears destined to be taken down the minute the threat is over.
We are the very first people to use this room, which is equipped with all kinds of gadgets to prevent surface transmission. There are sinks that dispense water based on movements both real and imagined (sometimes turning themselves off and on all night long). There are loyal-bureaucrat paper towel dispensers that yield exactly one square that has been blasted by UV light on exit, and refuse to give another until the previous square has been removed. There are toilets that flush when you do the correct dance moves in front of them. There are iPad-like tablets behind each bed to inform of food allergies and other individual patient needs, and a central one to receive our vitals. There are two automatic doors on sentry duty, intentionally at right angles to each other and never to be opened at the same time.
These doors guard a kind of “mud room” that allows the staff to take off their contaminated personal protective equipment after the dirty air has been sucked back into our room.
A “magic box” penetrates the wall next to a telephone. This box, maybe around 20” x 20” x 20”, has two heavy doors, one opening to our room and the other to the hallway. There is a wide beam of UV over each threshold. This was how we received things from the outside, such as our meals and gifts from well-wishers in the free world. Over time, when we heard the doors on the outside open, we would experience a Pavlovian rush of excitement, and try to resist the urge of rushing to the hatch like goldfish who see their carers pick up the food container.
The menu, if you like local cuisine, was surprisingly OK. This likely was because it was catered from the currently underused airport restaurants, rather than the product of a hospital kitchen. I actually gained weight. The fare that my wife, children and co-teacher endured for 14 days at the Penny’s Bay government quarantine centre was, by all reports, very much less palatable. Thus they were thoroughly punished for being a close contact of mine.
I won’t say that my Covid-19 experience was the worst, or even bad in comparison to what so many have suffered. It was actually quite a light sentence for having met the little villain. But that’s not to say it wasn’t it’s own kind of misery. Even at the best of times it was surreal. I took weeks to recover from the mental and emotional toll and bodily atrophy complications.
I never, to my knowledge, got sick. I felt like hell the first week, but that could easily have been because I was stressed and to a certain extent, terrified. Terrified my body wouldn’t be able to fight the monster. Terrified that I had given it to an elderly neighbour. Terrified of all the things I was unable to address while locked up. Terrified that people would hate me for putting them at risk.
This terror of being a pariah was especially pronounced because there was an official press release the day my test came back positive that would easily identify me in the community where I live. If they weren’t aware of the release, they also got an alert on the tracking app that let everyone in Cheung Chau (where I have lived for 16 years and where I worked as a primary school teacher for 13 years) know the exact address of the 47-year-old male foreigner who caught Covid. I got a lot of messages the first week, mostly, but not exclusively, from well wishers and folks offering to help. I was also the source of much gossip, mostly speculating how I must have caught the virus from cavalier behaviour.
How did I catch it? Most likely from about 10 minutes of computer and paperwork help from a colleague who caught it from someone else and didn’t know it. Fortunately I found out about my potential exposure early enough that it seems I did not pass it to anyone else. This is something for which I am eternally grateful and can be counted as a consequence of a system that mostly works. Albeit a system that is not particularly pleasant for those infected and the people close to them.
After the first week came the anger and frustration, justified or not.
There are only two ways out of hospital quarantine in Hong Kong. The most likely is that a blood test reveals your body has developed antibodies, and thus the health department views you as not contagious. The other is a test of virus content in your saliva that comes back negative two days in a row. Hong Kong’s standard for being not contagious, and thus free to leave the hospital, is very high. The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control advise that 10 days after testing positive for Covid a person’s ability to pass on the virus is so minimal as to be virtually not contagious. Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) views no risk of spread as the only acceptable standard. Thus even the definition of a negative viral load is higher than elsewhere. A viral load Ct (cycle threshold) score of 35 is considered negative in most places while the CHP’s standard is 40.
Protocol says that you should get your blood tested every third day and your saliva tested every other day. Thus the first time they test a guy’s blood on the third day and he is set free, it occurs to him and everyone else in the room that if they had tested him two days earlier, he might not have had to spend two extra days in the hospital. So, by a week in, everyone gets into the same routine. We wait for a morning call from the doctor. Then after he or she asks you how you’re feeling and tells you your previous night’s test results, (which you already know because you harassed the nurses to tell you) you start cajoling, begging, harassing, and arguing to persuade the doctor to break protocol and give you both tests that day. It’s a conversation you’ve been working on all night and morning since your last result. Sometimes you win and get the tests. Sometimes you don’t.
The next hour is spent discussing tactics, successes and failures with your roommates and how you will try in vain not to get your hopes up for discharge that night. Then sometime around 5pm you call the nurses’ station and find out you don’t have antibodies. At 7 or 8 pm you call to find out your saliva is nearly, but still not, negative. Inevitably, you get depressed and try to fall asleep early, while thinking about how to convince the doctor to give you another two tests in the morning. In the middle of the night, you wake up and do fruitless Covid internet research on why you are still there and how you can get out sooner. It becomes an emotional roller coaster where you try to control the only thing you have any hope of controlling, which is persuading the doctor to test you.
Sometime around the 17th day I tested negative. Convinced I would test negative again the next day, I started packing up in the morning. I numbered all of the paintings I had done up to that point, which was 125. That night I got a CT of 36, a number that is only considered still positive in Hong Kong. My frustrations boiled over and it was easily the worst night I spent in the hospital. Then at some point, in my feeling of helplessness, I went back to painting as my only therapy.
I watched many roommates come and go. It appears that if you get symptoms – loss of taste, coughing, fever and so on – you quickly develop antibodies and get free. It seemed most people are released in 10 to 14 days. Only one of my roommates, and I, never had any obvious symptoms and both of us got out much later, after we finally tested negative two days in a row. If I had been told at the beginning that I would be in for 21 days, then the experience wouldn’t have been as stressful – but I can’t say I would have preferred it that way.
I do have to say a special thank you to the nurses who did some little things for us to make the stay less miserable.