When veteran journalist Eric Wishart arrived at his quarantine hotel room at Empire Hotel Causeway Bay for the long 21-day isolation ahead, he was shocked by the sight that greeted him. There was a ball of black hair clogging the shower drain. When he reached under the bed for something he had dropped, he found two odd slippers in black and white and a used condom wrapper.
More than two weeks later, Wishart was still finding hairs in the room.
He was not alone— a Facebook support group for quarantined travelers with over 52k members frequently sees posts with photos detailing the filthy and moldy conditions of some quarantine hotel rooms. Complaints to the hotel are often made to no avail and compensation. Wishart has contacted the Empire Hotel Causeway Bay with photo evidence of his room’s condition but has not received any apology or response.
Shroffed has reached out to Empire Hotel Causeway Bay for comment but has received no response at the time of writing.
Considering the hefty price tag of the quarantine and the hit-and-miss nature of quarantine hotels, many feel the 21-day policy— one of the world’s longest— is doing Hong Kong more harm than good by deterring visitors, separating families and more.
“We don’t think COVID is the only malaise plaguing us. COVID-related disruptions — mental health, family separations, unemployment, closing businesses also need our focus, care and empathy, ” declared the Facebook quarantine support group’s administrator on the group’s guidelines, much to the members’ agreement.
The Hong Kong government has been pushing a zero COVID infection policy. The long compulsory quarantine is just one of the many strict measures employed to keep the virus in check, including a mask mandate, check-ins at venues for contact tracing, and occasional flash shut-downs of entire buildings and districts for virus testing. The number of confirmed cases detected during the flash building and district shutdowns, which have affected tens of thousands of residents, has been so low that lawmakers have criticized the policy.
But the combination of these measures has completely curbed locally transmitted cases in the city for weeks now.
Another traveler currently in quarantine, Jasmine, says she is lucky to have a hotel room that was properly sanitized at iClub Ma Tau Wai, but that it “almost feels inhumane to put someone in this kind of isolation for such a long time.” She would not have chosen to go through the gruelling process if not for her university studies.
Anisha Kukreja, a 21-year old university student who has been through quarantine in Hong Kong, feels Hong Kong should follow other countries’ examples and relax its restrictions. “We need to learn to live with the virus while being vigilant.”
“Not to even mention the mental anguish and the isolation one goes through when they’re quarantining because I’ve been through that twice myself,” Kukreja told Shroffed. “I just felt so alone. I felt like an outsider in my own city.”
On the other hand, the Hong Kong government has been giving quarantine exemptions to certain vaccinated travelers from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan. It also drew flak recently when Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman was given a quarantine exemption in Hong Kong to film a show (which is about privileged Hong Kong expats, ironically) even though she came from the United States, which is a high-risk country according to the government website. The government spokesperson said the decision to grant an exemption was made in the economic interests of Hong Kong, but the rationale fails to convince travellers who have no choice but to go through the 21-day quarantine.
Wishart, who is also a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, questions the scientific basis of the 21-day length of quarantine, given the shorter incubation period of the prevalent Delta variant. The general comment from travelers who have experienced the isolation appears to be that the government’s policy is effective, but overkill and unsustainable.
“I can understand why the government imposes a quarantine on people from high-risk countries, but being double vaccinated and after six negative tests in the space of two weeks, you really have to wonder what the scientific basis is for the 21 days,” Wishart said. “If there is a scientific basis to it, why should Nicole Kidman and others deemed important to the Hong Kong economy be exempt?”